The Bishkek summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to which he was invited as an observer, provided Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the pretext for his visits this week to Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Kygyzstan.
In fact, this tour is Iran’s latest bid for expansion into Central and South Asia, avowedly for the sake of “spreading Islam, the true faith for which the peoples of the world yearn,” as he put it at a meeting with Shiite and Sunni clerics in Kabul.
His accent on “the true faith” was engendered by the Iranian president’s discovery that in his push for influence in fresh pastures, unlike in Latin America, he was treading on the heels of Saudi dispensers of the puritanical Wahhabi brand of Sunn Islam. They had been there before him. Iran must therefore campaign not only to displace American influence but also engage in an ideological contest on behalf of revolutionary Iran’s Shiite Islam.
In the capital of Kyrgyzstan, the Iranian president booked separate meetings with the rulers of the SCO members, China, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Central Asia is now the big prize contested by the United States, Russia and China.
Iran is fighting to catch up. In the first decade of the Islamic Revolution, Iran spent big bucks to extend its influence in Central Asia. Its enthusiasm waned in the 1990s. The local rulers were not attracted to the radical form of Islam revolutionary Iran represented and, moreover, Tehran found that penetrating Central Asian republics was a high price indulgence.
Persuading Central Asians that America would soon be gone
In the last 15 years, Iran focused more on winning friends in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. That is until today, when Tehran saw its chance for a move. Taking advantage of the SCO summit in Bishkek, Ahmadinejad was despatched to Ashqabat to make the acquaintance of the new Turkmenistan president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who had finally succeeded the long-ruling Saparmurat Niazov. They spent hours in long conversation.
Ahmadinejad pushed the theme that Turkmenistan’s long-term interests dictated a reversal of its foreign policy; the American presence in Central Asia was a transitory, while Iran was there to stay as its neighbor.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that US relations with the Turkmen president warmed of late to the point that Bedymukhammedov has allowed America to set up a secret electronic listening station in Turkmenistan – not just to eavesdrop on Iran, but Russia as well. Negotiations are also afoot for a US missile interceptor facility to be located there, like those the US is planning for Poland and the Czech Republic.
His vist ended with the signing of four pacts documenting Turkmenistani-Iranian coooperation. They are seen in Tehran as a promising start which may lead to its Central Asian neighbor being coaxed into moving on to joint efforts in the fields of energy and the exploitation of Caspian Sea mineral resources.
Iran would dearly love to link Turkmenstan and Iran as the main route for pipelines to carry oil and gas out of Central Asia. America is unlikely to let any such project go forward.
The Saudi Wahhabis were there first
The Iranian president’s Kabul visit was complicated by Tehran’s ambivalence on Hamid Karzai’s regime, a difficulty also presented by Nour al-Maliki’s government in Baghdad. Iranian leaders believe they could work well with both leaders, but at the same time are determined to bring about the downfall of the very foreign forces that bolster those rulers.
Iran is investing heavily in the defeat of NATO forces in Afghanistan and US and British coalition forces in Iraq. Therefore, while financially supporting Karzai and al-Maliki, Tehran is furnishing their sworn enemies, Taliban, the Shiite and Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda, with weapons.
As in Ashgabat, in Kabul, Ahmanidejad applied all his powers of persuasion to cajole the Afghan president into disengaging the fate of his government from the United States and NATO. He promised generous financial assistance if Karzai opens the door to Iranian religious and cultural influence. The Iranian president adamantly denied his country was sending weapons to the Taliban.
Iran recently expelled some 100,000 Afghan refugees, presenting Kabul with a major humanitarian headache. At the same time, Tehran maintains that it continues to host another 2.5 million homeless Afghans.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report that several thousand of the repatriated Afghans are in fact Iranian agents trained in guerilla warfare. They were provided with funds for establishing clandestine pro-Iranian networks, which Tehran can activate any time to bend Kabul to its will.
From Karzai, the visiting Iranian president obtained permission to open dozens of Iranian libraries in Afghan towns, including Kabul, Mazar-Sharif, Bamian and Herat. These cultural centers will develop in time into hives of subversive and terrorist activity under Tehran’s orders. Scores of Afghan students will be admitted to Iranian universities and journalists of the two countries will exchange visits.
In Kyrgyzstan, Ahmadinijad again found himself treading in Saudi Wahhabi footsteps.
The local administrator of religious affairs proudly boasted that the 39 mosques in the republic at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse had multiplied to more than a thousand. Saudi funding was clear to see. The Iranian visitor realized he faced formidable competition in drawing Kyrgyz Muslims into the Shiite orbit. And so he invited Sunni and Shiite clerics alike to meet him and promised them the Islamic Republic would be generous with the faithful who sang the religious tune dictated from Tehran.