U.S. Plan for a 'New Silk Road' Faces a Big Speed Bump: Iran

The Obama administration wants to promote trade along the ancient route that once went through Iran

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Iranians ship in the Tabriz historic market, once located along the Silk Road trade route and now a UNESCO heritage site / Reuters

Ancient Persia was a heavily trafficked corridor on the Silk Road, the transcontinental trade route between China and the West that flourished centuries ago. But in Washington's imagining of a 21st century version of the Silk Road, Iran seems set to be bypassed.

The New Silk Road strategy is a key aspect of the United States' plan to promote stability in Central Asia following the departure of American and NATO troops from Afghanistan. The hope is that boosting trade among Afghanistan and its neighbors will build prosperity and promote peace. The American strategy focuses on bolstering north-south trade - linking India and Pakistan via Afghanistan to the formerly Soviet republics of Central Asia. "We are focused on South and Central Asia because those are the immediate neighbors of Afghanistan and therefore that's where the greatest effort lies for improving trade and other linkages," said Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, speaking November 14 in Washington, DC, at a conference organized by the Jamestown Foundation.

As it stands, Iran - Afghanistan's western neighbor, and a country with which Kabul has annual trade of about $1.5 billion - would be sidelined. "In the regional integration part of this, we do believe Iran has a role to play," Blake added. But at present, he acknowledged, there are currently no elements of the New Silk Road strategy that involve Iran.

Iranian officials have criticized the US vision. "The issue of building a New Silk Road by the United States and some European countries that have never been situated in the geographical area of Silk Road is unjustifiable and suspicious," said Mohsen Pakaein, head of the Afghanistan Department of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, according to the Iranian Students' Information Agency.

"The United States' regional cooperation strategy of 'Everything Excluding Iran' is doomed to failure," wrote Hassan Behshtipour, an Iranian commentator on post-Soviet affairs, on the website of Iran's Press TV. "Iran must be allowed to participate in the New Silk Road, bringing all its economic and commercial potentials to this new regional game."

Iran is only one of several potential geopolitical hurdles standing in Washington's way. Uzbekistan, the key node in the Northern Distribution Network, a supply line funneling goods from Europe to Afghanistan via Central Asia, declined to sign a declaration of regional cooperation at a meeting earlier this month in Istanbul, despite the fact that the US State Department promoted Tashkent ahead of the meeting as one of Afghanistan's 14 "key partners." All Afghanistan's other neighbors, including Iran, signed.

Asked why Uzbekistan didn't sign the agreement, Blake answered; "You'll have to ask Uzbekistan." Uzbek Embassy officials in Washington did not respond to requests for comment. While perhaps miffed with Tashkent, Blake also described Uzbekistan as "a strong partner for Afghanistan."

Russia could also play a spoiler role in the New Silk Road project. At a recent meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed investing $500 million in the CASA-1000 project, which would transmit electricity from Central Asia to India and Pakistan. US officials have suggested that a similar electricity export venture could become a building block of the New Silk Road. It's not yet clear whether Russia wants to cooperate with the United States, or compete with it. Askar Tazhiyev, a senior official in Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry who spoke at the November 14 conference in Washington, cautiously welcomed Putin's offer. "It's no secret that the SCO hasn't succeeded much in Afghanistan," he said. "On the other hand, everyone should be open to constructive steps. It's in everyone's interests to promote such a project."

In the case of Iran, the United States isn't encouraging increased links between it and Afghanistan, but it isn't discouraging them, either, said S. Frederick Starr, chair of the Washington, DC-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a proponent of the New Silk Road. India, for example, has constructed or proposed several road and rail projects connecting Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar, Starr said. "We've had 100 opportunities to wag our fingers at India over that, and we haven't," he said. "In this case, the United States has correctly prioritized Afghanistan. That's the problem we're trying to solve here and we're not going to make a big criminal case over other issues."

On the other hand, the United States should do what it can to make sure that emerging commercial corridors between Europe and East Asia pass through Afghanistan rather than Iran, Starr asserted. "Failure to do this will mean that the United States will have richly subsidized the transportation sector of Iran, and given the ayatollahs a veto over US strategy, at the expense of our friends in Azerbaijan and Georgia," he said.

Iran's response to the New Silk Road strategy has thus far been relatively muted. Tehran understands that it is being shut out of the region, but is hamstrung by its ties to Russia and its hostility to the United States, said Alex Vatanka, an Iran expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. "If you're a diplomat in the Foreign Ministry in Tehran and you see the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan going to Turkey for a meeting about the future of security cooperation in Afghanistan, that was seen as a major defeat as the Iranians, and it should be - that tells you how the Iranians have shot themselves in the foot by isolating themselves with their position on the United States."

But Iran also is reluctant to build close ties with its neighbors in Central Asia for fear of alienating Russia, Vatanka added. "Iran feels that [the former Soviet republics] are Russia's back yard. Iran needs Russia, it can't antagonize Russia," he said. "They have problems elsewhere on the international scene where they feel Russia could give them a helping hand."

Even where its interests might be directly counter to Russia's, for example on the controversial question of delimiting the borders of the oil-rich Caspian Sea, Iran is afraid to challenge Russia, Vatanka said.

This article originally appeared at EurasiaNet.org, an Atlantic partner site.