Iran at the Crossroads

Despite the diplomatic success achieved in the talks between Tehran and the P5+1 group in March, the situation surrounding Iran is still uncertain. Presently, the Iranian issue is one of the most complicated in world politics – it intertwines the geopolitical, economic, energy and military interests of a number of countries and entire regions. Not only the fate of Iran itself, but also the prospects of many regional projects far removed from nuclear projects or geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East all depend on the solution to the problem.

Т.ТолегеновичOn one hand, all would benefit if economic sanctions are fully lifted from Iran. This would give an opportunity to investors to return to the quite sizeable Iranian market and start developing the country’s rich oil and gas resources. Many Western and Russian companies have already stated their readiness to return to Iran. This would benefit the EU in particular, which could then diversify its energy imports, one of the key issues on the agenda of development and security for Brussels.

However, many experts are saying that the return of Iran, with its powerful export opportunities, to the world market could cause already-low prices for hydrocarbons to fall even further, due to possible special offers. In this case, long-time rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia might find themselves again with serious conflicts of interest. Moreover, at the moment, this regional rivalry has acquired a new edge from the armed conflict taking place in Yemen (where, according to some sources, pro-Iranian and pro-Saudi forces are facing off).

The conflict in Yemen has again illustrated the complexity of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Now the West has to make a difficult, almost impossible choice: support their longstanding ally, Riyadh, or try to build a fragile, peaceful dialogue with Tehran. Despite the difficulty of the decision, neutrality and non-interference in general can lead to unpredictable results in world politics.

In spite of the apparent locality of the conflict, the war in Yemen, as with many others in the Middle East, affects the interests of many global and regional powers. In addition, the intersection of major international conflicts and problems, including the Sunni-Shiite conflict, the development of the Islamic State terrorist group and low oil prices, are attracting attention.

On the other hand, it is clear that a new geopolitical game has begun around Iran, the aim of which is Russia. Apparently, behind the efforts of the West to return Tehran to the energy market might be a plan to pit Russia against Iran, the economy of which has weakened over the years of sanctions and needs an influx of funds (which is possible only through the sale of energy resources). For the West, it is very important to drive a wedge in the longstanding Russian-Iranian relationship. With the background of the Ukrainian crisis, this problem is becoming strategic for the West.

In addition, if Tehran ends up in competition with Russia for European markets, the West would solve the question of how to create additional pressure on the Russian economy, which is to some extent dependent on energy exports. Russia is already taking its own steps, removing restrictions on the supply of anti-aircraft missile complexes, long requested by Iran. This friendly signal to Tehran could help Moscow preserve the partnership.

Thus, the political bargaining around the Iranian issue gets more and more complicated each time. It is constantly being updated with new components; indeed, it is beginning to seem that Iran’s position on its nuclear programme is already playing a minor role.

Despite all the constrictive concessions and compromises of Tehran on nuclear development, the abolition of sanctions will take a long time, and it is not clear how the sanctions will be removed – completely or gradually. According to statements by Iranian officials, this uncertainty is annoying the Iranian elite.

It seems that for the West, it is important not to keep the issue in limbo for too long. Otherwise, the rapidly changing conditions in the world and in the Middle East could lead to a situation in which signing agreements with the West on its terms could become unprofitable for Iran, which will be a complete surprise scenario to all.

In general, lifting sanctions on Iran will undoubtedly be beneficial for Kazakhstan, both from the position of the removal of military tensions around its neighbour across the Caspian Sea, and in light of future transportation corridors from Asia to Europe. Last year, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Iran launched a new railway line. Today, this new line can serve as an important artery in creating the Silk Road Economic Belt, which was initiated by China.

The implementation of this macro-regional initiative can become the beginning of the formation of a new geo-economics of a grand Eurasia, as well as provide an opportunity for the development of new, rapid trade and economic communications between East and West and North and South. If they succeed, the new trade channels would enable all member states to create new points of economic growth. However, at the moment, the prospects of the modern Silk Road depend on the outcome of complex international agreements on Iran, its nuclear programme and geopolitical trends.


The author is deputy director of the Library of the First President of Kazakhstan – Leader of the Nation and has a PhD in political science.

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