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2/23/06

Are Uzbekistan And Iran Seeking Rapprochement?

By Gulnoza Saidazimova

There has been a noticeable change in the Uzbek media's coverage of Iran recently. Since most of the country's media are strictly controlled, freedom of speech is nearly nonexistent and most journalists exercise self-censorship. Media coverage of any issue, particularly those related to international affairs, is done in concert with the government. Positive articles on Iran along with the recent visit of an Iranian delegation to Tashkent may signal a change in the country's foreign-policy orientation.

PRAGUE, 21 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Since gaining independence in 1991, Uzbekistan has been cautious about the possible religious influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran and maintained a rather reserved policy toward Tehran. Despite the mercurial character of Tashkent's foreign policy toward some countries, particularly the United States and Russia, Uzbekistan's relations with Iran have been relatively steady during the last 15 years.

Media Reflects Changing Policy

However, lately there seems to be a change in the Uzbek state-controlled media's coverage of Iran.

Articles and reports on Iran are more numerous and positive, with most of them expressing support for Tehran's right to develop its nuclear program.

One of the most recent reports came on 14 February. Uzbek state radio's first program aired an extensive interview with an Uzbek political analyst, Ibrohim Normatov. He said Iran has a right to develop its nuclear program. He criticized the United States and the European Union for using double standards and said other countries -- U.S. allies Pakistan and Israel among them -- have nuclear weapons. He likened the position of the United States and the EU toward Iran as similar to the "unfounded" suspicions of Baghdad's possessions of weapons of mass destruction prior to the war in Iraq.

The report is one of many that seem part of a new wave that began appearing on the eve of an Iranian delegation's visit to Tashkent last month. Iranian Commerce Minister Masud Mir-Kazemi discussed bilateral cooperation with Uzbek officials and also visited an aircraft manufacturing plant (TAPOiCh) in Tashkent in late January.

Criticized In Common

Some analysts see it as rapprochement -- saying that both Uzbekistan and Iran feel free to step up their cooperation after Tashkent's relations with the West soured over the Andijon uprising.

Mohammad-Reza Djalili, a professor of international politics at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, spoke to RFE/RL from Geneva. "There is some difficulty in relations between Tashkent and Washington and the Iranians, I think, appreciated this deterioration of relations and they try [now] to develop their relations with this country because before that it was very difficult to develop these relations," he said. "There [was] some hesitation from Uzbekistan, and Iranians were not [willing] to work with the country that was so near the U.S.'s position."

Uzbekistan's relations with the West deteriorated after Tashkent rejected calls from the United States and the EU to conduct an independent international investigation into the Uzbek troops' clash with protesters in Andijon in May. That incident reportedly led to the death of hundreds of civilians and was labeled a "massacre" by New York-based Human Rights Watch. Tashkent then evicted U.S. troops from the Karshi-Khanabad air base in southern Uzbekistan.

The EU imposed an arms embargo on Uzbekistan in October and an entry ban on top Uzbek security officials.

Isolated from the West, Tashkent immediately embraced Russia as the Kremlin actually endorsed the Uzbek government's handling of the uprising. Tashkent and Moscow signed a treaty on "allied relations" in late 2005 and Uzbekistan joined the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Community early this year.

Isolated Iran Seeking More 'Friends'

Analysts say that now that Tashkent has Russia's backing it feels more confident in developing cooperation with Tehran.

Djalili also says that the intention to improve bilateral relations comes not only from Tashkent, but also from Tehran.

Iran is looking for new friends as it risks becoming even more isolated from the West because of its pursuit of a full-fledged nuclear program over the objections of Western capitals.


Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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