Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Iran’s Influence in Middle Volga Very Limited, Suleymanov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 21 – Rais Suleymanov, a Kazan-based specialist on Islamist politics who writes about the spread of radical Islam in the Middle Volga region and has been criticized by some for exaggerating its role there, says that Iran’s ideological impact there is very small, although he argues that Moscow should take steps to control Tehran’s mission in Kazan.

            In a 4500-word, heavily footnoted article that will appear in the fall issue of the RISI journal, “Problemy natsional’noy strategii,” Suleymanov says that since 1991, Iran has sought to influence Russia’s Middle Volga region via trade, humanitarian cooperation, and religious contacts (

            Iran’s economic efforts have had limited success, the Kazan analyst argues, and its work in the humanitarian field has fallen far short of that of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. To make up for that, Iranian diplomat have focused on expanding cooperation with and even control over Tatarstan’s relatively small Shiite community.

            That group, he continues, consists largely of ethnic Azerbaijanis, and its leaders “are not engaged in missionary work with regard to the indigenous population of the region,” that is, with the Tatars. Consequently, the Shiites there do not threaten Russia’s national security, at least at present.

            But Suleymanov says, this conclusion “does not mean that there is no need for control over the activity of the Iranian diplomatic mission in Tatarstan,” a reference to Tehran’s consulate general which opened in Kazan in 2007 and whose officials have been active in Tatarstan since that time.

            Iranian trade with Tatarstan is minimal, totally only 24.4 million US dollars in 2010, the last year for which statistics are available,a figure not surprising given the relatively small amount of trade between Iran and the Russian Federation as a whole and one that is likely falling given UN sanctions against Tehran.

            The Iranian consulate general has sought to “compensate” for this by taking an active part in conferences and meetings, one far greater than Turkish diplomats there do because the latter, Suleymanov says, are focused more on economic issues.  At these sessions, the Iranian diplomats seek to promote pro-Iranian, anti-Israel and anti-Wahhabi views.

            Iranian diplomats, however, have devoted the greatest effort toward “taking under control the Shiite community” in Tatarstan, Suleymanov says.  Ninety-eight percent of the Shiites there are not Tatars but rather ethnic Azerbaijanis. The remainder are Tajiks from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and Hazarites from Afghanistan.

            Many of the Shiites of Tatarstan have studied in Iran, the Kazan analyst continues.  Moreover, he suggests, Iran has provided the community with religious publications and other materials. Iranian diplomats may also be providing them with other forms of assistance, including financial.

            The Shiites of Tatarstan may not be helping Iran as much as it hopes.  On the one hand, the authorities in Kazan have kept a close watch on them and have even deported one of the group’s leaders to Azerbaijan. And on the other, the group has shown little interest in spreading their form of Islam to others, being more interested in blocking the influence of the Wahhabis.

            The Shiites’ interest in opposing Wahhabism may explain Suleymanov’s somewhat unexpectedly positive evaluation of that community. But his argument does suggest that Iran is playing a much smaller role in the Middle Volga than many Moscow writers have suggested and that Turkey and Saudi Arabia continue to play a much more significant one.

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