Central Asia and the Iran-Saudi rivalry

Edward Wastnidge, The Open University


The Iran-Saudi rivalry has been one of the key factors influencing the geopolitics of the Middle East in recent years. It has also been felt beyond the region, as both states have sought to enhance their leadership aspirations in certain parts of the wider Muslim world. Though studies on the rivalry have understandably focused on its various manifestations primarily in the Middle East,[1] its impact on other regions, spaces and domains is also worthy of serious consideration.[2] It is through such an exploration of the wider impact that one can observe the core geopolitical character of the rivalry, which runs in contrast to explanations that seek to reduce it to a centuries-old, immutable sectarian conflict.

This essay explores the geopolitical competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia as experienced in Central Asia, specifically Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, following the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. The initial attempts to penetrate the region paid varying dividends for both states. For Iran it arguably helped reduce some of the international isolation that it had experienced due to US efforts at containment. For Saudi Arabia, it provided new grounds to spread its religious influence at a time when its foreign policy was less adventurous than today, and when its aims were arguably less overt.

As tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia increased over recent years, the rivalry has manifested itself on a number of different levels and locales. This has found its expression in the strengthening of certain alliances, involvement in regional conflicts (both tacitly and explicitly), soft power competition that utilises cultural and religious influence, and publications in the international news media, academic and think-tank outputs. Though Central Asia has been an area for both states to exert their influence, the nature of the Iran-Saudi competition there is primarily geopolitical in nature rather than speaking to any notions of sectarianism.

Iran and Saudi Arabia’s early inroads into Central Asia

Iran’s relationship with Central Asia is long-standing and pre-dates the incorporation of those Republics into the Soviet Union. In terms of the rivalry between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia, however, 1991 provides a natural starting point. The opportunities provided by the ‘opening up’ of the region after years of Russian/Soviet domination led to predictions that states such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia would become embroiled in a competition for influence there.[3]

Turkey was held up as a potential model for the post-independence secular leaders of the region who had grown up in the Soviet system. Indeed, the potential for Iranian-Turkish rivalry in the region was perceived as more likely than Iranian-Saudi competition in the early years of independence, as each state offered a radically different political model while seeking to make use of its own shared cultural and historical commonalities with Central Asian states.

Iran views itself as a state that is very much of the Middle East but also linked with Central Asia. The Islamic Republic was fully cognisant of the lack of compatibility between its model of Islamic government rooted in political Shiism and the avowedly secular outlook of the post-independence leadership in the Sunni dominated region. While Iran provided funds for the rebuilding of mosques and reopening of madrassas, its contribution in terms of investment in religious infrastructure was comparatively small compared to other states.[4] Still, Central Asia held an important place in the Iranian geopolitical imagination,[5] as Iran sought to reconnect with a region that it had long-established cultural and historical links with prior to Russian expansion there. While mindful of Russian concerns, Iran gradually expanded its cultural outreach activities in the region, focusing in particular on Tajikistan as a fellow Persian-speaking nation.[6]

Central Asia also provided Iran opportunities to reduce its international isolation and help rebuild its economy after the Iran-Iraq war. This coincided with the ascendancy of a more pragmatic trend in Iranian foreign policy following the death of Khomeini. The confluence of these factors, along with the fall of the Soviet Union, allowed Iran to build new international relationships and opportunities.

Iranian policy makers conceive of its position as a potential hub and/or conduit for Central Asian trade – affording those countries access to international waters and potential oil and natural gas export opportunities through infrastructure crossing Iranian territory. Tehran took efforts to institutionalise economic cooperation in the form of transforming the previously moribund Regional Cooperation and Development organisation into the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) – joining it with the Central Asian states (along with Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Turkey). With a record that is more declaratory than substance, however, the ECO primarily acted as a forum for Iran and the Central Asian republics to showcase their international status as independent, rational actors. Indeed, the ECO now struggles to find relevance as an international organisation in the face of an increasingly active Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), as fora for economic and security cooperation in Eurasian geopolitical space.

In terms of Saudi Arabia, Central Asia did not exert the same overt pull, given its relative lack of geographical and cultural proximity with the region. Riyadh saw the new space that the collapse of the Soviet Union opened for influence primarily in terms of its efforts to build religious links with the region. This was in keeping with Saudi policies in the 1990s that sought to support the proselytization efforts of Wahhabi scholars, and was accompanied by significant donations and support towards the building of mosques, madrassas and funding of Wahhabist-inspired Islamic education and literature provision. Saudi efforts focused in particular on the Ferghana Valley region, with Saudi missionaries taking advantage of the more well-established Islamic traditions of the area.[7] This financial support was primarily channelled through Saudi banks operating through the representative structure of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC).[8] This was further enhanced through the provision of scholarships for Central Asian students to attend religious training in Saudi Arabia, along with well-publicised Hajj pilgrimages by Central Asian leaders during the early 1990s, and Saudi facilitation of free Hajj trips by prominent Muslim scholars from Central Asia. All of these activities represent very clear effort to influence, and ultimately instrumentalise Islam in the region to enhance Saudi standing there.

Understanding Iran and Saudi foreign policy towards Central Asia

The Iranian and Saudi efforts to expand their influence in Central Asia during the 1990s and into the early 2000s are not necessarily an outcome of any explicit rivalry between the two nations. Indeed, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia during this time were probably at their best since any time following the revolution, with the exchange of state visits and cooperation within international forums such as the OIC. Rather, it can be viewed as both states making use of their respective strengths, often more in terms of their soft power potentials in the region, than any clear sense of competition. There was a possible battle for hearts and minds at play, but in reality, both were playing to their strengths in terms of the constituencies that they were targeting.

For Iran, the opportunity to pursue a pragmatic engagement with the region in terms of developing economic and institutional links paid a moderate dividends, though this was regularly stymied by its wider disagreements with the West, such as over the nuclear issue, which hampered its ability to fully realise its potential as an economic and infrastructural gateway to the region. For Saudi Arabia, its influence was cemented primarily in the religious sphere, where it gained some ideological purchase in terms of helping shape Islamist discourses in the region. This, however, helped entrench an unyielding and increasingly sectarian interpretation of Islam among more Islamist-inclined actors in the region, and can be seen in the alliances and active cooperation formed between groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Central Asia’s subsequent importance to the US-led war on terror increased scrutiny on the role of Saudi funding of extremist movements in the region, though the covert methods of funding and importance of Saudi Arabia to many western states’ foreign policies meant that it largely escaped any censure. For Central Asia’s leaders, the perceived extremist threat allowed them to justify their crackdown on Islamist groups through hitching their responses to the wider aims of the war on terror.

Tajikistan – the rivalry out in the open

The trajectory of this rivalry can perhaps be seen most clearly in Tajikistan. As a fellow Persian-speaking nation, Tajikistan has occupied a significant place in Iranian foreign policy thinking since its independence. Early efforts at expanding cultural influence by Iran included efforts to promote the use of the Arabic-Persian alphabet in the country, and though this did not come to fruition, Iran continued to utilise its cultural and linguistic commonalities to enhance its relationship with Tajikistan. During the Ahmadinejad era (2005-2013), ties grew stronger with multiple state visits, increasing Iranian economic investment in various infrastructure projects, and expanding business ties.

The first signs of a potential complication in relations came with the imprisonment by Tehran of Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani in 2013, who had invested in several large projects in Tajikistan. Zanjani was accused of embezzling some $2 billion gained through trading Iranian oil through the black market when it had been under sanctions during the Ahmadinejad era. His considerable assets in Tajikistan were allegedly subsequently absorbed by Tajik businesses, a charge denied by Dushanbe,[9] thus depriving Tehran of the means to secure any remittance of the owed monies.

In what could be seen as a partial response to the breach of trust between the countries over the Zanjani affair, Tajik opposition figure and leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT),[10] Iran invited Muhiddin Kabiri to attend its annual Islamic Unity Conference in December 2015. With the IRPT having been outlawed earlier that year, the decision to host Kabiri prompted an icy response and protest note from Tajikistan.

While the Iran-Saudi rivalry, which had been growing ever more prominent in the Middle East, had not really impacted much on the region up to this point, Saudi Arabia now saw an opportunity to take advantage of a downturn in the Iran-Tajikistan relationship, and strike a blow against its regional rival in a country that Iran had long viewed as a natural partner. Shortly after the Kabiri incident, Tajik president Emomali Rahmon visited Saudi Arabia, the visit coinciding with a sharp deterioration in Iran-Saudi relations due to the fall-out from the execution of the Saudi Shi’i cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016. During his visit, Rahmon was able to secure significant increases in Saudi investment in Tajikistan, with the Saudi Islamic Development Bank pledging some $108 million to assist in infrastructure projects in Tajikistan.[11] The Saudi Development Fund also invested $200 million in range of construction projects, and Riyadh’s help was sought in the completion of the long-delayed for Rogun dam project.[12]

Iran’s long-standing cultural ties were also weakened as a result of the growing rift between Tehran and Dushanbe, and in 2016 and 2017 Tajikistan’s government ordered the closure of a number of Iranian cultural and development initiatives. This included the shuttering of Iranian cultural chancelleries, run by Iran’s cultural diplomacy arm the Islamic Culture and Relations Organisation, in Dushanbe and Khujand, in a move decried by Iran’s outgoing cultural attaché.[13] The local office of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation, one of the Islamic Republic’s largest charitable organisations, was also ordered to close. During this period, Tajikistan also blocked Iran’s elevation to full membership status in the SCO.

Saudi Arabia sought to take full advantage of this downturn by increasing its penetration into various areas of Tajikistan’s educational and cultural spheres with the funding of school building projects to further cement its influence.[14] President Rahmon was also a guest at the Saudi-organised, largely anti-Iranian ‘Arab-Islamic-American summit’ hosted in Riyadh in 2017, further enhancing a burgeoning relationship between Saudi Arabian and Tajikistan. This was followed by Saudi attempts to paint Iran’s intentions in Tajikistan as nefarious in print and broadcast media.[15] Saudi glee at the state of affairs was evidenced further with their ambassador’s gloating about how the expulsion of ‘Iranian agents’ from the country during the 2017 rupture in Iran-Tajikistan ties had been ‘great victory’ for Saudi Arabia.[16] By 2019, however, Tehran-Dushanbe ties were back on track, with the Tajik Foreign Minister visiting Iran and President Rouhani holding bi-lateral discussions with President Rahmon on the side-lines of the Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Dushanbe.


The history of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s relations with Central Asia reflects the state of relations between the two rivals. The relative harmony in bi-lateral ties during the 1990s and into the early 2000s saw both states pursuing objectives that were commensurate with their declared national interests, which at the time did not explicitly conflict. With the development of the rivalry came new theatres in which to exploit pre-existing concerns as seen in the example of Tajikistan. For Saudi Arabia it shows the opportunistic side of its foreign policy – utilising its financial muscle to gain favour with what had, until the downturn in ties between Dushanbe and Tehran, been an important focal point of Iranian influence. The focus on Tajikistan as a point where the rivalry become most acute is an exemplar of how the rivalry has manifested itself in locales beyond both states’ borders. The wider Central Asian geopolitical space is also a site of potential competition, though taken as a whole, it is conversely a possible site of cooperation and thus de-escalation in the rivalry.[17] This depends on whether Riyadh sees any potential in enhancing its ties through institutional arrangements such as the SCO, cooperation with the EAEU, or indeed through active participation in the Belt and Road initiative. Ultimately the primacy of Russian and Chinese interests in the region mean that both states’ room for manoeuvre is limited.

This exploration of the rivalry shows how it remains one that is defined by geopolitics rather than sectarian interpretations. While other identity markers, including Islamic and Persian identity remain relevant and have been instrumentalised to a certain extent by both states, the core concerns of Tajikistan, and arguably other Central Asian states too, vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia have been about balancing and self-interest. However, the example of how the rivalry played out in very conspicuous terms in Tajikistan shows that it remains of continued salience when considering the complex geopolitics and interrelationship between the Middle East and Central Asia.


[1] See, for example, Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran Power and Rivalry in the Middle East, I.B. Tauris, 2015; Simon Mabon, ‘Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends, Rivals or Foes in Geopolitical Flux’, Bustan: The Middle East Book Review, 2017, 8(1): 38-53; Banafsheh Keynoush, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Friends or Foes?, Palgrave, 2016; Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations and Regional Order, Routledge, 2014.

[2] See also May Darwich’s contribution to this collection that explores the Iran-Saudi rivalry in the Horn of Afrcia.

[3] See, for example: Anoushiravan Ehteshami, ‘New Frontiers: Iran, the GCC and the CCARs’, in From the Gulf to Central Asia: Players in the New Great Game, ed. Anoushiravan Ehteshami, University of Exeter Press, 1994: 92–113; Houman Piemani, Regional Security and the Future of Central Asia-The Competition of Iran, Turkey,

and Russia, Praeger, 1998; Eva Rakel, ‘Paradigms of Iranian Policy in Central Eurasia and Beyond’, in Central Eurasia in Global Politics: Conflict, Security and Development, ed. Mehdi Parvizi Amineh and Henk Houwelling, Brill Publishers, 2004: 235–255

[4] Ghoncheh Tazmimi, ‘The Islamic revival in Central Asia: a potent force or a misconception?’ Central Asian Survey, 2001, 20(1): 63–83 (78).

[5] Edward Wastnidge, Central Asia in the Iranian geopolitical imagination’, Cambridge Journal of Eurasian Studies, 2017, 1. (p.3).

[6] See, for example, Brenton Clark, “Iranian Foreign Policy Toward Tajikistan and Afghanistan during the Ahmadinejad Presidency: The Rising Salience of Persian National Identity,” Journal of Central Asian & Caucasian Studies, 2012, 7 (13): 73–105; Morteza Mahmoudi, “Asia-ye markazi va roshd hamkariha-ye chand janebe iran va tajikistan (Central Asia and the Growth of Iran-Tajikistan Multilateral Cooperation),” Motaleʻat-e asia-ye markazi va qafqaz (Central Asia and the Caucasus Review), 2007, 58: 7–48; Edward Wastnidge, “Pragmatic Politics: Iran, Central Asia and Cultural Foreign Policy,” Central Asia and the Caucasus, 2014, 15 (4): 119–130.

[7] The Fergana Valley, and indeed the rest of Central Asia, does not have a long history of Wahhabi or Salafi Islam. Muslims in the region have traditionally followed Hanafi and Sufi traditions, however, as Yerekesheva (2004, p.585) notes, ‘…Saudi Arabian missionaries following the Hanbali Mazhab version of Islam easily influenced the minds of the people in the Ferghana Valley, especially the youth.’ – see Laura Yerekesheva, ‘Religious identity in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan: Global‐local interplay’ Strategic Analysis, 2004, 28 (4): 577-588.

[8] Anna Zelkina ‘Islam and Security in the New States of Central Asia: How Genuine is the Islamic Threat?’ Religion, State & Society, 1999, Vol. 27, No 3/4: 355-372 (p.369).

[9] ‘Tajik banker: Zanjani has no money in Tajik banks’, IRNA, July 26 2016, available at: https://en.irna.ir/news/82163223/Tajik-banker-Zanjani-has-no-money-in-Tajik-banks (accessed November 8, 2019).

[10] The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) had previously acted as the only official opposition to the Tajik government, holding a small number of seats in the Tajik parliament as a result of negotiations that brought the cessation of hostilities in the Tajik civil war in 1992. For decades the only registered Islamic party in Central Asia, the IRPT were outlawed by the Tajik government in 2015 after losing their parliamentary seats.

[11] The Islamic Development Bank had only invested $84 million in Tajikistan from 2002-2015, so this was a significant increase. See ‘The Tajik President’s Blunt Attempt At Entering Middle East Politics’, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, January 5, 2015, available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/tajik-president-blunt-attempt-entering-middle-east-politics/27468877.html (accessed November 1 2019).

[12] ‘Naghsh-e arabistan dar sardi ravabet-e iran va tajikestan (The role of Saudi Arabia in the Iran and Tajikistan’s cold relations)’ The International (in Persian), July 9 2017, available at: http://theinternational.ir/west-of-asia/item/663 (accessed November 8 2019).

[13] See Hamid Ahmadi, ‘Iran and Tajikistan: How Culture and Civilization Fade in the Shadow of Politics and the Political’, Iran and the Caucasus, 2019, 23: 105-119 (p.116).

[14] ‘Tajikistan: Saudis Give Loans to Build Schools, But Why?’, Eurasianet, October 3, 2017, available at: https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-saudis-give-loans-to-build-schools-but-why (accessed November 6, 2019).

[15] See Hamidreza Azizi, ‘Saudi Arabia woos Persian-speaking Sunnis in Central Asia’ Al-Monitor, August 22, 2017, available at: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2017/08/iran-tajikistan-saudi-arabia-influence-tension-central-asia.html

[16] ‘Tajikistan: Saudis Brag About Pushing Out Iran’, Eurasianet, September 19, 2017, available at: https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-saudis-brag-about-pushing-out-iran (accessed December 8, 2019).

[17] For an exploration of how Iran has utilised elements of its Eurasian diplomacy to de-securitise, and thus provide a potential model for de-escalation of tensions, see Samira Nasirzadeh and Edward Wastnidge, ‘De-securitizing through Diplomacy: De-sectarianization and the View from the Islamic Republic’, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 2020, 18(1), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/15570274.2020.1729529