Turkmenistan, out from under Soviet Masters, Reaches to Iran amid Talk of Rail, Gas Links, West Frets over Islamic Extremism

Article excerpt

THE music was loud and the beat pulsing in the ground-floor restaurant in this quiet Central Asian capital. Out on the dance floor, Turkmen women in short skirts moved to the rhythm, returning only briefly to their tables for a drink.

The restaurant is a favorite of businessmen from neighboring Iran, says a Turkmen official whose father runs a joint trading company with Iran. Out from under the watch of the mullahs and their zealous Islamic followers, the Iranians enjoy the atmosphere, he reports.

The presence of Iranian merchants has come only with the independence of this former Soviet Central Asian republic from its former Russian masters in Moscow. The border with Iran lies a mere 25 miles from this capital, part of a 1,000-mile frontier stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to Afghanistan in the east. But during the Soviet era, traffic across the border was tightly controlled.

Now the Turkmen government, led by former Turkmen Communist Party boss Saparmurat Niyazov, welcomes everyone from traders to Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who visited here last year.

"There is no alternative to cooperation with Iran, economically and culturally," President Niyazov, who went to Iran twice last year alone, told a small group of Western reporters last month. "I have very good relations with President Rafsanjani. I have met him many times and I respect him greatly. His outlook is peaceful and friendly."

This view is not shared by some Western governments, including the United States, which privately chide the Turkmens for being "naive" about Iranian intentions.

Turkmen officials believe this fear of Iran is exaggerated. "The Iranians understand that for us, religion and politics are separate," says First Deputy Foreign Minister Charnazar Annaberdiev. "They don't talk religion here. Their main interest is economic."

The Turkmen government is vigorously pursuing economic ties with Iran, driven by the desire to free the country from dependence on transportation and trade routes through Russia. A rail link between Ashkhabad and the northern Iranian city of Meshed is being built, scheduled for completion in 1995, which will give Turkmenistan access to the Persian Gulf. They are negotiating construction of a pipeline through Iran and Turkey to provide a new outlet to Europe for Turkmenistan's gas production.

"They don't fear Iran," comments a Western diplomat here. "This is not a fundamentalist country.... The Iranians are sending religious organizers, but we don't see any effect. They are building a lot of mosques, but we don't see people going to them."

This relatively benign view is not shared by all observers, however. At least one well-informed Western source warns that the Iranians have effectively organized an underground network of Islamists that could ultimately threaten to take power in this peaceful nation of 4 million. …


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