Iran-Turkmenistan: How Cultural Ties Can Boost Trade and Political Cooperation

A meeting between the former president of Turkmensitan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, and the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (Credits: Official website of Ali Khamenei, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Persian Files ISSN 2975-0598 Volume 19 Issue 2
Author: Silvia Boltuc

In early December, Ashgabat hosted the Intergovernmental Turkmen-Turkish Commission on Economic Cooperation with Turkish delegates, readdressing the potential gas delivery from Turkmenistan to Turkey through Iran. Iran-Turkmenistan’s centuries-old relations provide the basis for a long-lasting and profitable collaboration between these two countries.

The decision to proceed toward an agreement over energy transportation not only reinforces bilateral ties but also serves to enhance Tehran’s role as a crucial and strategic regional node in the energy landscape.

Background Information

On December 6th, 2023, Ashgabat hosted the 7th session of the Intergovernmental Turkmen-Turkish Commission on Economic Cooperation, attended by top officials from Turkmenistan’s key ministries and departments, along with a representative delegation led by Turkey’s Vice President Cevdet Yilmaz.

Emphasising that the outcomes of this gathering would further enhance interstate collaboration, the head of the Turkish delegation highlighted the comprehensive nature of Turkmen-Turkish cooperation across almost all domains, which are currently operating at a remarkable level. Affirming the enduring commitment of Turkmenistan and Turkey to their longstanding amicable relations, Commission members delineated specific measures aimed at broadening interactions across promising sectors.

Issues related to Turkmen gas shipments to Turkey were recently discussed during a meeting between the presidents of Turkmenistan and Turkey, Serdar Berdimuhamedov and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Ankara. The significance of transporting gas to Turkey through the Caspian Sea was deliberated upon, highlighting the importance of cooperation between Ashgabat and Ankara with Azerbaijan, which possesses Caspian Sea access and shares borders with Iran.

During the December’s meeting, Turkmenistan affirmed its interest in augmenting natural gas exports to Turkey, with emphasis on utilising the Korpedzhe-Kordkuy gas pipeline capacity (the pipeline runs from Korpedzhe and Gamyshlydzha fields, Turkmenistan, to Kordkuy, Iran) therefore involving Iran. In this context, both nations expressed readiness to start negotiations at the agency and company head levels in the near future.

This proposal resonates with the existing gas swap agreement between Iran, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan, established in November 2021, which involves Iran supplying 1.5-2 bcm of Turkmen gas to Azerbaijan in exchange for a similar volume.

The General Director of the National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC), Majid Chegeni, reported an increase in gas volumes received from Turkmenistan, reaching 8 mcm per day, with a trial shipment of 10 mcm conducted in August 2023.

Additionally, the Iranian Ambassador to Turkmenistan, Golam Abbas Khales, expressed the potential to elevate swap supplies from Turkmenistan to 20 mcm per day, confirming Iran and Turkmenistan’s interest in bolstering their gas sector partnership.

Geopolitically, Iran-Turkmenistan’s prospected cooperation, facilitated by gas transit, presents a strategic avenue that extends beyond bilateral relations, drawing in multiple regional players to shape energy dynamics within the Caspian region and towards Turkey.

Iran-Turkmenistan: Geopolitical Analysis of a centuries-old relation

Iran’s regionalism policy reflects its strategic approach to bolstering alliances and influence within its neighbouring regions. With a focus on fostering closer ties and partnerships, particularly within the Middle East and Central Asia, Iran seeks to enhance regional stability while asserting its geopolitical significance.

Simultaneously, its ‘Look to East’ policy underscores a deliberate pivot towards engaging with Asian nations, notably China and Russia and Central Asian republics, in economic, political, and strategic spheres. This approach aims to diversify Iran’s international relationships, tapping into the potential economic benefits and geopolitical support from Eastern powers, creating a more balanced and versatile foreign policy landscape.

Turkmenistan and Iran share a spectrum of collaborative efforts across various sectors. One prominent initiative involves the development of a railway corridor linking Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, substantially bolstering regional connectivity. This corridor not only facilitates trade but also plays a pivotal role in fostering stability and prosperity within the region.

The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) played a significant role by contributing 370 million dollars to this critical infrastructure project, which holds immense importance for landlocked Turkmenistan by granting it access to seaports in open waters via Iran.

Among the key organisations that are contributing to the growing partnership between Tehran and the Turkish block there is the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), a Eurasian political and economic intergovernmental organisation founded in 1984 in Tehran by the leaders of Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey. It provides a platform to discuss ways for improving development and promoting trade and investment opportunities.

As with the EU, the ECO objective is to establish a single market for goods and services. The ECO’s Secretariat and cultural department are in Iran, its economic bureau is in Turkey, and its scientific bureau is in Pakistan. All its member countries are IsDB members. Indeed, the shared Islamic identity, encompassing both Shia and Sunni denominations, along with historical ties, could potentially facilitate increased cooperation and mutual understanding compared to nations belonging to the Western world.

Geopolitical analysts often prioritise assessing the advantages or disadvantages of cooperation between two countries based on their geographical locations and potential economic gains. However, it’s crucial not to overlook the significance of shared cultural heritage and historical ties between nations.

This factor has been evident in various instances, such as Russia’s connections with post-Soviet space countries and Southern European nations’ ties with African Mediterranean states. Similarly, Iran’s relations with the Caucasus region, the Middle East, and Central Asia underscore the influence of cultural familiarity and historical connections in shaping cooperative endeavours.

Linguistic connections remain significant. Several Iranian languages and dialects, which previously served as the common language across Central Asian regions, continue to be in use or have left notable imprints on the linguistic foundation of the area.

The Sogdian language, an Eastern Iranian language spoken mainly in the Central Asian region of Sogdia (whose capital was Samarkand) encompassing modern-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and was spoken in cities such as Samarkand, Panjakent, Fergana, Khujand, and Bukhara, even in ancient China thanks to some Sogdian immigrant communities, is one major example.

Another example is the Yaghnobi language, an Eastern Iranian language spoken in the upper valley of the Yaghnob River in the Zarafshan area of Tajikistan.

As for Turkmenistan, we can cite the Khwarezmian language, spoken in the Khwarazm area, a large oasis region on the Amu Darya River delta in western Central Asia. Today Khwarazm belongs partly to Uzbekistan and partly to Turkmenistan.

While some ethnic groups in Turkmenistan are familiar with the Persian language, especially around Ashgabat and Meru, also inside Iran there are ethnic groups with a common language of Turkish or Turkmen people. Indeed, there are Turk ethnicity in Iran, including Azeri, Turkmen and Qashqais.

The Turkmen Ethnic group, a smaller subset of Iranian Turks, predominantly inhabits the northeastern regions of Iran, including areas along the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea and the southern border next to Turkmenistan. This region, referred to as the “Turkmen-Sahra” or the Turkoman Desert, constitutes their primary habitat within Iran.

The Turkmen culture of the past was significantly shaped by both Turkic conquerors, who imposed their language, and Arabs, who enforced the adoption of Islam. Similarly, Persia has also experienced comparable influences throughout its history.

Apart from related economic and infrastructural relations and historical and cultural ties, these two countries have common security concerns. Turkmenistan and Iran have firm stances against Sunni Islamists and ISIS.

Sharing a long border, Turkmenistan is an important partner of Iran to prevent threats in and from the Central Asian region. Afghanistan is a further field of security cooperation between Ashgabat and Tehran, both over terrorism and drug production and smuggling.


Iran is actively seeking to ease economic pressures by exploring new trade routes and bolstering existing historical ones. This pursuit is crucial to diversify its economy, tapping into fresh avenues while maximising the potential of traditional trade routes, thereby reducing dependency and expanding its economic outreach.

Iran-Turkmensitan’s shared history spans over a millennium. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent independence of the Central Asian nations, Iran emerged as a vital nexus for communication with these countries.

Presently, Iran serves as a pivotal juncture where the Central Asian republics link the Caspian Sea with the Persian Gulf, establishing the most practical overland route connecting the Caucasus and Turkey. The geographical proximity, strategic needs, Iran’s intermediary role, the limitations posed by water borders, and Turkmenistan’s enclosed geography collectively form a conducive environment for cooperation between Tehran and Ashgabat.

Moreover, Turkmenistan holds significant importance as the gateway for Iran to access the Central Asian market. Upon Turkmenistan’s declaration of independence, the Islamic Republic of Iran promptly acknowledged and established an embassy in the capital city of Turkmenistan, underscoring the depth of their bilateral relationship.

The presence of a significant population of Turkmen Iranians near the common border and rich cultural ties spanning from languages, religions and traditions play a strategic diplomatic role.

In addition, after Iraq, Iran has the longest border with Turkmenistan, a fact that leads to a geographical interdependence. Cooperation against terrorism (many ISIS fighters were from Central Asian countries) and drug smuggling, which involved also Afghanistan, is vital for the two Eurasian players.

Regional and international organisation such as ECO or the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are useful platform through which Ashgabat and Tehran are enhancing ties.

Despite occasional friction between Tehran and Ankara or Tehran and Baku, Iran’s strategic geographical position, coupled with a revitalised Iranian diplomacy centred on neighbouring countries, has paved the way for an expanded Iranian role in the Eurasian market and the development of transit corridors.

Turkey not welcome Tehran’s enhanced position, indeed the potential lifting of sanctions on Iran could enable it to compete as an energy corridor towards Europe. However, recent global developments, especially the aftermath of Azerbaijan’s offensive on Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, have prompted Ankara and Baku to reassess Iran’s involvement in new infrastructure networks.

Furthermore, the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) has likely contributed to an increase in Tehran-Baku cooperation in the Caspian area. The final step in this reconfiguration is the planned transportation of gas from Turkmenistan to Turkey through Iran.

With this in mind, Iran-Turkmenistan-Turkey’s suggested agreement, discussed at the Intergovernmental Turkmen-Turkish Commission on Economic Cooperation, is not surprising. However, should Turkmenistan choose to utilise Iran as its primary transit route in the future, leveraging its ports that connect countries globally, this decision could potentially affect the Middle Corridor.

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