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Inside File: Islamic nations ponder Russia's Central Asia role

ALL is not well with the Islamic resurgence in the new world. Two years ago, we were meant to be witnessing Iran and Turkey fighting it out for dominance in the Central Asian republics. It has not worked. Now, even Iranian diplomats concede, in astonishingly realistic language by Iranian standards, that the Central Asians take only Russia seriously.

'Some people still think Turkey and Iran are powers competing in Central Asia,' said an Iranian envoy. 'Turkey tried to have security arrangements with them but failed, because they are only interested in such arrangements with Moscow. The rulers of Central Asia are the same as in the past.'

He added: 'The West has accepted Russia's domination of the former Soviet Union. Iran is now locked between two security blocs: the Gulf on one side, and the Russian dominated CIS on the other.'

The West, which two years ago was encouraging the idea of Turkey as the more secular proxy power in Central Asia, has indeed embraced the idea of Russian influence over the former Soviet republics. Barely two months ago, Douglas Hurd co-authored an article with his Russian counterpart, Andrei Kozyrev, on the need for international backing and supervision of Russian peace-keeping in the former Soviet republics.

'The dominant Russia was going to happen anyway, whether we liked it or not, so we might as well try and see it is done with some terms of conduct to ensure it is genuine peace-keeping,' said a senior Western official.

When things are going badly, even fate seems to turn against you. Turkey's long-awaited first satellite was last month meant to start providing international links to each of the Central Asian republics, making Ankara the telecommunications hub of the whole region. It was destroyed soon after take-off on board a malfunctioning Ariane rocket.

Iran, meanwhile, is beginning to appear, on occasion, a country much like any other. Its president survived a shooting incident recently, raising questions as to how anyone had got close enough to fire at him. Far from attempting to challenge Moscow's dominance over its neighbours, it is limiting its ambitions to economic and cultural ties with the Central Asians.

An Iranian analyst pointed out that Tehran's primary objective, too, was keeping in well with Moscow. 'If nothing else, Iran needs to be able to continue to buy Russian arms,' he said.

Tehran continues half-heartedly to pursue regional co-operation through organisations such as the Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO), which includes Pakistan and Turkey. Iranian officials experienced a frisson of revival of their old ambitions for global dominance last month when a delegation of Chinese experts attending an ECO seminar spoke of Chinese associate membership of the group.

For all its realism, the West continues to ponder how much Mr Kozyrev and his colleagues represent the liberal face of Russia, and how much they are part of the same expansionist trend as that expressed openly by Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Western diplomats recall a speech by Mr Kozyrev more than two years ago to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Ashen-faced Western collegues gathered in Stockholm heard Mr Kozyrev threaten to use force against other ex-Soviet republics and accused Nato of interfering in Russia's back yard. He described the territory of the former Soviet Union as 'a post-imperial space where Russia has to defend its interests by all available means, including military and economic ones'. He later retracted the speech, saying he had been playing out a deadly serious charade to illustrate what the world could expect if President Boris Yeltsin lost power to conservatives.

Last week, a senior British official asked: 'I don't know who Kozyrev is now. Is he the Kozyrev he pretends to be, or is he the Kozyrev who made that speech in Stockholm?'