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The reasons were unclear, but Turkmenistan has been reviewing its deep trade ties with Iran as Western sanctions widen.

Meanwhile, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have expressed interest in joining a rail project running from Azerbaijan’s Caspian Coast to the eastern Turkish area of Kars.

Such a railway would bypass Iran and still provide the sea access coveted by the Central Asian states.

Iran has no choice but to turn to Asia for trade” because of the Western sanctions, said Sasan Fayazmanesh, an economic affairs expert and head of the Middle East Studies Program at California State University, Fresno. “But that, of course, will not solve Iran’s problem of selling its oil since the Central Asian countries, for the most part, do not need Iran’s oil.”

But for Tehran, its overtures to Central Asia mean more than just a price tag.

Iran has been a cultural point of reference for centuries across the ex-Soviet states through books, films and traditions dating back to Persia’s pre-Islamic Zoroastrian faith.

Iran’s main Central Asian foothold, Tajikistan, also shares linguistic ties that give Iran an important commercial edge over China and Russia.

A weak link for Iran, however, is the rifts within Islam.

Much of Central Asia is Sunni Muslim, and governments are cautious about any moves that could stir sectarian tensions with Shiite minorities. These same divides, in turn, help cement the influence of Shiite Iran in Iraq and parts of Afghanistan.