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.
Privately, Turkmen officials admit to some concerns. They worry that the pragmatic Mr. Rafsanjani is losing power to Islamic extremists in Iran. And they believe Iranian fundamentalist organizers are passing through Turkmenistan into the neighboring former Soviet Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where the soil for Islamic political movements is far more fertile.
Beyond that, Turkmen-Iranian antagonism dates back more than a millenium.
"Persia [Iran] always used to be a strong state while Turkmens were nomads who lived in the desert," says Vice Premier Boris Shikmuradov. "Persians always viewed Turkmens as a marginal people. They always coveted our territory. The flame of one match is enough to produce antagonism between Turkmens and Iranians."
For now, however, the border is peaceful. Turkmen authorities are far more worried about the frontier with Afghanistan, where a coalition of hard-line and moderate Islamic groups nominally rules. Islamic fundamentalist forces led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have been active in northern Afghanistan, aiding rebels in Tajikistan, and the Turkmens fear a similar flow of drugs and guns across their frontier as well.
The real insurance against a threat from Iran or Afghanistan comes from Turkmenistan's careful balancing policy of ties to the two other major powers in this region - Russia and Turkey. They are dependent for military security on Russian troops who continue to patrol the border.
This was evident when this reporter visited the formerly closed city of Mary, located close to both the Iranian and Afghan borders and the site of an air defense unit that shares the civilian airport. From morning until evening, modern MIG-29 jet fighters took off on patrol at 20-minute intervals, a level that Russian-based air units no longer maintain due to fuel shortages.
There are some 50,000 troops stationed here, Mr. Shikmuradov says. While the conscript ranks are 80 percent Turkmen, the 15,000 strong officer corps is 80 percent Russian-speaking, he says. By agreement, the Russian officers will remain here until 1995, when the Turkmens hope to be able to replace them with officers trained in Turkey.
US Ambassador Joseph Hulings III warns that the Turkmen balancing act "can only go so far." Turkmenistan remains vulnerable to changes in Russia, particularly if hard-liners eager to restore the Russian Empire should take power, he says. The country depends on the $3 billion annual revenue it earns from gas pumped to Europe through Russia.
For this reason, though they do not share Russian President Boris Yeltsin's reform policies, the Turkmenistan officials are openly supportive of him in his battle with an alliance of Communists and Russian nationalists. "Day and night we are praying for Yeltsin to remain in power," Shikmuradov says.