The authoritarian dictator of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, passed away yesterday at the age of 66. Even by dictatorial standards, this man was eccentric. Among other things, he ordered the closure of all hospitals and libraries in rural parts of his country, reasoning that rural citizens were not worth the resources consumed. He also ordered the construction of an ice palace in his desert country, required that every clock have a picture of his face on it in order to force people to see his visage, and named the caldendar months and days of the week after himself and his family.
But other than that, he was not exceptionally violent, and perhaps not as directly destructive to human life as Saddam Hussein or Pol Pot.
Niyazov did not arrange for a successor, and hence a leadership vacuum now exists in Turkmenistan. While this is a country of only 5 million people and a nominal GDP of only $18 billion, it has a location of disproportionately high geopolitical importance. Just look where Turkmenistan is on the map.
Turkmenistan has just as long of a border with Iran as Iraq and Afghanistan each have, and is known for practicing a relatively moderate version of Islam (we don't see many terrorists of Turkmen origin). Even more importantly, Turkmenistan is the country with territory that is the closest to Tehran.
If the US were shrewd, we would heavily back the factions most likely to induce democratic reform in Turkmenistan, culminating in the ascension of a leader similar to Hamid Karzai. There isn't even the hindrance of a Taliban-type theocratic group as in pre-2001 Afghanistan. We would then encourage the formation of the same democratic institutions we have helped create in neighboring Afghanistan. After that, we could inject economic stimulus into the economy and rapidly modernize the infrastructure, so that Turkmenistan achieves the 10%+ annual GDP growth that is currently in full flow in Afghanistan (Turkmenistan already has 6.5% GDP growth). This would cost the US a pittance and not a single military casualty, and yet Iran would be even more tightly encircled by countries at varying stages in the process of forming democracies. Iran could, of course, send trouble across the border like it is doing in Iraq, but Iran's resources would then be even more thinly divided than they are now. Iran would be drawn into yet another front in its proxy war against the US and Israel, and will be more prone to overplay its hand and do something that backfires.
If the US were shrewd...