By Iran Review
By Fatemeh Atri-Sangari*
Relations between Iran and Tajikistan have seen many ups and downs in recent years. The latest negative development in these relations was a request by Tajik authorities who asked officials in charge of Iran’s economic and cultural offices in Khujand city to shut down those offices. This came after Tajikistan stopped the activities of Iran’s cultural advisory office in the city of Dushanbe in addition to shutting down the local office of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation in that city in 2015.
In general, the year 2015 has been considered as a turning point in Iran’s relations with Tajikistan, because it was then that Iran invited Mohieddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, to a conference in Tehran, thus causing extreme dissatisfaction of Tajik officials. However, it seems that this development was just a small sign of worsening relations, which had already started to deteriorate. Therefore, if problems in the two countries’ relations are taken into account, many reasons at bilateral, regional and transregional levels can be found for this deterioration. A study of Iran’s relations with Tajikistan with the main focus on the aforesaid reasons is the goal of this paper.
Reality of Iran’s relations with Tajikistan: An inside view
Iran was the first country to open its embassy in Tajik capital, Dushanbe, after the country’s independence in 1992 and remained impartial through the country’s civil war. To prove this impartiality, Tehran hosted three Tajik peace conferences in 1994, 1995, and 1997. Many Tajiks have found in long years that they are an important part of the Persian cultural realm and not part of the Russian culture. Therefore, Iran has more potential for working in Tajikistan compared to other countries in Central Asia.
At the same time, Tajikistan is almost the poorest country in Central Asia and Iran can use economic aid as a means of boosting its political standing in that country. However, this is just one flip side of the two countries’ relations. On the other side, Emomali Rahmon, the president of Tajikistan, considers Tehran as a useful balancing weight against Russia’s influence and to protect Tajikistan’s legacy and identity. This is why he even issued an edict banning Russian names to be used for calling Tajik children. Therefore, after Iran’s cultural office was opened in Tajikistan, the two countries’ relations further expanded and efforts were made to introduce Persian poetry and arts in Tajikistan in addition to holing Nowruz (Persian New Year) celebrations there.
From an economic viewpoint, trade ties between the two countries expanded in the late 1990s and early 2000s, increasing from 40 million dollars in 2000 to 140 million dollars in 2007, 177 million dollars in 2011, and finally 295.2 million dollars in 2013. However, the figure has been going downhill since 2013 and reached 171 million dollars in 2016. Iran also helped with the construction of Tajikistan’s Sangtuda 2 power plant with a capacity of 220 megawatts of electricity in 2011. Iran invested 180 million dollars in that project with Tajikistan’s share standing at 40 million dollars. Implementation of such projects greatly improved Iran’s image as a regional power in Central Asia.
On the other hand, Iran’s private sector also created many jobs in Tajikistan and Iranian companies are widely involved in the country’s energy, construction, agriculture and transportation sectors. As a result, Iran, along with China and Russia, remains one of the three main trade partners of Tajikistan and more than one hundred cooperation agreements in various fields have been signed between Tehran and Dushanbe.
Why Iran and Tajikistan drifted apart?
Many bilateral, regional and transregional reasons have been given for current cold relations between the two countries. On the bilateral level, Iranian businesspeople working in Tajikistan were faced with serious corruption and extortion by local officials and the police, which gradually reduced Iran’s investment in that country. The case of Babak Zanjani and problems that emerged after his apprehension by Iran was just one case to the point. On the other hand, Sangtuda 2 power plant, which had been built by Iran, has been frequently pushed to the brink of shutdown as Tajikistan did not pay the price of electricity and the issue has led to problems between the two countries.
As differences soared, Iran invited Mohieddin Kabiri, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, to the 29th International Islamic Unity Conference on December 27, 2015, whose party is considered opposition to the Tajik government. This came as the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan had been designated as an extremist and terrorist group by the country’s government, and all its activities had been banned. In reaction to Iran’s measure, Dushanbe accused Tehran of harboring terrorists. Then, on October 22, 2016, the father of Mohieddin Kabiri passed away and a ceremony was held for him in northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad. Tajikistan showed immediate reaction to this issue.
As of October 24, 2016, Tajikistan’s State Committee for National Security halted visa issuance for citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran both at border and at Dushanbe International Airport. Following these developments, Iranian entrepreneurs and businesspeople started leaving Tajikistan. In addition, limitations were considered for the import of some Iranian goods, including tea, chicken and chicken meat. Another reaction shown by Tajikistan was opposition to permanent membership of Iran at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Saudi Arabia’s influence in Tajikistan
At the present time and due to escalating challenges across the Middle East region, Tajikistan is focus of attention for a number of governments due to its strategic position. Of course, Tajikistan has been always more inclined toward Iran, because cultural and historical heritage as well as the common language bring the two countries close. Saudi Arabia, however, has been providing the country with hefty financial aid, which is above Iran’s ability.
In fact, it seems that Tajikistan was more willing to have Iran as a strategic partner and benefit from relations with Tehran. Of course, relations between Dushanbe and Riyadh were not friendly in past years due to the support offered by Saudis to Wahhabi elements during the civil war in Tajikistan. However, Saudi Arabia has given 200 million dollars in aid to Tajikistan to help it construct new buildings for the parliament and government and has also allocated 35 million dollars to construction of new schools in Tajikistan. Riyadh announced its readiness in January 2017 to provide a long-term loan to Tajikistan to finish the country’s most important hydropower plant, known as Rogun. Saudi Arabia has also promised to invest six billion dollars in Tajikistan’s economy. Of course, it seems that Tajikistan is also pursuing its political goals, in addition to economic ones, through strengthening relations with Saudi Arabia.
Tajikistan is aware that widespread presence of Saudi Arabia in that country can be potentially dangerous to its domestic security. However, in order to gain economic benefits and show its advantages to Iran and even Russia, Dushanbe insists on maintaining relations with Riyadh. For example, in January 2016 and during a trip to Saudi Arabia by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Riyadh asked Tajikistan to become a member of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT), but Tajikistan did not answer that request and simply said it would consider it for further assessment.
Of course, Rahmon’s participation at the Riyadh meeting in May 2017 showed that relations between the two countries are rapidly expanding. In fact, one can assume that big powers both inside and outside the region are being pressured by Tajikistan and Dushanbe is trying to do anything to boost its maneuvering room among those powers and secure its own interests. However, without even considering Iran’s position, relations between Dushanbe and Riyadh can be a source of threat to Russia and, therefore, they cannot be expected to expand beyond a certain level. This is true because one of the goals pursued by Saudi Arabia through such relations is to keep this country away from the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and pave the way, along with Americans, for destabilizing Central Asia and border regions of Russia.
During past years, Iran has been aware that the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan has been outlawed by the Tajik government, but at the same time, has been trying to maintain relations with Rahmon’s government. However, it seems that as relations between the two countries got less friendly, especially with regard to financial and economic exchanges, Iran reached the conclusion that the government of Tajikistan has been trying to exploit bilateral relations in its own benefit. The same understanding has prevailed in Tajikistan with regard to Iran and this country has frequently accused Iran of interfering in its internal affairs. Therefore, it is not strange for the two countries’ relations to go downhill, because those projects, which were previously considered as sign of long-term and lasting unity between the two countries, are now “cracked.”
Although there are currently a lot of problems in relations between Tehran and Dushanbe, the two countries, however, have many motivations and contact points to improve their ties. For example, as the year 2016 came to an end, Iran’s railroads authority started negotiations to connect the country’s railroads to those of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan en route to China.
Tajikistan has accepted to invest 3.2-3.5 billion dollars in this project. On the other hand, it seems that there are limitations for cultural exports from Iran, which have been considered by the current Tajik government, and this issue can greatly impede full acceptance of Tajikistan as an unconditional ally for Iran. Up to the present day, cultural relations and common history have been the most important grounds that have really connected Tajikistan to Iran, but cultural closeness is no guarantee for continuation of close political relations.
Of course, at the level of society, Tajik people are not inclined toward extremist versions of Islam and are more given to nationalism and, therefore, seek continuation of their country’s relations with Iran. However, at the level of governments, all existing issues and problems between the two countries must be attended to in a gradual manner and away from any haste. Therefore, the role played by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be propped up more than before and all measures must be taken through this ministry and within a clear framework.
Doctoral Student of Regional Studies at Moscow State University
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