Iran has been struggling to navigate the complex energy and transport squabbles between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – disputes that are complicating Tehran’s regional ambitions. Iran is likely to continue supporting Tajik energy schemes, while remaining circumspect in order not to derail its growing relations with Uzbekistan.
By Roman Muzalevsky for ISN Insights
The disagreements between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan once again reveal the lack of regional cooperation in Central Asia that all too often proves detrimental to both regional and external parties. Iran is a case in point: Iran wants to pursue good relations with Turkic-speaking Uzbekistan and Persian-speaking Tajikistan but has found itself embroiled in Tajik-Uzbek energy and transport disputes that are complicating Tehran’s own regional policies.
Last year Iran and Tajikistan accused Uzbekistan of orchestrating a transportation blockade that for six months delayed the construction of a hydroelectric Sangtuda-2 station in southern Tajikistan. According to the Tajik government, more than a thousand rail cars with construction materials had been stuck in neighboring Uzbekistan, of which about 70 delayed rail cars were intended for the project. Uzbekistan denied the allegations, citing constrained railway capacity as the major reason for the delay, especially in light of the cargo being run across its territory by the Northern Distribution Network to the coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Sangtuda-2 is a 220-megawatt plant on the Vakhsh River, located about 100 kilometers south of Dushanbe. Iran and Tajikistan invested$180 and $40 million respectively in the project, with an Iranian firm performing the on-site construction. The station is expected to be operational by 2012. Meanwhile, downstream Uzbekistan has opposed hydro-energy projects in upstream Tajikistan, insisting they will damage the environment and ruin its agricultural sector, heavily dependent on cotton cultivation. Uzbekistan was the world’s third largest exporter of cotton in 2010 and believes the construction of the Rogun dam in Tajikistan alone will cost it $17.8 billion in damages.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan possess 90 percent of the water resources in Central Asia, with Uzbekistan alone consuming about half of the water. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan can only meet 14 percent and 45 percent of their water needs. The Tajik regime, for its part, believes its hydro projects will ensure energy independence, boost economic development, and support its legitimacy amidst poor economic conditions and frequent energy crises. Tajikistan could generate up to 527 billion kilowatts of electricity annually, greatly relieving its current energy dependence on Uzbekistan – from which it currently receives 95 percent of its energy supplies.
Two days after the beginning of construction on the Sangtuda site, Uzbekistan allegedly stated it would suspend gas supplies unless Tajikistan paid$1.6 of the approximately $30 million it owed Uzbekistan. Citing the transport blockade, the Tajik authorities asserted last November that the trade turnover between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan dropped by about 65 percent compared to 2009. Dushanbe purportedly lost about$23 billion since the 1990s as a result of “various obstacles” imposed by Uzbekistan.
Iran in the economic mix
Last May, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi suggested Iran mediate between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whose tense relations have hurt Iranian business circles keen on investing and developing regional hydro-energy projects. By June, Iran even threatened to block Uzbek railway cars from crossing its territory as a retaliatory measure. “In general we have no problems with Uzbek railways. This is the attempt to support brotherly Tajikistan, initiated by Iranian leaders,” said a representative of the Iranian Railways. Up to 150 Uzbek rail cars, primarily loaded with cotton fiber, pass through Iran daily. After the Iranian intervention, Tajikistan received some rail cars for the first time in several months.
But not for long. The subsequent delays suggested that Iranian and Tajik efforts had largely fallen on deaf ears in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. In 2010, Uzbekistan reportedly even reduced gas supplies to Tajikistan due to the latter’s arrears, although last December it agreed to restructure the Tajik debt. Last July, Uzbekistan also temporarily prevented a Tajik plane from leaving its airspace, citing technical issues with the plane’s equipment, while earlier it terminated air-traffic agreements with Dushanbe. It further withdrew from the regional power grid, interrupting electricity transmission to Tajikistan.
The Uzbek-Tajik conflict complicates Tehran’s regional plans, as Iran does not want to jeopardize its relations with either country. It has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and also faces expanded international sanctions recently imposed by the UN. Perhaps this led Tehran to actually fly in 75 tons of construction materials to Tajikistan on 29 December 2010, thus evading the alleged Uzbek railway blockade and likely escalation of the conflict between Tehran’s two important partners.
Indeed, Uzbek-Iranian trade, which stood at $700 million in 2008, was projected to reach $1 billion in 2010 – nearly four times the level of Iranian-Tajik trade in 2009. The countries have set up a joint economic commission and cooperated in East-West and North-South transport initiatives, including those seeking to link Tashkent with Mashhad, Iran via Afghanistan, which enabled Tashkent and Tehran to expand trade and facilitate access to foreign markets. Uzbekistan has also favored diplomatic means of resolving the stand-off between the West and Tehran over the latter’s controversial nuclear program.
Iran’s growing affinity for Tajikistan
Yet the Uzbek-Iranian politico-military cooperation falls short of economic interaction. Tashkent is unwilling to distance itself from the US, its uneasy but important military partner in the “war on terror” and a presumed counterweight to Russian and Chinese regional ambitions. At the same time, Tehran does not want to distance Dushanbe for economic and geopolitical reasons. This is not only evidenced by Iranian intervention, reportedly sanctioned by leadership in Tehran, in Uzbek-Tajik disputes but also its cultural and historical affinity with Tajikistan, which prompted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to call Iran and Tajikistan “one spirit in two bodies.”
Tajik-Iranian economic relations, too, are growing. Joint trade in 2009 hit $250 million, an almost seven-fold increase since 2000, making Iran Tajikistan’s third largest trading partner, after Russia and China. Iran invested$600 million in Tajikistan in 2010 and offered $31 million to build a road bypassing Uzbekistan and connecting Dushanbe with Tajikistan’s northern areas. Iran also considers investing $50-60 million in the construction of the mountain tunnel linking the Tajik capital with the southeastern parts of the country.
Tehran further welcomes Dushanbe’s support for its alleged peaceful nuclear program. Last May, Tehran and Dushanbe signed a new defense treaty. While Iran feels threatened by the US bases in Central Asia, Afghanistan and Iraq, it is also enticed by the opportunities to expand its influence in all directions if the US and coalition forces withdraw fully from Iraq and Afghanistan.
At their 2010 Persian Summit, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan reaffirmed their plans to build the joint railway network, cooperate to fight drug trafficking and terrorism, and ensure access to South Asia and regional sea ports. The reported Uzbek railway blockade increasingly isolates Tajikistan from the northern routes, prompting Dushanbe to develop southern transport corridors.
For all of these reasons, Iran is likely to continue supporting the Tajik energy schemes, but it will also avoid derailing its growing relations with Uzbekistan. Flying in construction materials for its partially-funded Sangtuda-2 station in Tajikistan could be just the way for Iran to navigate the complex regional energy and transport squabbles plaguing the two Central Asian neighbors.
Roman Muzalevsky is a writer on Eurasian affairs and security for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC. He holds a Master’s in International Affairs with a concentration in Security and Strategy Studies from Yale University. He can be reached at [email protected] This article was published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)