Amateur still photo of Iranian and Tajik officials celebrating for opening Iran's economic office in Khujand, north of Tajikistan, in 1990s. Tajik authorities recently ordered to shut down the very office as well as the cultural center of Iran's embassy in Khujand. © Rasoul Mousavi
Looking at the general trend of relations between Iran and Tajikistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union shows that the level of relations between the two countries has always been far removed from existing capacities. In particular, over the past two years, this has become more conspicuous than ever, and the relationship between Tehran and Dushanbe has practically grew cold - if it is not considered as a state of tension. On April 2017, when Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, did not visit Tajikistan during his regional visit to Central Asia, the fact that the relationship between the two countries was not “normal” became clear to observers. In addition, as reported in the official and semi-official reports, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit this year, as in previous years, Dushanbe’s opposition to Iran’s membership made this issue not be put on the agenda. Accordingly, a look at the reasons and factors affecting cold relationship between the two countries and the ways out of the existing situation seems necessary.
What is the reason behind the cold relationship between Tehran and Dushanbe?
One of the most important factors that has been introduced since the early years of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “sensitive” factor in establishing relations with Iran in the eyes of Central Asian leaders is the religious reputation of the system of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its claim, both inside and outside the region, that Iran intends to exercise its influence on the Muslim republics of Central Asia, while preparing the ground for the rise of Islamic governments in these countries. In the special case of Tajikistan, Iran’s impartial approach to the Tajik civil war and its objective efforts to end the civil war in the country have resulted in the fact that these concerns were overcome to a great extent after the end of the civil war. However, since two years ago, the issue of Iran’s relations with the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) of Tajikistan has served as a factor in bringing up the mentioned claims by the Tajik government.
In 2015, the Tajik government took the action to declare the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) as a “terrorist organization”, and began to arrest its leaders. This action was met with much criticism. In this regard, Iran’s invitation for Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of this party, to take part in the Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran was disputed by the government in Dushanbe. That the Tajik government issued a decree to suspend the activities of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation in Dushanbe in 2016 was another action carried out on similar pretexts regarding the “illegal activities” of Iran in this country. Accordingly, Dushanbe’s suspicion of Iran’s goals in Tajikistan and the re-introduction of this factor in the light of these developments have served as the most important factor in cooling relations between the two countries over the past two years.
Another issue that affected the cold relations between Iran and Tajikistan during this period was the issues related to the financial corruption case of Babak Zanjani who was linked to the government in Dushanbe by his financial and economic ties with Tajikistan. Bringing up the name of Tajikistan in the Zanjani case and the ambiguities in this case were another factor that caused a negative atmosphere govern the relations between the two countries. If the nature of this second issue is considered more economical, other issues that have also emerged in the economic sphere between the two countries can be added to the list as factors affecting the exacerbating cold relations, including the refusal of Tajikistan to meet its financial obligations in the project of the Sangtuda Hydroelectric Power Plant.
What is the root of the problem?
Although cold relationship between Iran and Tajikistan has come to light in the last two years, in a broader perspective, the general process of bringing the relationship to the current level cannot be reduced to just the above mentioned issues. In this regard, underlying reasons and factors for this subject can be examined at several levels. From one perspective, it seems that the lack of a common border and also Tajikistan’s economic weakness are considered one of the factors that has made Tajikistan not to receive the necessary attention in Iran’s regional approaches to Central Asia. In comparison with the level of relations between Iran and Turkmenistan, and Iran and Kazakhstan, this factor is especially more apparent. In other words, it seems that in the regional approach of Iran, it is preferable to establish relations with neighboring countries (Turkmenistan) and countries with a comparative economic advantage, and it is justified to establish relations with them (Kazakhstan and, of course, Turkmenistan) in this regard. If a regional comparison is also added to the analysis, and Iran’s foreign policy activity in the Middle East, and even South Asia, is compared with what is happening in Central Asia, the dimensions of ignoring the relations with Tajikistan will even become more evident. In other words, the whole Central Asian region has never had the necessary weight and status in Iran’s foreign policy, and thus, Tajikistan has received the least attention from Iran in this region.
Concerning this issue, a factor that may be less discussed about, but which seems to have been particularly influential in relations with Tajikistan, has been the multiplicity of Iranian decision-making and implementing institutions in the country, which is itself the source of ambiguity and, of course, misunderstandings. In other words, in light of the general reluctance of the foreign policy organization to develop a codified strategy in relations with Tajikistan, various institutions active in the cultural, economic, and other fields, with different agendas, have entered into this arena and began to operate. The sad truth is that much of the misunderstanding about the existence of an agenda for a political-religious influence of Iran in Tajikistan is also the result of incoherent and “island” activities of the same institutions. In the field of economy, since most of the activities carried out are scattered, and are not done under the umbrella of a specific strategy and economic management, now they have led to the unfavorable results, including the suspension of Tajikistan’s payment obligations to Iran.
Another factor is the sensitivity of regional and trans-regional powers to the development of Iran-Tajikistan relations. Despite the fact that Iran has always favored relations with Russia, the Russians have never, at least until the past two years, had a favorable view of Iran’s increased activity in their near abroad region. Meanwhile, since the ground for the development of Iran-Tajikistan relations has been provided by two factors - Islam and common culture -, this sensitivity has been even greater than in other countries of the region. In retrospect, we see that Iran’s mediation efforts on the Tajik civil war were unlikely to succeed until they were coordinated with the Russians. This, of course, is only the Russian approach as the dominant regional power in Central Asia, and the US opposition to any regional expansion of Iran’s influence and the American attempts to contain Tehran have been influential in this regard as well.
Along with this trend, Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, has used the increasing cold relations between Tehran and Dushanbe, and on the other hand, it has further exacerbated this relationship, and has extended the scope of its actions against the Islamic Republic of Iran from the western and southern areas to the northern neighborhood of Iran. In this context, Riyadh has tried to take advantage of the economic weakness of Tajikistan, and to develop its relations with this country through the provision of financial assistance to the country and establishing other types of economic relations - at the expense of Iran. It should be here mentioned that Saudi Arabia has been successful in this regard. The visit of Emomali Rahmon, President of Tajikistan, to Riyadh, right at the height of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was interpreted by observers as a clear message sent about the increasing activity of Saudi Arabia in Dushanbe.
Although the continuous extremist and pessimistic approaches of the government in Dushanbe toward Iran have always been considered as the main factor behind cold relationship between the two countries, this should not lead to the passivity of Iran’s approach towards this country and the lack of Iranian efforts to remove the obstacles that provided grounds for conflict on the Iranian side. This is particularly important because, as noted above, Iran’s regional rivals are seeking to increase their scope of activities in Tajikistan by using the existing vacuum. In addition, cold relationship with this country is creating strategic costs for Iran, because Tajikistan has prevented the development of Iran’s engagement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an important and growing regional structure. Developing a codified and comprehensive strategy for improving and then developing relations with Tajikistan with an emphasis on the two factors of culture (emphasizing on common national aspects rather than bringing up sensitive aspects provoking the opposite side) and economy (in both bilateral and multilateral relations, especially in the light of initiatives such as China’s One Belt, One Road initiative) is considered the most urgent action necessary in the current situation.
Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University (SBU), is the fellow at IRAS.
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