Iran Interferes In Tajik-Uzbek Rail Dispute

Speaking to journalists in Dushanbe on July 12, 2010, the visiting head of the Iranian president’s office, Esfandiyar Rahim-Masha’i, accused Uzbekistan of causing a six-month delay in the launch of the first unit of the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station (HEPS) – Iran’s US$ 180 million investment project in southern Tajikistan – by holding up Tajikistan-bound freight cars with construction materials. Uzbekistan has been delaying the transit of hundreds of Tajik trains since February 2010, attributing the interruptions to “technical and logistical” issues. However, many observers believe that Uzbekistan’s blockade of Tajik cargo transit through its railway network is an attempt to force Dushanbe to abandon the controversial Rogun HEPS project, which Tashkent has long been opposing. Out of 1,500 to 2,000 Tajik cars held up by Uzbekistan, roughly one-third are bound for Khatlon where the Rogun dam is being constructed.

As the rail dispute was aggravating the already strained Tajik-Uzbek relations, in May 2010 Iran offered to mediate between Dushanbe and Tashkent. Iranian officials explained that the Tajik-Uzbek rail dispute inflicted economic losses on the Iranian construction company that had to delay the completion of the Sangtuda-2 HEPS because Uzbekistan did not let cars with cement and other crucial construction materials pass through its territory.

However, according to Tajik political analyst Rashid Abdullo, Iran’s involvement in the rail dispute between Dushanbe and Tashkent was prompted by political rather than economic considerations. Repeated requests from Dushanbe, the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as Tajikistan’s strategic partner Russia, did little to convince Uzbekistan to resume the transit of Tajik trains through its territory. Rashid Abdullo argues that this provided Tehran with an opportunity to decisively increase its influence in Tajikistan, which felt abandoned by its traditional partners, as well as international institutions.

In June 2010, the Iranian state railroad company sent a letter to Tashkent, threatening to halt the transit of all Uzbek rail freight across Iran unless Tashkent allows unrestricted passage of Tajikistan-bound trains through its territory. If enforced, this measure would inflict considerable economic losses on Tashkent. In its cotton exports, Uzbekistan to a large extent depends on Iran’s railway network and sea ports. Around 150 Uzbek freight cars loaded with cotton fiber reportedly pass through Iran daily en route to sea ports in the Persian Gulf. In addition, Tehran informed Turkmenistan that it might halt the transit of Turkmen trains bound for Uzbekistan via its territory. Speaking to journalists, Iranian railroad official Behruz Balandi explained, “In general, we have no problems with Uzbek railways. This is just an attempt to brotherly support Tajikistan”.

Following the warning from Tehran, Tashkent assured Iranian railway officials that the problem with Tajik freight cars would be resolved in the near future, asking not to halt the transit of Uzbek rail cargo via Iran. According to analysts, the visit of Hamid Behbahani, Iran’s Minister of Road and Transportation, to Tashkent in July and his meetings with Uzbekistan’s First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov also aimed at resolving the Tajik-Uzbek rail dispute.

Whether Iran’s interference will resolve the dispute over Tajik freight transit via Uzbekistan or not, its decisive support for Dushanbe vis-à-vis Tashkent in the dispute demonstrates the importance Tehran attaches to its relations with Tajikistan. Tehran has much to lose economically from strained relations with Tashkent. Bilateral trade between Iran and Uzbekistan is expected to reach roughly US$ 1 billion this year as compared to Iran’s trade with Tajikistan, which reached US$ 250 million in 2009. However, according to Rashid Abdullo, Tehran’s unconditional support for Dushanbe in this difficult period for the country will have a long-term political effect, securing a stronger influence for Iran in Tajikistan. For Tehran, this might be more important than short-term economic gains offered by trade with Uzbekistan.

(By Alexander Sodiqov, 07/21/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

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6 Comments

Filed under Tajik-Iranian relations, Tajik-Uzbek relations, Tajikistan

6 responses to “Iran Interferes In Tajik-Uzbek Rail Dispute

  1. Tojiddin - Manchester

    This is an interesting development. But I think that Tajikistan should not aim at becoming a close ally of Iran. Instead, Tajikistan should focus on improving relations with the West (US and Europe). Iran can give us nothing. The West can give us investments and technology.

    Russia is our past.

    • guest

      I think Tajikistan should aim at becoming a close ally of Iran. The commonalities between the two in culture, language, history, etc., should be reason enough for Tajikistan to strengthen their ties… And yet, as a recent article on RadioOzodi suggested, Tajik authorities in the field of education have been making the poorest decisions, as usuall of them, vis-a-vis Iran.

  2. Alexander Sodiqov

    Thanks for your comment, Tojiddin. I think Tajikistan should be balanced in its foreign policy and cooperate closely both with the West and our eastern neighbours, including Iran. I would not agree that Iran has nothing to offer to Tajikistan. Look, for example, at the Sangtuda-2 hydropower station they are building on the Vakhsh. This is already a very important investment in the country.

  3. Uzbekistan to Cut Tajikistan-Bound Gas

    EurasiaNet, March 26, 2012

    Relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are about to grow a little colder.

    Tashkent has said that from April 1 it will cut all natural gas supply to Tajikistan, again. This time, the story is that Uzbekistan needs to reroute the gas to fulfill its obligations to China.

    But under an agreement signed in January, Tashkent would send Dushanbe 200 million cubic meters of natural gas annually. To put this in perspective, Uzbekistan produces 200 million cubic meters of natural gas a day. So, Tajik authorities are suspicious that the threat is not so much about gas shortages as politics.

    Tashkent has a record of withholding gas from Dushanbe. For example, on January 4, Uzbekistan cut all gas to Tajikistan. After a brief visit from the Tajik vice prime minister, the gas was turned back on.

    Local news agencies in Dushanbe have speculated that Tashkent is attempting to punish its upstream neighbor. The two countries have long been at odds over hydropower projects in Tajikistan.

    In November, an explosion at a bridge on the Galaba-Amuzang railroad, which routes supplies into southern Tajikistan, left the line inoperable. A few days later, the Uzbek government claimed the explosion was an act of terrorism and vowed it would repair the bridge. But the railroad remains closed. As of February, an official with Tajikistan’s state railroad company said that 298 wagons of material bound for southern Tajikistan have been marooned in Uzbekistan and that three and a half million residents of southern Tajikistan are living under an economic blockade.

    A EurasiaNet correspondent visiting the area in December found local officials discounting the terrorist theory.

    Uzbek authorities say that bad weather and freezing temperatures have prevented them from being able to fix the bridge—but speculation abounds that the disruption is economic arm-wrestling, as Uzbekistan attempts to isolate its upstream neighbor.

  4. Uzbeks Opt Out Of SCO Exercises Again

    RFE/RL, March 13, 2012

    DUSHANBE — Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry says neighboring Uzbekistan will not send troops to participate in planned regional military exercises this summer held under the banner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

    Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are SCO members alongside Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

    Uzbekistan has opted out of participating in other SCO exercises in the past.

    But relations between the governments of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — which will host the the SCO’s “Peace Mission-2012″ exercises in June — have been tense for some time.

    Hydrocarbon-rich Uzbekistan and mountainous and relatively poor Tajikistan frequently tussle over electricity.

    Faridun Makhmadaliev, a press secretary for the Tajik Defense Ministry, told RFE/RL’s Tajik Service that Uzbekistan’s absence from the counterterrorism drills at the Choruqdagon military training grounds in northern Tajikistan was confirmed during a meeting of SCO military officials last week.

  5. Tajikistan seeks Turkmen gas as shortage looms

    Reuters, March 28, 2012

    Tajikistan aims to secure natural gas supplies from Turkmenistan to avert a worsening fuel shortage as its traditional supplier prepares to stop pumping from next week, a high-ranking Tajik government representative told Reuters on Wednesday.

    Uzbekistan, the sole supplier of natural gas to its Central Asian neighbour, had informed the Tajik government it would halt supplies from April 1 in order to meet growing demand from its main partner, China, the government representative said.

    Speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardising current talks, he cited a letter from state company Uztransgaz to its equivalent gas transportation company in Tajikistan.

    Mountainous Tajikistan, the poorest of 15 former Soviet republics, experiences frequent power blackouts. Only southern regions of the country and upmarket homes in the centre of the capital Dushanbe receive regular supplies of gas.

    The biggest losers from any abrupt cut in gas supplies would be the state-run aluminium smelter, which contributes more than half of the country’s entire export revenues, and a state-owned cement factory.

    Relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have long been strained over the former’s plans to build a huge hydroelectric power station that Uzbekistan says would disrupt water supplies downstream and harm its agricultural production.

    “The stoppage of Uzbek gas supplies is a politically motivated step,” said Dushanbe-based political analyst Ramzan Sharipov.

    “If Dushanbe cannot agree with Tashkent on supplies of Uzbek gas or transit of Turkmen gas, among the first to suffer will be Tajik Cement, whose products are used to construct the Rogun hydroelectric plant; the cornerstone in Tajik-Uzbek relations.”

    With an acute shortage looming, the Tajik government representative said Turkmenistan was prepared to export the necessary volumes of gas at an “acceptable” price.

    “But we don’t have a common border with Turkmenistan, so we need once again to ask Uzbekistan. Now we are asking only to use the gas pipeline that crosses its territory.”

    TRANSIT QUESTION

    Uzbekistan’s current gas contract with Tajikistan, signed in January after a two-day interruption to supplies, expires at the end of the first quarter.

    The contracted volume for the three months to March 31 was 45 million cubic metres, state company Uzbekneftegaz said in a statement posted on its website, http://www.ung.uz, on March 25.

    The Tajik representative said his government was willing to continue taking Uzbek gas when available and that it had already proposed a new supply contract to cover the second quarter.

    “We buy 15 to 20 million cubic metres of gas every month, which is no more than 10 percent of daily gas production volumes in Uzbekistan,” he said. “Our people have long been deprived the pleasure of contemplating warm gas heaters in their homes.”

    An Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman said by telephone from Tashkent that gas supply talks had “no relation to politics.”

    Turkmenistan holds 4.3 percent of global natural gas reserves, BP data shows, ranking it joint fourth with Saudi Arabia in terms of reserves, behind only Russia, Iran and Qatar.

    A source in the Turkmen government said he could not comment on Tajik supplies before negotiations were concluded. But he said: “Turkmenistan is prepared to supply the required volumes of its gas to any customer at the border.”

    He added: “Transit is the customer’s responsibility.”

    Tajikistan itself produces no more than 1.5 million cubic metres of gas every month. Toronto-listed Tethys Petroleum and Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom are drilling in the country.

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