On June 9, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Tajikistan, becoming the only head of state attending a high-level international conference on water in Dushanbe. President Ahmadinejad’s personal appearance at the conference is the latest in a series of developments that indicate rapidly improving ties between Tehran and Dushanbe.
In January this year, the Iranian leader visited Tajikistan as part of his tour of Central Asia, calling for closer economic and defense ties between Iran and Tajikistan. In March, Tajik president Emomali Rakhmon attended celebrations of Nowruz, “the Persian New Year”, in Iran in a move aimed at highlighting cultural and linguistic ties between the two countries. In May, Dushanbe and Tehran signed a number of major agreements, including a new defense treaty, a memorandum of understanding on linking Tajikistan’s railway network to that of Iran via Afghanistan, and an agreement on simplifying the visa regime between the two countries.
According to Tajik political analyst Holmamad Samiev, the improving ties between Dushanbe and Tehran are a result of Iran’s pragmatic and predictable foreign policy toward Tajikistan. Following Tajikistan’s independence, Tehran began securing its influence in Tajikistan, the only Persian-speaking country in the predominantly Turkic-speaking Central Asian region. During the Tajik civil war, Iran provided strong ideological support to the Tajik Islamic opposition, building close contacts with the opposition leaders. These contacts later enabled Tehran to play a major role in Tajikistan’s peace process but they also became a temporary obstacle to closer relations with the secular government in Dushanbe.
After the end of the civil war in Tajikistan, Iran abandoned its support of Islamic movements in the country, opting for closer relations with the government of president Rakhmon. In its new policy toward Tajikistan, Tehran has put a strong emphasis on civilizational and linguistic affinities between the two nations, with president Ahmadinejad famously calling Iran and Tajikistan “one spirit in two bodies”. Tehran’s major disadvantage in Tajikistan has been its financial limitations. Bilateral trade between Dushanbe and Tehran in 2000 stood at only US$ 40 million, prompting president Rakhmon to announce that despite close cultural and linguistic ties, “the volume of economic cooperation between the two countries is zero”.
Cognizant of the rising importance of economics in securing influence in Central Asia, Iran in 2003 offered Tajikistan US $31 million in loans and grants to build the five-kilometer Istiklol tunnel, connecting Dushanbe with northern Tajikistan through a road bypassing Uzbekistan. In 2004, Tehran offered Dushanbe investments and technical expertise to build the Sangtuda hydroelectric power station on the river Vakhsh. Although Sangtuda was eventually completed by a Russian company, Iran has contributed more than US$ 180 million towards the construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydropower station which will be commissioned next year. These large-scale infrastructure projects and a number of smaller joint ventures have resulted in a steady increase in bilateral trade. Trade between Dushanbe and Tehran reached US$ 250 million in 2009, making Iran Tajikistan’s third largest trade partner after Russia and China according to the Tajik Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.
In addition to seeking to attract investments from Iranian banks and companies, landlocked Tajikistan is increasingly willing to gain access to Iran’s rail and sea outlets. Dushanbe and Tehran have recently agreed to carry out a feasibility study for a project to connect Tajikistan’s railway network to that of Iran via Afghanistan, thus bypassing Uzbekistan. If completed, this project will provide Tajikistan with railway access to Iranian sea ports, helping the country achieve a long desired objective of securing convenient westward transportation routes.
So far, Iran has managed to steadily assert its influence in Tajikistan without alienating Russia, Dushanbe’s major partner in the region. The further prospects of relations between Iran and Tajikistan will to a large extent depend on how successfully Tehran will manage to boost ties with Dushanbe in the context of what still remains a “strategic partnership” between Russia and Tajikistan.
By Alexander Sodiqov (06/09/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)