Tajikistan hopes to receive financial dividends from Iran, Tehran is counting on diplomatic support from Dushanbe, experts say.
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“Welcome to your second homeland”, President Emomali Rahmon told his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani. In response, the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran said that in fact he feels at home in Dushanbe.Abdujabbor Rahmonzoda, Assistant to the President of Tajikistan on social development and public relations spoke on this issue in an interview with Radio Ozodi. “Tajikistan advocates economic and cultural cooperation with Iran. All issues of relations development between our countries will be discussed at the meeting of the leaders of the two states”, Rahmonzoda emphasized. In early June, Sirojiddin Muhriddin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan, officially visited Tehran where he met with President Rouhani.
As Iranian media reported, the Iranian President and the Tajik Minister discussed the issue of Tajikistan’s entry to the free port of Chabahar in southern Iran.
“Iran can become the safest and most profitable transit corridor for Tajikistan’s goods”, as local news agencies quoted Rouhani.
The Contradictive History of Relations Between Dushanbe and Tehran
In the past, Iran was a close partner of Tajikistan. This country was the first to recognize the independence of the Republic of Tajikistan in 1991 and established diplomatic relations. During the civil war in Tajikistan, Tehran was a city where one of the rounds of inter-Tajik peace talks took place.
By Iran’s aid, two large and significant projects were implemented in Tajikistan: the construction of the Istiqlol tunnel and the Sangtuda-2 hydropower station. In addition, since the beginning of the civil war, the Assistance Committee “Imdod” named after Imam Khomeini has provided humanitarian assistance to the people of Tajikistan.
Both states also cooperated closely on the international stage. Tajik-Iranian relations reached the peak under the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps, the highest peak of cooperation was the joint celebration of Navruz in Dushanbe in 2012.
However, with the new president Hassan Rouhani rising to power in 2013 in Iran, the situation began to change.
In fact, relations between Dushanbe and Tehran became aggravated in early 2014 due to the case of Iranian businessman Bobak Zanjoni, who was related to the former President Ahmadinejad’s team, according to media reports.
The US accused Zanjoni of selling Iranian oil, bypassing US sanctions.
In 2013, the Tajik media called Zanjoni a friend of Tajik officials. The President Emomali Rahmon himself and the speaker of the Majlisi Milli Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloyev attended the opening ceremony of the “Asia Express” company’s terminal, owned then by Zanjoni. Spring 2013, the Tajik parliament provided a number of tax benefits to the Kontgroup Tajikistan Company, which was owned by Zanjoni.
The new president, Hassan Rouhani, began to revise the economic policy of his predecessor. In Iran, Bobak Zanjoni was accused of stealing 2.54 billion euros, which he was obliged to return after the oil sale. In response, Zanjoni announced that he had transferred 2.6 billion USD from the Iranian oil sale from Dushanbe to Tehran.
According to him, he made a transfer through the National Bank of Dushanbe and he even has a corresponding document. The National Bank of the Republic of Tajikistan refuted Zanjoni’s words, and the mentioned document was announced false.
Several rounds of talks between Iran and Tajikistan over the missing funds did not have effect. Iranian officials said that Zanjoni’s property and companies in Tajikistan are appropriated by officials. In Dushanbe, this information was refuted.
Since the beginning of 2014 relations began to deteriorate rapidly. During the year, the Assistance Committee “Imdod” named after Khomeini and several Iranian cultural centers were closed. The head of the Council of Ulemas of Tajikistan, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, has repeatedly criticized the Twelvers (majority of Iranians adhere to this Islam branch).
The visit of Muhiddin Kabiri, the leader of the banned Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan, to Tehran in December 2015 became a catalyst for the breach. Following that, the Tajik government launched a propaganda campaign against Iran, accusing it of supporting terrorism.
At the same time, it would be wrong to reduce all the relationship problems to financial issues. Ideology had no less importance. Dushanbe always emphasized the “secularism” of regime and tried to keep distance from the Islamic Republic authorities.
External forces, including the Saudi authorities played a certain role in these events. However, the importance of this factor should not be exaggerated.
Most likely, the cause of the Tajik-Iranian relations crisis was a complex of many factors that coincided at some point.
Finance, Elections, Transit of Goods, Cooperation in Diplomacy and Banking
The motives for the new rapprochement can be understood in the light of the intensified problems of the two countries. For Tajikistan, the main problem is the lack of finance. For example, there is a big problem of financing the national project of the Rogun HPP. For Iran, in the setting of the conflict with the West, especially with the United States, it is extremely important to receive international support.
In particular, according to some experts, Tehran is seeking support from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Tajikistan is a member, while Iran is an observer.
At the same time, it was Tajikistan that opposed joining the SCO. As Tajik political scientist Rashid Abdullo told CABAR.asia, the key countries of this organization, Russia and China, do not welcome the contradictions between the SCO members and “therefore, improving relations between Iran and Tajikistan is their interest”.
However, at the SCO meeting on June 14 in Bishkek, the issue of Iran’s entry to this organization was not even considered. Also, during the visit of President Rouhani to Dushanbe, no certain agreements were reached between the two countries.
In this regard, some experts express the opinion that the renewal of relations between the two countries is only on the initial stage and for the parties it is most important to achieve mutual trust now.
“The main issue is the restoration of trust between the authorities of the two countries. If this most important condition is achieved, then we will witness good outcomes of cooperation in the near future”, Tajik expert Irshod Sulaymoni told CABAR.asia.
Tajikistan, according to experts, is counting on Iranian investments and on Iranian goods, which are necessary to saturate the local market.
Dushanbe also plans to gain access to Iranian ports for the cotton and aluminum export. It is possible that the Tajik authorities also hope that Tehran will help solving problems with the transit of goods to the country through Turkmenistan.
Iran might expect that cooperation with Dushanbe in the banking sector will help them overcome the barriers established by the US sanctions.
At the same time, according to experts, for the Tajik authorities the most important issue is the presidential election, which is scheduled for the end of 2020. In this regard, Iran’s position during the power transit is of great importance for Dushanbe.
It should be noted that, according to the Akhbor website, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan first included a point stating that Iran would stop supporting the IRPT in a joint declaration with Iranian colleagues, and then removed it from the document.
Irshod Sulaymoni believes that the short-term interests of some power groups should not prevail over the long-term interests of the country.
“The powers competition at the global and regional levels and the current geopolitical environment shows that Iran in the long term will become one of the main sources of changes. Therefore, the most of these statements confirm the necessity for Tajikistan to stay with Iran, and for Iran to stay with Tajikistan”, said Sulaymoni.
Expert: This Is Only About the Normalization of Relations!
The well-known Tajik political scientist Parviz Mullojanov believes that now we can only speak “about the normalization of Tajik-Iranian relations, about their return to the pre-crisis state”. He stated this answering CABAR.asia questions.
CABAR.asia. During many years, Iran has maintained close relations with Tajikistan. Why a breach happened in 2014? Was it due to Zanjoni case, the new “pro-Western course” of President Rouhani, ideological contradictions, Saudi Arabia’s influence? Or was there a complex of reasons?
Indeed, Iran and Tajikistan quite for a long time maintained fairly good and close relations; Iranians actively supported Tajikistan several times during economic disputes and disagreements with their neighbors, primarily Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In turn, Dushanbe supported Tehran’s interests on the post-Soviet stage, especially within the framework of various integration associations of the CIS countries, such as the Eurasian Economic Community. Once, Iranian investments and private business entered the country, but due to the unfavorable investment climate, this direction was not significantly developed. Zanjoni was only one of the largest investors, but apart from him, Iranian medium and small business also showed interest in Tajikistan.
Relationships seriously deteriorated after the Zanjoni case, but this was just one of the factors. In my opinion, everything is much more complicated: the main reason for the deterioration of Tajik-Iranian relations is the influence of Saudi Arabia and the international Salafi lobby, the propaganda and organizational network, which is also partly sponsored by the Saudis and IS associated structures and other jihadist organizations. To some extent, Tajikistan has become a hostage of the confrontation between the two main geopolitical centers of the Islamic world – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both of these countries historically claim the leadership in the Islamic world and fight for influence in Muslim regions, including Central Asia.
In this scenario, Tajikistan and Tajiks, due to their linguistic, cultural, and historical affinity to Iran and Iranians, are considered a weak spot for the Saudis and Salafis. Therefore, the most intensive propaganda and organizational campaign is aimed at Tajiks, the purpose of which is to salafize society, change the identity and self-awareness of the Tajik people, fueling anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite climate in the country. Thus, the sources of the anti-Iranian campaign in Tajikistan are mainly external players, namely, the Saudis and the international Salafi lobby.
CABAR.asia. What are the motives for the sudden rapprochement of the two countries? Should the latest signals be considered as important? What can Iran propose to Tajikistan now and vice versa?
It is possible that Dushanbe began to realize that now is the time to balance foreign policy. The one-way direction towards Saudi Arabia violates the very principle of the multi-vector foreign policy, which was proclaimed in the country in the early 2000s.
At the same time, most independent experts point out the influence of Russia and its allies from other post-Soviet countries. Today, in the Near and Middle East, two informal (unofficial) geopolitical blocs have formed – on the one hand, there are the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the other hand, Iran, position of which is to some extent supported by Russia and China, as well as Qatar. The European Union is also critical of Trump, his policy toward Iran and rapprochement with the Saudis. Under these conditions, Tajikistan’s allies and partners in the CIS and the SCO perceive the anti-Iranian campaign, held in Tajikistan, at least with bewilderment.
Moreover, Russia and China are making a strategic stake on the further SCO expansion through the accession of other countries, including Iran. Accordingly, the anti-Iranian position of Dushanbe and the attempt to block Iran’s membership and participation in this organization is not quite right today and contradicts the general SCO strategy.
In addition, Dushanbe could not convincingly justify the need for its anti-Iranian policy to Russia and other SCO partners. For example, there was much talk that Iran started the civil war in Tajikistan in the early 90s. Of course, such statement is quite suitable for internal propaganda; moreover, at that time Iran was indeed one of the main geopolitical players influencing the internal political situation in Tajikistan.
However, Russia was directly tied up in the Tajik civil war and knows the situation well. That is, all Russian experts and politicians know very well students of which countries were behind the organization of Hizb ut-Tahrir in the 80s, which country’s citizens were carrying suitcases with cash to Tajik mosques during the years before the war, which country and whose funds financed the first Wahhabi cells in Central Asia. Accordingly, instead of convincing our allies and partners in the SCO and the CIS, we only alarmed them and spread doubts about the adequacy and impartiality of our foreign policy.
As for mutual benefit, Tajikistan’s support within the SCO and the CIS, in relations with other post-Soviet countries would be useful for Iran; in perspective, Tajikistan needs Iranian private business and companies. For Tajikistan, this is the prospect of receiving investments for the development of its economy. Iran ranks fifth in the world in oil reserves and second in gas reserves, which can also be used to reduce the cost of fuel in Tajikistan. In Iran, the agricultural industry, the production of small factories, building materials are well developed – everything that our small business needs today.
Of course, all this will require a different level of relations and cooperation, as well as changes of the investment climate within the country. Under today’s conditions, in the absence of an effective investment protection system, foreign investors are unlikely to work in Tajikistan.
CABAR.asia. Are the parties ready to cooperate? Can Tajikistan expect, for example, that Iran will support the Rogun project with investments? Will Iran be able to help solving transportation problems with Turkmenistan?
To date, we can still talk about the normalization of the Tajik-Iranian relations, about their return to the pre-crisis state. It is possible that the parties have already discussed or even agreed on the implementation of several large energy projects. However, it is still too early to talk about Iran’s investments in the Rogun hydropower plant.
Another thing is that Iran can really help Tajikistan in solving transportation problems with its neighbors. Such a precedent has already taken place under President Ahmadinejad when Iran helped Tajikistan to alleviate the situation with the transport blockade from Uzbekistan.
CABAR.asia. Earlier, Tajikistan prevented Iran from entering the SCO. Does Iran need this organization?
The main Iran’s goal today is to get out of geopolitical isolation and economic blockade. In its confrontation with the United States, the Iranian leadership most of all fears isolation from its neighbors and other global players. Therefore, Iran seeks to expand its participation and partnership in various geopolitical associations, international economic structures and blocks.
Rapprochement with the SCO, the countries belonging to this organization, is one of the important directions of the Iranian foreign policy. In the future, Iran will be able to bypass economic sanctions and embargoes, using the opportunities and benefits that the participants and members of this organization receive. In any case, Iran clearly hopes for this.
CABAR.asia. How will Riyadh and Washington react to the possible rapprochement of Tajikistan and Iran? Will they reduce the cooperation with Tajikistan or not give it much importance?
Clearly, Washington and Riyadh are not very pleased with Iran’s rapprochement with the SCO countries, but a decrease in the volume of cooperation is unlikely. As mentioned above, today we are talking only about the normalization of Tajik-Iranian relations.
In other words, Tajikistan is returning to a multi-vector foreign policy, when it was possible to cooperate and receive assistance both from the United States and from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such a multi-vector foreign policy interests Dushanbe more, regardless of the relations between these states, Tajikistan is ready to maintain working relations with each of them, not taking sides, and putting its national and economic interests at the forefront. This position is quite understandable for all geopolitical players and we have never had any problems in pursuing such a balanced foreign policy.
Therefore, we should hardly expect any specific steps or reactions from these countries. Everyone understands that pressure can cause reverse effect. However, most likely, we can expect further intensification of Salafi propaganda sponsored by Saudi Arabia and aimed at inciting anti-Iranian climate in Tajikistan and the region.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.