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Tajik-Iranian Relations Under the New Conditions

«Despite its sovereign status, Tajikistan is quite limited in choosing some of the most key aspects of its foreign policy, including with regard to its relations with Iran»? – mentioned political analyst Parviz Mullodzhanov, in an article written specifically for CABAR.asia.

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Iranian-Tajik relations are of particular importance not only for these two countries, since in the long run they can also influence the development of the situation in the region as a whole. Iran has always been interested in consolidating its position in post-Soviet Central Asia, considering this region as one of the main directions for breaking the geopolitical and economic blockade in which it found itself due to many years of confrontation with the West. From this point of view, Tajikistan, due to its linguistic and cultural proximity to Iran, is traditionally one of the key vectors of Iranian diplomacy in the region.

Relations with Iran are also of particular importance for Tajikistan – and not only from its economic and geopolitical interests. The fact is that Tajiks and Persians are part of the so-called “Iranian world” – a single civilizational, historical and linguistic space that have connected both nations for many centuries. Despite the fact that this concept has a rather civilizational and humanitarian character, it also has a certain effect on geopolitics. In communicating with each other, the governments and politicians of both states, despite ideological differences, are somehow forced to take this factor into account.

Meanwhile, despite the historical and cultural proximity, the presence of economic and geopolitical interests, relations between the two countries have always been complex and ambiguous. Periods of thawing and cooperation several times unexpectedly gave way to stages of misunderstanding, mutual complaints and cooldown in cooperation. As a result, Iranian-Tajik relations are still in a somewhat suspended and uncertain state – on the one hand, last year the parties took some steps towards each other, however, at the same time, there is still a fair amount of distrust and alienation between them.

In which direction, cooling or thawing – will the pendulum of Iranian-Tajik relations swing in the next few years? How will these relations take shape in the light of recent events in the world and the region – the possible Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan, the aggravation of the Iranian-American conflict, a new phenomenon – the coronavirus pandemic? And how will the dynamics of these relations affect Iran’s policies and positions in the post-Soviet space and in Central Asia, including neighboring Afghanistan? In order to answer these questions, we will briefly consider the dynamics of the development of Iranian-Tajik relations, the interests and positions of the parties, the driving forces and factors that influence or may affect their further development.

The dynamics of Iranian-Tajik relations

In general, the history of the relationship between the post-Soviet Tajik political elite and the Iranian ruling regime can be arbitrarily presented as three successive stages:

The first stage, which can be described as a period of geopolitical confrontation, falls on the first years of the civil war in Tajikistan. Iran initially provided significant political and, according to some, financial support for the United Tajik Opposition (UTO) after its military defeat and further expulsion from the country in 1992. During the civil war, a significant part of Tajik opposition leaders was based in Iran, due to which the Iranians could have a significant influence on the course of events in the inter-Tajik conflict. Accordingly, during this period, relations between the current Tajik government and Iran were openly hostile. 

The second stage , in the course of which there was a thawing of relations and the establishment of cooperation between countries, began simultaneously with the inter-Tajik peace process. The emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan has forced all major geopolitical players in the region to seek opportunities for an early end to the Tajik conflict. Iran has acted as one of the guarantor states of the peace process. Together with Russia and the Afghan Northern Alliance, the Iranians put significant pressure on both sides of the inter-Tajik conflict, which allowed for an early conclusion of peace.

One of the rounds of the inter-Tajik negotiations was held in Tehran. Photo: ozodi.org

After the conclusion of the peace treaty in 1997, relations between Dushanbe and Tehran entered a period of stable development and thawing, which lasted almost for 13 years. During this period, Iran has become one of the main economic partners and investors of Tajikistan. In this vein, by 2013, trade between the two countries amounted to 292.3 million US dollars; Iran accounted for 9.9% of Tajikistan’s exports and 4.3% of the country’s imports.[1] Iran has invested quite serious funds in Tajikistan’s hydropower and infrastructure projects, the parties have also negotiated a number of joint projects in the field of communications and television broadcast. The Iranians have actively supported Tajikistan several times during its economic disputes and disagreements with its neighbors – primarily with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In turn, Dushanbe supported the interests of Tehran in the post-Soviet space, especially within the framework of various integration associations of the CIS countries, such as the EurAsEC.

The third period , during which there was a sharp cooling of bilateral relations, originates in 2013. The first blow to Iranian-Tajik relations was the case of the famous Iranian billionaire Bobak Zanjoni, who in Iran was accused of money laundering through some Chinese and Tajik banks. It was a sum of two billion dollars, which the disgraced businessman allegedly handed over to his Tajik partners. However, in response to a request from the Iranian side, the Tajik government replied that “the Iranian side has not submitted a single specific document on the capital of its billionaire Zanjoni in the banks of Tajikistan.”[2] The disagreement over the lost billions lasted for several years, significantly undermining relations between the two countries.

The next blow was the adoption of Tajik opposition at the official level in Iran – first of all, Mukhitdin Kabiri, chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT, banned organisation in Tajikistan). In September 2015, Tajik authorities accused the IRPT of preparing a coup d’etat and banned its activities in the country from afar. The appearance of Kabiri at one of the official events in Tehran served as another impetus for a cardinal deterioration in relations between the two states. 

Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with chairman of the Islamic Renaissance Party banned in Tajikistan, Muhiddin Kabiri in 2015. Photo: Fars

After that, a long and consistent propaganda and ideological company began in Tajikistan, within the framework of which Iran was accused of inciting a civil war in the 1990s, organizing war crimes during this period, preparing Islamic terrorists, and so on.[3] All cooperation programs with Iran were curtailed, and investment projects and plans of past years remained unfulfilled.

Researchers still have not come to a consensus on the true causes of the cooling down in Iranian-Tajik relations. A significant part of them points to the Zanjoni case, believing that the latter affected the interests of influential business structures in the banking sector of the republic.

The origins of the anti-Iranian company in Tajikistan largely come from external players, namely, the Saudis and the international Salafi lobby.

Others point to the influence of Saudi Arabia and a number of Gulf countries with which Iran is in permanent conflict. Proponents of the latter point of view believe that Tajikistan has become a hostage to the confrontation between the two main geopolitical centers of the Islamic world – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both of these countries historically claim to be a leader in the Islamic world and fight for influence in Muslim regions, including Central Asia. In this scenario, Tajikistan and Tajiks, because of their linguistic, cultural and historical proximity to Iran and Iranians, are considered by the Saudis and Salafis as a weak link. Therefore, it is in relation to the Tajiks that the most intensified propaganda and organizational company is being conducted, the purpose of which is to salafize the society, change the identity and self-consciousness of the Tajik people, forcing anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite sentiments in the country. Thus, according to this point of view, the origins of the anti-Iranian company in Tajikistan are largely external players, namely, the Saudis and the international Salafi lobby.

The unexpected thawing of Iranian-Tajik relations: what stands behind it? 

In June 2019, an unexpected warming again appeared in relations between the countries, mainly due to the changed position of Dushanbe. Thus, on June 1, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Mukhriddin met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Tehran.[4] According to observers, this was the first diplomatic meeting in recent years, held in friendly colors, which may be a sign of a new rapprochement of countries in the face of financial and political problems. On the other hand, no real actions followed this meeting, which casts doubt on the seriousness of the parties’ intentions to really improve bilateral relations.

Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Mukhriddin during a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan

According to experts, such a rather hesitant step towards each other can be explained by the following reasons:

First, as a possible reason, pressure on Dushanbe from Russia and its allies from among other post-Soviet countries is indicated. Today, in the Near / Middle East, two de facto informal (unofficial) geopolitical blocs have been formed – on the one hand, these are the USA, Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the other hand, Iran, whose position is supported to some extent by Russia and China, as well as Qatar. In these conditions, the anti-Iranian company, held in Tajikistan, is perceived by its allies and partners in the CIS and SCO with at least bewilderment. Moreover, Russia and China place a strategic stake on the further expansion of the SCO through the accession of other countries, including, possibly, Iran. Accordingly, Dushanbe’s attempts to block Iran’s membership and participation in this organization, coupled with anti-Iranian rhetoric, is today out of place and runs counter to the SCO’s general strategy.

The President of Tajikistan meets Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June 2019 during the CICA international forum in Dushanbe. Photo: president.tj

Secondly, it is quite possible that in Dushanbe began to understand that now is the time to balance foreign policy. A unilateral tilt towards Saudi Arabia violates the principle of multi-vector nature of foreign policy, which was proclaimed in the country in the early 2000s. Improving relations can bring both countries geopolitical and economic dividends. In this vein, it would be useful for Iran to receive support from Tajikistan in the framework of the SCO and the CIS, in relations with other countries in the post-Soviet space. In the long run, Iranian private business and companies can be in a good position. For Tajikistan, this is the prospect of obtaining investment for the development of its economy. Iran occupying 5th place in the world in oil reserves and second in gas reserves, which can also be used to reduce the cost of fuel in Tajikistan. Moreover, the agricultural industry is well developed in Iran, the production of small workshops, building materials – everything  that is necessary for Tajik small business. 

What factors will affect the Iranian-Tajik relations in the coming years?

The future of Tajik-Iranian relations will largely depend on the following main factors, which will have a decisive influence on the development of the situation in the region:

Firstly, the recent parliamentary elections in Iran, where conservatives who are supporters of a tough and expansionist foreign policy, won. It is already clear that conservatives will have an overwhelming majority in the Iranian parliament. In the same way, the future Iranian government will be formed from among the proteges of the most conservative and radical circles. Accordingly, the new government will abandon many agreements concluded by its predecessor reformers – first of all, it will finally withdraw from the nuclear deal. In addition, the new government will clearly strengthen anti-Western rhetoric and increase its activity abroad – including in neighboring regions. This means a further deterioration in relations with the West, which will also affect the further development of Iran’s relations with Tajikistan, as well as with other post-Soviet countries.

Further deterioration in relations with the West will affect the development of Iran’s relations with Tajikistan, as well as with other post-Soviet countries.

Secondly, much will depend on the results of the upcoming US presidential election. If, as a result of the election, Trump remains in the presidential chair, then the USA will continue its current policy in the region aimed at exerting pressure on Iran, tightening sanctions, drawing closer to Saudi Arabia, the complete withdrawal of American units from Afghanistan, and so on. If the representative of the Democratic Party comes to power, then many of Trump’s foreign policy initiatives will be reviewed – some of them at a cardinal level. In general, a nuclear deal with Iran was reached during the Obama presidency and is regarded by Democrats as one of the main achievements of his administration. Accordingly, under the President Democrat, the likelihood of stabilization and a reduction of tension in Iranian-American relations will increase significantly. In these conditions, it will be easier for Dushanbe and Tehran to reach consensus on many issues – the relatively calm situation in the region alone will contribute to a more calm flow of the Iranian-Tajik dialogue.

Thirdly, the coronavirus epidemic that has swept Iran and threatens Tajikistan is a new influential factor. The consequences of the coronavirus epidemic are already being felt at the global level – for the Iranian resource-based economy, which is already weakened by sanctions, the blow is especially painful. Equally painful, if not more, is the impact of the pandemic on the Tajik economy. In the long run, the pandemic will have a decisive influence on the entire system of international relations – including Iran’s relations with its neighbors and partners, including Tajikistan.

Fourthly, another factor, with equally difficult to predict consequences, was the recent domestic political crisis in Afghanistan. Trump administration policy, aimed at concluding a one-sided deal with the Taliban, destroys the system of balances and checks between various ethnic groups and political elites in Afghanistan, which has developed in this country over the past two decades. As a result, the country was de facto divided into three parts, and the warring Afghan groups, and political factions are intensely preparing for a new round of armed confrontation with each other.

For Tajikistan, as well as for other Central Asian republics, a new round of confrontation in Afghanistan is a matter of paramount importance – however, the major levers of influence on the situation in this country are in the hands of large geopolitical players. According to unofficial data, the Russians, Iranians and Chinese are conducting intensive private consultations today with all parties to the Afghan conflict, trying to determine for themselves the best tactics and strategy in the new political situation. The position of Tajikistan, which will be largely shaped by senior geopolitical partners in the CSTO, will depend on the outcome of these informal negotiations.

Key Findings – Future Prospects

Despite its sovereign status, Tajikistan is quite limited in choosing some of the most key aspects of its foreign policy, including with regard to its relations with Iran.

As a result, Tajikistan is de facto forced to constantly adjust its foreign policy and initiatives with the main geopolitical players in the region – with the USA and the West on the one hand and with Russia and China on the other. Thus, the Tajik leadership traditionally refers to Iran and the ayatollah regime with a fair amount of mistrust and suspicion. In addition, for Tajikistan it is not beneficial to spoil relations with the West and the United States because of Iran, due to its dependence on Western donors and economic assistance from international financial institutions.

Tajikistan must take into account the position of Russia.
However, on the other hand, Tajikistan should also take into account the position of Russia as the main partner in the Collective Security Treaty Organization and a key geopolitical player in the field of security in the post-Soviet space. Russia has in its hands enough leverage to exert pressure on the Tajik leadership – which it has repeatedly used. Similarly, and even more so, Tajikistan depends on China, which is its main creditor and sponsor of the Tajik economy, which is in a permanent crisis. Both Russia and China adhere to an unequivocally pro-Iranian position, supporting Iran in every possible way in its confrontation with the United States – to the extent possible in the face of growing international isolation of the Iranian regime. Accordingly, both Russia and China expect the same from their junior partners in the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the SCO – including Tajikistan.

Out of this we can draw the following main conclusions:

First, most likely, in the current situation, Tajikistan will continue to distance itself from both Iran and the US-Iran conflict – as much as possible. At the same time, a drastic shift towards a significant improvement or deterioration in relations between the two countries can hardly be expected. The most likely scenario is to maintain the status quo, that is, relatively restrained, but without much negative, relationships. 

Secondly, a certain cooperation between the parties can be improved in relation to the situation in neighboring Afghanistan, the positions on which Dushanbe and Tehran traditionally coincide on a number of issues. In this regard, the factor of rapprochement may serve as military and political destabilization in Afghanistan and the prospect of a partial or complete coming to power of the Taliban. It is possible that in these new conditions, Dushanbe will be on one side of the barricades with Tehran – of course, depending on the position of its senior geopolitical partners in the CSTO and the SCO.

As for the prospects for economic cooperation between Iran and Tajikistan, much will depend on the extent of the damage that the coronavirus pandemic will cause to the economies of both countries. During the last meeting in Tehran in June 2019, the parties discussed a number of major economic and investment projects – which, however, look more and more difficult in the light of recent events. It is possible that the devastating economic crisis caused by the pandemic will inflict a serious blow on economic cooperation and the volume of foreign investment in the region, forcing each country to focus on solving its internal problems. In any case, as mentioned above, a pandemic is quite capable of substantially reformatting the entire system of international relations – both globally and regionally. 

This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor. 

[1] Shkvarya L. V., Rusakovich V. I., Lebedeva D. V. Foreign economic relations of the Republic of Tajikistan with Asian countries: current trends // Management of economic systems: electronic scientific journal. – 2015. – No. 6 (78). – S. 9

[2] Iran has not proved the presence of the money of its billionaire Zanjoni in the banks of Tajikistan. TAG, https://tajikta.tj/ru/news/iran-ne-dokazal-nalichiya-v-bankakh-tadzhikistana-deneg-svoego-milliardera-zandzhoni

[3] Dushanbe VS Tehran: another surge in anti-Iranian sentiment in Tajikistan:   https://tj.sputniknews.ru/opinion/20180524/1025667050/tajikistan-iran-pivt-protest.html

[4] We need each other: why Iran and Tajikistan are meeting each other halfway https://tj.sputniknews.ru/analytics/20190604/1029075361/iran-tajikistan-sblizhenie-hassan-rouhani.html     

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