A Thaw Between Tajikistan and Iran, But Challenges Remain

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 98

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) and Tajikistan's president, Emomali Rahmon, Dushanbe, June 15 (Source: Tajik presidential administration)

“Welcome to your second homeland,” President Emomali Rahmon told his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani upon his arrival in Tajikistan for the fifth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), on June 15 (Radio Ozodi, June 15). The visit comes at a time of warming relations between the two Persian-speaking countries.

Relations between Iran and Tajikistan were traditionally relatively close. Iran was the first state to recognize Tajikistan’s independence in September 1991 and the first to open an embassy a year later. Fearing a continuity of Soviet-era policies, Iran supported the Islamic and nationalist opposition during the civil war. Moreover, Iran was instrumental in the shuttle diplomacy and peace talks that ended the Tajik Civil War in 1997.

Relations reached an apogee during the Iranian presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During this time, two large projects were implemented in Tajikistan with Iranian money: the construction of the $40 million Istiqlol tunnel and the $260 million Sangtuda-2 hydropower station, which came online in 2011. Iran also expressed interest in 2008 in helping fund the Roghun dam, slated to be the world’s tallest (Asia Plus, February 6, 2009). Eight Iranian companies and 450 staff are still involved in the project (Fars News, November 28, 2018; Tansim News, November 26, 2018). Bilateral trade peaked at $292.3 million in 2013 (Asia Plus, April 11, 2019).

Shortly after this, however, relations soured for a number of reasons. Hassan Rouhani replaced Ahmadinejad as president of the Islamic Republic in 2013, prioritizing rebuilding ties to the West over cultivating relations with Tajikistan. More significantly, Tehran accused Dushanbe of stealing over a billion dollars held in Tajikistani banks by billionaire Babak Zanjani, who was arrested in 2013 for embezzling money from Iran’s oil ministry (Asia Plus, June 17, 2015). Another nosedive in the relationship came in December 2015, when photos surfaced of Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) leader Muhiddin Kabiri being greeted by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Kabiri’s party was declared a terrorist organization by the Tajikistani Supreme Court the previous September (see EDM, September 11, 2015). Government officials in Dushanbe then began routinely denigrating Shia Islam and blaming Iran for causing instability in the country going back to the civil war (Asia Plus, October 27, 2017; January 3, 2018). Indeed, President Rahmon stated, in May 2018, that the IRPT had become a Shia party supported by Tehran, referring to the court testimony of Kiomiddin Ghozi, a senior IRPT member who saw his sentence cut from 25 to 7 years for similarly accusing Iran of interfering in Tajikistan’s affairs (Akhbor, May 13, 2018). And after four cyclists were killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State in July 2018, the government of Tajikistan instead blamed the IRPT, while accusing Iran of being complicit in the deadly incident (RFE/RL, August 2, 2018). The Iranian government officially protested, claiming, “Dushanbe officials [had] falsely and unfoundedly accused the Islamic Republic [of] a terrorist attack” (Mfa.ir, August 1, 2018).

Saudi Arabia has not concealed its satisfaction with these developments. The Saudi ambassador to Tajikistan, Abdulaziz bin Mohammed Al-Badi, told an interviewer in 2017 that “this is a great victory for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its wise leadership.” The Saudi Development Fund has funneled over $200 million into the Central Asian country over the years (Avesta, July 26, 2018). In 2017, for instance, it pledged $35 million to build 66 new schools there (Today.tj, October 3, 2017).

These disputes have produced a notable downturn in Tajikistani-Iranian relations. The representative office of the Assistance Committee “Imdod,” named after Imam (Ayatollah) Ruhollah Khomeini, which had provided humanitarian assistance to Tajikistan since the civil war, was closed down in 2016. A year later, authorities closed the Iranian trade and cultural center in the northern city of Khujand. In April 2016, Tajikistan’s customs service started restricting the import of food products, including tea and poultry, from Iran, alleging they were of poor quality. Trade dropped to $98 million in 2018, a threefold fall from the peak (Asia Plus, April 11, 2019).

But this year, a thaw has taken place. Tajkistan’s Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin signaled his government’s desire to mend ties with Tehran at a press conference in February (Asia Plus, February 12). Shortly thereafter, Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Bahram Qassemi stated that “Iran has not and is not supporting any group that acts against Tajikistan’s legal bodies,” a clear reference to the IRPT (Fars, June 1). Both sides appointed new ambassadors in March, with Iran’s new top envoy, Mohammad-Taqi Saberi, immediately calling for closer ties (Tehran Times, March 10). The two new ambassadors are each former deputy foreign ministers, indicating the importance being placed on improving relations. On June 1, Foreign Minister Muhriddin visited Tehran and met with President Rouhani. And two weeks later, Rouhani made his second trip to Tajikistan, his first since a 2014 visit to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.

While the bilateral relationship is admittedly not a topmost priority for either side, enhanced relations would certainly be mutually beneficial. Landlocked Tajikistan is looking to gain access to the Iranian port of Chabahar to export its cotton and aluminum, although Turkmenistan has routinely delayed transiting trucks (Asia Plus, February 20). This is a more secure route than the north–south corridor through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar. Tajikistan, in turn, offers an opportunity for Iran to strengthen its influence over another Persian-speaking country, enabling the Islamic Republic to more effectively resist Saudi encroachment and sanctions by the United States.

But relations with the IRPT remain the main stumbling block. The Tajikistani government is pushing for Iran to recognize the IRPT as a terrorist organization and arrest or expel former members living on its territory. While Iran has “not been prepared to accept” newly arrived IRPT exiles, according to the party’s leader, Kabiri, it also has not been willing to denounce the IRPT (Tansim News, August 12, 2018). After the Tajikistani foreign minister’s visit to Tehran in June (see above), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan published a report stating that “the Iranian side stressed that it will prevent on its territory the activities of members and supporters of terrorist and extremist groups and parties, including the Islamic Renaissance Party” (Mfa.tj, June 1). However, shortly thereafter, following protests from the Iranian side, the IRPT’s name was removed from the report (Akhbor, June 11). These unresolved issues will continue to shape relations in the years to come.