President Imomali Rahmonov’s December 13-16 official visit to Iran probably marked a turning point in Tajikistan’s post-civil war and post-Soviet evolution. As a head of state officially committed to combating “radical Islam,” Rahmonov made his peace with a government which represents one of the sources of that ideology. He was, moreover, accompanied by United Opposition leaders Saidabdullo Nuri and Akbar Turajonzoda, who had spent the civil war years mostly in Tehran and are now negotiating powersharing arrangements with Rahmonov in Dushanbe.
No fewer that ten Tajik government ministers also journeyed to Tehran for negotiations on economic and cultural matters. The latter term is taken to cover some religious aspects as well. The Tajik delegation conferred with Iran’s top state leaders and also with Ayatollah Said Ali Khamenei and other religious leaders. Both sides made reference to their common historic, cultural and linguistic (Farsi) roots. The Iranian side condemned last month’s rebellion in northern Tajikistan as evidence of “enemies’ intentions to disrupt Tajikistan’s security and territorial integrity.” That statement was a swipe at Uzbekistan and also an oblique endorsement of bilateral power-sharing among the incumbent government and the United Opposition, to the exclusion of the secular Leninabad region.
The two governments signed agreements of intent to build power plants, water management projects and a railroad in Tajikistan with Iranian financial and technical assistance. The railroad would run from Kulob in the south to Horog in the east of Tajikistan. The inclusion of Kulob, a backwater which happens to be Rahmonov’s native area, signifies a political gesture by Tehran to the Tajik president. Agreements on cultural exchanges were also signed (IRNA, Itar-Tass, December 13-16).
The road toward Iranian influence in Tajik affairs had been prepared back in 1996-97, when Tehran and Moscow became the main sponsors of a compromise between the Dushanbe government and the United Opposition. Iran is now beginning to reap the political fruits of those arrangements. It does so while respecting rather than challenging Russian interests in Tajikistan. Russia and Iran cooperate–often against Western interests–on a variety of issues larger than Tajikistan. That overall cooperation provides a basis for the accommodation of their respective interests in Tajikistan with minimal or no friction, at least in the short term.
The Tajik government, for its part, started the civil war on a platform of militant secularism, only to end that war in a coalition with the Islamists and in a rapprochement with Iran, estranged from secular Uzbekistan and keeping down the secular Leninabad region.
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