Iran, despite intense U.S. and British diplomatic efforts, has pressed ahead with its strategy of strengthening regional ties in Central Asia, putting a special focus on Tajikistan. Washington and London have probed these evolving relations without making any headway on the Tajik government’s support for Iran’s ambitions to develop nuclear technology for energy and peaceful means as well as absolving the Tehran regime of any support for Hezbollah.
Dushanbe is open to building stronger ties with Tehran, confirmed by sources within the Tajik government ahead of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two-day visit to Tajikistan, scheduled for July 25-26. Ahmadinejad will meet with Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The Tajik government is hoping for “a serious breakthrough in bilateral economic cooperation between Tajikistan and Iran, and, above all, an increase in Iranian investments in the national economy.” Tajikistan wants Tehran to participate in several projects in the hydroelectric power sector. The Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station was supported by Iranian money, estimated at around $220 million. The upcoming talks, however, will be based around economic issues, regional security, the Iranian nuclear program, and the current security situation in the Middle East. “Tajikistan has always been for the political and diplomatic resolution of the Iranian problem and completely ruled out the use of force. Tajikistan takes the same stance on the Israeli-Lebanese conflict,” stressed a Tajik government spokesman (Itar-Tass, July 20).
On July 21 Naser Sarmadi-Parsa, Iranian ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary to Tajikistan, explained that more than ten agreements will be signed during the Iranian and Afghan presidents’ visit to Tajikistan. The agreements with Iran are principally aimed at strengthening economic cooperation, particularly in the fields of energy, transport, science, and culture. Ahmadinejad will pay a one-day visit to Turkmenistan en route to Dushanbe. Iran’s ministers of trade, foreign affairs, energy, and transportation will accompany Ahmadinejad. The three-party meeting of the Tajik, Iranian, and Afghan presidents will see several agreements on cooperation in the areas of energy, transport, security, the fight against terrorism, and the illicit drug trade.
Ambassador Sarmadi-Parsa also had a second motive in speaking to the Tajik press ahead of the presidential visit. He used the opportunity to restate Iran’s opinion that the United States fails to pay sufficient attention to resolving the conflict in the Middle East. “At these difficult times, Iran supports the people and the government of Lebanon, as well as the country’s ruling party, Hezbollah,” noted Sarmadi-Parsa. Much of his news conference was dedicated to dismissing suggestions that Iran may be supplying arms to Hezbollah, offering the alternative perspective that Israel had underestimated the strength of Hezbollah (Avesta, July 21).
This is, of course, familiar Iranian discourse, but it is being presented in an unfamiliar setting. It is also unusual since it demonstrates the confidence of the Tajik regime in its bilateral relations with Iran, which it calculates as strong and growing. Such an assessment, while unwelcome in Washington and London, reflects Tajikistan’s growing reliance upon Iranian economic assistance in its energy programs and its need for Iranian scientific help. Naturally, Iran will develop these relations with its neighbors, however, reservations in Western capitals are based on Tehran using these ties as levers to apply political pressure or open the relationship further to security and other areas of diversification.
Washington calculates that the role of Iran in Tajikistan, as well as in the region itself, should be based on commerce — alone. Should the relationship go beyond trade it will muddy the waters in Central Asia, and it may prove restrictive for the Central Asian regimes involved, calibrating their relations with Western countries on the premise of avoiding upsetting Russia, China, and possibly Iran. Ahmadinejad is therefore conducting his current round of diplomacy in Central Asia on the belief that Iran is becoming a serious player in the struggle for regional influence, and he is certainly keen to minimize the prospect of any future increase in the American military presence in Central Asia — within strike range of Iran.
Tajikistan remains open to fostering economic ties with Western countries desiring to invest in its economy. In practical terms, within the European Union its economic bilateral relations are better with France and Germany than with Britain. Prince Andrew’s visit to Dushanbe, July 7-9, was aimed at improving the capacity for British businessmen to invest in Tajikistan. But such efforts may be too late. Dushanbe has moved closer to Russia and China through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also acts as a facilitator for future Iranian regional involvement, since Iran holds observer status within the SCO. In any case, Ahmadinejad knows that he is in a unique position to build relations in the region, and his tri-presidential meetings in Dushanbe illustrate Iran’s wider interests. The Tajik media has reported this subtle shift in the interests of the regime, constricted in its relations with the West through the SCO, and its bilateral relations with Russia and China, now taking on a new sense of complexity owing to its dealings with Iran (Asia-Plus, July 21). Ahmadinejad believes that such weak regimes, prone to following Moscow’s lead on the Iranian nuclear issue, could further his own geopolitical interests. He will therefore utilize his visit to Dushanbe to move forward the bilateral relationship with Tajikistan, already finding the Tajik government willing to offer sympathy and support for Iran’s nuclear program.