Amid rivalries over energy supplies between a number of post-Soviet states, international media outlets have largely ignored Tajikistan’s initiatives with Iran for hydroelectricity. Tajikistan is an important part of the Central Asian power system, which has a high potential for producing hydroelectricity, but it has been unable to develop the sector unilaterally.
During a visit to Tehran on January 16-17, Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov sought to reach a bilateral agreement for joint Tajik-Iranian construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant. The prospect of intensified Tajik-Iranian relations in the energy sector seems to be in Russia’s best interests, due to existing economic and political ties between Moscow and Tehran. China, however, has recently emphasized the importance of strengthening energy cooperation among the Central Asian states within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Today only a small part of Tajikistan’s hydroelectricity potential is being exploited. Seven large and a number of small hydroelectric stations generate about 16 billion kWh annually. According to international estimates, however, Tajikistan’s energy sector could generate about 527 billion kWh annually with an overall capability of 40,000 MW. Despite Tajikistan’s high potential to produce hydroelectricity, the local population is undersupplied with electricity. Moreover, Tajikistan actually imports electricity and gas from Uzbekistan.
The Tajik government is continually searching for foreign investment to renovate hydroelectric sites and related infrastructure, such as gas pipelines and equipment for power stations. A number of Russian investors have been active in financing construction and renovation of the Rogun, Nurek, and Sangtuda-1 hydro power plants. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided grants to the Tajik Ministry of Energy to rehabilitate the Qayroqqum hydropower station in northern Tajikistan, which was built during Soviet times. The French energy company Alliston also agreed to investigate construction of a small hydroelectricity plant in Sogd region. In December 2005 Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov sought a loan from the China Development Bank for three investment projects. Iran has also shown an interest in helping Tajikistan to build the Anzob tunnel and the Sangtuda-2 Power Plant on the Vaksh River.
During Rakhmonov’s visit to Tehran, the Iranian and Tajik sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding to facilitate bilateral cooperation. “Iran and Tajikistan are one spirit in two bodies,” concluded Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after meeting with Rakhmonov.
Rakhmonov’s secularism and Ahmadinejad’s conservative stance on the importance of religion in state politics represent two polar views. But both leaders emphasized that despite obvious discrepancies in Tajikistan’s and Iran’s views towards the role of Islam, deep cultural and historical ties will overcome current political disagreements and pave the way for mutually beneficial economic cooperation (eursianet.org, January 26). To date, both countries have already established some economic ties: Iran imports food and building material and Tajikistan trades aluminum and cotton (president.ir, January 18).
According to international experts, with all the optimism entailed by the meeting between Iranian and Tajik officials, there are substantial obstacles until bilateral agreements are implemented. As long as Tajikistan’s external debt continues to increase, the government will not be able to contribute to joint projects with Iran. In 2005 Tajikistan’s debt amounted to nearly $900 million. The situation became murkier after the World Bank recently refused to write off Tajikistan’s $100 million debt, although the International Monetary Fund had announced in December 2005 that it would grant Tajikistan full debt relief.
Russia has been quietly observing the looming prospects of Tajik-Iranian cooperation in the energy sector. Russia’s intensive involvement in Tajikistan’s energy sector has already secured its dominance in the country, and Russia’s ties with Iran do not contradict its interests in Tajikistan. In parallel with investing in hydroelectricity, Russia has been considering aluminum production. Reportedly, the Rogun hydro power plant will produce electricity for Russian-controlled aluminum plants.
Meanwhile the SCO, comprised of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and observers India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan, has recently announced its intention to form an “energy working group.” According to SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang, since the organization’s member-states seek security and friendly relations, joint development of the energy sector, maintaining market stability in the region, and balancing supply and demand all will be advanced by cooperation (dawn.com, January 16). Zhang commented that the SCO should help Central Asia better coordinate its excess electricity generation.