Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has further deepened bilateral relations with Iran. During his visit to Tehran on February 9-10, he signed three main agreements relating to energy and transport cooperation. However, the bilateral talks also included meetings between the defense ministers and other officials, signaling the potential for wider ranging cooperation. Tehran, utilizing its existing links with Dushanbe, is also actively pursuing closer ties within Central Asia, as it seeks to assert more influence among its Central Asian neighbors.
Building on earlier agreements reached in 2006, bilateral energy cooperation is set to expand with a new agreement on petrochemical and transport cooperation. A Memorandum of Understanding confirmed the creation of a joint chemical company and joint investment in equipment to load and unload aluminum powder shipments at the port of Shahid Rajaei. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised a new hydroelectric power station with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts in Tajikistan. In addition, given the depth of the current energy crisis in Tajikistan as it experiences its worst winter in many years, he reassured Rahmon that work on the existing Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station will accelerate, aiming at completion in 2009. Tehran agreed to supply fuel to Tajikistan, in return for Tajik involvement in upgrading the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas (IRNA, February 10; Asia-Plus, February 11).
On his return to Dushanbe, at a time of national crisis, Rahmon chose to appear on Tajik television to extend his congratulations on the 29th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, saying, “Developing friendly relations between Tajikistan and Iran in all areas is an important factor behind security and peace in the region, and corresponds to the highest interests of the two countries that share the same language and culture” (Tajik Television First Channel, February 11).
On February 12 the Ministry of Transport and Communications in Dushanbe revealed that Iran has allocated $5 million in unrestricted aid to upgrade the Anzob tunnel in Tajikistan. The Iranian company Sobir International will carry out the task of concreting the tunnel and provide technical advisors on controlling water leaks, with the intention of making the tunnel operational in 2008 (Avesta, February 12). Tehran and Dushanbe have formed a joint commission for trade and economic, technical, and cultural cooperation to devise a joint program by the end of 2008 for Tajik-Iranian economic cooperation for 2009-2015, suggesting an intensification of economic activities.
While the focus of these bilateral meetings was principally on energy and wider economic cooperation, a second agenda emerged aimed at expanding political cooperation into sensitive areas such as defense and security. Information on the precise details remains scarce, yet Iran’s presidential press service focused on bilateral efforts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, in fact its language seemed to mirror the common phraseology of the official communiqués of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Rahmon also met with Iran’s ministers of foreign affairs, energy and industry, economic development and trade, while the chairman of the State National Security Committee also met with Iranian colleagues (Asia-Plus, February 11).
The new projects also raise the political profile of Iran in the region, displaying a side of Tehran not often reported in the West; namely, as a country interested in active cooperation within international organizations including the UN, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Economic Cooperation Organization, and others. Rahmon and Ahmadinejad issued a joint statement at the end of their talks in Tehran, reaffirming their mutual respect for each others’ territorial integrity, non-interference in the internal affairs of either state, and interest in bilateral cooperation through international and regional organizations. Tajik officials also gave tacit support for gradually upgrading Iran’s observer status within the SCO to full membership, saying that Dushanbe is willing to discuss this issue with other countries (Asia-Plus, February 12).
On February 10 Tajikistan’s Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloyev met his counterpart, Mostafa Mohammad Najar, to discuss ways to expand defense cooperation. Both called for exploring practical possibilities, but gave little detail about what this may entail. At the end of the meeting, the defense ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding on bilateral defense cooperation (IRNA, February 10). The reluctance of officials to discuss the specific aspects involved in this cooperation, considering the weak condition of Tajikistan’s military and security forces, suggests that Tehran will concentrate on border security, an area of Iranian expertise, as well as assistance to Special Forces and counter-terrorist units, underpinned by more exchanges of information. The meeting of intelligence officials indicates that Tehran wants to become a player in combating drug trafficking in Central Asia, while gaining an intelligence foothold inside Central Asia.
Iran bases its relationship with Tajikistan on continued economic and energy cooperation, which has grown over the past three years and is set to expand further still in the period 2009-15, and building political trust and providing a platform to advance Tehran’s view of its peaceful use of nuclear technology. Both leaders claim to desire a Middle East free from nuclear weapons.
Tehran’s policy toward Tajikistan remains cautious and not primarily exploitative. Despite the dire Tajik energy crisis, Iran has not manipulated the situation for overtly political purposes.