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Persian games: Iran’s strategic foothold in Tajikistan

While international attention on Iran focuses on the country's nuclear programme and anti-western rhetoric, few have noticed the country's constructive attempts to develop a sphere of influence in its fellow Persian-speaking Tajikistan. But as western states ramp up sanctions against Iran, will the overlooked Tajikistan be the one to lose out? asks Brenton Clark

International media attention on Iran focuses on the country’s nuclear programme and its ongoing confrontations with the United States and Israel. Meanwhile a number of developments within Iranian foreign policy have escaped widespread attention, presumably because they do not fit the international community’s alarmist and doom-laden narrative for Iran’s political intentions and foreign policy behaviour. One particularly striking example of this is Iran’s concerted push to develop political, cultural and economic ties with the small and fragile post-Soviet state of Tajikistan.  

Although Tajikistan has consistently stood in the geostrategic shadow of its perennially unstable southern neighbour, Afghanistan, and lacks the political and military clout of its fellow post-Soviet Central Asian neighbours, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, it is a state of both regional and global import. Situated at a key crossroad within the Eurasian landmass, Tajikistan has the potential to play a strong role in shaping the economic development and trading opportunities for a number of state and non-state actors within Eurasia. With increased investment into its transport infrastructure, Tajikistan could provide a vital link between East Asia and the Persian Gulf, on the one hand, and between Russia and India, on the other. In effect, it could become an important pivot point in regional and global trade.

Although Tajikistan has the potential to contribute to the economic development to the Central Asian region, it also could act as a key source of instability. Its porous border with Afghanistan makes Tajikistan sensitive to developments brewing in Kabul; over the last two decades Russian and Tajik border guards have intermittently battled Islamist militants emanating from Afghanistan and have fought a losing battle against drug traffickers and smugglers.

'Tajikistan has the potential to contribute to Central Asian economic development, but its porous border with Afghanistan also makes it a potential source of significant instability.'

Tajikistan’s strategic and economic significance has not escaped the attention of Iranian policy makers, who have always been excited about the potential for links with an independent, post-Soviet Tajikistan. Part of the historic Persian Empires, and the only Persian-speaking state within the overwhelmingly Turkic Central Asian region, Tajikistan has been a key focus in Iran’s attempts to develop a sphere of influence within Central Asia, a region from which it had ostensibly been cut off for over 60 years. Indeed, Iran’s aims for Tajikistan have been to use the country as a conduit for Iranian influence on post-Soviet Central Asian affairs.

However, close ties between Iran and Tajikistan have not been achieved. Five years of civil war in the 1990s – between various tribal groups and regional clans, neo-communists, Islamists and pro-democracy forces – killed over 50,000 people and displaced over a million Tajiks. The civil war ripped Tajikistan apart at the seams, and provided a tragic insight into the festering tensions that were unleashed in a number of states following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Under President Ahmadinejad (left), Iran has continued its sustained 'charm offensive' towards Tajikistan, led by President Rahmon (right), aiming to renew a Persian-speaking sphere of influence after 60 years of Soviet Russification. (Photo: RFE/RL / Demotix, all rights reserved)

During the Tajik civil war Iran initially provided limited support to Islamist-inspired political and militant groups, which led to regional and international fears that Iran would ‘export the revolution’ to Tajikistan. Iran’s limited support to groups such as the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and claims surrounding its apparent nefarious intentions resulted in an uncomfortable relationship between the two states throughout the civil war.  

However, as the civil war dragged on, Iranian political elites displayed overwhelming pragmatism and sought to play a key role, along with Russia, in negotiating peace between the warring factions. This pragmatism, and Iran’s efforts to bring an end to the civil war in Tajikistan, was welcomed by the Tajik government, and garnered considerable political capital and goodwill towards Iran from the Tajik people.  

Following the end of the civil war in Tajikistan, which resulted in an uneasy peace, Iran has sought to capitalise upon this goodwill. Over the last decade in particular, Iran has launched what could be considered a ‘political charm offensive’, providing greatly-needed investment into Tajikistan’s electricity sector. This has seen the construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric dam at an estimated cost of US$260 million, and the redevelopment and upgrading of transport infrastructure, including roads and tunnels. It is anticipated that the redevelopment and linking of road networks between China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran will foster the beginnings of what a number of observers have described as a ‘New Silk Road’.

Iranian interest and investment in Tajikistan has continued to increase in recent months, with Iran signing a number of economic agreements with the Tajik government, including a plan to build an industrial town in the country. Although only in the formative stages, it is hoped that this project will eventually lead to the construction of fifty industrial enterprises including aluminium, cotton and fruit processing plants at an estimated cost of over $2 billion.

In addition to these investments, Iranian political elites have also sought to increase economic ties between Iran’s eastern provinces, north-western Afghanistan and Tajikistan. They have promoted cooperation in the areas of water management, electricity distribution, rail development and deregulation in visa and customs procedures.  

While Iranian efforts to invest in Tajikistan’s fragile economy continue to take shape, concerted efforts have also been made by Iran to influence Tajik cultural affairs. Iran has taken a keen interest in assisting Tajikistan’s rediscovery of its Persian history, culture and language, following over sixty years of Soviet Russification. Over the last decade, Iran has spent millions of dollars disseminating works of Iranian poetry, literature, and educational materials, while at the same time downplaying the role of Shia Islamic ideology. In downplaying Shi’ism in its foreign policy, Iran has pragmatically attempted to highlight the constructive role it can play within Tajik nation-building efforts and avoided causing any alarm within this Sunni Islamic, but fervently secular, state.    

Such moderate cultural assistance from this so-called international ‘pariah’ state has been increasingly welcomed by the Tajik government and was on display recently, with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad attending Nowrouz Persian New Year festivities in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. Ahmadinejad’s visit coincided with the opening of an Iranian Cultural House and was warmly welcomed by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, who stressed the need for Iran and Tajikistan to increase their ties in a range of economic and political areas. For his part, Ahmadinejad used the occasion as a platform to stress the need to stop ‘foreign interference’ in the region and lauded the growing cultural, economic and political ties between Tajikistan and Iran. 

Growing ties between Iran and Tajikistan have been marginalised as a news story, but have not gone unnoticed: they have been the source of significant concern within United States diplomatic circles. The 2011 release of United States diplomatic cables by Wikileaks attests to these fears, with American diplomats in Dushanbe highlighting the potential for an embryonic ‘Persian Axis’ being formed in the heart of Central Asia.

Although premature, such fears are not misplaced, considering Tajik President Rahmon has consistently supported Iran’s nuclear program, declaring that Iran is entitled to develop nuclear energy and that Iran was Tajikistan’s ‘natural strategic partner’.  Furthermore Rahmon has supported Iran’s criticisms of Israel, taken common positions with Iran on defence, security issues, terrorism and anti drug measures and has increasingly displayed overwhelming support for Iran’s regional contributions in the face of growing hostility towards Iran by the United States. Furthermore, in recent weeks the Tajik government has stated its willingness to buy oil from Iran despite American-led economic sanctions.

Over the past decade Iran has pumped investment into Tajikistan, funding major infrastructure projects such as the 'New Silk Road'. But as economic sanctions hit Iran, where next for poverty-striken Tajikistan? (Photo: Jonathan Kougl / Demotix, all rights reserved)

This Tajik support for Iran has not been on the radar of many people, but it should not be a surprise, given Tajikistan’s poverty and its lack of aid from the rest of the international community. Tajikistan has the lowest per-capita GDP of the post-Soviet states, chronic under-investment, constant electricity shortages and dire levels of poverty.

'If Iran’s influence in Tajikistan is to be inhibited, other international actors will need to step in to fill the void and more international attention will need to be given to Tajikistan’s development.'

Indeed, Russia, Tajikistan’s former patron, has shown very little interest in assisting the country’s development and has used the controversial issue of Tajik labour migrants to bully and cajole the Tajik government into doing Russia’s bidding. Meanwhile the United States has viewed Tajikistan as peripheral to its Central Asian strategic interests and international donor agencies, such as the World Bank, have been reticent to invest in the large-scale infrastructure projects needed to break Tajikistan’s economic malaise.  

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Tajikistan has been open to Iranian advances. It is becoming clear that the lack of attention given to Tajikistan over recent years has catalysed Iranian engagement and provided a modest but important opportunity for Iran to both influence and gain a strategic foothold within the heart of Central Asia. However, with the ever tightening noose of American-led sanctions continuing to place significant pressure upon Iran’s economy and its ability to move freely within the regional and international arena, the prospect of further Iranian investment and political engagement in Tajikistan may become increasingly remote in the coming months. Sanctions on Iran may have a knock-on effect, blocking the fulfilment of Iranian investment in the Tajik economy and placing further pressure on the Tajik government. If Iran’s influence in Tajikistan, and Central Asia more broadly, is to be inhibited, other international actors will need to step in to fill the void and more international attention will need to be given to Tajikistan’s development.

About the author

Brenton Clark is a graduate scholar at the Centre of Arab and Islamic Studies (Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University, Canberra. He is currently researching the factors that have driven and constrained Tajikistan’s relations with Iran in the post-September 11 period. Brenton can be followed on Twitter @bevo84.


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