by Kambiz Arman
With Russia’s apparent blessing, Iran is pressing ahead with efforts to forge stronger ties with Tajikistan.
Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov paved the way for an expansion of bilateral ties with a January 16-17 visit to Tehran. During the trip, Tajik and Iranian leaders issued a Joint Declaration on Broader Relations, as well as signed agreements providing for Iranian assistance for several Tajik infrastructure projects, including construction of the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station and the Shahristan Tunnel.
"Iran and Tajikistan are one spirit in two bodies," Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying after he welcomed Rahmonov. "Broad and deep grounds have been established for bilateral relations and there are no limits to the expansion of relations."
The visit showed that the deep-rooted cultural ties between Iranians and Tajiks are capable of overcoming political-religious differences between the governments. Rahmonov is a Soviet-style secularist who has acted steadily to curb the influence of Islam in Tajikistan’s politics in recent years. Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, is the product of an Islamic puritan movement that wants to restore the guiding principles of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Following Ahmadinejad’s victory in Iran’s 2005 presidential election, some Tajik political analysts predicted a downturn in Tajik-Iranian relations, citing the two governments’ apparent ideological incompatibility. Ahmadinejad has proven such predictions wrong, however. Some observers speculate that US and European Union pressure on Iran over its nuclear program prompted conservative Islamic leaders in Tehran to set aside long-standing political and religious considerations in their search for international allies.
In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist tragedy, Tajikistan developed into a forum for US-Russian geopolitical competition. The Rahmonov administration initially embraced closer ties with the United States only to later distance itself from Washington and return the country to Russia’s close embrace. Last October, Moscow and Dushanbe signed a far-reaching strategic cooperation pact that sanctioned the establishment of permanent Russian military bases on Tajik territory. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Given Russia’s dominant geopolitical position in Tajikistan, local observers say it is unlikely that Rahmonov would have made the trip to Iran had he not had Russia’s approval. Moscow has emerged in recent weeks as one of Iran’s main backers in Tehran’s ongoing nuclear dispute with the United States and EU. In an interview published by IRNA on January 24, Russia’s ambassador to Tajikistan, Ramazan Abdullatipov, offered a vigorous defense of Iran’s peaceful intentions concerning its nuclear program. US and EU leaders believe Iranian research is geared toward developing nuclear weapons. Abdullatipov stated that Russia would resist calls for UN sanctions against Iran and would maintain nuclear cooperation with Tehran "in accordance with previous agreements," the IRNA report said. Iranian officials have reacted positively to a Russian proposal under which Moscow would enrich uranium for Tehran’s use.
Iran had extended an invitation to Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, to visit Tehran at the same time Rahmonov was in the Iranian capital. Karzai declined his invitation blaming "bad weather," "technical problems" and his need to prepare for the donors’ conference scheduled to be held in late January in London. Political analysts suggest Karzai stayed away from Tehran so as not to jeopardize Afghanistan’s ability to attract economic aid from Western donors.
A few observers in Tajikistan express reservations about the benefits of stronger Tajik-Iranian ties. They harbor concerns that Iranian hardliners, acting in the spirit of 1979, could possibly seek to use Persian-speaking Tajikistan as a vehicle for promoting an Iranian-style Islamic revolutionary movement in Central Asia.