by Eldar Mamedov
According to those who seek to contain Iran, it is supposedly building a new Persian empire in the regions where it has influence—the Persian Gulf, the wider Middle East, and Central Asia. Such accusations, besides mistakenly assuming Iran to be the chief, if not the only, cause of trouble in all these regions, also grossly exaggerate Iran´s real power.
Nowhere is this contrast between the hyped-up Iranian threat and reality more evident than in Tajikistan. As a small, poor, landlocked Central Asian nation that shares language and culture with Iran, it surely would be easy prey for Tehran, if the narrative of the re-emerging “Persian empire” is to have any meaning. However, relations between Tehran and Dushanbe have taken a nosedive of late.
Like many other parts of the crumbling empire following the chaotic break-up of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan succumbed to a civil war. Iran helped negotiate an end to the conflict, midwifing a power-sharing agreement between Emomali Rahmon, a former Soviet apparatchik-turned-president of independent Tajikistan, and the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), the main opposition. With time, however, like other Central Asian dictators, Rahmon decided that it would be safer not to tolerate any opposition at all. So, as he cemented his hold on power, he reneged on his part of the deal with the Islamists, culminating in the official ban of the IRP in 2015.
The regime in Dushanbe accuses Iran of seeking to replace the secular republic with the Islamist rule of the IRP. Tajik leaders like to present themselves as the torch-bearers of the pre-Islamic Iranian civilization common to both Iran and Tajikistan that the last Iranian monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, also championed. The fact that he was deposed by the current clerical rulers of Iran accentuates the ideological chasm between Dushanbe and Tehran.
Occasionally, Iranians have fueled the Tajik suspicions. At an Islamic conference in Tehran in 2015, Muhiddin Kabiri, the exiled leader of the IRP, was accorded the same level of treatment as the official delegation of the Tajik (state-controlled) Islamic establishment. Kabiri is wanted in Tajikistan on trumped-up charges of seeking the violent overthrow of the government. Yet Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, warmly greeted Kabiri. Although the greeting hardly amounted to much more than a handshake, Dushanbe portrayed it as evidence of Tehran’s plot to topple Rahmon.
Interestingly, besides Iran, Kabiri has travelled and had political meetings in countries as diverse as Germany, Austria, Turkey, Malaysia, and the EU capital Brussels. Tajikistan, however, only filed an official note of protest to Iran. To highlight the supposed Iranian threat, the Tajik authorities have accused the IRP of promoting creeping Shiite-ization of Tajikistan, an absurd charge, given that Tajikistan is an overwhelmingly Sunni country and IRP is essentially a Sunni party in the mold of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Turkish ruling party. Never mind that in previous years, the same authorities also accused the IRP of harboring a pro-Wahhabi agenda.
Money and geopolitics, however, not ideology, are the primary drivers of the current Iranian-Tajik spat.
When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president, he used to visit Tajikistan every year with lavish cash hand-outs, especially for energy and infrastructure projects in the country. Some of this money has reportedly enriched the president’s inner circle – a rather typical occurrence in all the corrupt Central Asian regimes. Rouhani, by contrast, focused his diplomacy on the nuclear talks with the world powers and re-integration of Iran into the global economy. He only visited Tajikistan once, in 2014, and even that was for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In accordance with the more responsible fiscal policies of the Rouhani administration, the Ahmadinejad-era cash injections in Tajikistan dwindled.
Another sore point in bilateral relations are the Iranian assets, reportedly worth around $2 billion, allegedly stashed by a corrupt Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani in the National Bank of Tajikistan. Zanjani was arrested in Iran in 2013, and Tehran demands that he return the money that it argues he illegally siphoned from Iran’s oil ministry. Dushanbe vehemently denies the charges and refuses the Iranian demands. So, money-related disputes seem to be the primary reasons for Tajikistan’s sudden animosity towards Iran.
Sensing the opportunity, Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia has stepped in to court Tajikistan. Saudi Arabia has invited Tajikistan to join its “Islamic coalition against the terror,” launched in 2015, from which Iran was deliberately excluded. President Rahmon was present in Riyadh in March 2017 at an “Arab-Islamic summit” with President Trump, in the company of fellow autocrats. Tajikistan doesn’t in and of itself hold great strategic value for Saudi Arabia, having a Persian-speaking country in Riyadh’s orbit is symbolically important. Rahmon, meanwhile, is trying to cash in on this newly bourgeoning relationship. In this context, ratcheting up anti-Iranian rhetoric and actions is a sure way to attract more Saudi attention and, hopefully, money.
What is really baffling is that Tehran, usually quick to denounce Western nations for any real or perceived slight, has not taken any steps to curb the hostile policies of a relatively weak player like Tajikistan. Perhaps Iran does not wish to have its bilateral problems with Tajikistan stand in its way to join the SCO. Tajikistan is a founding member of the SCO. Since the membership is approved by consensus, Tajikistan could in theory veto Iran’s accession. However, with the Russian and Chinese support, this does not look like an insurmountable obstacle for Iran. Whatever the reasons for Iran’s reluctance or inability to rein in Tajikistan’s policies, it’s more evidence of Iran’s inflated power in the minds of those who seek to isolate the country.
Photo: Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Saudi King Salman.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.