Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 20 Issue 1
Author: Giuliano Bifolchi
Iran and Tajikistan marked a significant step in their bilateral relations after the meeting of the Iranian and Tajik presidents and the signing of 16 cooperation agreements which stressed Tehran’s cultural diplomacy in Central Asia and Dushanbe’s attempt to diversify its foreign partners.
On May 30th, 2022, there was a meeting between the President of the Republic of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, and the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi. The meeting preceded the negotiations between the Tajik and Iranian delegations and the signing of 16 cooperation agreements. According to the press service of the Tajik presidency, the documents provide for political, economic and trade cooperation between Tehran and Dushanbe, relations in the transport sector, joint investments, new technologies, environmental issues, energy, sports interaction, collaboration in the judiciary, research, education, as well as in tourism industry.
It should be noted that the last time the President of Tajikistan officially visited Tehran was in August 2013 at the inauguration of former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
Under the previously reached agreements, the two parties adopted a long-term trade and economic cooperation program until 2030. In addition, the delegations approved relevant documents on the establishment and functioning of the Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Tajikistan and Iran and the Joint Investment Council.
As Tajik President Emomali Rahmon stated, Tajikistan expressed interest in accessing the seaports of Iran and using the ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas to transport goods and products. In addition, Dushanbe and Tehran discussed the construction of the Istiklol tunnel and the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station in the Republic of Tajikistan.
The Iranian and Tajik delegations also analysed Afghanistan and security issues in Central Asia and the Tajik-Afghan borders considering the impact that the U.S. troops’ withdrawal from Kabul had on regional stability. Tajikistan expressed its support for all political, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts to ensure security and prevent human tragedies in this neighbouring country.
Tajikistan has an important geopolitical and geostrategic significance for the system of international relations due to its strategic position in Central Asia, bordering Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
Considering that Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia that shares a common Persian language and culture with Iran, Tehran might use it to maintain its position and influential role in the region. Iran is trying to realise its ambitions in the so-called ‘Persian area’, where Tajikistan plays a key role. Also, Tajikistan for Iran is a ‘window’ in Central Asia.
The recent meeting between the Iranian and the Tajik presidents and the 16 agreements signed by the two delegations confirm Tehran’s strong desire to strengthen its diplomatic, economic, and strategic relations with Dushanbe. In the past, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic of Iran exploited cultural and historical c0mmon background to influence Tajik domestic dynamics. This positive trend registered abrupt braking in 2015 when the leader of the Hizb Nahzati Islomii Tojikiston (Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan), Muhiddin Kabiri, paid an official visit to Tehran and met with the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Dushanbe interpreted this visit as Iranian support for the opposition and accused Tehran of involvement in the coup attempt with Kabiri was associated.
In response, Tehran denied the accusation and demanded the return of the assets of the arrested Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani, who owned property in Tajikistan. Consequently, the Iranian authorities opened a case against Babak Zanjani for embezzling billions of dollars from the Ministry of Oil. The investigation revealed that Zanjani kept $2.4 billion in the National Bank of Tajikistan. Dushanbe categorically denied involvement in this money.
The disagreement contributed to Tajikistan’s pivot towards closer relations with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh allocated 200 million dollars in 2017 to construct parliament and government buildings. However, this did not prevent Dushanbe and Tehran from establishing cooperation two years later.
In June 2019, there was a thaw in relations between the countries. On June 1st, 2019, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in Tehran. After that, Iran decided to continue financing several Tajikistan projects, particularly the construction of the Istiklol tunnel.
During yesterday’s meeting with the Tajik leader, Iran’s Supreme Leader emphasised the profound historical, religious, cultural, and linguistic commonality between Iran and Tajikistan, called the two countries brothers. These words highlight cultural diplomacy’s role in Iran-Tajik relations and Tehran’s strategy to strengthen ties and deepen cooperation with Dushanbe. Indeed, Khamenei noted that Iran and Tajikistan share common fears and concerns about Afghanistan, and both countries are concerned about the spread of terrorism and the growth of radical groups in this brotherly country.
Iran could take advantage of the Tajiks’ membership in the so-called ‘Iranian world’ and the presence of Iranian companies and investments in the Tajik market to strengthen its role in the country and use this territory as a springboard for the whole of Central Asia, Afghanistan, and China.
The Iranian-Tajiki rapprochement might be read as Dushanbe’s strategy of diversifying its foreign partners in different fields (politics, economy, security, trade, culture) and decreasing the Russian and Chinese bulky presence in the country. Indeed, the Russian Federation has a military presence in Tajikistan thanks to the 201st base near Dushanbe, where Moscow recently increased the number of soldiers to guarantee regional security and support Tajik counterterrorism and border security activities.
The People’s Republic of China might also have a military presence in Tajikistan after Beijing and Dushanbe agreed to construct an army base in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO), where in the middle of May the Tajik Government had to manage manifestations and protests. Furthermore, like the other Central Asian republics, Tajikistan has a substantial economic and financial dependence on Chinese investments. Indeed, China has hugely invested in Tajik infrastructural projects and local industries in the last two decades, particularly after the Belt and Road Initiative launch in 2013. Currently, Beijing owns nearly half of Tajikistan’s 3.2 billion dollars foreign debt pile (more than 1.2 billion dollars).
Tehran’s strategy in Tajikistan could cope with the Chinese solid financial presence in the Central Asian republic. Considering the 25-years Iran-China strategic agreement and Russia’s strategy in Central Asia to establish military bases and incorporate post-Soviet republics into Moscow-engineered international organisations, Beijing could be the most profitable Tehran partner in Tajikistan and Central Asia. In this context, it is possible to envisage strengthening cooperation between Iran and China on the Belt and Road Initiative as the Beijing strategy could represent a decisive opportunity for Iranian trade. At the same time, it is possible to predict Dushanbe’s efforts aimed at diversifying its partners in the region and in the international arena (Donald Lu and the U.S. delegation’s last week in Central Asia might be an example) seeking investments, cooperation in security fields and international supports regarding domestic issues as the recent protest in the Gorno-Badakhshan.
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