Tajikistan: Between a Rock, a Hard Place and Iran

As the United States plot their exit from Afghanistan, they’re making efforts to reenlist Central Asian support.

The head of United States Central Command, General James Mattis, held talks with Tajik president Emomalii Rahmon last Saturday to enlist commitments of continued support for American and NATO operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

Rahmon told Mattis that “Tajikistan would like to see further strengthening of the development of ties with the United States in the sphere of security and the establishment of peace and stability in the region.”

On Monday, Rahmon met with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who came bearing promises of pipelines and railways during the fifth annual Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan.

Ahmedinijad came away from the talks pleased, telling reporters that Tajikistan and Iran are culturally “parts of the same body.”

Caught between the Americans, a thousand kilometer border with Afghanistan, and a cultural connection to Iran, Tajikistan is indeed stuck economically and politically between conflicting interests and allies.

Tajikistan is landlocked, mountainous, and the one of Central Asia’s poorest states. Its government is nominally a republic. In reality, Emomalii Rahmon has been ruling the one party dominant state since 1992.

A political survivor, Rahmon held on to power throughout the Tajik civil war of the 1990s and secured a third term in an election in 2006.

The country is dependent on Russia and Uzbekistan for energy. Its main sources of income are the aluminum industry, cotton growing and remittances from Tajiks working abroad.

Uzbekistan recently announced that it will be stopping the flow of gas into Tajikistan, reportedly in order to meet commitments to larger buyers such as China. Regional analysts believe there is more politics to the stoppage than practicality. Tajikistan’s gas demand annually equals about what Uzbekistan produces in a single day.

The Tajiks are looking for ways to diversify their energy sources and the Iranian promises sound tempting.

Iran and Tajikistan share a cultural and linguistic history but little else. Ideologically and politically they diverge and economically, neither can quite afford to pay for the Iranian promises.

Both countries are predominantly Muslim but Iran is a bombastic Shia bastion and Tajikistan mostly Sunni of the Central Asian persuasion.

Tajikistan is politically secular, as is the norm in Central Asia. Political secularism in the region derives from the Soviet system and is also influenced by Sufism and pre-Islamic regional history. The 2006 election was boycotted by “mainline” opposition parties such as the Islamic Renaissance Party, which receives moral support from Iran and is the only legal Islamic political party in Tajikistan.

To further illustrate the ideological divide, Tajikistan has been criticized by Iranian representatives for imposing “Islamaphobic rules on the population” such as banning the hijab and preventing underage children from attending mosque.

Ideological differences are complicating factors not deal breakers but Iran’s promises remain pipedreams because of economics and security.

Rahmon and Ahmedinijad, joined by Afghan president Hamid Karzai released a statement after talks in the Tajik capital city of Dushanbe which read that the three had “reached an understanding on how to cooperate more productively to accelerate construction of a railway from Iran to Tajikistan through Afghanistan.” They also announced plans to build an “energy line” across the three countries.

Delegations from Dushanbe and Kabul are scheduled to meet in Tehran in two months to discuss the implementation of the projects, according to the same statement from President Rahmon’s office.

The reality is that Tajikistan cannot afford the projects. The technical and security challenges of building a pipeline or railway across Afghanistan are unlikely to be easily surmounted. Iran, the target of multiple international sanctions because of its nuclear program, is also unlikely to be able to fund its promises or attract many investors for the risky venture.

Tajikistan is in a tight spot. Uzbekistan, reportedly irked by Tajik hydropower projects upstream, is squeezing the state by cutting off the gas supply.

Iran is under siege and scrounging for allies. It hopes to exploit the cultural connection with Tajikistan by offering promises which the Tajik government must realize are pipedreams.

The war in Afghanistan goes on and while the Americans plot their exit by 2014, they have made efforts to reenlist Central Asian support for the cause.