The casual visitor could not be blamed for believing Iran’s influence is ascendant in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe. Iranian pop music blasts from many of the city’s cafés. Iranian-made yellow taxis ferry a bevy of fashionable Iranian businessmen around downtown. Market stalls are stacked with Iranian cookies and cakes. And some government buildings are even adorned with signs in three languages: Tajik, Russian, and Persian.
Given the close cultural connection between Tajiks and Iranians, the strong Persian flavor in Dushanbe isn’t so surprising. But on the diplomatic front, there are abundant signs suggesting Tajikistan’s leaders are seeking to distance themselves from Tehran, long the country’s most ardent patron. Although the change can be attributed to Dushanbe’s fears of Islamic radicalism, it has long been clear that Iranian money is welcome in Dushanbe and the Islamic Republic’s politics are not.
The root source of Tajik officials’ suspicion actually has just as much to do with religion as it does with politics, explained Parviz Mullojanov, an independent analyst in Dushanbe. Tajiks are predominantly Sunni while Iranians are mostly Sh’ia, Mullojanov pointed out. “There were incidents when students who graduated from Iranian religious schools adopted Shiism, came home and organized some Sh’ia study groups,” Mullojanov said. “There is suspicion.”
Officials in Dushanbe appeared determined to stymie the rising influence of Islam in Tajikistan after they struggled last summer to contain Islamic militants operating in the Rasht Valley, east of the capital. In recent months, authorities have closed unregistered mosques, dictated acceptable topics for imams to preach, and harassed men with beards.
Last fall, after President Imomali Rahmon voiced concern that young people studying Islam "fall under the influence of extremists and turn into enemies," his government ordered home some 1,400 students studying in the Middle East, including approximately 200 who had been in Iran. Officials later cited “technical problems” behind a decision to prevent a group of teachers from traveling to Tehran to learn the Persian alphabet. And in December, officials yanked 90 Tajik children out of a school run by the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe.
Subsequently, several high-profile Iranian officials have cancelled visits to Dushanbe. Iranian Minister of Industries and Mines Ali Akbar Mehrabian was supposed to attend a Tajik-Iranian meeting on industrial cooperation on February 16. The Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe cited his busy schedule as the reason for his last-minute cancellation.
A week earlier, Iranian Vice-President Hamid Baqa'i also failed to show up for a meeting, this time with President Rahmon, to whom he was supposed to hand deliver Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s invitation to attend Novruz celebrations in Iran. Iranian officials also have expressed displeasure with Tajik Air’s reduction in the number of flights between Dushanbe and Tehran. Similarly, Tajikistan repeatedly has resisted Iran’s calls for an end to the two countries’ visa requirements.
Dushanbe has also balked at Tehran’s plans for a pan-Persian television station to broadcast in the three Persian-speaking countries: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (both Tajik and Dari, which is spoken in Afghanistan, are closely related dialects of modern Persian). In February, the Iranian ambassador said the broadcast equipment was ready to be installed, but Dushanbe has demonstrated little enthusiasm for the project.
Since Tajikistan gained independence 20 years ago, Iran has cited historical and cultural ties as the bedrock of partnership. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has described Tajikistan and Iran as “two bodies, one soul.” Tajik Foreign Minister Khamrokhon Zarifi recently described Iran as "the best strategic partner of Tajikistan." The presidents of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran regularly celebrate Novruz, the Persian New Year on March 21, together.
Iran was said to be Tajikistan’s largest foreign investor in 2010, according to government statistics, delivering $65.5 million for various projects. Tehran has spent some $180 million on the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric plant, which is due to come online this September, and plans to build a $500-million cement plant in Khatlon.
Iran’s sway is impossible to deny. When Uzbekistan blocked the rail delivery of Iranian building materials to Sangtuda-2 last June, Tehran threatened Uzbekistan with a retaliatory blockade of Uzbek railway cars passing through Iran. Tashkent quickly relented.
Yet Marat Mamadshoev, editor of Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus newspaper, says the economic benefits are exaggerated. “I cannot recall any joint Iranian-Tajik projects that became very successful,” he told EurasiaNet.org. Some observers even discount the reliability of the government statistics, saying that in all likelihood China has surpassed Iran as Tajikistan’s largest investor.
Alexander Sodiqov, a lecturer in international affairs at the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University in Dushanbe, suggested that Iranian leaders have realistic ambitions when it comes to Tajikistan. “Iranians are very well aware of the limitations in their role and influence in Tajikistan and they appear to accept these limitations,” he said. Nevertheless, observers will be closely watching whether Rahmon gets his Novruz invitation this year.