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Iran Extends Influence in Central Asia's Tajikistan

  • James Brooke

Iran is competing with Russia as it seeks to forge closer ties with Tajikistan, the one Persian-speaking nation of the former Soviet Central Asia.

The capitals of Iran and Tajikistan are 1,000 kilometers apart, but when their presidents meet, they don’t need interpreters.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke in Dushanbe, with Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon. They lead the world’s two majority Persian-speaking nations.

Twenty years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Iran was the first nation to recognize an independent Tajikistan. Iran’s red, white and green tricolor flag served as a model for Tajikistan’s flag.

Muhiddin Kabiri is head of Tajikistan’s Islamic Renewal Party:

Kabiri notes that Iranians are Shi'ite Muslims and Tajiks are Sunni Muslims. Otherwise, he says the two peoples are united by a common history, literature, and language.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad has called the relationship “one spirit in two bodies.”

The Iranian president was here in September to inaugurate a hydroelectric plant and sign an agreement for a second one. Iran is to operate both plants until it has recouped its investments through electricity sales.

Sayfullo Safarov is deputy director of Tajikistan’s Center for Strategic Studies, a government-affiliated think tank:

He says that the two nations’ interests align in energy, trade and culture.

Iran is the second largest foreign investor in Tajikistan after China. Now, China and Iran are planning to build a connecting rail line through Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

But Russia is still the dominant power here. Kabiri’s Islamic Party works closely with Tajik migrant workers in Russia.

He says Iran will never replace Russia. He notes that one million Tajik men now support their families by working in Russia.

But Moscow’s rule of Tajikistan lasted only one century, compared to Tajikistan’s 2,500 years of common history with the ancient Persian Empire.

Zafar Abdullayev, a pro-democracy blogger here, believes that Iran and Tajikistan will eventually form a visa-free common market.

He says that for Tajikistan, an officially largely secular nation, keys to closer ties will be more democracy and more tolerance in Iran.

Two decades after the collapse of Soviet power in Central Asia, Abdullayev and others say that now it is Iran’s turn to liberalize.