After the collapse of the USSR, Tajikistan and Iran moved much closer to one another, acknowledging their shared Persian language and culture. But over two decades later, a relationship defined by mistrust as much as solidarity remains difficult to fathom for outsiders.
In 2006, the then-President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad indicated that “Iran and Tajikistan are one spirit in two bodies.”
Fifteen years earlier Iran had been among the the first countries to recognize Tajik independence in 1991, and was the first nation to establish its embassy in the capital Dushanbe.
— CCCPфото (@CCCP_pix) April 10, 2016
The other four states in ex-Soviet Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are all Turkic-speaking. Tajikistan thus offered Tehran a sphere of priveliged interest and influence in the untapped region.
Happy Persian New Year (Norouz)
To all Persian speaking friends in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan…everywhere living pic.twitter.com/pqJk6PGyDH
— Soodabeh (@SSaeidnia) March 19, 2016
But the spring festival of Nowruz (spelled several different ways), aside, there were — and are — huge differences between the pair.
Iran is an Islamic republic with a majority Shia population. Tajikistan is a secular autocracy with a mostly Sunni population whose government holds a visible fear of all things Islamic.
Under President Emomali Rakhmon Tajikistan has clamped down on sales of Islamic clothing, as well as beards and Arabic-sounding names, for instance.
In December 2015 an opposition-minded Tajik media outlet reported that Tajikistan's government was enraged to find out that Iranian officials had invited the leader of the banned Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Mukhiddin Kabiri, to Tehran to participate in an international conference on “Islamic Unity”.
IRPT, viewed across the world as a moderate political force, had been declared an extremist group by the government just months earlier:
«МИД Республики Таджикистан считает неприемлемыми такие действия организаторов конференции и категорически заявляет, что подобное отношение к недругам государства и народа Таджикистана может оказать негативное влияние на добрые отношения между Республикой Таджикистан и Исламской Республикой Иран»
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan considers the conference organizers’ actions unacceptable and categorically announces that Iran's attitude to the enemies of the Tajik state and people can impact negatively on the good relationship between Republic of Tajikistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
After the conference, Saidmukarram Abdulkodirzoda, the chairman of the pro-government Islamic Center of Tajikistan spiritual body said Kabiri's invitation to the conference showed Iran was “aiding terrorists” and that “Iran openly supports this banned terrorist party.”
Tajikistan has never offered convincing evidence the IRPT engages in terrorist activities. Thirteen members of the party are currently facing jail-time for organizing political violence in the country in proceedings widely likened to a show trial.
Rakhmon heads to Saudi Arabia
On January 2, amid souring relations with Iran, the Tajik president went to Tehran's Middle Eastern rival Saudi Arabia to meet King Salman bin Abdulaziz Saud Oli. After the visit, a host of documents were signed. Rakhmon even took the opportunity to visit Mecca.
Tajikistan, usually Iran ally, trying to court Saudi/UAE, as Tehran snubs it https://t.co/BQ368Zsk03
— Andrew D. Bishop (@Andrew_D_Bishop) April 1, 2016
The visit came shortly after the executions of 47 Shias in Saudi Arabia including one prominent cleric and against the background of alleged proxy wars being waged in the region by the pair. In the days following Rakhmon's visit, Tehran and Riyadh severed diplomatic relations entirely.
The Tajik service of RFE/RL reported March 17 however that Iran and Tajikistan had overcome these mutual betrayals to reach an agreement on cooperation in the sphere of security and defense.
The agreement consists of eleven articles and mostly concentrates on Iranian and Tajik cooperation in combating transnational organised crime, terrorism, drug smuggling, weapons and people, as well as in the fight against crimes in the field of cybernetics.
Ironically however, critics of the two countries say it is in some of these illicit areas where ties between the two countries run deepest:
— eTajikistan (@eTajikistan) March 7, 2016
— Claudine Shepherd (@sh_claudine) March 9, 2016