Strained relations between Iran and Tajikistan over the past decade resumed after Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s official visit to Dushanbe on November 8-9, his second trip to the Tajik capital in 18 months.
Raisi’s visit to Tajikistan was symbolically important in a context of rapprochement between the countries that has overshadowed the relatively standard series of bilateral agreements signed.
During the trip, Raisi and his Tajik counterpart, Emomali Rahmon, announced a historic agreement on visa-free travel for their citizens and agreements in the areas of trade, transport and culture, among others.
High-ranking visits have become commonplace between the two countries over the past year: Iranian Defense Minister Reza Qaraei Ashtiani visited Tajikistan in October and chief prosecutor Mohammad Jaafar Montazeri led a judicial delegation to Dushanbe in June.
But relations have not always been rosy between the two Persian-speaking countries, which share close linguistic, cultural and historical ties as well as a common key ally, Russia.
Relations have been marred over the past decade by tensions that have seen the breakdown of investment and export deals, the suspension of direct flights and the closure of Iranian charity and cultural centers in Tajikistan.
Iran angered Tajikistan in 2015 by inviting the leader of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) to a conference just months after the party was highly dubiously banned and labeled a terrorist group by Dushanbe .
Further angering Dushanbe, IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri was photographed being greeted by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the event.
Relations plunged to a new low in 2017 when Tajik state television – government mouthpiece – accused Iran of financing and ordering political assassinations in Tajikistan after a series of prominent figures prominent public figures, including politicians and academics, were killed between 1997 and 2004.
In response, Iran accused Tajikistan of telling blatant and baseless lies.
We start again, we turn off again
Amid tensions, Rahmon did not attend President Hasan Rouhani’s second-term inauguration ceremony in 2017. But all seemed forgotten when Dushanbe and Tehran began to renew ties and Rouhani visited Dushanbe in June 2019.
In September 2020, Tajik state television broadcast another controversial documentary accusing Iran of funding militant activities in Tajikistan.
Tehran called the claim a “baseless allegation” and warned Dushanbe against “the consequences of behavior” that violates “the rules of friendly relations.”
This documentary was made while the Tajik Supreme Court reportedly imprisoned around fifty Tajiks – former graduates of Iranian universities – for treason and religious extremism during closed-door trials.
As Tajik state media and the judiciary reflect the government’s precise positions on certain issues, Dushanbe’s motivations behind this new blow to its relations with Iran are unclear.
What does the future hold?
Rahmon also did not attend Raisi’s inauguration ceremony in August 2021, citing a prior engagement. But the two presidents met the following month, when Raisi chose Tajikistan as the destination for his first foreign trip as president, linking it with participation in a key summit on regional security.
Since then, bilateral ties have become increasingly stronger.
In early 2022, Dushanbe and Tehran announced plans to increase bilateral trade to $500 million in the future, from just $121 million in 2021. And Rahmon visited Tehran in May 2022 – his first trip in Tehran in nine years, as relations were rekindled.
Ahmet Furkan Ozyakar, a Turkish expert on regional politics, said that “Iran’s eastward-looking policy under President Raisi’s leadership is… a remarkable determinant for advancing relations with Dushanbe” amid serious economic problems of Iran due to Western sanctions. Tehran’s controversial nuclear program.
“In the coming months, we expect more official meetings between Dushanbe and Tehran at the ministerial level as part of this rapprochement in common military and security agreements, as well as the increase in trade capabilities,” he said. Ozyakar, professor of international relations at Atatürk University, told RFE. /RL.
But given the recent history of ups and downs between Iran and Tajikistan, some analysts are not so optimistic.
Touraj Atabaki, a leading expert on the Middle East and Central Asia, does not rule out the possibility of new “problems” arising in the near future. Atabaki, an emeritus professor at Leiden University, says any major political changes in either country or international developments could affect relations between Dushanbe and sanctions-hit Iran.
“Tajikistan’s approach to international affairs is different from Iran’s on this issue. Challenges on the global stage could either bring them together or divide them – challenges like Russia’s ongoing war against Iran. Ukraine or the current (Israel-Hamas) war, which threatens to spread to the entire West Asian region,” Atabaki told RFE/RL.