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China Negotiated Deal Trashed; Iran, Saudi Arabia ‘Fight It Out’ For Radicalization Of Tajikistan

After the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed by a declaration of independence by the 5+2 Central Asian States, some prominent Islamist countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia aspired to fill the vacuum.

Their common agenda was to promote Islamism in Central Asia, which they thought had been de-Islamized under the Soviet regime. They lost no time dispatching their delegations to Dushanbe to sell their hidden agenda to the Tajiks.

An unexpected subtle rebuff from Dushanbe made them realize their knowledge of Tajikistan after less than seven decades of Soviet rule was dismally pitiable. In 1996, while visiting Dushanbe, my senior academic and media friends told me Iran was impatient to build ties with us after independence.

“But when we found that its hand was nearing our throat, we cut it away.” That is a sentence of historical context. These presumptuous countries retreated immediately after realizing the bankruptcy of ideas that belittled them in the presence of those they thought had been de-Islamized.

Why Tajikistan?

Of all the five republics of post-Soviet Central Asia, Tajikistan is the only country of the Aryan race with the old Farsi language and culture. In Avesta- meaning pre-Islamic history and civilization- the lands beyond River Amu (Oxus of Herodotus) were named Turan, different from Turkistan.

TAJIKISTAN
TAJIKISTAN on Map

The people of this vast landmass were originally of Zoroastrian faith and converted to Islam by those who belonged to proselytized groups. Therefore, these presumptuous countries thought they would have an easy walk over them.

Unfortunately for them, they did not know the reality of the transformation of the Central Asian societies from conservatism to modernism under the unique and historically unparalleled theory and practice of Marxism-Leninism.

Under Soviet power, a new and unprecedented Central Asia was born. Its culture perpetuates even today with added passion, 32 years after the implosion of the Soviet Union.

The proof of that is the six-year-long civil war, in which Tajikistan fought against radical forces and won. Again, the tenacious fight that Uzbekistan gave to the sponsored radicals called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Hizbu’t Tahreer (now headquartered in London) is another example.

Tajik-Iran Dissonance

Tajikistan has hardly had good relations with Iran for the past few years. The root cause of their differences was that Tajikistan had evidence to allege that Iran was trying to export the Iranian Islamic revolution to Tajikistan.

Iran forgot that Tajikistan had fought a six-year-long battle against the radicals and had given considerable sacrifices to maintain the secular and non-radicalized ethos it had inherited from Soviet rule. Dushanbe considered Iran a sponsor of terrorism and the architect of numerous attempts to cultivate radical Islamic sentiments.

The Tajik government actively began expunging all Iranian influences. An Iranian trade and culture center in the northern Soghd province, or River Samarkand Valley, was shut down.

The works of Iranian patriarch Ayatollah Khomeini and other famous Iranian clerics were forbidden, direct flights between the countries were suspended, and Iranian companies were squeezed out.

State television aired a documentary accusing Tehran of orchestrating a slew of assassinations of high-profile public figures on Tajik soil during and after the civil war of the 1990s, reported the Eurasia Net on 8 November 2023.

Tajik’s anti-Iran acrimony was accelerated by an episode in December 2015. Iran invited Tajik opposition leader Mohiddin Kabiri, who is wanted in Tajikistan on charges of inciting a plot to topple the government. He attended an Islamic-themed conference in Tehran and was pictured exchanging warm greetings with the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Saudi Factor

With time passing fast and keeping pace with the changing political scenario on the regional and broader plane, Dushanbe began ignoring the hatred that had bedeviled relations with Iran.

At the beginning of 2022, the Tajik President visited Iran and returned with a handful of cooperation agreements. Iran’s foreign and defense ministers reciprocated the visit.

On November 8, Iranian President Raisi traveled to Dushanbe, where he was greeted with smiles and handshakes. Raisi and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon oversaw signing 19 cooperation documents in various areas like visa, international transportation, drug control, etc. Reports said while the Tajik President’s office issued a vague statement, the Iranian President was outspoken against the US.

Apart from this, Riyadh was closely monitoring Raisi’s visit to Dushanbe and deliberations with the Tajik President. Very recently, Saudi Arabia pledged to allocate US$100 million as a soft loan for Tajikistan’s ongoing effort to build its colossal Roghun hydropower dam.

This project was initially conceived during the Soviet period but could not be undertaken due to a lack of funds. After independence from the Soviet Union, Pakistan was reportedly evincing interest in this mega project.

But it fizzled out as Pakistan had neither the money nor expertise to undertake such a project. Saudi Arabia aspires to create clout with the Tajik government by offering a soft loan for building the dam.

Tajikistan tilted towards Saudi Arabia in around 2017. The then Riyadh’s ambassador in Dushanbe said in an interview of “having conducted a campaign of diplomacy that had culminated in the expulsion of Iran and its agents from the country.”

Speaking about Saudi intention to strengthen ties with Tajikistan, the Saudi ambassador said that Saudi Arabia would provide funds to open six religious schools and two universities in the following two years. None of these materialized.

Conclusion

This reflects a curious type of triangular dealing in Central Asian politics. There are some things between Tehran and Riyadh daily, though nothing is openly said about that. Both Iran and Saudi still nurture the expectation of the de-Sovietization of Tajikistan by hanging the carrot of religion before it.

Saudi-China-Iran
File Image: Top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi (middle), Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (right), and Minister of State and national security adviser of Saudi Arabia Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban (left) pose for pictures during a meeting in Beijing, China

Saudi Arabia has a history of announcing grants-in-aid for different projects in different countries but has not moved beyond the formalities and protocols. One cannot say the fate of the aid promised for the Roghun project. Dushanbe has been more resilient after understanding clearly which side of its toast is buttered.

Although Tajikistan is still under the influence of Moscow, the China factor is very much present and active not only in Tajikistan but throughout Central Asia.

How long can Tajikistan resist these pressures remains to be seen. The Beijing-brokered Iran-Saudi rapprochement reflects China’s cheap diplomacy of self-aggrandizement, which is short-lived and unrealistic.

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