Iran’s Overtures to Tajik Opposition Exposes Deep-Seated Grievances

By: Fozil Mashrab

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Muhiddin Kabiri, Tajikistan’s opposition leader
In December 2015, Iran invited Tajikistan’s opposition leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, to attend a conference on Islam. The invitation extended to Kabiri, who is accused of allegedly masterminding an unsuccessful armed mutiny back home, unsettled the authorities in Dushanbe, which led to Tajikistan’s government summoning the Iranian ambassador to register its strong protest (Khovar.tj, December 30, 2015).

According to the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan, Ambassador Hujatullo Fagoni was told that the participation in the “Islamic Unity” conference of “the former head of an extremist and terrorist [sic] Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan Muhiddin Kabiri,” who faces criminal charges in Tajikistan and is wanted by Interpol, was unacceptable. This conference was held on December 27, 2015, in Tehran. The statement concluded that “such an attitude to enemies of the state and people of Tajikistan could have a negative impact on bilateral relations of the Republic of Tajikistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran” (Mfa.tj, December 29, 2015).

Despite the expression of strong protest by Tajikistan’s government, Kabiri met to exchange compliments with the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which was widely covered in the Iranian press (Catotoday.org, December 31, 2015).

The government in Dushanbe banned the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) in late September 2015. The IRPT had commanded a substantial following inside the country and among more than one million Tajikistani migrant workers in Russia. In particular, the government accused the IRPT’s leadership of organizing an unsuccessful armed mutiny, on September 4, by General Abduhalim Nazarzoda, who was serving at that time as the first deputy minister of defense of Tajikistan (see EDM, September 11, 23, 2015).

The globe-trotting IRPT leader, Muhiddin Kabiri, in exile in Turkey since parliamentary elections in Tajikistan in March 2015, has denied any involvement in the deadly September 4 clashes and continues to assert that the authorities are using the incident as an excuse to wipe out the IRPT. The United States government has also expressed its concern over the banning of Tajikistan’s main opposition party (Ng.ru, September 18, 2015; Dushanbe.usembassy.gov, October 8, 2015).

In early December 2015, the chief of Tajikistan’s State Committee of National Security, Saymumin Yatimov, wrote an article published in several government newspapers, in which he referred to Muhiddin Kabiri and the late General Abduhalim Nazarzoda as “toys in the hands of foreign countries,” but he did not name any specific country. According to Yatimov, “geopolitical players want to present the treacherous actions of some groups and individuals as solely domestic issues. Thus, certain countries pursue their geopolitical interests” (Avesta.tj, December 17, 2015).

Tajikistan is generally considered Iran’s closest partner in Central Asia due to their linguistic, cultural and historical ties. The Tajik language is a dialect of Persian. Moreover, Iran was the first country to recognize Tajikistan’s independence and to open its embassy in Dushanbe. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once described the relationship between the two states as “one spirit in two bodies” (Atimes.com, March 30, 2012).

However, under current President Hassan Rouhani, all the romance in the relationship came to an end, especially after Tajikistan’s authorities arrested Iranian businessman Babak Zanjani, who was helping the government of then-president Ahmadinejad sell Iranian oil abroad while bypassing Western sanctions. According to Iranian officials, Zanjani owns an investment bank, a transport company, an airliner and other valuable assets in Tajikistan worth $600 million. And while in custody, Zanjani claimed that the missing $2.25 billion that he still owes to the government of Iran from the sale of Iranian oil is deposited with the National Bank of Tajikistan (News.tj, January 27, 2015).

Dushanbe denied that Zanjani ever made any investments or held any assets in Tajikistan. The chairman of the National Bank of Tajikistan dismissed as ridiculous any attempts to link the bank to any financial dealings with the Iranian businessman. But Iran maintains the accusation that this Central Asian republic’s government had arrested an Iranian businessman who had valuable assets in Tajikistan (News.tj, June 17, 2015; see EDM, January 20, 2014).

Bilateral relations are also tense because Tajik political elites continue to blame Iran for instigating the destructive civil war that took place in Tajikistan in the 1990s. Thus, the various infrastructure projects the Iranian government undertook in Tajikistan since the end of the civil war, such as building tunnels, roads, hospitals, schools and hydro-electric power stations, were viewed by Tajikistanis as “compensation for the enormous damage” inflicted on the country during the civil war (Paruskg.info, January 1).

Various mutual grievances have, therefore, continuously existed between the two countries. But in the latest diplomatic scuffle, involving IRPT leader Kabiri, neither side seems ready to back down quite so easily. Perhaps, the general mood in Dushanbe after this past December’s row with Tehran is best demonstrated by the indignant expressions of displeasure by Tajikistan’s Grand Mufti Saidmukarram Abduqodirzoda during Friday prayers on New Year’s Day. Specifically, Abduqodirzoda declared that, by inviting Kabiri to Tehran and arranging for him to meet with the Iranian leader, the government of Iran was openly showing its disrespect to the government and the people of Tajikistan. He went on to accuse Iran of supporting the enemies of Tajikistan and called the Islamic Republic “the accomplice of the traitors” (Ca-news.info, January 2).

Furthermore, on January 2, just as Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia, its regional nemesis, reached a serious crisis point spurred by the Saudi government’s execution of a Shia cleric, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon traveled to Riyadh. WikiLeaks has revealed that, in the past, Tajikistan’s leadership made overtures to Saudi Arabia and promised to restrict its ties with Iran “if other sources of financial support become available, especially from the kingdom” (The New York Times, July 16, 2015). Though the timing of his trip was almost certainly a coincidence, Rakhmon nevertheless poured grease on the fire by hailing Saudi Arabia as an important partner of Tajikistan in the Middle East (President.tj, January 2).

In the broader context, these kinds of “stabs in the back” are nothing new in Central Asian politics; eventually, in such cases, each of the countries involved were able to overcome their grievances in order to return to more pragmatic relations. Similar incidents happened in Uzbekistani-Turkish, Kazakhstani-Russian and Kyrgyzstani-Belarusian relations in recent history, when one side hosted or refused to extradite the so-called “enemies of the state” of the other country. But what makes the current row between Tajikistan and Iran stand out from these is the emotional nature of the dispute, given the closeness of the two peoples. Sometimes family feuds can last longer and be more bitter than fights between strangers.