Tajikistan: Stepping Away From Iran, To Saudi Arabia
Last week, an Iranian trade and culture center in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd province closed its doors.
By all appearances, the shuttering came at the request of the Tajik authorities. In another oddly timed development, the works of the Ayatollah Khomeini and other famous Iranian clerics have been forbidden.
As RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, Radio Ozodi, reported, the Iranian center in the city of Khujand was particularly appreciated for its library services and fast internet. It also provided support to local writers in getting published and organized study trips to Iran for young people.
No official explanation has been provided for this new souring in relations. During happier times, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the Iranian president, he would visit Tajikistan every year. The current leader, Hassan Rouhani, has only been once, in 2014, and that was for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
One recent historic irritant has been the fate of the assets of disgraced Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani, whose international business empire once included assets in Tajikistan ranging from a bank and an airline to a taxi service and a bus terminal. When Zanjani was arrested in Iran in 2013, for allegedly salting away billions of dollars owed to his country’s Oil Ministry, he produced documentation purporting to show that he had stashed large sums of money with the National Bank of Tajikistan, a claim that Dushanbe heatedly denies. All Zanjani’s firm assets were duly snaffled by Tajik businesses, much to Iran’s chagrin.
Then, in a clear tweak at Tajikistan, Tehran in December 2015 welcomed Tajik opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who is wanted back home on trumped-up charges of fomenting a plot to topple the government, to an Islamic-themed conference. During the same visit, Kabiri met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for talks and was pictured as they exchanged warm greetings.
The Tajik Foreign Ministry duly fired off a note of protest.
In a firmer reprisal, the customs service subsequently introduced restrictions on the import of food products from Iran. Dry leaf tea, poultry and other goods were ruled unacceptable for their allegedly poor quality. In July 2016, the Tajik office of Iran’s Khomeini Imdod Committee, an international development fund, closed.
As of July, the Foreign Ministry has resumed its practice of issuing expedited visas in its main international airports, but Iran is, along with Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, among the countries excluded from the list of beneficiary nations.
While relations with Iran may have chilled, Tajikistan has eagerly cultivated those with Saudi Arabia, mainly for financial support. In May, Saudi Arabia’s development fund provided $35 million to build 30 middle schools in Tajikistan’s provinces. There is even talk — more hopeful than factual so far — that Riyadh might even consider putting down some cash toward the building of the Roghun mega-dam.