Iranian Defense Minister Visits Tajikistan
Author: Samantha Fanger
Nov 2, 2023
While Iran embarks on a security offensive to the West, it is looking to enlarge its influence in the East. As Central Asia faces security threats on nearly all fronts, Iran has reached out to Tajikistan to build a more stable relationship with its Persian partner. On October 17, Iranian Defense Minister, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani, embarked on an official visit to Dushanbe, where he held meetings with President Emomali Rahmon and Tajik Defense Minister, Colonel-General Sherali Mirzo. While specific details of the discussions were not disclosed by the Tajik Defense spokesperson, it was made clear that the leaders were engaged in exploring opportunities for strengthening bilateral military cooperation.
The visit is significant within the current regional context, as Central Asian and South Caucasus countries are increasingly striving to diversify and establish platforms for regional cooperation independently from major powers such as Russia. Simultaneously, international actors, including China, Western countries, and Iran, are intensifying their engagement with the region. Tajikistan's geographically strategic location places it at the nexus of competition among major powers and threats from non-state actors who are determined to pursue their objectives, often disregarding Tajikistan's sovereignty. Consequently, Tajikistan is in the process of reevaluating and, in some cases, reinforcing its regional and international alliances as it adapts to shifting dynamics with both regional and extra-regional powers.
Historically, Tajikistan and Iran have maintained a complex relationship. However, in recent years, the two nations have made substantial efforts to renew their bilateral ties. Notable examples of this renewal include the Tajikistan-Iran Tourism Forum held on June 13, 2022, aimed at promoting tourism between the two countries, and the Joint Security Task Force meeting on June 21, 2022, in Dushanbe. The joint security task force is designed to facilitate coordination between both states in countering common threats, such as terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking. Earlier this year in May, the defense ministers of Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, China, and India convened during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—a meeting that further demonstrates Tajikistan’s efforts to build security cooperation with neighbors beyond Russia.
Despite differences in religious denominations and the complexities of their bilateral relationship, Iran and Tajikistan have found a strong motivation for cooperation: security. Given the evolving situation in Afghanistan and the Taliban's resurgence, the two nations are increasingly working together to address these shared concerns, collaborating on strategies to counter the potential security threats emanating from the Taliban in the region.
Tajikistan has taken a resolute stance against the Taliban, driven by its historical experiences with Islamist militancy and its ethnolinguistic ties to Afghan Tajiks, who are known to oppose the Taliban's rule. Tajikistan has reportedly provided refuge to prominent anti-Taliban Afghan leaders, openly criticized the Taliban government, and received warnings from the Taliban for its involvement in Afghan affairs.
Historically, Iran has taken advantage of regional power vacuums to enhance its influence. While it has gained some leverage due to the changing dynamics in Iraq, it also faces relative isolation because of its connections to Russia and strained relationships with Western countries. Consequently, Iran is actively seeking alliances, and Tajikistan, in its own unique way, is seizing the opportunity to strengthen cooperation with Iran in response to their shared security concerns. As Central Asian and South Caucasus countries transition away from their post-Soviet identity, Tajikistan is cautious about potential marginalization in various working groups and its lack of an official regional cooperation platform.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan emerged as the poorest among the five Central Asian countries, leading to a heavier reliance on Russia. Additionally, border disputes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have exacerbated their challenges and need for security partnerships. However, following a border conflict in September 2023, the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), consisting of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, expressed its support for the Kyrgyz Republic in resolving the border situation. The OTS, originally focused on cultural cooperation, has begun to play a more prominent role in economic and security matters, particularly in response to Russia's actions in Ukraine. Although Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan did not issue official statements of support for Kyrgyzstan, the OTS's expression of solidarity further strained Tajikistan’s relations with its Turkic-majority Central Asian neighbors, making Tajikistan more willing to explore cooperation with Iran, which shares a mutually intelligible Persian language.
It is probable that Tajikistan will continue to explore cooperation opportunities with its neighboring countries in an effort to enhance its security, with a particular focus on addressing mutual concerns related to Iraq and the Taliban. However, while Tajikistan's pursuit of closer ties with Iran is strategically motivated, it also carries potential risks. Strengthening its alignment with Iran might inadvertently strain relationships with other key partners, including Western nations and other regional neighbors. Looking ahead, Tajikistan is confronted with a challenging balancing act, as it endeavors to navigate the intricate geopolitical dynamics while prioritizing its own security concerns.