Why Tajikistan Won’t Abandon the Islamic Republic of Iran

Tajikistan’s important economic and cultural ties to Iran leave the Tajik government with little incentive to comply with U.S. sanctions.

By Monica Witt
April 2, 2012

During a press conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on March 27, 2012, Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, called on states in the region to sever ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In response to a question on how the U.S. and other European countries could promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia without Iran’s participation, Blake replied:

“…Let me just say that consistent with America’s sanctions on Iran, the United States is encouraging all of the countries of the region to avoid trade and other transactions with the government of Iran in order to pressure Iran to engage with the international community about its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program...”

However, the U.S. request that Central Asian states cut ties with Iran may impose too large of a burden. For Tajikistan, this is asking a great deal. There are currently 150 Iranian companies operating in Tajikistan, making Iran the second largest foreign investor in the country after China. In 2011, the Tajik government reported receiving over $204 million in goods turnover between the two countries, a 102% increase from 2010. The Islamic Republic has also put millions of dollars into Tajikistan’s development of hydropower and is currently planning to construct a new hydropower plant near the Zarafshan River.

In addition to Iran’s investment in Tajikistan’s hydropower and significant trade between the two countries, the Tajik people have a warm relationship with the Iranian people, largely due to their shared 2,500-year history. Both countries speak the same language, although the alphabets differ. Iranian culture, film, and media are very popular in Tajikistan. Iranian pop music streams out of cafes, restaurants, and shops onto the streets in Dushanbe. The Norooz, or Iranian New Year celebration, is another shared cultural aspect between the two countries.

Iran also offers cultural programs to the Tajik people, which, according to Hossien Shirkhani, a diplomat at the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe, are extremely popular and successful. Iran provides language classes to teach the Persian script, holds art exhibitions, and has thus far transcribed 350 volumes of books from Persian script into Tajik Cyrillic and vice versa. During his recent visit to Dushanbe, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the Iran Culture House, which aims to showcase Iranian culture to the Tajik people. The Culture House will feature an Iranian restaurant, a book exhibition, displays of Iranian clothing, and meeting rooms to hold international seminars on science and culture.

The U.S. has implemented sanctions in order to pressure Iran into negotiating over its nuclear program, but the Tajiks do not see a need to continue the sanctions. The Tajik government officially argues that every country has the right to a peaceful nuclear program and that it does not believe Iran is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Tajikistan is currently suffering from an energy shortage. Until it can get its hydropower plants up and running, the country relies on gas and oil imports. With Uzbekistan now planning to cut gas to Tajikistan starting April 1, the country needs to diversify in this area. Iran is a natural choice for alleviating the country’s energy difficulties, yet the current U.S.-imposed sanctions prevent Tajikistan from pursuing this option.

Although the Tajik government is not currently feeling any negative effects from the sanctions on its ongoing development projects with Iran, it does worry that the future could bring problems. Yet according to Iranian officials, the new sanctions will not adversely affect either its cultural or development programs within Tajikistan. On the contrary, they believe the sanctions have actually been beneficial. Tajikistan, along with other countries, is now showing increased support and solidarity with Iran over what it perceives as an unjust sanctions policy.

Recognizing that Tajikistan has so much to lose by severing its ties with Iran, what has the U.S. offered in return? According to the Tajik government, absolutely nothing. The U.S. has not offered any economic recourse for the financial gap that would be created should Tajikistan decide to isolate one of its biggest investors and trading partners. As such, it is hard to imagine any country giving up large amounts of badly needed economic investment and trade for nothing. In enacting a policy of severe sanctions against Iran, the U.S. should address the potential affects on other countries and not inadvertently alienate friends by making them choose between Iran and the U.S.

Given the choice, and with no economic incentives from the U.S., Tajikistan will likely stay the course with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Photo courtesy of Daniella Zalcman via Flickr.


It is time for change!
Very good analysis of the situation! Surprisingly US is implementing unjust international policy for about 10-12 years and does not think about the image of the country and the future of democracy....! Using force and putting pressure on other nations has no any future, it can be beneficial for short term policy, but not serve good strategy for the future. US authorities should think that they are putting pressure on the needs of ordinary people living in this region, destroying the process of regional economical development and cheapening the best human values, including regional cooperation, good neighborhood, the values of tolerance, diversity etc, violating the values of democracy and not giving choice for other nations.
If US and its allies in the West and Middle East really want to get rid or free from nuclear power why not start from themselves, showing good example for others? Why they do not put sanction on their friends in Middle East (Israel and Saudis)? I think it is the time for change not for small countries, nations around the world, but for super powers as well. If not today, tomorrow will be late for change your view on modern international issues. Please start now, review your wrong approaches, not tomorrow! Free yourself from wrong mentality, dominating policy, re-pressuring others. It is time for your "Prestroyka"///....., new downloading..... I don't think that US is lack of intellectuals who can be excellent advisers for you in creating new, more human foreign policy. I tell you honestly: your approach sitting behind of Saudies, supporting your domination through Saudies is not allowed and welcomed in Central Asia.
Please think for yourself, for your future, for the future of democratic values in general, if you really want the world, the human being have eventually a freedom. Giving Free Choice of any single nation, to solve their problems for themselves are the first step for global liberty. Otherwise you will not succeed in your business....Don't always teach others, start educate yourselves....Sunatullo Jonboboev, Tajikistan

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