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The Iranian-Saudi rivalry is undoubtedly centered on the Mideast, but it’s also creeping into Central Asia, too. Largely ignored by both the Mainstream and Alternative Media, the impoverished but strategically positioned state of Tajikistan has suddenly emerged as a focal point of competition between these two Great Powers. Iran’s traditional legacy of historic, ethnic, and linguistic ties with Tajikistan is being “balanced” by Riyadh’s recent financial outreaches to Dushanbe, though it remains to be seen just how adroitly President Rahmon can manage his country’s relations with these two feuding parties.
The Roots Of Rivalry
The Diplomat published a useful article about Iranian-Tajik relations a few weeks ago titled “Iran Courts Tajikistan”, and it presents an impressively concise overview of the bilateral relationship since 1991. In a nutshell, Iran leveraged its civilizational ties with Tajikistan in order to make strategic inroads in the country, manifested most visibly by important infrastructure projects and soft power projection. However, Tehran may have irreparably harmed relations with the Rahmon government by hosting Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) “opposition” leader Muhiddin Kabiri in 2015 at the International Islamic Unity Conference in order to supposedly send a signal to Dushanbe that it should back off a bit from its rapprochement with Riyadh.
Relations with the Kingdom had previously been very frigid because of the Saudis’ support for fundamentalist rebels during the 1992-1997 Tajik Civil War, but Riyadh’s seemingly limitless checkbook was attractive for destitute Dushanbe. The two sides didn’t reach any significant deals until earlier this year in May when the Saudis gave their Tajik counterparts a $200 million grant for building new parliamentary and governmental complexes. They also loaned them $35 million for constructing new schools, though it’s unclear whether or not these will be Wahhabi-run like just about all of Saudi Arabia’s international “educational” projects.
Moscow-based Turkish political scientist and journalist Engin Ozer wrote at the time that Saudi Arabia is trying to influence Tajikistan and prevent its integration into the Eurasian Union. Moreover, he says that Riyadh might also be cultivating friendly elements of the Russia-based Tajik diaspora in order to craft a future instrument of pressure against Moscow. Ozer also believes that this is part of a joint US-Saudi plot to prepare for the destabilization of Central Asia. All told, his analysis is very accurate, and Rahmon’s attendance at the Riyadh Summit last month confirms that relations between the two sides are proceeding at a very fast pace. This therefore brings into question why Iran isn’t doing more to counter its regional-religious rival in the Central Asian state most closely related to its own ancient Persian civilization.
Like the earlier-referenced Diplomat article writes, Iran is indeed trying to recover some of its lost influence in Tajikistan, but the fact is that Tehran’s feting of Kabiri roughly 18 months ago couldn’t have come at a worse time. The IRPT had just been designated as a terrorist organization by the Tajik authorities after being accused of complicity in a violent attempted coup, so Dushanbe unofficially interpreted Tehran’s hosting of the banned party’s leader as “supporting terrorism”, which obviously played well to Riyadh’s ears and created the much-needed opening that it desired to re-enter the Central Asia space via its weakest and most desperate country. It’s presently difficult to quantify the level of Iranian and Saudi influence in Tajikistan, but it can safely be assumed that both Great Powers are jostling for control there, while Dushanbe is trying to do its best to “balance” between both of them.
Russian And Chinese Stabilizing Influence
Amidst the Iranian-Saudi competition for Tajikistan, one certainly can’t forget the Russian factor, since it’s Moscow which exerts the greatest degree of influence on the Central Asian state. The Russian-based Tajik diaspora contributed to more than half of the country’s GDP in 2014 through remittances, and Russia’s largest military base outside of its own borders is the 201st Motor Rifle Division near Dushanbe. In addition, Russia reached an agreement with Tajikistan earlier this year to return to jointly patrolling the long and porous riparian border with Afghanistan, which Moscow used to do until Dushanbe asked it to stop in the mid-2000s under what is suspected to have been heavy American pressure. Understandably, Russia is always suspicious of Saudi “educational” investments anywhere in the post-Soviet space, but at the same time it also doesn’t trust any foreign country such as Iran implying political support to “Islamic opposition” forces such as the now-banned and terrorist-designated IRPT.
Moscow understands that there are certain religious (Sunni) and civilizational (Persian) identity variables which play more to Riyadh and Tehran’s respective advantages when it comes to harnessing soft power, which is why Russia concentrates its efforts on presenting itself as the secular- and security-focused actor ensuring stability in the post-civil war country. China is also involved in this as well, albeit in different capacities. The People’s Republic is Tajikistan’s top trading partner because of the dominant position that it holds in as the country’s main source of imports, with Russia only providing half of amount that China does and neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia anywhere in the top five for either imports or exports. Furthermore, China unveiled the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) last summer between itself, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, though this is more complementary to Russia’s mutual defense arrangements with Tajikistan through the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) than a competitor to it.
For the most part, Russia and China’s partnerships with Tajikistan are overall a stabilizing factor for the country, whereas Iran and Saudi Arabia’s competition for the Central Asian state could become destabilizing, therefore most directly harming Russia, China, and also Pakistan’s interests vis-à-vis the spillover effect that any potential proxy conflict could have for Central Asia and Afghanistan, respectively. It should be noted that Tajikistan has a sizeable diaspora in neighboring Afghanistan which is actually larger than the Tajiks living in their namesake state, while an unconfirmed number of them live in the country’s chief rival Uzbekistan. About this latter fact, The Diplomat correctly chronicles in its September 2016 article about “The Tajik Tragedy Of Uzbekistan” how this people’s historic lands of Samarkand and Bukhara were administratively annexed to Uzbekistan by Josef Stalin during the national delineation of Central Asia in the 1930s, which created a tense post-independence situation after 1991 that prompted Tashkent to suppress the Tajik minority and intimidate them into publicly disowning their identity.
The Afghan Connection:
The reason why this largely forgotten historical-demographic fact is being brought up in the context of the present analysis is to demonstrate to the reader how far-reaching the geographically contiguous Tajik population of Central Asia is, as it already dominates northern Afghanistan and is present to an uncertain extent in the western regions of Uzbekistan. There are thus very concrete geopolitical motivations behind the Iranian-Saudi competition for Tajikistan since this could by extended degree allow them to exert influence in either of these two states, though most immediately in Afghanistan. That war-torn country has seen the Tajiks become a disproportionately influential political force following the 2001 ousting of the Taliban from power, and this was all done intentionally by the US with the intent of dividing and conquering the country along the same “favored minority” colonial model that the British skillfully employed for centuries across the world.
Quite expectedly, this has led to furious resentment from the Pashtuns, who are the largest group in Afghanistan and feel shut out of the political process, which has in turn led them to support the Taliban’s very successful national liberation campaign in the country and undermine American ephemeral ‘gains’ there. All of a sudden, though, the Saudi-linked Daesh terrorist organization popped up in Afghanistan as the rebranded “Islamic State Khorasan Province” (ISKP) and began offering up stiff resistance to the Taliban, which has ultimately worked to America’s relative interests and those of its in-country Tajik partners. Therefore, it wouldn’t be ungrounded to suggest that the rock-solid US-Saudi military-strategic relationship might also be expanding to Afghanistan, with Washington supporting the Tajiks while Riyadh does the same with ISKP.
Only this year have the Saudis come to deepen their influence in Tajikistan proper, as evidenced by Dushanbe’s presidential presence at the Riyadh Summit and the $200 million grant that the Kingdom gave to the country (in exchange?) right around that time, but this is a troublesome development for the Russians, Chinese, and Pakistanis.
The US-Saudi Partnership:
Saudi Arabia’s unstated but significant entrance as a key player in the War on Afghanistan is hampering the prospects for peace between Kabul and the Taliban, which therefore creates security problems for Pakistan along the lengthy Durand Line border by giving cover to Indian RAW operatives active in this transnational space. Accordingly, it also means the prolongation of New Delhi’s Hybrid War on CPEC. As for Russia, Moscow has recently prioritized the peace process in Afghanistan and has even hosted three high-level conferences to this effect because it’s worried about a potential Central Asian spillover if the war doesn’t end in the near future. It’s not the Taliban that Russia fears, however, but ISKP, which aside from receiving US-Saudi assistance, even enjoys the backing of Kabul and India. It’s at this point where the Uzbek direction of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry comes into play, because one of the most “logical” first steps that the terrorist group could make in Central Asia would be through operating under the disguise of a “Tajik freedom movement” in western Uzbekistan.
Iran vs Saudi Arabia:
Whether this scenario comes into play, a “Greater (Islamic) Uzbek” one does, the two clash, or perhaps another ISKP-influenced geopolitical development occurs, the inevitable outcome would be the triggering of large-scale refugee flows to Russia if the crisis isn’t immediately contained, perhaps through coordinated SCO and CSTO interventions. That’s why Russia is so concerned about developments in Central Asia, which brings the focus back to Tajikistan, the state that functions as the pivot space between Afghanistan and Central Asia by virtue of its geography and diaspora.
As such, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also interested in this country as well. Iran’s grand strategy vis-a-vis Tajikistan is to extend its influence over the historical Persian cultural space as far east as possible (going through Afghanistan first, of course), which could therefore give Tehran a foothold in deeper foothold in Central Asia. Saudi Arabia, for its part, wants to thwart its rival’s ambitions and simultaneously create complications for Iran’s soft power projection in the region. The contradiction between these two is best summed up as a clash between Tajiks’ Persian identity and their Sunni one.
Russia and China provide the “third way” – a secular identity in an integrated Eurasia – though this might become increasingly difficult to ensure in the midst of an uncertain and potentially turbulent political transition in Tajikistan following the inevitable end of aging President Rahmon’s rule, which isn’t likely to be as smooth as in neighboring and much more stably (in a relative sense) cohesive Uzbekistan. The Iranian-Saudi competition for Tajikistan as fought out through the Tehran-supported IRPT and the Saudi-backed ISKP spikes the chances that this interim period could result in profound instability, thereby endangering everyone’s interests except the US’.
Looking forward, Tajikistan is without question the weakest and most vulnerable state in Central Asia to Hybrid Warfare, which stands the chance of being waged via proxy by Iran and Saudi Arabia through the IRPT and ISKP, respectively, during the country’s inevitably forthcoming political transition. In addition, the existing competition between the two Great Powers over this tiny state could see either of them make destabilizing outreaches to the Tajik diaspora in neighboring Uzbekistan or Afghanistan, both of which could undermine those states and create further security complications for Russia, China, and Pakistan.
Given the existing state of affairs in the region as regards Iran and Saudi Arabia’s core interests, Tehran would do well to follow Moscow, Beijing, and Islamabad’s lead in promoting the Taliban as the most effective anti-terrorist fighting force in Afghanistan in order to offset Riyadh’s plans for using the country as a launching pad for ISKP attacks inside of Iran. It’s understandable that Iran wants to preserve its civilizational influence in Tajikistan, but it might have blown its best opportunity to do so until Rahmon leaves office because of its provocative support of the IRPT in late-2015, which opened the door for Saudi Arabia to approach the country with a “balancing” offer that it evidently couldn’t refuse.
This in turn made Tajikistan the ultimate variable in determining the stability of the interconnected Central Asian-Afghan space, bridged as it is by the large Tajik diaspora on both sides. Instead of functioning as the ‘glue’ for ensuring stability in this transnational region, it’s ever more looking to be one of the forces which could pull it apart as Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for the Tajiks’ loyalty, which carries with it serious implications for Russia, China, and Pakistan’s security. It’s difficult to forecast how all of this will play out, but it’s nevertheless likely to be contingent on whether Iran behaves responsibly by disowning the IRPT and cooperates with its natural Eurasian partners to drive Saudi influence out of Tajikistan.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.