For the past few years, Tajikistan’s propaganda machine has cast Iran in the worst possible light, as a sponsor of terrorism and the architect of numerous attempts to cultivate radical Islamic sentiments.
All that was forgotten about on November 8, when Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi traveled to Dushanbe to be greeted with smiles and warm handshakes.
Following a day of talks and negotiations on November 8, Raisi and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon oversaw the signing of 19 cooperation documents in areas including visa policies, international transportation, drug control, free economic zones, long-term economic and trade cooperation, and research.
“Both [our] countries are concerned about the dear people of Afghanistan, and we believe that the Americans, after two decades of occupying this country, have left nothing but destruction, murder, killing and backwardness for Afghanistan,” he said.
The keynote event on the occasion of Raisi’s visit was a bilateral investment forum created as a format for business community representatives from both countries to explore areas for cooperation. There is no indication the forum produced any firm deal-making, however.
All of which makes it striking that avowed Iranian foe, Saudi Arabia, only last week pledged that it would allocate $100 million in the form of a soft loan for Tajikistan’s ongoing effort to build its colossal Roghun hydropower dam.
Talk of such a loan arriving from Riyadh has been in their air for around a decade, but the restoration of Iranian-Tajik ties appears to have restored urgency to the initiative.
The high point of Saudi overtures to Tajikistan came in 2017. That year, Riyadh’s ambassador in Dushanbe bragged in an interview of having conducted a campaign of diplomacy that had culminated in the “expulsion of Iran and its agents from the country.”
Speaking of a purported intensification of relations with Tajikistan, the ambassador said Saudi Arabia was poised to fund the opening of six religious schools and two universities in the following two years. None of that materialized.
Around the same time, the Tajik government was energetically expunging all Iranian influences. An Iranian trade and culture center in the northern Sughd province was shut down, the works of the Ayatollah Khomeini and other famous Iranian clerics were forbidden, direct flights between the countries were suspended, and Iranian companies were squeezed out. State television aired a documentary accusing Tehran of orchestrating a slew of assassinations of high-profile public figures on Tajik soil during and after the civil war of the 1990s.
This bad blood was caused to a significant degree by an episode in December 2015, when Iran invited Tajik opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who is wanted in Tajikistan on trumped-up charges of fomenting a plot to topple the government, to attend an Islamic-themed conference. During that visit, Kabiri was pictured exchanging warm greetings with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
But with long-promised Saudi investments failing to materialize, Tajikistan has decided to quietly forget its grievances.
The ice began to thaw at the beginning of 2022. Rahmon that year visited Iran and came away with a handful of cooperation agreements, including one on the resumption of direct flights. Iran’s foreign minister and defense minister undertook visits in the opposite direction.
In May 2022, the Iranian armed forces chief of staff, Major-General Mohammad Bagheri, traveled to Dushanbe to attend the opening of a facility for the production of Iranian-designed Ababil-2 tactical drones.