World Politics Review, 5 June 2013
For all the focus on contemporary Iran, relatively little attention is paid to its trilateral ties with Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the geolinguistic remnants of an eclectic series of empires collectively denominated Persian. Since 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made it a point to revive Persian nationalism, contrasting it with the clerical elite’s claim to Islam as the exclusive basis of Iranian identity. Significantly, Ahmadinejad’s nationalist rhetoric was accompanied by a raft of summits, forums and agreements among the three countries, which he called “limbs of the same body,” echoing the 13th-century Persian poet Saadi.
Despite the historical echoes, however, the current effort is driven by Iran’s strategic interests. A 2009 United Nations report (.pdf) estimated that 40 percent of opiates produced in Afghanistan—the source of 90 percent of global supply—transit through Iran, giving rise to Iranian addiction rates five times greater than Europe’s. The spillover impact is also felt in Iran’s southeast, where an armed narco-insurgency by the Sunni Baluch group Jundollah seethes on.
Afghanistan’s successive wars have moreover burdened Iran with the world’s largest refugee population after Pakistan. Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees, including execution and deportation, has raised tensions with Kabul. This may be linked to another focus of Iranian interest involving an ongoing dispute over the Helmand River, which irrigates the parched Sistan basin that spans the border, rendering Iran vulnerable to Afghan dam construction.
But the post-Taliban turbulence in Afghanistan has also permitted closer relations with Kabul, even as Iran counterintuitively supports (.pdf) the reconstituted Taliban to undercut U.S. influence. Tehran remains Afghanistan’s leading per capita income donor, and full-spectrum Iranian investment, notably around Herat, raised the value of bilateral trade to $1.5 billion in 2010. Education and cultural-religious outreach, key elements of Iranian engagement with Afghanistan, concurrently aim to thwart Wahhabi-Deobandi influences bankrolled by Riyadh and Islamabad. Iran also has the ear of Afghanistan’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Asif Mohseni, while returning Afghan refugees subtly propagate Iranian thinking.
Furthermore, Iran has a keen interest in Afghanistan’s mineral deposits, estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion. Tehran and New Delhi envisage rail-linking Iran’s Chabahar port with Bamyan’s Hajigak iron mines, where India is eyeing a lucrative deal. Once built, the transit corridor would allow Afghanistan and India to skirt Pakistan’s politically difficult and insecure territory, while making Iran, the ancient Silk Road’s linchpin, a major maritime outlet for Central Asia.
Enter Tajikistan, whose geography is key to anchoring Iranian interests in the landlocked region. There are plans for a road-rail-energy superhighway spanning Afghanistan, Iran and Tajikistan and ultimately tapping into China. Cultural, literary and educational exchange have likewise made strides, and Dushanbe has supported Tehran during tough times, including announcing in June 2012 its intentions to purchase sanctioned Iranian oil.
Although Tajikistan attracts meager foreign investment and relies overwhelmingly on Russia for its energy needs, Iran is fast filling the vacuum with trade and infrastructural investments like the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric station. Powered by significant glacial reserves, such dams sustain Tajikistan’s critical aluminum and cotton sectors and allow it to diversify away from hydrocarbons, notwithstanding downstream anxieties. In exchange, Iran is looking to secure fresh water for its arid northeast.
Still, Iran’s aspirations for extended influence face obstacles.
First, mutual suspicions and differences linger. Shiites constitute one-fifth of Afghanistan’s population, and the majority Pashtun Sunnis still dominate the government. Tajikistan’s Sunni-Shiite ratio is starker still, with Soviet-inherited secularism and growing Sunni fundamentalism further hindering Iranian outreach. Dushanbe’s mistrust has even rattled elite plans for a trinational Persian-language TV channel and blocked Tehran’s push for a visa-free regime. As a result, Iran’s efforts to highlight the three countries’ common heritage, rather than religion, still face significant long-term impediments.
Second, massive instability persists. Afghanistan and Tajikistan are no strangers to fundamentalism, and Iran’s opportunistic if risky dalliance with the Taliban alarms many, as did its alleged support for the Islamic Revival Party during Tajikistan’s civil war. An armed insurgency continues to drain the Tajik government’s patience and resources, and provides justification for the stifling of religious practice. Afghan narcotics and atrocious Tajik border policing only add to the problems. Similarly, deep-seated ethnic tensions threaten to upend Afghan peace efforts and rekindle Tajik civil strife.
Third, economic uncertainty prevails. Foreign aid comprises 91 percent of Afghanistan’s economy, and much of what’s left persistently reverts to poppy cultivation. Tajikistan, though better off in many ways, endures as the most destitute ex-Soviet state, with 47 percent of its GDP underwritten by remittances, according to the World Bank (.pdf). Both are saddled with systemic corruption, high unemployment, dire poverty and conspicuous underdevelopment. Meanwhile, Iran’s economy has suffered under sanctions linked to its nuclear program.
Fourth, both Afghanistan and Tajikistan’s strategic circumstances favor balance, not alignment. Afghanistan’s priority is still to counter the Taliban and Haqqani-led insurgencies, making their sponsor, Pakistan, Kabul’s primary strategic concern. The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has consequently deepened ties with India, but only enough to create the same balance it has achieved vis-a-vis Tehran and Washington. Virtually starting from scratch, Afghanistan needs as wide a range of benefactors as its diplomacy can muster.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan’s economic sclerosis leaves it stuck in Russia’s shadow. The Kremlin recently renewed its in-country military presence for several decades, but this helps Dushanbe interdict the ingress of drugs and insurgents, balance against Uzbekistan and guarantee the flow of oil and Russian-sourced remittances. While Iran’s cash is welcome in Dushanbe, Tehran’s agenda isn’t.
Finally, whereas pan-Turkism did not live up to the exuberance of Turkey’s Central Asia foray in the 1990s, deeper Persian integration—assuming Ahmadinejad’s successor stays the course—could arouse a Turkic solidarity that further hampers Iranian interests.
While seeking to expand its influence out of self-interest, Iran has arguably fostered some stability in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Should it manage to reintegrate itself into the global arena, Iran could actually become a far more potent force for constructive change in the region.
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