Iran has long been an influential power in its surrounding region, with a focus on Arab states to the west and support for allied governments and non-state actors there.
However, a visit by the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, to Tehran on May 30 and the opening of a new Iranian drone factory in the Tajik capital Dushanbe two weeks earlier, testify to the orientation of the foreign policy of the Iran to the East, as the country pursues greater engagement with non-Western countries.
The new factory in Tajikistan will manufacture the Ababil-2 drone, which Iran says has a range of 200 km (124 miles).
The plant is the first such facility Iran has built in a foreign country and highlights Tehran’s ability to “export military equipment to allied and friendly countries to help build security and lasting peace.” “, said General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, head of the Iranian armed forces. staff, said at the inauguration on May 17.
Iran’s drones have been a source of influence in Arab countries, such as Lebanon and Yemen, and have played a vital role in Tehran’s efforts to strengthen its position and that of its regional allies and surrogates, while heightening the concerns of the United States, Israel and some countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Tajikistan, however, is not in the Middle East, but in Central Asia. However, since the independence of Tajikistan in 1991, Iran has mostly good ties with Dushanbe.
Similar languages and strong cultural ties have been essential to Iranian-Tajik relations.
“As the poorest of the former Soviet republics, Tajikistan was happy to win new international partners to help reduce its dependence on Russia, while for Iran it offered an opening to Asia. center and the revitalization of a wider Persian cultural space, which has helped combat Western-led efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic,” said Edward Wastnidge, who teaches international studies and politics at the British Open University, at Al Jazeera.
“For example, the former [Iranian] President Ahmadinejad has sought to establish a ‘Union of Persian-Speaking Nations’ between Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, though this is more a declaration of common cultural ties than anything substantive added Wastnidge.
Although relations deteriorated in the mid-2010s, ties improved again and led to two-way trade that more than doubled between 2020 and 2021, reaching $121 million.
In February, Iranian and Tajik officials also pledged to increase annual trade to $500 million. As a landlocked country, Tajikistan views Iran’s ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas as critical to its ability to access the Gulf and Arabian Sea.
The Afghan Variable
The strengthening of ties, especially defense cooperation, between Iran and Tajikistan comes with both countries concerned about insecurity in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
“Iran and Tajikistan have mutual security concerns in Afghanistan,” Omid Rahimi, a researcher at the Institute for Central Asia and Afghanistan Studies, told Al Jazeera. “Iran also defines stability and security in Tajikistan and Central Asia as its strategic interests. The northeast is the only safe area without direct threat in Iran’s peripheral geography.
Dushanbe wants to better defend Tajikistan against armed groups and crack down on illegal border crossings into Tajikistan from Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. Shared fears about ISKP, the Central Asian branch of ISIL (ISIS) and other violent groups are why Iran is keen to strengthen security coordination with other states bordering Afghanistan.
Yet Tehran and Dushanbe have taken different approaches to dealing with the Taliban.
“By accepting the current situation, Iran has realistically chosen not to confront the Taliban, but Tajikistan, from an ethnic point of view, has supported the Tajik resistance. [in Afghanistan]“, explained Rahimi. “Of course, this concerns Iran and other countries, such as Uzbekistan or even Russia and China. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that Tajikistan also feels strongly threatened by Afghanistan and therefore prefers to keep an important and influential actor like Iran at its side.
[BELOW: do we mean armed hostilities here or a deterioration in relations?]
If hostility erupts later between Iran and the Taliban, Tehran could move closer to Tajikistan’s position.
But Tehran can be expected to exercise caution on Afghanistan, given Iran’s border security concerns.
“There are officially around four million Afghans currently living in Iran, and the real number is estimated to be much higher than that. Iran sees them as a potential security threat because they can be infiltrated by pro-Taliban or pro-Qaeda sympathizers,” said Eldar Mamedov, foreign policy adviser at the European Parliament, who spoke to Al Jazeera. personally.
“For this reason, it is very unlikely that Iran will act openly against the Taliban – let alone because the [anti-Taliban] The Panjsher resistance is not currently considered to have the potential to overthrow the Taliban.
Iranian regional competition
The influence of GCC members in Tajikistan is relevant to relations between Tehran and Dushanbe.
“Rahmon seeks to maneuver between a variety of regional and global players, extracting maximum benefit for his power. This is driven as much by geopolitics as by investment expectations,” Mamedov explained. “Currently, Tajikistan’s relations with Iran are on the mend, but Rahmon is also courting the [GCC states] assiduously.”
Although to a lesser extent, the Iranian-Saudi rivalry has affected Dushanbe.
While making inroads in Tajikistan and deepening defense cooperation with the country, Iran wants to counter Saudi influence in Dushanbe, which grew when relations between Iran and Tajikistan were poor.
“Riyadh took full advantage of the breakup and sought to leverage its financial power by investing in a number of economic and development projects in Tajikistan. It was pure geopolitical opportunism on the part of Riyadh, seeking to capitalize on the situation in order to deprive Iran of its position as a key ally and investor in Tajikistan,” Wastnidge added.
Turkish-Iranian competition in the region also comes into play.
Turkey has already armed Azerbaijan with Bayraktar drones and sold them to other Central Asian states; Iran likely sees its new factory in Dushanbe as part of an effort to compete with Ankara.
Tajikistan, a non-Turkish country that shares deep cultural and linguistic ties with Iran, is a part of Central Asia where Tehran has advantages over Turkey, despite its less advanced drones than the Bayraktars.
Given Tajikistan’s April 2021 border clash over water resources with Kyrgyzstan, Dushanbe could perhaps benefit from Iran’s competition with regional players.
“Tajikistan was also interested in acquiring Turkish drones. However, Rahmon may seek to diversify his regional ties to include Iran and play Iran and Turkey against each other to his advantage,” Mamedov explained. “This may prove useful as a hedging strategy as Tajikistan is mired in a conflict with Turkish Kyrgyzstan.”