Iran’s foreign minister has embarked on a curious mission to Tajikistan, possibly to patch up relations that have plummeted to historic lows.
Javad Zarif ostensibly flew into Dushanbe on November 8 to attend the inauguration of a new Iranian embassy — the old building having been swept up in the city’s relentless redesign.
But the viciousness of anti-Iranian rhetoric coming out of Tajikistan of late adds piquancy to the visit. Ties have never been without their troubles, but things took a severe turn for the worse in December 2015, when Iran laid out the red carpet for Tajik opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who is wanted back home on trumped-up charges of fomenting a plot to topple the government. Kabiri was in Tehran to attend an Islamic conference, but he managed all the same to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for talks and was pictured as they exchanged warm greetings.
That event was succeeded by a slew of reprisals against Iranian commercial and cultural interests in Tajikistan. In the bitterest public relations onslaught to date, state television in August aired a documentary accusing Tehran of orchestrating a wave of assassinations of high-profile public figures on Tajik soil during and after the civil war of the 1990s.
Off to the side, Saudi Arabian diplomats have been demonstratively rubbing their hands with glee, even claiming responsibility for the falling out between their archenemy and Tajikistan. Speaking in an interview in September, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Tajikistan spoke of his satisfaction at successfully pursuing diplomatic overtures that culminated with the “expulsion of Iran and its agents from the country.”
“This is a great victory for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its wise leadership,” said Abdulaziz bin Mohammed Al-Badi.
The Saudis offered some token sweeteners by pledging to build dozens of schools and even a couple of universities.
It is not immediately obvious that Tehran will be able to match anything like that, but it is noteworthy that Zarif chose to bring along Iran Energy Minister Reza Ardakanian for the ride.
Iran was responsible for developing Tajikistan’s Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric plant and may well be dangling the prospect of offering more technical assistance and possibly funds (unlikely) for the ongoing Roghun hydropower mega-project or other smaller initiatives. Indeed, before bilateral relations went completely down the tubes, Tajikistan was still quietly trying to court Iran into cooperation over the dam.
If nothing else, Zarif’s visit will help clear some air and, most likely, sour the jubilant mood of the Saudis, who are currently otherwise engaged with their own problems anyway.