By Aditi Bhaduri
New Delhi, June 19: The terrorist threat from Taliban-led Afghanistan and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict are driving new geopolitical and geostrategic alignments in Central Asia. Nothing illustrates this better than the recent Iran-Tajikistan reproach.
More than two decades ago, these two countries aligned themselves closely, alongside Russia and India, to fight against a common enemy: the Taliban 1.0 in neighboring Afghanistan. Iranians believe to this day that the Taliban were created specifically to fight them. In Afghanistan’s other neighboring country, Tajikistan, which shares a 1,400 km border with Afghanistan, the Afghan jihad has been felt the hardest by Dushanbe, compared to all of Afghanistan’s other neighbors in Asia. central. Religious radicalism, jihadism, narcotics trafficking, secessionism and a brutal and protracted civil war – Tajikistan faced all of this as a direct consequence of the Afghan jihad.
However, as Afghanistan escaped the clutches of this religious fundamentalist group, natural fault lines between Iran and Tajikistan appeared. Above all, they stemmed from the different ideologies to which the two countries adhered. Although closely related to each other ethnically and linguistically, Iranians are predominantly Shia while Tajiks are Sunni. But more than that, the Tajik rulers, all from the Soviet era, aim to keep Tajikistan strictly secular.
Having tasted the blood born of a newfound religiosity following the Soviet collapse and Tajik independence, their leaders tolerated no tolerance for the Islamic Republic’s Islamic revolution and attempts to spread theocracy.
All that seems to be a thing of the past, however, as Tajik President Emomali Rahmon paid an official visit to Tehran last month and met with Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi. They have signed more than a dozen agreements, particularly in the political, economic, commercial, scientific and technological, mining, energy, tourism and cultural fields.
Raisi noted that the two Persian-speaking nations can transform their bilateral relations into perfect regional and international relations. The rebuke was launched last year through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) platform, of which Tajikistan is a founding member, and Iran joined last year. Raisi visited Dushanbe, which was presiding, in September last year for the SCO summit, after which he also had a bilateral meeting with Rahmon.
But more than their linguistic and cultural affinity, it is still the problem of Afghanistan that seems to bring these two countries closer together again.
Tajikistan is the only country in the entire region that has steadfastly refused to recognize the new dispensation in Kabul. (Even India has opened channels of communication with the Taliban, recently sending a delegation to Kabul.)
It is bracing for violence that has spilled over from Afghan territory since the United States signed its peace deal with the Taliban, fortifying its border with help from Moscow and under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) led by Moscow. During this time, the Taliban also began recruiting Tajik jihadists to guard the border, and violent clashes have since taken place. As before, Tajikistan actively supports the Panjshir National Resistance Front, the current avatar of the former Northern Alliance.
While Iran had also reached out to them, even harboring them in Tehran, the growing attacks on Shiites and Hazaras inside Afghanistan have once again alienated Tehran. This is why Afghanistan was high on the agenda during Rahmon’s visit. “We share a common view of regional issues and agree that foreigners should not be present in the region. The presence of foreigners (in the region) would in no way create security,” the Iranian president said.
“The security of Afghanistan is very important for the Islamic Republic of Iran and Tajikistan,” he noted, adding that Tehran and Dushanbe are both concerned about the presence of terrorists in Afghanistan and have again called to an “inclusive government” in Kabul.
This rediscovered good-nature between the two Persian states has already begun to bear fruit on the ground: on May 17, Iran inaugurated its very first drone factory in Tajikistan. It will manufacture and export the Ababil-2, a versatile drone with reconnaissance, combat and suicide capabilities.
While for Iran, such a factory offers an opportunity to export drones to Tajikistan, and through it to other neighboring countries, as well as to strengthen reconnaissance activities in Afghanistan, providing a bulwark against the presence in the region, as well as against the Taliban and ISIS-KP related activities. By maintaining close ties with Tajikistan, Iran may also seek to break the mold of Shia solidarity and move towards Persian solidarity, which will resonate with its awareness of the Panjshiri resistance.
For Tajikistan, the calculations are much the same, but it is also emblematic of its efforts to diversify its foreign policy and strategic partnerships. Until now, it was entirely dependent on Moscow for all its security needs. China is making considerable inroads in the region and has acquired a military base there. Yet he may not be able to provide the Tajiks with security like Moscow has.
But with Russian military operations in Ukraine, its defense personnel are under strain and Tajikistan may seek to foster partnerships that won’t trouble Russia. Of all the five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan is the only non-Turkish one, and not quite in love with Turkey or the neo-Ottoman ambitions of its rulers. Turning to Iran is one way to hold on.
Finally, it is quite possible that the ground is being prepared for an offensive against the Taliban. According to Tajik and other Central Asian sources, Moscow has both engaged with the Taliban and increased security in the event of war.
Moscow’s rationale for engaging with the Taliban was its perception that only the former could effectively counter and neutralize the danger posed by ISIS-KP. A year later, that did not happen. ISIS-KP continues to wreak havoc in Afghanistan and target its neighbors. It is therefore quite possible that a summer offensive is in sight.
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