World View: Tajikistan’s Bitter Split with Iran Tempts It to Side with Saudi Arabia

<> on December 14, 2011 in Berlin, Germany.
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This morning’s key headlines from

  • Tajikistan splits with Iran over invitation to alleged terrorist
  • Tajikistan considers turning from Iran to Saudi Arabia

Tajikistan splits with Iran over invitation to alleged terrorist

Iran's Supreme Leader meets with alleged anti-Tajik terrorist Muhiddin Kabiri in Tehran on January 4
Iran’s Supreme Leader meets with alleged anti-Tajik terrorist Muhiddin Kabiri in Tehran on January 4

Tajikistan has reason to have good relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Tajik people are of the same ethnic Persian descent as the people of Iran, and the Tajik language is a dialect of Persian. On the other hand, Tajikistan’s people are mostly Sunni Muslims, unlike the Shia Muslims of Iran, but like the Sunni Muslims of Saudi Arabia.

Tajikistan and Iran have had close relations for many years. Iran needs Tajikistan as a gateway for trade into Central Asia, and Iran has invested millions of dollars in commercial and infrastructure projects in Tajikistan.

However, things went awry in December, when Iran infuriated Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon by inviting Muhiddin Kabiri, leader of the Tajikistan’s opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), to attend an “Islamic Unity” conference, held in Tehran on December 27-29, 2015.

Tajikistan went through a generational crisis civil war from 1992-97. The IRPT played an important part in the civil war, which left tens of thousands dead and more than 1 million people displaced. There was a peace agreement in 1997, but it left many divisions unresolved. According to one estimate, Tajikistan’s government effectively controls only 30% of the country.

Whatever was left of the peace agreement began to unravel in April of last year, when Gen. Gulmurod Khalimov, the head of Tajikistan’s national Special Assignment Police Unit defected to the the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS or ISIL or Daesh). In May of last year, a YouTube video of Khalimov appeared, in which he threatened:

Listen, you dogs, the president and ministers. If only you knew how many boys, our brothers are here, waiting and yearning to return to reestablish Sharia [Islamic] law [in Tajikistan]… We are coming to you, God willing, we are coming to you with slaughter…. Listen, you American pigs, I’ve been to America three times, and I saw how you train fighters to kill Muslims. God willing, I will come with this weapon to your cities, your homes, and we will kill you.

According to a report by the Crisis Group, this spectacular defection by Khalimov shows the growing appear of violent radical Islam, and that the president Rahmon may no longer know who can be trusted in his own government. According to the report:

Since the civil war’s end, Rahmon has tried to marginalize and eliminate opponents, a tendency now gaining momentum. In turn, his government’s draconian responses to what in the society is not firmly under its control, such as dissent and Islam, are creating a backlash.

According to the Norway-based human rights organization Forum 18 Rahmon is reacting to the threat from ISIS by cracking down on all expressions of religion, including:

[A] ban on all exercise of freedom of religion or belief without state permission; severe limitations on the numbers of mosques permitted and activities allowed inside those mosques; the banning of Central Asia’s only legal religious-based political party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), and the arrest of its senior party figures as prisoners of conscience; forcing imams in state-controlled mosques to preach state-dictated sermons; forcible closure of all madrasahs (Islamic religious schools); a ban on all public exercise of freedom of religion or belief, apart from funerals, by people under the age of 18; and state censorship of and bans on some religious literature and websites.

A law was also approved banning children under 18 from attending Friday prayers.

Rahmon is following a generational pattern that we have seen repeated in one country after another in the years following the end of a generational crisis civil war between two ethnic or religious groups within the country. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe from the Shona tribe conducted a massive genocide of his political enemies from the Ndebele tribe. In Syria, Shia/Alawite president Bashar al-Assad began in 2011 committing war crimes and genocide against peacefully protesting Sunnis. In Burundi and Sri Lanka, the leaders are just beginning on a similar path. ( “14-Jan-16 World View — Report: Sri Lankan government repeatedly torturing and raping Tamils”)

It is thought that this harsh crackdown might be counterproductive, in that it will encourage Islamist radicals. EurasiaNet and The Diplomat and Crisis Group and Daily Sabah (Turkey) and Forum 18

Tajikistan considers turning from Iran to Saudi Arabia

In 2015, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) was declared illegal, and its leader Muhiddin Kabiri was declared a terrorist by the government. And so, Iran’s invitation to Kabiri to attend the December “Islamic Unity” conference in Tehran. On December 29, Kabiri even met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Seyed Ali Khamenei.

Some Tajik officials blame Iran for instigating the destructive civil war that took place in Tajikistan in the 1990s. Now Tajikistan has accused Iran of inviting “the head of a terrorist party suspected of mounting an attempted overthrow of the government” to its conference. A Tajik official asked:

How it is possible for the leader of a party that has repeatedly ordered violent acts and killings to speak about unity and Muslim brotherhood? Iran has always spoken of Tajikistan as a brotherly nation with a shared faith and culture. How it is then possible to welcome a terrorist?

Another official called Kabiri a “traitor,” and accused Iran of “openly [supporting] the enemies of the Tajik nation.” These claims by Tajikistan have been discredited internationally, including by the United States.

However, these claims are driven by the same kinds of emotions and desire for revenge that we have described in the leadership of Zimbabwe, Syria, Burundi and Sri Lanka.

Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon paid a visit on January 2-4 to Saudi Arabia. The trip was undoubtedly planned months before the disputes with Iran began, but with both the Saudis and Tajiks in disputes with Iran, events gave the visit a symbolic meaning.

The meeting was presumably about combatting ISIS, and the possibility of Tajikistan joining the Saudi-led 34-member Anti-Terrorist Coalition, which would effectively align Tajikistan with the Saudis in the growing tension with Iran. The Tajiks have apparently chosen not to join the coalition, partially because Tajikistan has close relations with Russia, and Russia opposes the Saudi coalition.

In fact, Tajikistan is depending on Russian troops to protect its long border with Afghanistan from Islamist terror infiltrators. ( “29-Sep-15 World View — Afghan Taliban capture of Kunduz has major repercussions for Central Asia”

Tajikistan’s economy is desperately on the ropes. In the past, Iran has invested more in Tajikistan than Saudi Arabia has. Now, the Saudis are suggesting that they will invest more. But the Saudi economy is in difficulty because of the collapse of oil prices, while Iran is at its peak in regional influence because of the nuclear accord and because it’s receiving billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

For those reasons, most observers believe that, despite the bitterly vitriolic dispute between the two countries, Tajikistan will decide to “follow the money,” and choose Iran over Saudi Arabia. Jamestown and EurasiaNet and RFE/RL and EurasiaNet (30-Dec-2015)

KEYS: Generational Dynamics, Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, Iran, Muhiddin Kabiri, Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, IRPT, Islamic State / of Iraq and Syria/Sham/the Levant, IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, Gulmurod Khalimov, Seyed Ali Khamenei, Saudi Arabia
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