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Relations between Iran and Tajikistan Degrade

Tajikistan prefers Mahmud Ahmadinejad


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During happier times, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the Iranian president, he would visit Tajikistan every year. The current leader, Hassan Rouhani, has only been once, in 2014, and that was for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.

One recent historic irritant has been the fate of the assets of disgraced Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani, whose international business empire once included assets in Tajikistan ranging from a bank and an airline to a taxi service and a bus terminal. When Zanjani was arrested in Iran in 2013, for allegedly salting away billions of dollars owed to his country’s Oil Ministry, he produced documentation purporting to show that he had stashed large sums of money with the National Bank of Tajikistan, a claim that Dushanbe heatedly denies. All Zanjani’s firm assets were duly snaffled by Tajik businesses, much to Iran’s chagrin.

Zanjani was named in the restrictive measures against Iran in December 2012 by the EU council on the grounds of “assisting designated entities to violate the provisions of the EU regulation on Iran and is providing financial support to the government of Iran.” Zanjani was claimed to be “a key facilitator for Iranian oil deals and transferring oil-related money.” He denied the accusation, declining any ties with the Iranian government and calling the Europeans’ decision “a mistake.”

The EU sanctions against Iran describe Zanjani as “a key facilitator for Iranian oil deals and transferring oil related money” and accuses First Islamic Bank of being used to channel Iranian oil-related payments. Zanjani said the complex nature of his companies’ transactions, involving large sums, might have misled EU authorities. Zanjani’s companies are or may be involved in the Labuan Iran oil smuggling on the eastern coast of Malaysia. Labuan has been serving as a drop-off spot for Iranian crude.

On 30 December 2013, Zanjani was arrested by Iranian police for his alleged role in the corruption scandal in Turkey, in which he was accused of embezzling more than €2.7 bln Some days later, a spokesman from the National Bank of Tajikistan denied any cooperation between Zanjani and the bank and claimed all documents presented by Zanjani about their two-way communications were fake. On 6 March 2016, he was convicted and sentenced to death for embezzlement and “spreading corruption on earth”.

In a clear reaction to Tajikistan, Tehran in December 2015 welcomed Tajik opposition leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who is wanted back home on charges of fomenting a plot to topple the government, to an Islamic-themed conference. During the same visit, Kabiri met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for talks and was pictured as they exchanged warm greetings. The Tajik Foreign Ministry duly fired off a note of protest.

Last week, an Iranian trade and culture centre in Tajikistan’s northern Sughd province closed its doors. By all appearances, the shuttering came at the request of the Tajik authorities. In another oddly timed development, the works of the Ayatollah Khomeini and other famous Iranian clerics have been forbidden.

No official explanation has been provided for this new souring in relations.

In a firmer reprisal, the customs service subsequently introduced restrictions on the import of food products from Iran. Dry leaf tea, poultry and other goods were ruled unacceptable for their allegedly poor quality. In July 2016, the Tajik office of Iran’s Khomeini Imdod Committee, an international development fund, closed.

As of July, the Foreign Ministry has resumed its practice of issuing expedited visas in its main international airports, but Iran is, along with Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, among the countries excluded from the list of beneficiary nations.

However, as a candidate to become a full member of SCO, Iran and Tajikistan will be led to agree under the patronage of Kremlin. Moreover, their cultural affinities bring them closer together, especially since President Rahmanov declares himself more Iranian than any other Iranian. It is this last point that irritates Tehran.

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