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Analysis: Iran extends influence

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by John C.K. Daly

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution overthrew the shah, it has been a core tenet of U.S. foreign policy to contain the Islamic Republic of Iran, currently enshrined in the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act legislation.

The first U.S. economic sanctions against Iran were instituted in 1979 in the wake of the hostage crisis, when Washington froze about $12 billion in Iranian assets. Extending Washington's reach, ILSA threatened even non-U.S. countries and companies with possible sanctions if they invested more than $20 million in developing Iran's energy resources. The European Union has been increasingly critical of the U.S. trade sanctions, with some EU members criticizing Washington's "double standard" on ILSA, as U.S. foreign policy doggedly attempts to subvert the Arab League's boycott of Israel while promoting its Iranian boycott initiative.

The policy has been slowly fraying for years, and now one of the countries threatening to cut the Gordian knot is a stalwart U.S. ally, Afghanistan. On Thursday, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan met to arrange a summit that is expected to culminate in the establishment of the Persian Economic Alliance. The news is bound to displease not only Washington but Moscow, which has recently seen a dramatic diminishing of its traditional post-Soviet influence in Tajikistan.

Boiled down to basics, the issue arises from the fact that, as in so many parts of the world, borders in Central Asia are at odds with linguistic and cultural affinities. The reality is that Persian language and culture are a significant element in Central Asia's ethnic diversity. Tajik, spoken by nearly 80 percent of Tajikistan's population and the country's official language, is a linguistic variant of Farsi, while an estimated 27 percent of Afghanistan's population is ethnic Tajik, making them Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group.

Afghanistan and Tajikistan share another affinity -- civil war. The turmoil unleashed in Afghanistan in 1979 by the Soviet invasion has yet to subside, while immediately following its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, Tajikistan slid into a vicious civil war, which only ended in 1997 with a U.N.-brokered cease-fire. More than 50,000 Tajiks died in the ensuing conflagration. In the aftermath of the chaos, Tajikistan emerged as the poorest of the post-Soviet states. Both countries' economies have been devastated by conflict and remain the region's poorest, with foreign assistance gratefully accepted from whatever corner. U.N. agencies estimate that 80 percent of Tajikistan's population of 6.5 million lives below the poverty line, while the traumas of Afghanistan's post-Taliban economy are well-known.

In a further example of the cultural affinities and political pragmatism dominating the region, during the 1996-2001 rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and the United States supported the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, led by the ethnic Tajik Ahmad Shah Masoud, with arms and cash.

Tajikistan shares a 745-mile border with Afghanistan, which has now become a major smuggling route for Afghan heroin. Iran remains resolutely opposed to the traffic, and over the past decade more than 3,000 Iranian customs officials have died in firefights with drug smugglers.

If one asks what is in it for Tehran besides ethnic and cultural solidarity, the answer is simple -- energy. Both Tajikistan and Afghanistan are hydrocarbon poor, unlike Iran, but ILSA sanctions have effectively blocked Iran from many export options. Over the years, various trans-Afghan pipelines have been suggested, but they have foundered on Afghanistan's instability. While Washington would be loath to punish Kabul with sanctions given its military and fiscal commitments there, the reality is that the United States has virtually no significant pressure that it could bring to bear on Dushanbe. All in all, a Persian economic alliance would be a win-win for all participants. Kabul and Dushanbe would see their economies strengthened, while Tehran might acquire a sanction-proof pipeline snaking eastward towards Asia's growing energy markets.

Refocusing Tajikistan's priorities was the recent bout of severe weather in the Pamir Mountains, the coldest in many years. When Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon appealed for international assistance, the only country to step up was Iran. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad immediately offered assistance to resolve Tajikistan's energy crisis and offered other initiatives as well, among them sponsoring construction of a railroad from Tajikistan to Iran via Afghanistan, speeding up construction of Tajikistan's Sangtuda-2 Hydroelectric Power Plant and construction of a second hydroelectric power plant at Shurob. The proffered assistance stood in stark contrast to the relative silence from the Kremlin and Washington. Dushanbe had earlier been irritated when Russia's RUSAL aluminum complex and the Tajik government failed to reach agreement on the proposed Rogun Hydroelectric Power Plant and was further alienated when Moscow sided with Uzbekistan in its dispute with Tajikistan over regional water resources.

For the United States, its post-Taliban policy in Afghanistan meant that the Tajiks who had ruled Afghanistan during and after the Soviet occupation prior to the rise of the Taliban were abandoned in favor of Pashtun nationalists, who were strongly anti-Persian and anti-Tajik.

Rakhmon and Ahmadinejad further cemented their budding relationship at the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Dakar, Senegal, on March 14, where Rakhmon told reporters, "Iran has become one of Tajikistan's principal strategic allies." Advancing one of Iran's longstanding aspirations, Rakhmon promised to do everything in his power to have Iran admitted into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

As yet the Persian Economic Alliance remains an aspiration, not a concrete reality. How Washington and Moscow change their policies toward Tajikistan and Afghanistan over the next few months will largely determine whether it becomes a reality or remains a romantic vision.

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