Iran Expands Its Influence Into Central Asia

By Gordon Feller | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Almaty, Kazakhstan ( - Iran is working hard to strengthen relations with the Central Asian country of Tajikistan, in a drive to expand its influence in the region.

Among other potential benefits for Tehran are the former Soviet republic's uranium reserves, which would prove useful to Iran's nuclear efforts.

The moves have not pleased the Bush administration, and the State Department has quietly made this known to its European allies.

A series of high-level political and economic visits were set up following a meeting last December between Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and his Tajik counterpart, Immomali Rakhmonov.

"We are strategically important and profitable for one another," Iran's Ambassador to Tajikistan, Saidrasul Musavi, said of the closer relations between the two states.

In the mid-1990s, Iran backed opposition forces in a bloody civil war in Tajikistan, which left an estimated 55,000 dead.

Now, however, Tehran sees the republic as an important ally in its attempts to secure the stability it needs to extend its political influence and serve its economic interests in the region.

Ties between the two states go back to the early nineties. Iran was one of the first countries to recognize Tajikistan's independence after the USSR's dissolution; with a common language, culture and traditions, Iran began to play an increasingly important role in Tajikistan's political life.

The friendship came to an abrupt halt with Tajikistan's bloody civil war. During the conflict, which began soon after independence and continued until late 1996, Iran backed the United Tajik Opposition, providing its leaders with a safe haven.

"Iran was hoping that, in the event of a victory of the Tajik opposition, power would have been taken by a person loyal to Iran and, in this case, Tajikistan would have become a totally pro-Iranian country," said one analyst. "I think that all of the [recent] actions taken by Iran towards Tajikistan are connected to its desire to spread its influence here and to protect its own interests."

Tajikistan's war would have continued much longer if it had not been for the Afghan conflict. Russia and Iran both backed the forces fighting the fundamentalist Taliban militia. As the Taliban's strength grew, the two countries abandoned their struggle for Tajik influence to focus on Afghanistan, 95 per cent of which is now Taliban-controlled.

"Iran and Russia realized the armed conflict in Tajikistan was not in their interest and made strenuous efforts to persuade the conflicting Tajik sides to sit down at the negotiating table and sign a peace agreement," the analyst said.

With the end of the Tajik war, Iran redoubled its efforts to establish its influence. It shares with Tajikistan, and other countries in the region, a common interest in preventing a spillover of the Afghan civil war. Both countries border Afghanistan.

Iran and Tajikistan have also agreed to cooperate in fighting "international terrorism" and drug-trafficking.

Iran stands to reap huge economic and political advantages with strong footholds in central Asia.

That is why U.S. officials think the current round of political-diplomatic visits will probably enhance Iran's regional role.