Huda al-Husseini

Iranian Expansion Reaches Countries of Central Asia

Central Asian states are moving. The US wants to withdraw from Afghanistan before Donald Trump’s likely second term. China started moving, but Iran is the one setting traps for these states, which fear the spread of religious extremism. They are poor in everything, from infrastructure to dignified livelihoods.

Three years ago Tajikistan was able to shut down 2,000 mosques for extremists, including the largest mosque in Khujand, the second largest city in the country, and turned it into a place to teach tailoring and PE for children, along with a variety of public spaces.

In the last three months, dozens of religious scholars and Islamic teachers were arrested after being accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal group in Tajikistan.

The number of long-bearded men in the country started to decline after they were being harassed by the police, while women wearing hijabs were also sometimes assaulted. Imams give speeches that commend President Emomali Rahmon. These speeches are pre-approved by the authorities, enhancing their Sharia-based efforts without ceasing to repress extremists.

CCTVs were set up in mosques to monitor the Imams’ commitments to the texts given to them. In 2015, the relationship between Tajikistan and Iran became highly unstable as a result of Iran demanding that Tajikistan pay its enormous debts and accusations that a businessman accused of fraud in the Islamic Republic deposited large sums of money in a Tajikistan National Bank. A meeting took place between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the leader of the opposition in Tajikistan.

Saudi Arabia intervened and promised to pump money into infrastructure projects such as the Rogun hydroelectric power plant, highways in East Tajikistan and education. On its side, Tajikistan accused Iran of being involved in assassinating Tajik social and political figures as well as 20 Russian military officers in the nineties during the civil war in Tajikistan.

Since 2016, Russia insisted that Iran will be able to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) led by it and China, but Tehran was not allowed. It seems that the problem is a “blackball” from Tajikistan, which also speaks Persian. It is known that the SCO is not a very important international group, but Iran is in love with it and has been drooling after it for years.

In 2001, the SCO including China, Russia and Central Asian countries excluding Turkmenistan had the main aim to maintain security in the area. In 2017, India and Pakistan were accepted as members, but the door remained shut against Iran. The latter then applied for membership and Russia publicly announced that Iran cannot join while being under sanctions, but it will be accepted the moment these sanctions are lifted. This is what happened in January 2016, and then years passed and nothing happened, with Iran saying nothing about the matter.

Last year, Mohammad Rida al-Fargani, a retired Iranian diplomat, said that the problem lies in the tense relations between Iran and Tajikistan. Al-Fargani revealed that Tajikistan’s opposition preventing Tehran from becoming a full member created tensions between the two countries after a banned leader of the Tajikistani Islamic Party officially attended a conference in Tehran in 2015, angering Tajikistan’s government.

In 2017, Tajikistan, a country of 9 million, accused Tehran of sending saboteurs and assassins to the former Soviet state after it got involved in the civil war. Iran, as always, denied these accusations. The tension contributed to Tajikistan shutting down many Iranian centers in the country, and it decided to put restrictions on travel and commerce with Iranian goods in the last few years.

Another source of tension was the fate of the imprisoned Iranian billionaire, Babak Zanjani, whose business empire included assets in Tajikistan.

Al-Fargani later said that the last visit by Tajikistan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sirodjidin Aslov, to Iran helped resolve some of the disputes between the two countries, which may perhaps eventually lead to the full membership of Iran in the SCO! As Tajikistan and Afghanistan are the only countries that speak Persian other than Iran, the latter has long tried to build cultural relations between the three countries. Cultural ties have become a cover that Iran uses in all countries for security and even terrorist operations in Arab countries.

In reality, more than four years of tense relations between Tajikistan and Iran have paved the way for heating the relations due to logistic reasons.

The low level of disagreement is a result of the fact that Tajikistan like Uzbekistan is a landlocked country, and therefore needs Iranian ports, including those supported by India in Sabhar in the upper region of the Arabian Sea, and the availability of cheaper and faster modes of transportation.

Iran is more interested in Central Asian states than it is with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and transport infrastructure. The initiative adopted in China to connect European areas with Beijing.

Alongside Tajikistan is Uzbekistan. During the term of the former president, Islam Karimov, and until his death in 2016, the state security services tightened their grip on religious activity to fight extremism.

After being elected, Karimov’s successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, promised to reverse the oppressive policies of his predecessor and to put his government at the service of the Uzbek people.

Mirziyoyev’s reforms included neglecting the religious committee that belongs to the security service, and consequently ending its supervision of religious education, publications and associations. He also dismissed the supervisor without appointing a replacement. He established a Higher Islamic Studies Academy run by the Islamic authorities in Uzbekistan.

During that time, Saudi business delegations visited Uzbekistan twice in the last year to explore investment opportunities. Saudi fabric companies invested two billion US dollars over the next five years in an Uzbek cotton company.

Iran, on the other hand, a vital node in Uzbek imports and exports, remained in Mirziyoyev’s transport infrastructure plans. A decree issued at the end of 2017 was like a key for plans to connect Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Oman, connecting China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, along with three passageways through Afghanistan.

The three Afghan passageways use the railway that connects Uzbek Termez with Mazari Sharif in Afghanistan as their starting point. Uzbek plans consist of extending this railway to the city of Herat in Afghanistan and create a branch to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, Chabahar, and Birzagan on the Iranian-Turkish border.

The concentration on Iranian ports in Central Asia gains, despite the harsh American sanctions, additional importance with the Gwadar Port in Pakistan, which is supported by China and lies only 70 kilometers away from the coast of Chabahar. However the crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, in the heart of Chinese-Pakistani passageway, faces problems. The China Ocean Shipping company has finally stopped servicing the liner between Karachi and Gwadar due to the shortage of shipments to Afghanistan.

Pakistan wants China's economic satisfaction, and, in order to satisfy China, it did not stop its flights to it and refused to return 500 Wuhanese students and their families to Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus, claiming that this was meant to hinder the spread and transmission of the virus in Pakistan, sparking demonstrations which accused the Pakistani government of being indifferent.

For his part, Zhang Baozhong Chairman of the China Overseas Port Holding Company insisted that transit trade is the key to Gwadar’s success.

Last month, the port authorities said that two 20 foot long ships, containing 54 tons of packaged fertilizers were shipped to Gwadar from Karachi so they could be transported to Afghanistan and that plans for initiating the trade of fertilizers are being made.

Will Afghanistan become - if America manages to withdraw and establish what could be called “peace”, though it could be established at the expense of the Afghan people - a central point for China, Pakistani collision and precious Iranian target?