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Iran’s Stakes in the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Standoff

From the moment the USSR imploded in 1991, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s relationship has been typified by distrust. Three decades after the two former Soviet republics gained independence, they have yet to fully demarcate their shared 600-mile border. In recent years, disputes over land and water have led to numerous border clashes, resulting in human suffering in both countries. The latest border clash occurred between September 14 and 17 and resulted in more than 100 dead, at least 200 injured, and the displacement of 140,000 within Kyrgyzstan. Although an agreement ended the clashes, last month’s violent episode along the contested border raised fresh concerns about the possibility of a war erupting in Central Asia.

With the international community so heavily focused on the conflict in Ukraine, many governments have little bandwidth to address hostilities along the Kyrgyz–Tajik border. However, one key actor has its eyes set on this theater; Iran is determined to position itself as a neutral arbiter and mediating force between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as part of its wider goal of curating the international image of a constructive stakeholder in Central Asia.

Struggling for Influence

Iran has a strong interest in calming the ongoing tensions and preventing the Tajik-Kyrgyz dispute from escalating and spreading into other parts of Central Asia closer to Iranian territory. Tehran is already grappling with tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia to its northwest and the situation in Afghanistan to its east. An additional crisis near its borders would further stretch its limited resources at a time of great domestic unrest.

Ever since the Central Asian republics gained their independence from Moscow, Iran has sought to play a stabilizing and balancing role in the region. Indeed, it was Tehran that brokered the peace talks that led to the resolution of Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war. Iran resurrected this approach when, on September 17, Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani called on Bishkek and Dushanbe to peacefully settle their military standoff through dialogue. Stressing Iran’s friendly relations with both states, Kanaani emphasized that Tehran stood ready to assist both countries in resolving their differences.

However, experts do not necessarily expect Tehran to play a significant diplomatic role in easing friction between Bishkek and Dushanbe. “I do not think Iran would actively engage in a diplomatic front…Iran’s engagement is more through indirectly providing and engaging with both sides in a very slow but continuous way,” said Dr. Abdolrasool Divsallar, a visiting professor of Middle Eastern studies at Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, in an interview with Gulf International Forum. “I don’t think Iran will emerge as a major peace broker like it did in the 1990s [during]Tajikistan’s civil war.”

At the same time, it is not apparent whether Bishkek or Dushanbe have much of a desire to turn to Iran as a mediator in the military standoff. “In terms of Iran’s potential diplomatic role in solving the conflict, of course it depends on whether the two sides want Iran to do so in the first place,” Dr. Hamidreza Azizi, an Iran expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Gulf International Forum. “I haven’t seen any indication yet that either of the parties have asked Iran to do so.”

Another factor preventing Iran from playing a major diplomatic role in the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan dispute is Russia’s preeminent position in Central Asia. Dr. Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, explained how Moscow is the external player possessing the predominance of political influence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both of which are Russian treaty allies. “If there is one country that would want to close the conflict on its southern flank in Central Asia, it would be Russia. Iran’s influence is naturally limited compared to Russia’s in terms of the mediation role.”

Advancing Iran’s “Look East” Agenda

Regardless of the extent to which Iran is involved in the diplomatic process, Tehran seeks to prevent any scenario that requires the Islamic Republic to pick sides between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Iran sees its interests served through fostering stronger ties with both Bishkek and Dushanbe, as an extension of its “Look East” foreign policy. Tehran views its relationships with Central Asian countries as critical to its efforts to circumvent Western sanctions while strengthening its partnerships with China and Russia as a new member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Tajikistan in particular has been an important part of this picture. Tehran sees deeper ties with Dushanbe within the context of forming security, trade, commercial, and cultural partnerships with non-Western powers boding well for Iranian efforts to bolster Tehran’s clout in Greater Asia while joining with other powers such as China and Russia to weaken the United States’ hegemony.

Since Ebrahim Raisi’s presidency began, officials in his administration have worked to overcome Tehran’s past difficulties with Dushanbe and establish a strong bilateral partnership with the Central Asian nation. As such, Raisi made his first presidential trip to Tajikistan, where Iran has opened a drone factory. These moves underscore how well the two countries have moved past the tensions, which grew in the 2010s largely over the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan issue and as recently as 2020 were driving Tajikistan to oppose Iranian membership in the SCO. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Tehran in late May further illustrated the extent to which such efforts to mend fences have proven successful.

Bonds formed through history, language, and identity are critical to understanding Tehran’s perspective on its relations with Tajikistan. Raisi’s administration values the civilizational dimensions of Iran’s partnerships. As Dr. Divsallar explained, such ties “can be a resource and a reason for further cooperation” between Iran and Tajikistan, Central Asia’s only Farsi-speaking country. At the same time, the Islamic Republic does not want its growing closeness with Tajikistan to harm relations with Kyrgyzstan. Although Tehran may value its links to Bishkek less than those it enjoys with Dushanbe, the Iranians recently engaged with Kyrgyz officials on the sidelines of  the latest SCO summit to pursue deeper cooperation in the domains of trade, technology, and health. These events serve as a reinforcing measure following security talks between Tehran and Bishkek last year.

By asserting an impartial stance on the tensions between Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan and urging both parties to find pragmatic and peaceful ways to resolve their problems, Iran seeks to demonstrate its utility to the SCO. “I think that the Iranians will see this as an opportunity to showcase their value to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization because the SCO is very much about preventing border disputes among its member-states,” Dr. Ramani told Gulf International Forum. “Iran is showing that it is earning its stripes as a member of the SCO by playing a role in de-escalating this conflict.”

A Broader Perspective

It is difficult to analyze Tehran’s growing partnership with Dushanbe and friction between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan without taking stock of Iran’s competition with Turkey for influence in Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has joined the growing list of countries purchasing Turkish drones. The newly built Iranian drone factory in Tajikistan exemplifies the unprecedented military rivalry between Tehran and Ankara playing out in this former Soviet space. As Dr. Azizi told Gulf International Forum, “Kyrgyzstan, as a Turkic-speaking country, has been at the center of Turkey’s cultural, geopolitical policies toward both Central Asia and the South Caucasus in terms of making this connection—this idea of the ‘Turkic world.’” He continued: “In that sense, there are underlying cultural and identity factors which…set Iran and Turkey against each other in this conflict. Then there is also more recent military and security coordination and cooperation between Iran and each of those two countries, which is also important. In that sense, interestingly and rather unexpectedly this conflict has also become a scene in which this Iranian-Turkish rivalry has started to reflect itself.”

Taking an even wider perspective, it is evident that Tehran and Moscow favor the status quo in Central Asia. Both the Iranians and Russians view instability in the region as a threat to their national interests. Like Moscow, Tehran worries about how worsening turmoil in this region could invite outside actors—namely the United States—to exert influence there. To prevent external powers from intervening in Central Asia, Iran clearly believes that it must promote stability in this part of the world. This logic sits at the heart of the Islamic Republic’s approach to dealing with tensions between Central Asia’s republics.

Within this context, Tehran encourages dialogue between Bishkek and Dushanbe. However, rising unrest in Iran following Mahsa Amini’s brutal killing last month, the ongoing nuclear talks, and clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia—which pose a more direct threat to Iran’s interests than Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s standoff—require addressing and will supplant any plans to smooth out tensions in Central Asia. Nonetheless, Tehran will likely pursue balanced engagement with both Bishkek and Dushanbe that seeks to help manage and de-escalate tensions before they might break out into full-on conflict.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. He is a frequent contributor to Middle East Institute, Atlantic Council, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Middle East Policy Council, Al Jazeera, New Arab, Qatar Peninsula, Al Monitor, TRT World, and LobeLog. Throughout Cafiero’s career, he has spoken at international conferences and participated in closed door meetings with high-ranking government officials, diplomats, scholars, businessmen, and journalists in GCC states, Iran, Turkey, and Egypt. From 2014-2015, he worked as analyst at Kroll. Cafiero holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.

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