During a press conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on March 27, 2012, Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, called on states in the region to sever ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In response to a question on how the US and other European countries could promote integration projects in the region between Central Asia and South Asia without Iran's participation, Blake replied:
"…Let me just say that consistent with America's sanctions on Iran, the United States is encouraging all of the countries of the region to avoid trade and other transactions with the government of Iran in order to pressure Iran to engage with the international community about its concerns about Iran's nuclear program..."
However, the US request that Central Asian states cut ties with Iran may impose too large of a burden. For Tajikistan, this is asking a great deal. There are currently 150 Iranian companies operating in Tajikistan, making Iran the second largest foreign investor in the country after China. In 2011, the Tajik government reported receiving over $204 million in goods turnover between the two countries, a 102% increase from 2010. The Islamic Republic has also put millions of dollars into Tajikistan's development of hydropower and is currently planning to construct a new hydropower plant near the Zarafshan River.
In addition to Iran's investment in Tajikistan's hydropower and significant trade between the two countries, the Tajik people have a warm relationship with the Iranian people, largely due to their shared 2,500-year history. Both countries speak the same language, although the alphabets differ. Iranian culture, film, and media are very popular in Tajikistan. Iranian pop music streams out of cafes, restaurants, and shops onto the streets in Dushanbe. The Norooz, or Iranian New Year celebration, is another shared cultural aspect between the two countries.
Iran also offers cultural programs to the Tajik people, which, according to Hossien Shirkhani, a diplomat at the Iranian Embassy in Dushanbe, are extremely popular and successful. Iran provides language classes to teach the Persian script, holds art exhibitions, and has thus far transcribed 350 volumes of books from Persian script into Tajik Cyrillic and vice versa. During his recent visit to Dushanbe, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the Iran Culture House, which aims to showcase Iranian culture to the Tajik people. The Culture House will feature an Iranian restaurant, a book exhibition, displays of Iranian clothing, and meeting rooms to hold international seminars on science and culture.
The US has implemented sanctions in order to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear rights - as enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) statute - but the Tajiks do not see a need to comply with sanctions. The Tajik government officially argues that every country has the right to a peaceful nuclear program and that it does not believe Iran is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Tajikistan is currently suffering from an energy shortage. Until it can get its hydropower plants up and running, the country relies on gas and oil imports. With Uzbekistan now planning to cut gas to Tajikistan starting April 1, the country needs to diversify in this area. Iran is a natural choice for alleviating the country's energy difficulties, yet the current US-imposed sanctions prevent Tajikistan from pursuing this option.
Although the Tajik government is not currently feeling any negative effects from the sanctions on its ongoing development projects with Iran, it does worry that the future could bring problems. Yet according to Iranian officials, the new sanctions will not adversely affect either its cultural or development programs within Tajikistan. On the contrary, they believe the sanctions have actually been beneficial. Tajikistan, along with other countries, is now showing increased support and solidarity with Iran over what it perceives as an unjust sanctions policy.
Recognizing that Tajikistan has so much to lose by severing its ties with Iran, what has the US offered in return? According to the Tajik government, absolutely nothing. The US has not offered any economic recourse for the financial gap that would be created should Tajikistan decide to isolate one of its biggest investors and trading partners. As such, it is hard to imagine any country giving up large amounts of badly needed economic investment and trade for nothing. In enacting a policy of severe sanctions against Iran, the US is actually alienating friends by making them choose between Iran and the US.