Russia is often seen by the West as a barrier to putting further pressure on Iran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions. Whilst this may be true, both for economic and political reasons, Russia and Iran remain strategic competitors in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Both countries have hosted enormously influential dynasties throughout history which have courted dominance over the strategic resources and communication networks of the region. At the end of WWII, Soviet troops occupied Iran before being forced to vacate by a UN-backed resolution. The Iranians, under the rule of the Shahs, retained close relations with the West during the Cold War until the 1979 revolution.
There is evidence to suggest that Soviet bullying in the post-WWII era – particularly in relation to border incursions and oil embargoes – was aimed at turning Iran into a client state. Support from the Western powers meant the Iranians could afford to stand in defiant opposition to such a desire.
Tajikistan, on the other hand, became a republic within the Soviet Union and retained the authoritarian communist model until the Cold War ended. Since that time, Tajikistan has undergone a brutal civil war and been ruled only by the Soviet strongman Emomalii Rahmon.
That said, Tajikistan has an undeniable cultural and ethnic link with Iran. Part of the ‘Greater Iran’ region of history, it does not share a border with Russia and has a population which is 80% Persian. It formed a part of many of the great Iranian dynasties, including the Sassanid, Samanid and Safavid.
All of the Central Asian states have retained strong ties to Russia since independence, a loyalty and dependence hearkening back to the Soviet days. However, Tajikistan, in particular, is well placed to rediscover its old Persian heritage and let the two large powers on either side of it compete for its patronage.
Economic ties between Tajikistan and Iran are increasing and the two nations are close to agreeing a security agreement based on information exchange to help combat criminal activity and terrorism. With Kazakhstan continually developing closer ties with Europe, Russia needs to become aware of the potential change in the balance-of-power in Central Asia. Its de facto overlordship is no longer guaranteed.
For the Tajik people, it offers a chance to reintegrate with a culture that they were wrenched away from over a century ago.