Speaking to journalists in Dushanbe on July 12, 2010, the visiting head of the Iranian president’s office, Esfandiyar Rahim-Masha’i, accused Uzbekistan of causing a six-month delay in the launch of the first unit of the Sangtuda-2 hydroelectric power station (HEPS) – Iran’s US$ 180 million investment project in southern Tajikistan – by holding up Tajikistan-bound freight cars with construction materials. Uzbekistan has been delaying the transit of hundreds of Tajik trains since February 2010, attributing the interruptions to “technical and logistical” issues. However, many observers believe that Uzbekistan’s blockade of Tajik cargo transit through its railway network is an attempt to force Dushanbe to abandon the controversial Rogun HEPS project, which Tashkent has long been opposing. Out of 1,500 to 2,000 Tajik cars held up by Uzbekistan, roughly one-third are bound for Khatlon where the Rogun dam is being constructed.
As the rail dispute was aggravating the already strained Tajik-Uzbek relations, in May 2010 Iran offered to mediate between Dushanbe and Tashkent. Iranian officials explained that the Tajik-Uzbek rail dispute inflicted economic losses on the Iranian construction company that had to delay the completion of the Sangtuda-2 HEPS because Uzbekistan did not let cars with cement and other crucial construction materials pass through its territory.
However, according to Tajik political analyst Rashid Abdullo, Iran’s involvement in the rail dispute between Dushanbe and Tashkent was prompted by political rather than economic considerations. Repeated requests from Dushanbe, the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), as well as Tajikistan’s strategic partner Russia, did little to convince Uzbekistan to resume the transit of Tajik trains through its territory. Rashid Abdullo argues that this provided Tehran with an opportunity to decisively increase its influence in Tajikistan, which felt abandoned by its traditional partners, as well as international institutions.
In June 2010, the Iranian state railroad company sent a letter to Tashkent, threatening to halt the transit of all Uzbek rail freight across Iran unless Tashkent allows unrestricted passage of Tajikistan-bound trains through its territory. If enforced, this measure would inflict considerable economic losses on Tashkent. In its cotton exports, Uzbekistan to a large extent depends on Iran’s railway network and sea ports. Around 150 Uzbek freight cars loaded with cotton fiber reportedly pass through Iran daily en route to sea ports in the Persian Gulf. In addition, Tehran informed Turkmenistan that it might halt the transit of Turkmen trains bound for Uzbekistan via its territory. Speaking to journalists, Iranian railroad official Behruz Balandi explained, “In general, we have no problems with Uzbek railways. This is just an attempt to brotherly support Tajikistan”.
Following the warning from Tehran, Tashkent assured Iranian railway officials that the problem with Tajik freight cars would be resolved in the near future, asking not to halt the transit of Uzbek rail cargo via Iran. According to analysts, the visit of Hamid Behbahani, Iran’s Minister of Road and Transportation, to Tashkent in July and his meetings with Uzbekistan’s First Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Azimov also aimed at resolving the Tajik-Uzbek rail dispute.Whether Iran’s interference will resolve the dispute over Tajik freight transit via Uzbekistan or not, its decisive support for Dushanbe vis-à-vis Tashkent in the dispute demonstrates the importance Tehran attaches to its relations with Tajikistan. Tehran has much to lose economically from strained relations with Tashkent. Bilateral trade between Iran and Uzbekistan is expected to reach roughly US$ 1 billion this year as compared to Iran’s trade with Tajikistan, which reached US$ 250 million in 2009. However, according to Rashid Abdullo, Tehran’s unconditional support for Dushanbe in this difficult period for the country will have a long-term political effect, securing a stronger influence for Iran in Tajikistan. For Tehran, this might be more important than short-term economic gains offered by trade with Uzbekistan.