The approach of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan towards Iran in IOs
Votes of Central Asian countries to important and key issues such as the anti-Iranian human rights resolution have rarely changed. The change of opinion took place only when we witnessed a serious change in the domestic political trends of these countries or a serious change in their relations with Iran. Even political differences and tensions that have arisen over a specific period of time have not changed these approaches.
By: Omid Rahimi
One of the unchangeable concepts in the political negotiations of the diplomatic representatives of Central Asian countries with other countries is "cooperation within the framework of international organizations." This concept has become part of the specific discourse of these countries. Although the examples of this concept has not been specifically discussed so far, there is a key point in this regard: participation of the countries in common political alignments, in the case of conflict of interests between various actors in international organizations. In other words, when different countries enter a political conflict within the framework of an international organization and form the proponents, opponents, and neutral fronts, the votes of small countries will also gain political value. Of course, this issue can be extended to other actions beyond voting in international organizations and can even be seen in the form of political lobbies, international role-playing, directing the support resources of organizations, and so on. Therefore, given the recent votes of the Central Asian countries to the Iran- related resolutions, this essay is meant to examine the behavior of these countries, especially Tajikistan, on issues related to the United Nations.
Two anti-Iranian resolutions at the end of 2020
In the second half of 2020, there were two anti-Iranian resolutions at the specialized committees of the UN General Assembly. The first was a human rights resolution against Iran which was adopted on November 18. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were among the countries that voted against the resolution, and Tajikistan alone abstained. This comes as the last year, all these five Central Asian republics (including Tajikistan) voted against a similar anti-Iranian resolution. Finally, the resolution was approved with 79 votes in favor (including Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia from Eurasia), 32 votes against (including Four Central Asian republics, Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Armenia from Eurasia), 64 abstentions (including Tajikistan) and 18 absentees (including Georgia).
The second Iran-related voting session held on 31 December. In this resolution, the United States called for the addition of two provisions to the 2021 UN budget bill, which included the revival of the sanctions committee against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this session, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan voted against this anti-Iranian proposal. However, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were the two republics in the region that did not take part in it. Finally, the US proposal was rejected with 10 in favor (no Eurasian countries), 110 against (3 Central Asian republics plus Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia), 32 abstentions (Ukraine and Georgia from Eurasia) and 39 absentees (including Tajikistan and Turkmenistan).
Tajikistan's political absence
The absence of countries in the UNGA’s voting session generally occurs due to different reasons, including absence of a representative due to a mission outside the voting place, Non-recognition of a specific resolution process, political or legal challenges, and so on. Sometimes, however, absenteeism is intentional and politically motivated. In fact, absenteeism is a negative/positive action that costs less than abstention. The absence of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan at the recent UN summit can also be assessed on this basis.
Exactly the same day that the representative of Tajikistan was absent in the voting session to an anti-Iranian resolution, he has appeared in four other sessions. On December 31, Tajikistan’s envoy to the UN participated in the voting sessions on "A global call for concrete action for the elimination of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance", "Developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security" and "Financing of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon" and voted in favor of all of these resolutions. Tajikistan’s representative was also present at the voting session on UN Program Budget for 2021, in which Washington’s anti-Iranian proposal was introduced. It seems that he has been absent only in the part that was related to Iran, which shows that this absenteeism has been purposeful.
However, it seems that Turkmenistan's absence was different. The envoy of Turkmenistan was absent in all the above-mentioned sessions and his vote was not registered in any of them. This could be due to the country’s membership in the United Nations as a neutral state or due to other political issues.
A review of the votes over the last 10 years
Each year, during the last 10 days of December, the US presents an anti-Iranian resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. To analyze the behavior of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan towards Iran, we review the votes of the two countries during the last 10 years (from 2011 to 2020). It is interesting to know that, over the past 10 years, the votes of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to anti-Iranian resolutions have always been negative. There has not been a single case in which the representatives of these countries have been absent or even abstained. It should also be noted that so far no Central Asian republic has voted in favor of the anti-Iranian resolutions. This could also be due Washington’s human rights pressures on these countries.
However, fluctuations can be mainly seen in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s votes. Kyrgyzstan abstained to anti-Iranian human rights resolutions for four consecutive years from 2011 to 2014. Just after the evacuation of Manas Air Base in 2014 by the United States, Kyrgyzstan's vote also changed. From 2015 to 2020, Kyrgyzstan voted against the anti-Iranian resolutions. For Tajikistan, however, a different process has taken place. From 2010 to 2015, the republic registered negative votes to anti-Iranian resolutions. Even three months after the events of September 2015 regarding General Abdulhalim Nazarzadeh, which was a starting point for Iran-Tajikistan disputes, Dushanbe still voted against the resolution. However, since 2016, the country has changed its vote to "abstention." In 2019, following the efforts of the two countries to improve bilateral relations, Tajikistan returned its vote to "negative," which was a sign of the revival of relations between Tehran and Dushanbe. However, the country’s abstention vote to the December resolution revealed the instability of this process.
Naturally, the level of the political relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Central Asian countries is a factor that will affect the votes of these states more than any other factors. Therefore, rather than studying the votes in the context of institutionalist mechanisms of the international organizations, we should first refer to the totality of the relations between Iran and these countries. The relationship of these countries with the United States is another issue that should be considered. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the issue of human rights is one of the common concerns of Iran and these republics, and naturally we should see similar stance taken by Iran and the countries of the region in this regard. Therefore, Tehran's relations with the republics outweigh Washington's relations with them.
On the other hand, it should be noted that political differences do not necessarily lead to a change in the votes.
Turkmenistan's case is a good example. Even, between 2007 and 2009, when winter gas outage strained the relations between the two countries and we witnessed the presence of the Zionist regime in Ashgabat in the form of establishing an embassy, Turkmenistan's vote on these resolutions was still negative.
However, the situation is different in the case of Kyrgyzstan. The country's vote to anti-Iranian human rights resolutions has changed to "abstention" since 2011. During this period, the United States continued to hold the Manas military base and the pro-western forces, led by Roza Otunbayeva, were enjoying a considerable power. However, since 2015, just after Almasbek Atambayev's first visit to Tehran and the complete withdrawal of the United States from the Manas base, we have witnessed a change in the course of the republic's votes to the anti-Iranian resolutions.
We also saw a similar trend in Tajikistan. Since 2016, when the disputes between Tehran and Dushanbe reached an unprecedented level, we have witnessed a change in Tajikistan's approach. Since then, Tajikistan's votes changed from "negative" to "abstention" and, except for a one-year period in 2019, this trend continued in 2020.
By examining the above-mentioned votes, it can be concluded that the votes of these countries to important and key issues such as the anti-Iranian human rights resolution have rarely changed. The change of opinion took place only when we witnessed a serious change in the domestic political trends of these countries or a serious change in their relations with Iran. Even political differences and tensions that have arisen over a specific period of time have not changed these approaches.
Conclusion: Iran’s possible reactions
Although the ties between Tehran and Dushanbe has experienced several consecutive cold years, the bilateral efforts in 2019 signaled a common will to revive the relations. It was in the same year that Tajikistan stopped registering abstention votes to the anti-Iranian resolutions. However, it seems that this trend has ended in 2020. Due to the severe conditions caused by the outbreak of coronavirus as well as the impending power transition to Rustam Emomali, it was expected that Tajikistan show more commitment to developing this relation. However, following tensions over the Broadcast of an anti-Iranian documentary (Betrayal) and the subsequent summoning of the Tajik ambassador to Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this process seems to have been stalled or slowed down. Tajikistan's abstention votes to the anti-Iranian human rights resolutions could be a sign of this issue. Therefore, based on this analysis, the process of reviving and upgrading the level of Tehran- Dushanbe bilateral relations should be revised again.
Meanwhile, Tajikistan's abstentions may have other causes. The United States is on the verge of a power transition from Donald Trump to Joe Biden. As a Democratic government takes office, the Central Asian governments are also expecting tougher policies in terms of human rights and civil liberties. Therefore, abstention votes to the anti-Iranian human rights resolutions and being absent in the voting session to Washington’s proposal about reinstate the Iran sanctions committee at the UN, could be a positive signal to the new US government to ease the conditions in 2021. Dushanbe is well aware that given the unstable conditions in Eurasia region (the developments in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan) as well as the possible developments in Afghanistan, Washington's decisions could be costly. Therefore, it took a tactical action to shift these costs towards Tehran. At the same time, the Tajik officials have been actively looking for foreign aid in the recent months, especially from the European countries and the United States, to counter the consequences of the coronavirus. An abstention vote to an anti-Iranian resolution could facilitate such aids.
Therefore, Tehran should be more patience in reaction to two recent Tajikistan’s votes and express its determination for developing the bilateral relations through providing private and convergent signals and offering some balancing concessions.
Omid Rahimi,isa Researcher at the Institute for East Strategic Studies