Iran and Its Neighbors
Iran’s relation to the new state of Azerbaijan to the north is complex. On the one hand the country was for many years a province of Iran. Its people are largely Azerbaijanis with a language and culture close to that of the more larger Azerbaijan section of Iran. Most of the independent Azeris belong to the same branch of Shi’ism as the Iranians (being converted by the Safavids at the same time). On the other hand, generations of Soviet control has changed the country. Its leaders are post-Soviet secularists and its language Russified. These leaders have also been courted by the Americans, as has been the case with the leaders of most of the post-Soviet Republics. Iran also has lingering fears that the existence of an Azeri state on its borders may fuel separatist ambitions on the Iranian side of the line. The counter-intuitive result is that the Iranians have developed very close relations with the new Armenian state, especially after Ahmadinejad’s election. A new highway and tunnel connecting the countries will be built. Iran is helping with the building of a new power plant and laying a new gas pipeline into the country. It is hoped that a new pipeline bringing in gas from Turkmenistan will reduce the price enough to make this feasible.
Iran has been working for several years on developing a closer relationship with Tajikistan in Central Asia. Although they have no common border, the countries have a close historical relation. The Tajiks speak a language almost indistinguishable from Modern Persian, although the introduction of large numbers of Russian loan words an the use of the Russian alphabet has set them apart. Iran is investing in a new power plant, the reconstruction of the country’s power network, and helping to construct a new tunnel. The countries are laying plans for the construction of a road connecting the Tajikistan with Iran through Afghanistan, thereby ultimately opening up improved access of the country to the Indian Ocean. There is also talk of a free trade zone that would include Afghanistan and Turkey. Tajikistan and Iran have also agreed to help Pakistan with its looming energy crisis by making available excess power and other means.