Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Iran Setting the Stage for a Hezbollah-Type Threat in Tajikistan, Dushanbe Analyst Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 11 – Iran’s increasingly active effort to spread Shiite Islam in Tajikistan, a project that over the past year has boosted the share of the followers of that trend from nine to 30 percent of all Tajiks, is laying the groundwork for a Tehran-controlled Hezbollah-type challenge to Dushanbe, according to an analyst based in that Central Asian republic.
In an article on the Centrasia.ru portal yesterday, Mikhal Kalantarov says that behind the positive public face of relations between Tajikistan and Iran over the past decade, relations that reflect their common language, “something terrible” has been going on that Dushanbe officials have been reluctant to pay attention to (www.centrasia.ru/news.php?st=1294665480).
That consists of the effort of “certain interested circles in Iran [to] actively disseminate the ideas of Shiism on the territory of our country,” a republic whose people have traditionally followed Sunni Islam and who have viewed their attachment to this dominant trend within the faith as the major distinguishing factor between themselves and the Iranians.
Particularly active in this regard, Kalantarov says, has been the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe in the months since May 2010. Its officers have organized meetings in various Tajik cities in which they have sought to promote Shiism, despite the fact that Dushanbe has been trying to “normalize the religious situation in the country.”
Indeed, the commentator says, it turns out that “our ‘fraternal Iran’” is in this way undercutting the efforts of the Tajik government with regard to Islam and thus further exacerbating still further the international political situation in Tajikistan which “even without this” is growing more troubling.
.Iranian diplomats have also been organizing courses in which Tajiks learn foreign languages and how to use the Internet, but these supposedly religiously neutral activities in fact are being used by the Iranians as a way of attracting young Tajiks to Iranian Shiite literature and even to study in Iranian educational institutions.
“However,” Kalantarov continues, Iran’s efforts “are not limited to only this.” Its diplomats are actively recruiting Tajiks for Tehran’s “selfish goals.” In the 2010-2011 academic year, for example, some 70 Tajiks aged 14 to 16 are studying in an Iranian religious college that has been set up in Dushanbe, and many of its graduates are set to continue studying in Iran.
There is also an Iranian-supported medrassah that has been attached to the Tajik Muslim Spiritual Administration (MSD). “More than 10 percent of the instructors” of this institution are Iranian citizens, they train some 200 Tajik middle school graduates each year, and four to five of the graduates are sent on to theological centers in Iran.
What happens to these Tajik students there is especially worrisome. In the Iranian city of Zakheday, there are dozens of medrassahs in which Tajik students are enrolled. “Many of them,” Kalantarov says, “are subsequently sent to the camps of Al-Qaeda militants located on the territory of neighboring Pakistan.”
When these Tajik graduates of Iranian institutions return to their homeland, they threaten to become “suitable instruments in the distribution of the ideas of Shiism in Tajikistan,” often serving in mosques and working to redirect Tajik Muslims into the Iranian fold to the detriment of national identity.
Moreover, he continues, “the employees of the Iranian diplomatic mission without particular difficulties are able to buy off our corrupt religious leaders.” Not long ago, Kalantarov reports, the Tajik authorities arrested one such Shiite leader “for disseminating among his parishioners religiously extremist ideas.”
But this Iranian effort is not just about Islam. “Today,” Kalantarov notes, “Iran is the initiator and sponsor of extremist organizations of the Shiite trend in Middle Eastern countries,” organizations like Hezbollah. And it is “perfectly clear that Iran could use a similar scenario in Tajikistan as well.”
Consequently, he says, Tajik officials should be more attentive to what the Iranians are doing in this regard lest, in the wake of some explosion, they find themselves facing a well-organized and funded opponent within the borders of their country that is controlled and directed by a foreign power.

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