WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- Iran is filling an investment gap in Tajikistan left by the United States and Russia, agreeing to spend on hydropower and other quality-of-life projects.
Iran has offered to help Tajikistan complete the construction of the 3,600 megawatt Rogun hydroelectric power station on the Vakhsh River, 70 miles east of the capital, Dushanbe. If built, it would be Central Asia's largest.
Since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Washington and Moscow raced to develop the Caspian hydrocarbon riches. Successive American administrations have promoted pipeline development that would bypass the Caspian's northern and southern superpowers, Russia and Iran, while Russia leverages its growing pipeline network to lure contracts.
As a rough rule of thumb, the farther east one goes from the Caspian to the Central Asian "Stans" of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Western interest dwindles, not least because the oil reserves dwindle as one goes eastward. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, two of the poorest former Soviet republics, have been isolated from their more prosperous western neighbors' petrodollar income, forcing them to develop their own indigenous resources amid aging, massive Soviet-era hydroelectric facilities, which have proven unsuccessful in attracting substantial Western investment.
Tajikistan has few immediate energy options but to attempt to develop its hydropower assets. Only 7 percent of Tajikistan's land is arable, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated that the country's 2007 oil production was a paltry 280 barrels per day. For natural gas, the figures are even grimmer, as in 2006 Tajikistan produced only 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas, forcing it to import 44 bcf from Uzbekistan to meet demand.
Tajikistan was, and remains, the poorest of the former Soviet republics, and Rogun is symptomatic of Tajikistan's economic problems. Begun in 1976, Rogun, if completed, would have been the world's highest dam, at 1,099 feet, but Moscow assigned it a lower priority. The year after independence Tajikistan slid into a brutal, five-year civil war between the former communist leadership and Islamic militants. When it ended in 1997, 50,000 were dead, the country's economy was in tatters, and projects like Rogun were effectively on life support.
Until last month Dushanbe looked to Moscow as its best potential partner for achieving its hydroelectric dreams. Russia is the biggest foreign investor in Tajikistan; according to the Russian trade mission there, since 2005 Russia's direct investment in Tajikistan has soared from $93 million to $300 million and now represents 75 percent of all foreign investments in Tajikistan. Accordingly, the Tajik government looked to Russia for the funding to complete Rogun.
In 2004 the Tajik government and Russia's Rusal aluminum company concluded an agreement to complete Rogun, whose electricity would be used to produce aluminum, but construction was stymied because of technical differences between Dushanbe and Rusal over the facility's specifications. In late August 2007 the Tajik government declared the agreement null and void but was unable to raise sufficient foreign interest to fund the estimated $3.4 billion needed to complete Rogun, which by this time was 40 percent finished.
Tajikistan remained optimistic that outstanding differences with the Kremlin over Rogun could be resolved, particularly since Russia is already a significant player in the Tajik energy market. The 670-megawatt, four-unit Sangtuda 1 hydroelectric project, currently under construction in southeastern Tajikistan, is a joint Tajik-Russian project in which Russia has a stake of more than 75 percent.
Tajik hopes that Moscow might still participate in finishing Rogun were dashed last month, however, during a state visit to vast natural gas holder Uzbekistan by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The Uzbeks fear Rogun would harm the supply of water to agricultural needs in downstream states.
Medvedev told journalists during the visit that new Central Asian hydroelectric facilities should be built taking into account not only the neighboring countries' interests but also international legal definitions of transboundary rivers' flows, adding Moscow "would refrain" from projects lacking legal accords.
Tajikistan, furious at Moscow's apparent siding with Uzbekistan, delivered a formal note of protest to the Russian government.
Iran saw -- and seized -- the opportunity. During a Feb. 8 news conference in Dushanbe, Iranian Ambassador Ali Asghar Sherdust told reporters his country would assist in completing Rogun "both at the governmental level and via the private sector." Iran is also helping Tajikistan develop another hydroelectric project at Shurob.
If completed, Rogun would even allow Tajikistan to export electricity, most notably to its power-starved southern neighbor, Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan. In turn, last week Tajik President Emomalii Rahmon telephoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who stated that he backed Tajik initiatives on use of regional water resources.
Iran is preparing to put its cash into a "quality of life" project that Tajiks, who have suffered electricity cuts this winter of up to 14 hours, will view with gratitude.
This also contrasts with U.S. policy: While Tajikistan again has moved into Washington's line of sight in the aftermath of Kyrgyzstan's announcement -- coinciding with Russian investment pledges -- of the imminent closure of the Manas air base used for supplying the war in Afghanistan, Tajik-U.S. discussions are about transit rights for NATO supplies rather than assistance to infrastructure projects benefiting average Tajiks.
As the United States and Russia wrangle about hydrocarbons and military bases, Tehran is quietly moving ahead with projects that instead benefit the locals in a direct way. In the battle for hearts and minds in one of the most volatile parts of the world, Tajikistan's shivering populace, two-thirds of whom live on less than $2 a day, may increasingly regard Iran as their real friend, charter "axis of evil" member or not.