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Iran’s Afghanistan Balancing Act

Whatever the outcome of the Afghan peace process, Iran seems to be positioning itself to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan for the years to come.

By Saurav Sarkar Author
July 27, 2020

This article was originally published in South Asian Voices.

The signing of the peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban on February 29 in Doha has brought along its share of uncertainty. Since the agreement, regional countries have been repositioning themselves to make the most out of a prospective U.S. withdrawal and a power-sharing arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In this context, Iran, an important neighbor for Afghanistan, will likely play a pivotal role in the near future in determining stability and security in Afghanistan and the region.

Iran will benefit greatly from a stable and secure Afghanistan in terms of trade and cultural ties. However, Iran also stands at a critical juncture wherein the outcome or progress of the peace process will likely shift the strategies that best suit its interests. Iran will in all likelihood continue on its current course of openly supporting the Afghan government while encouraging intra-Afghan talks and maintaining its ties to the Taliban to keep its options open as the United States prepares to withdraw. Ultimately, Tehran would prefer that Afghanistan maintain its status as a republic as it limits the influence that other states including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—Iran’s regional rival—can exert on Kabul, and creates a more favorable environment for Iran to protect its own interests in Afghanistan.

Tehran’s balancing act in Afghanistan

Iran has so far kept its relationship with the Afghan government its top priority in Afghanistan and has engaged with both President Ashraf Ghani as well as his political rival Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah. Just recently, in the span of less than a month, Iran and Afghanistan exchanged two high level visits by their Deputy and Acting Foreign Ministers respectively to each other’s countries. In a joint statement on June 22 after acting Afghan foreign minister Hanif Atmar’s visit to Tehran both sides reiterated the role of Chabahar port for trade and transit cooperation in the region. The two countries also discussed enhancing border security and manning vacated border outposts on the Afghan side. On July 16, during Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Agrachi visit to Afghanistan, Agrachi stated that both sides had worked upon the “Comprehensive Document of Strategic Cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan” that includes “non-interference” and “non-aggression” among the major tenets.

Iran has also done its part in convincing sparring Afghan political factions to agree on a joint committee for intra-Afghan talks, which fits into a broader strategy of engaging will all sections of the Afghan political landscape. Iran’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Mohammad Taherian, has met with Afghan political leaders, including moderates such as Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s Jamiat-e-Islami, and Islamists like Abdul Sayyaf, leader of the political party the Islamic Dawah Organization of Afghanistan. This would not only provide Iran with further options but also send a message to the Afghan government that Tehran is not solely dependent on Kabul’s goodwill. After the controversial Afghan presidential election last year Tehran stressed the creation of an inclusive government and reportedly questioned the election results. The Ghani government understandably was not pleased by Iran’s statement and accused it of providing military support to the Taliban and “other terrorist groups.”

Both Ghani and Abdullah have been careful in navigating their relationship with Tehran. After the death of Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in January both leaders expressed condolences and condemnations over his death while also acknowledging the United States as an important partner. Afghanistan also wants to avoid becoming a ground for proxy warfare between the United States and Iran as there are already allegations of Iran arming certain factions of the Taliban against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. There is also an alternative threat of proxy fighting between Iran and Saudi Arabia—particularly if Afghanistan were to experience renewed civil war and instability. Iran can also potentially command and/or redeploy a large number of Afghan Shia fighters in Afghanistan that have been returning from Syria, which formed its 10,000 to 20,000 strong Liwa Fatemiyoun militia. While Iran is unlikely to undertake such actions at the moment given its increasing outreach to the Afghan government, if Afghanistan becomes a ground for future proxy conflicts Iran’s involvement could lead to sectarian tensions between the predominantly Shia Hazaras and the majority Sunni Pashtuns.

Iran has also had contacts with the Taliban at both the top and lower levels and reportedly has provided limited military support to both the mainstream Taliban and rival splinter groups—including those opposed to the peace process. Given Iran’s troubled history with the group and ideological differences at face value, its relationship with the Taliban is one of convenience and opportunity while attempting to maintain leverage. Beyond the main convergence of interests in U.S. forces leaving the region, Iran and the Taliban have also cooperated in fighting the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) and thus denied it a foothold in western Afghanistan along the border with Iran. ISKP being a Sunni extremist terrorist group is a logical enemy of Iran, a Shia Islamist power. ISKP also opposes the Taliban for ideological and political reasons. Furthermore, there is a precedence of ISKP being funded by private Sunni patrons from the Gulf region to counter-balance the Taliban which had somewhat moved out of the shadow of its erstwhile Sunni sponsors in the Arabian Peninsula. Finally, Iran has also been wary of an exclusively pro-Saudi and pro-Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan as during the 1990s. Iran’s concerns arise primarily from fears of Sunni hardliners in the Taliban gaining power who are more aligned towards Saudi interests. Given these concerns, Iran would not desire a complete Taliban victory in Afghanistan but recognizes the Taliban’s capabilities as a major player in Afghanistan.

Iran: a spoiler or a benefactor?

Included among Iran’s main interests in Afghanistan is maintaining its access to the Afghan market (especially now that Iran is under U.S. sanctions) and security on the porous Iran-Afghanistan border—a concern for drug trafficking into Iran. Iran is an important trade partner for Afghanistan and Kabul stands to greatly benefit from increased trade and connectivity with Iran. In this regard, U.S. sanctions on Iran may play a negative role for Afghanistan. Access to ports, rail, and road projects in Iran can greatly benefit the Afghan economy and reduce its reliance on Central Asia and Pakistan (with whom Kabul has a strained relationship) due to its landlocked nature. Iran also presents Afghanistan with diversified options in terms of energy requirements. For these reasons Iran would prefer a stable government in Kabul and the Afghan government would prefer to keep its relationship with Iran intact.

Recent reports that China and Iran are close to inking a trade and military pact that would increase Chinese investments in connectivity and other projects in Iran could also enable a Chinese military presence in the region as the United States withdraws. This could potentially increase Iran’s capabilities in Afghanistan via connectivity projects, trade, and better border management and could also open up an Iran-China-Pakistan axis in Afghanistan while utilizing ports in Pakistan and Iran to get access to Afghanistan. The likelihood for such a scenario is not entirely impossible in the event of a U.S. withdrawal given the present status of U.S.-China and U.S.-Iran relations. Of course, this would face increased opposition from the United States and Saudi Arabia (and possibly India) who would view a greater China-Iran footprint with concern.

Going forward Iran will likely wait out the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan unless the U.S.-Iran relationship deteriorates further. Presently, Iran has been severely affected by the COVID-19 crisis and is unlikely to pursue actions that would invite U.S. retaliatory action. In the event of further breakdown in the U.S.-Iran relationship Iran retains the capability to attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan using pro-Iranian Taliban factions or its proxy militia forces. Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Qaani notably also has extensive experience and expertise in carrying out IRGC-QF operations in Afghanistan since the 1990s. Given its geographical proximity and a porous land border with Afghanistan it is a likely scenario and Iran could also be potentially aided by Russia in this regard.

Tehran will try to influence outcomes in Afghanistan to put itself in a strong position vis-à-vis the United States and its rivals in the Gulf. As long as Afghanistan remains an Islamic republic Iran’s approach will likely be relatively stable and beneficial but if a hostile environment emerges in Kabul (from Tehran’s perspective) then Tehran could embark on a destabilizing campaign of violence to keep its rivals bogged down along its eastern frontier.

Iran’s dealings with multiple actors in Afghanistan are ultimately determined by necessity and threat perceptions. Iran, therefore, has no unitary Afghan policy in a post-U.S. withdrawal scenario but rather a multi-pronged pragmatic strategy wherein it retains leverages and linkages with relevant parties and preparations for multiple scenarios, such as collapse of the peace talks or a forceful takeover of the country by the Taliban. Whatever the outcome of the Afghan peace process, Iran seems to be positioning itself to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan for the years to come.

Read the original article in South Asian Voices.

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