On 29 February 2020, the United States and the Taliban reached a milestone agreement towards the path to peace in Afghanistan, by signing a historic peace deal in Doha. This deal brought along its share of uncertainty, punctuated by episodes of violence. Soon after signing the deal, Taliban intensified attacks in Afghanistan, leaving a question mark on the deal’s credibility. On the other hand, some regional countries, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbours, began repositioning themselves in order to protect their respective interests in the event of a successful US withdrawal and a power sharing arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. This article throws light on Iran’s balanced approach in such a scenario towards the politics in Afghanistan to secure its interests and work towards a stable neighbourhood.
Iran’s Interest in Afghanistan
Among other countries, Iran emerged as an aspiring regional player set clear goals in dealing with complex political dynamics in Afghanistan. Iran faced a huge influx of Afghan refugees as a result of decade long conflict in Afghanistan. Its long-term interest is served by a secure and stable Afghanistan which could benefit it greatly, in terms of trade to Central Asia. Iran, therefore, has been a major stakeholder in the success of the peace process in Afghanistan with the provision that its interests are also served.
Iran played a major role in persuading sparring Afghan political parties to agree on a joint committee for Intra-Afghan Dialogue, which includes all factions on Afghan political landscape and come out with a ruling system on the lines of a Republic. At the same time, Iran is wary of the hardliner elements of Taliban which have close ties with the Gulf countries. They are predominantly Sunni and Tehran wants to keep them away from the decision making in the new Central government. TheTaliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) frequently attack the Afghan security forces and civilians, specifically targeting Shiite communities in Afghanistan and that often spills over into the Iranian territory. Hence, it is quite certain that the outcomes of Afghan Peace Process will shift Iran’s policy that best suits its interests in the region.
Nevertheless, Iran will come up with a pragmatic approach to cooperating with central government in Kabul, contain factions of Taliban, and assist in safeguarding its own interests. Moreover, a secure and stable Afghanistan will fulfil Iran’s political and economic interests such as providing access to the Afghan market for Iranian goods to overcome the economic setback as a result of stringent US sanctions as well as securing its porous border with Afghanistan. Furthermore, access to Chabahar Port, rail, and road projects will benefit Afghanistan’s economy which could also reduce its reliance on another country owing to its landlocked nature.
At present, Iran’s economy is in shambles as a result of tough US sanctions as well as the disruptions caused by COVID-19 pandemic. In case of chaos in Afghanistan, another wave of refugees could be pushed across the border will make matters worse for Iran. COVID-19 crisis has aggravated long-standing hardship and poverty among refugees in Iran. It is evident that increased violence in Afghanistan could lead to a new influx of refugees in Iran. Hence, Iran favours the status quo to a great extent, which provides a modicum of stability in Afghanistan. Hence, Iran will continue on its current pattern of openly supporting the Afghan government while encouraging intra-Afghan talks and continuing its ties with Taliban, in order to keep its options open as the United States prepares to withdraw.
Iran’s Covert Relationship with Taliban
In view of Iran’s troubled relationship with the Taliban in the past as well as their ideological differences, its present relationship is one of convenience and opportunity as an attempt to maintain leverage. While US prepares to withdraw its troops, Iran has been working on maintaining its ties with relevant stakeholders in Afghanistan to keep its options open. Moreover, in a report released in November 2019, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) revealed that Iran has been supporting the Taliban in terms of finances, training and material assistance. Beyond the major convergence of interest in US withdrawal, Iran and the Taliban have also been cooperating in fighting the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), a Sunni extremist terrorist group and have thus, denied its foothold in the western part of Afghanistan, which lies adjacent to the Iranian border. In this regard, Iran recognises Taliban’s capabilities as a major player in Afghanistan but a complete victory of Taliban is not in Iran’s interests.
Further, Iran analyses Afghan conflict through the prism of Middle East conflict and fears intervention from Saudi Arabia to use Afghan-based proxies against it. What worries Tehran the most is that Saudi Arabia’s position could shrink the space for Iranian interests in Afghanistan, in case of any future settlement. Iran is sceptical of the pro-Saudi and pro-Pakistani Taliban factions influence in Afghanistan and keeps a close watch.
Iran’s strategy, thus, in Afghanistan is based on pragmatic approach, and it thus, desires that Afghanistan should maintain its status as a republic to limit the influence of Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia.
Despite temporary shared interests of Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is unclear whether Iran, through it’s covert and overt support for the Taliban, will win any real influence in neighbouring Afghanistan in the long run, especially in the scenario of a power sharing arrangement between Afghan government and the Taliban. Iran’s ambition is to keep the most hardcore elements of the Taliban far from power in a new central government. Therefore, Iran will try to influence outcomes in Afghanistan according to its national interest, in order to position itself strongly vis-à-vis the US and other adversaries in the region.
Iran’s ties with multiple stakeholders in Afghanistan are ultimately determined by necessity and perceived threats. Therefore, Iran does not have a unitary Afghan policy in post-US withdrawal scenario, rather, it has a multi-pronged pragmatic strategy. For that purpose, Iran leverages with relevant parties to enhance its policy choices for multiple possible future scenarios, such as Taliban’s forceful takeover of the country, a power-sharing arrangement and collapse of the peace talks. In any outcome aforementioned, Iran seems to be positioning itself to secure its interests in Afghanistan, in the years to come.
This article was published in the NIICE Commentary 6000 on September 23, 2020.