5th June 2021
Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State of United States of America, in his letter written in March this year, to Ashraf Ghani the President of Afghanistan proposed a “UN led peace conference” with a group of countries which share a common interest of stable Afghanistan comprising of India, China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and USA as plus two. This proposal was put forward with the purpose of developing future plans for Afghanistan. Iran, which shares approximately 900 km long border with Afghanistan is bound to play a critical role in determining the future of Afghanistan. Iran has had a longstanding involvement in the internal matters of Afghanistan and has played a crucial role in the power dynamics that exists within Afghanistan. With Blinken’s suggestion of bringing together the players who have their stakes on Afghanistan, it has been made clear that negotiations with Taliban cannot be made in isolation involving only USA or the Afghan government. A larger group of stakeholders are necessary to mediate between Taliban and the Afghan government. In this article the possible opportunities for Iran in Afghanistan post the withdrawal of US armed forces is explored.
Iran’s stake in Afghanistan predominantly involves the presence of the US military along its border with Afghanistan, and with the ‘maximum pressure’ policy applied by USA on Iran. The Afghan crisis and the withdrawal of US troops has come as an opportunity for Iran to release itself from the constant presence of the US military from its border and to wield a greater influence on Afghanistan. US influence in Afghanistan has made Taliban and Iran find a common ground, a chance to negotiate and to simmer down their severe disagreements. Iran’s position in Afghanistan has been constantly fluctuating and unstable just like a teetotum. Historically Iran has been and continuous to be to a certain extent against the Taliban and its Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. In 1998, Iran almost went to war with Taliban when it murdered nine Iranians at the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e Sharif. Post the 9/11 attacks when US invaded Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda and to overthrow Taliban, Iran cooperated fully with USA and the Northern Alliance, by providing them with military and intelligence support, and also provided diplomatic support to USA at the UN talks on Afghanistan in Bonn. Iran brought together the Afghan warlords who were irreconcilable to one another to the Bonn conference and helped in stabilizing Afghanistan and eliminating al-Qaeda. Iran for years has opposed towards any distinction between Taliban and al-Qaeda, as it considered Taliban to be a major threat to its national security.
The US- Iran relations started to dwindle in the year 2002 when President George W. Bush, termed Iran along with Iraq and North Korea as the ‘axis of evil’. This possibly resulted in an opening of dialogue between Taliban and Iran. The fear of being attacked by USA made Iran provide the Taliban with arms and explosives to assist them in their insurgent campaign against the USA. Iran provided these explosives and arms only to counter the growing US hegemony and not at the cost of creating instability in Afghanistan. Despite partially supporting Taliban in its efforts to counter USA, Iran and USA have always had common views towards the Sunni jihadist terrorism, which includes Taliban. The Taliban has historically marginalized the Shia Hazara’s in Afghanistan, due to continuous prosecution faced by the Hazara’s a large section of them took refuge in Iran. While Iran on the other hand has used the young Hazara’s to fight on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria. Since both Iran and the Afghan government share cordial ties, Taliban has tried to repair the severed ties between them by restructuring their relationship with the Shia Hazara’s. This was welcomed by Iran and simultaneously before the start of Intra-Afghan talks, Taliban appointed a Shia Hazara cleric Mawlavi Mahdi Mujahid as the governor of the northern district. Mahdi in his video message encouraged his brethren to fight against the ‘Jewish and Christian invaders’ alongside Taliban. Since then, leaders from Iran and Taliban have held several meetings, in the year 2019 Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Director of Taliban’s diplomatic office in Qatar met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif in Tehran. It was aimed at helping Afghan’s peace and security, as one of the main motive is to subvert a constant US military presence from the region and working together post its withdrawal. Earlier this year in January a Taliban delegation visited Tehran and were welcomed by the Iranian officials, they reportedly discussed about the relation between the two countries, the Afghan migrants living in Iran and the present political and security situation in Afghanistan and the region. The Afghan government was made aware of the trip beforehand by the Iranians to show that, it was not an act to sideline the Afghan government.
The role of Iran in the future of Afghanistan is a crucial, not only in terms of bringing stability in Afghanistan but also in the entire region. Iran, which has been approached by both USA and Taliban, will have a significant role in all the coming negotiations and it will be important to see how well Iran is able to mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Despite having some relief in its relationship with Taliban, Iran still strongly denounced the peace agreement signed between USA and Taliban in Doha as it amounts to USA recognizing the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is still seen as a national security threat by Iran. However, Iran is certainly keen on ending the war in Afghanistan as it threatens its natural interests including refugee influx, drug smuggling, terrorist activities etc. Iran’s role in Afghanistan provides an opportunity for it to fill in the vacuum that will be created with the US withdrawal as it will enable Iran to engage more directly with Afghanistan. However, along with opportunities, Iran will also face the critical challenge of engaging in a dialogue with Taliban as it has historically opposed its Islamic Emirate.
*The author is a Post Graduate Research Scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are those of the author