Iran’s role in Afghanistan is likely to be important, due to its geographic location and also because, while Tehran will seek to find common ground with other countries, including China, it is also likely to follow an independent policy driven by its own strategic interests, especially in the South Asian context.
Iran is an important stakeholder in a post-Taliban Afghanistan due to its geographic location as well as for other strategic factors. On 7 September 2021, the Taliban announced a new government with Mullah Mohammad Hassan installed as acting Prime Minister and Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network who is on the FBI’s most wanted list for terrorism, as Interior Minister. Iran has repeatedly urged the Taliban to form an inclusive government that provides representation to all ethnic groups and different political factions.
Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, during his conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Amir-Abdollahian, on 4 September, reiterated the importance of Iran’s importance in Afghanistan and for the need for joint co-operation between Tehran and Beijing. A statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry quoted him as having told his Iranian counterpart that:
As common neighbours of Afghanistan, China and Iran need to strengthen communication and coordination to play a constructive role in achieving a smooth transition and peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan.
In recent years, Tehran-Beijing relations have strengthened, as a result of the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran Nuclear Deal/JCPOA) , and in March 2021 both countries signed a 25 year “strategic co-operation pact” with a view to strengthening economic and strategic links. Significantly, a number of infrastructural projects related to the pact are linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. While the Biden Administration has tried to restore the JCPOA, and negotiations in Vienna which started in April have made some progress, there has been no progress since June 2021 due to differences between Iran and the other signatories to the deal over a number of key issues. While the US was apprehensive about Ebrahim Raisi’s victory in the June presidential election, the Iranian president has clearly indicated that he is open to negotiations while safeguarding Iran’s interests.
As a result of the steady deterioration of ties with the US, as well as its economic compulsions, Iran’s ties with Beijing have strengthened and there is no doubt that on the issue of Afghanistan both countries will work together. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Iran is unlikely to blindly toe another country’s line, including China’s, since Iran’s foreign policy priorities are not identical to Beijing’s.
Iran’s ties with India and Pakistan are important to understand in this context.
An example of the strength of Iran-India ties is the statement of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi wherein he called for India and Iran to work together in Afghanistan, during his meeting with India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar in August 2021. India has invested in the Chabahar Project in Iran, the primary objective of which was to promote India-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral connectivity. While ties between Iran and India steadily deteriorated after India decided to stop purchasing oil from Iran in 2019, in recent months India has given Iran greater priority as a result of the changing regional situation.
Recently, the Indian Foreign Minister also held a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart. During that conversation, India is supposed to have sought assistance for evacuation flights from Afghanistan. The latter is also likely to visit India later this month and, apart from bilateral issues, Afghanistan is likely to be given priority during talks between both the two ministers.
During a conversation between Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Ameer Abdollahian, the latter hailed Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. A day later, Iran flagged its concerns with regard to the role of external players in Afghanistan while alluding to Pakistan. As an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said:
We would like to inform our friends, and those who might make the strategic error of entering Afghanistan with different intentions, that Afghanistan is not a country which accepts the enemy (or) the aggressor.
Iran was also critical of the Taliban’s military offensive against local fighters in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. Iran’s criticism of Pakistan came days after ISI Chief, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, visited Kabul. While the China factor is an important determinant of the Iran-Pakistan relationship, there have been differences in the strategic sphere and there could be differences between the two over Afghanistan.
Iran has also conveyed its disappointment with regard to the Taliban interim government not being inclusive: there are no Shia or women in the Cabinet. Iran, along with China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, participated in a regional conference that took place virtually on 8 September and at which the Iranian Foreign Minister argued in favour of ‘intra-Afghan talks and agreements’.
In conclusion, Iran’s role in Afghanistan is likely to be important, not just because of its geographical location, but also because it is likely to adopt an independent position on the country. While finding common ground with other countries, including China, it is likely to follow an independent policy driven by its own strategic interests, especially in the South Asian context. Iran’s ties with India and Pakistan are important in this context. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi needs to deal not only with numerous domestic challenges, but also exhibit pragmatism and deftness in dealing with the situation in Afghanistan.