23.08.2021 Author: Vladimir Danilov

Can Iran Influence Further Developments in Afghanistan?

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The rise to power in Afghanistan of the Taliban (a radical movement banned in Russia) lends special importance to the response of external players and the possibility of their influence on the further development of the situation in the country. In this context, it would be interesting to look at the prospects of further relations between Iran and Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and Iran speak the same language — Dari (Farsi-Kabuli, the Afghan version of Farsi), and the border between the countries extends up to 921 km. Iran is home to the largest Afghan community in the world, which is very conservatively estimated to number some 2.5 million people. Tehran clearly does not want it to increase, despite Iran being ready to accept new refugees. These circumstances alone make the prospect of further relations with Afghanistan, including economic ones, very important for Iran, since Tehran has a trade surplus in trade with its neighbor.

Bilateral relations between Iran and Afghanistan were established in 1935, when both countries had a monarchical regime (in Afghanistan the monarch was Zakir Shah, and in Iran – Shah Pahlavi). In general, the relations developed fairly well until 1978, when the April (communist) Revolution occurred in Afghanistan, and a year later, in 1979, the Islamic Revolution took over in Iran. The political forces that rose to power in those countries at that time did not find common ground, therefore, even after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Iran supported the Northern Alliance and participated in the joint operation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) against the Taliban.

As for Tehran’s relations with the Taliban itself, they are ambiguous. One of the saddest moments in the history of Iran’s diplomacy took place in 1998, when 11 Iranian diplomats were killed in the consulate in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This happened, at least, with the approval of the Taliban. Unsurprisingly, until 2002, Iran viewed the Taliban as an enemy.

In 2001, the Iranian special forces unit “Al-Quds” actually helped the United States during the invasion of Afghanistan and in overthrowing the Taliban, but the situation changed dramatically after the January 29, 2002 address to Congress of the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush, who included Iran, which helped the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, into the global “axis of evil”. In other words, the White House equated Iran, which had cooperated with the Americans, with the Taliban.

Iran was forced to accept this stance of Washington and take a hostile position together with the Taliban towards the United States, and even created a specialized Ansar corps based in Mashhad for the Afghan project. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in Iran in 2005, the anti-American sentiment further united Kabul and Tehran, and in 2014, the IRGC opened a command center for the Taliban in Mashhad, where they were trained and even allegedly received funding. According to The Wall Street Journal, middle-level commanders in Afghanistan allegedly received rifles, ammunition and a salary of $580 a month from Iran.

Despite the fact that one of the strategic goals that Iran has pursued in the Middle East in recent years is the complete and final withdrawal of American troops, by leaving Afghanistan, Washington has created for the Islamic Republic much bigger problems than the simple inconvenience of the US uninvited presence there ever was. First of all, this concerns the unpredictable reaction to today’s Afghan events on the part of the DAESH terrorist group (banned in Russia), and what specific role its “Afghan branch” will play in the redistribution of power in that country, and even though the branch has not yet said its word it undoubtedly will. After all, the socio-economic and religious problems in Afghanistan, which became prerequisites for the emergence of DAESH, have not gone away. One should not forget that the majority of the population of Afghanistan belongs to Sunni Islam, and the Shiites are mainly the Hazaras supported by Iran. Therefore, representatives of extremist Sunni organizations that promote sectarian enmity, including in relation to Shiites, who make up the overwhelming majority of the Iranian population, have been performing active work among Afghan Sunnis before and have not stopped it now.

And these sectarian contradictions are not disappearing. Moreover, certain forces are trying to use them in order to prevent the trends of cooperation between Tehran and Kabul from strengthening. So, in July of this year, both countries were on the verge of a diplomatic conflict due to publications about the situation in Afghanistan by the Iranian official publication Jomhouri-e Eslami, which claimed that an entire militant organization of Afghan Shiites had allegedly grown on the territory of the neighboring country to confront the militants of the Taliban movement. In particular, it was reported that the intensification of offensive actions by the Taliban led to a sharp mobilization of the Shiite population of Afghanistan, especially after dozens of Afghan counties surrendered to the “furious mullahs”. Among other things, it was pointed out to the intensification of the activities of a Shiite group called “Hashd al-Shia”, which, according to Jomhouri-e Eslami, was allegedly ready to repel the armed opponents of official Kabul and support the army.

This information of the Iranian media attracted the attention of the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, who called it an attempt by the Iranian leadership to organize a real coup in Afghanistan The Kabul authorities immediately remembered  how in 2019 the Afghan administration expressed at an unofficial level fears that thousands of Shiite militants who fought in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad were now returning home and could create a headache for Afghanistan. And the sources of the Saudi news agency Asharq al-Awsat in the Afghan security agencies then drew attention to the fact that the Shiite Hazaras who were once recruited by Iranian officers can become a good political tool Iran can use to strengthen its position in Afghanistan.

In view of these circumstances, with the departure of the last US Air Force aircraft from the Kabul airport, many forces can be expected to return to the Afghan conflict. Including the “veterans” of the previous civil war, such as DAESH and Al-Qaeda (a terrorist formation banned in Russia), who can move from a network structure to an actual attempt of creating their own quasi-state. Without any doubt, its name will differ from the previous one, which in recent years has been associated everywhere only with black banners and undisguised terror, and may try to position itself with a “national liberation movement”. But such a possible development in Afghanistan will inevitably lead to the strengthening of Tehran’s ties with the Taliban, for which both DAESH and Al-Qaeda are outright opponents.  In any case, Tehran will not put up with the possible chaos in neighboring Afghanistan, as the Iranian Foreign Ministry officially announced on July 19.

Tehran agrees that the Taliban is now an integral part of Afghanistan and its dominant force. Therefore, today Iran, as by the way is the case with many other countries, is concerned about the latest events in Afghanistan, it is carefully assessing the actions of the Taliban and developing a new concept for future bilateral relations. In this regard, the assessment of the current political situation in Afghanistan by the Iranian authorities after a very long pause is noteworthy. In particular, Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi noted that Tehran is ready to cooperate with all the political forces of Afghanistan that are aimed at peace and development in their country, and political stability in Afghanistan and the predictability of the development of the situation in this state are very important for Iran. At the same time, attention was drawn to the statement of the official representative of the Iranian Foreign Ministry who referred to the terrorist group Taliban as the “Islamic Emirate”, that is, he used the interpretation of the Taliban themselves. Until recently, official Tehran referred to the Taliban as nothing other than a terrorist organization.

Thus, one can assume that the Iranian authorities’ position on the Taliban is changing significantly.

Vladimir Danilov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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