Iran's role in Afghan Peace Process
Iran's policy of strategic hedging takes a prudent turn to sculpt a "political solution" for post-US Afghanistan. Its pragmatic approach to acknowledging and negotiating with major stakeholders in the Kabul power battle can be an effective strategy to avert a full-fledged civil war.
Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, heading a delegation with Taliban and Afghan National government representative on July 7 in Tehran. (Image source Al Jazeera)
The strong cultural and economic linkages compounded by geopolitical volatility in West Asia make Tehran's involvement in Kabul inevitable. The 7th July intra-Afghan meet highlights the pivotal role that Iran aspires to play in Afghanistan. Iran has finely construed a balancing strategy that involves negotiating with Afghan's major political factions to bring about a "political solution." Iran has considerable stakes in maintaining stability in the region to ultimately avert an anti-Shiite stronghold to develop in its backyard and secure its borders from migrant spillover and drug trafficking.
While Tehran has maintained its relations with the Afghan government over the years now, its recent overt conciliation with the Taliban adds real value to the mediation process. Despite the looming memories of the 1998 Mazar-i-Sharif incident, Iran has forged relations with the ideologically polar, Sunni Taliban. This complex but imperative affair is dictated by practical consideration to use the Taliban to check against other extremist groups like ISIS.
Iran fears the strengthening of groups like the ISKP, the Khorasan project of ISIS, which has launched a sustained complaint against the Shias in the region. ISKP follows a blitzkrieg strategy and aims to acquire weakly governed yet important Nangarhar and Kunar region of Afghanistan. Iran wants to cooperate with the Taliban to fight this mutual adversary and deny it a haven along the border of Iran.
Another reason behind Iran's tactical amiability with the Taliban stems from the fear of creating an exclusively absolute Taliban in Afghanistan, like in the 1990s. Tehran envisions an " inclusive government " for Afghanistan to avert this possibility, with the Taliban as a major but not the sole actor. Through this, it aims to safeguard the Shiite minority of Afghans, especially the Hazaras, who became the main target of the Taliban in 1996. Suppose an absolute Taliban came into power, history can repeat itself, and Iran will have no choice but to intervene militarily. Such a scenario could bring Iran's gulf adversaries, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, into play. It will be highly disadvantageous for Iran since its Fatemiyoun proxies both in capability and scale are not in a position to withstand a united offensive.
Tehran's interest in Afghan Peace Process is also driven by concern regarding migration movement across the 921 km porous Afghan border. If an absolute Taliban came to power, Iran would face a deluge of Afghan refugees. Iran presently provides refuge to 2.5 million Afghan immigrants is not poised to encounter a fresh influx. Moreover, such a vulnerable frontier will open new channels for Afghan opium trafficking in its transit to Western markets. In the backdrop, crippling the Iranian economy would increase the risk of drug money entering Iran's mainstream economy, making it susceptible to more sanctions.
It is significant for Iran that is its balancing strategy comes to fruition. This will ensure its significant influence in Kabul and would assist Iran to ameliorate its economy. Afghanistan is one of Iran's largest trading partners. Despite mounting sanctions, the value of Iran's export to Afghanistan reached the $2 billion mark from March 20, 2020, until February 18, 2021, according to (IRICA). Afghanistan plays a critical role in Ebrahim Raisi 's economic policy, which centers around regional export markets.
Furthermore, Iran's Afghan engagement should be seen as part of its calculated plan to prevent Pakistan–Taliban dynamics bolstering. Such a situation will jeopardize Iran's vision to link Chabahar port with Central Asia through Afghan territory. The development of Chabahar and the accompanying railway system is critical for Iran's resurgence. Given the landlocked nature, such access to ports, rail, and road projects in Iran will immensely benefit the Afghan economy. A regional solution will be a lasting one from preventing Afghanistan from descending into chaos. With its calculated balancing strategy, Iran is likely to play a pivotal role in this regard, ultimately safeguarding its security and economic interests. Tehran's carefully crafted strategy wherein it retains leverages and linkages with significant stakeholders will help Tehran to embed itself in Afghanistan to meet its interests for the years to come.
About the Author
Samreen is a research intern at Ytharth.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ytharth.