Afghanistan has been both a challenge and an opportunity but more so for Iran than any other neighboring country. The year 2018 brought a surge in Iran’s Machiavellian approach towards its eastern neighbor. The Taliban, the enemy of an enemy, was appeased like never before. As a bordering country, Iran’s pursuit of a friendly government in Kabul should have been a legitimate one but its endeavors have been driven more by its desire to hurt the US and its interests there. Besides forcing America’s exit from Afghanistan without leaving a satisfactory substitute behind, Tehran will be investing heavily in the forthcoming presidential elections, originally scheduled for April 2019 but which may now be held in July. The year 2018 witnessed India’s development of the Chabahar port and Iran’s opening of road and rail networks to Afghanistan. These developments will have significant implications for Iran’s future approach towards its neighbor.
First: Iran Uses Taliban’s Card
Washington’s move to walk out of the nuclear deal provoked Iran to resume its policy of destabilizing Afghanistan. The Taliban, a militia comprised of Sunni students that evolved in reaction to Afghanistan’s bloody civil war during the 1990s, was responsible for massacring Shiite Hazaras and executing nine Iranian diplomats in the Iranian Mazar-e-Sharif consulate in 1998. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed Pakistan for the killings carried out by the Taliban and in response he ordered 70,000-Iranian troops to mobilize along the Iran-Afghanistan border. However, with strategic imperatives changing post 9/11, Iran began to supply the Taliban with money and arms as well as sanctuary for its leaders. The Obama administration had possibly foreseen Iran’s cooperation in Afghanistan after a series of Zarif-Kerry meetings produced a successful nuclear agreement. However, with Donald Trump in the White House, animosity replaced cooperation. Iran is applying its playbook of 2014 when NATO forces left Afghanistan and its relations with the Taliban became so pronounced that the Taliban was provided with an office in Mashhad. The Taliban political office in Qatar was liaising with the one in Iran. In 2016, a CIA drone sent a stern warning to Tehran and Islamabad when it blew up the vehicle of the Taliban leader Akhtar Mansour while he was returning from Iran after spending several weeks there.
As the nuclear talks continued in Switzerland in 2015, Iran’s arms supply to the Taliban included 82mm mortars, light machine guns, AK-47 Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and C4 material. The US and NATO have currently deployed about 16,000 troops at the cost of $45 billion yearly.
In December 2016, the Afghan Senate initiated a probe into Iran’s military support for the Taliban. The seven-nation Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) imposed sanctions on two Iranian Quds Force officers on October 23 for financial and military support to the Taliban. Had the US remained in the JCPOA, it could have denied the militia Iran’s material support more effectively. Perhaps the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal prompted Iran to strengthen relations with the Taliban to disturb US influence in Afghanistan and to launch military operations against US forces in this country.
Second: Iran and Afghan Peace Talks
Since Iran could not be part of the existing processes of Afghan peace talks, it has been trying through various fora, either under the auspices of friendly states like China and Russia or its very own. When Pakistan, the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar were engaged in talks with the Taliban’s political leadership last month in order to reach a peaceful solution in Afghanistan to ensure stability and end the armed activities there, its military commanders were visiting Tehran.
Iran was part of the Russia-led quadrilateral talks on Afghanistan in December 2016. Others participants included China, India, and Pakistan. On July 11, the intelligence chiefs of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia met in Islamabad to agree on ‘coordinated steps’ against the rise of ISIS in eastern Afghanistan.
Notably, Afghanistan was excluded from this intelligence meeting between Iran, Russia, China, and Pakistan while the Afghan government had been engaged in negotiations with the Taliban to reach a political solution to include the movement in the government in exchange for the end of all armed activities and the restoration of state authority over Taliban-controlled territories through Saudi and UAE mediation. The Iranian position on Afghanistan is conflicting. It says it is committed to security and stability in Afghanistan, but at the same time Iran is constantly providing military support to the Taliban. This represents an Iranian pressuring card on the United States in Afghanistan. At the same time, Iran needs Afghanistan to extend a gas pipeline to Pakistan and India to accomplish its internal economic projects in the port of Chabahar in partnership with India. New Delhi is planning to access markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran. Despite the many gains achieved through stability in Afghanistan, Iran’s willingness to interrupt the US presence in this country hinders the achievement of Iranian economic goals.
Now as the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad pursue a policy of rapprochement with the Taliban, Iran will work to exploit the outcomes. From Iran’s perspective, any talks with the US must involve strict conditions with the starting point being an agreement that foreign troops leave Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban have not agreed to a ceasefire and explosions continue to rock the country. Divisions in the movement will serve Tehran’s purpose but one will have to wait and see if it will be able to exploit the different factions for its interests. As much as violence and unrest in Afghanistan serves Iran’s interest, it has not been quite successful in limiting the Taliban from attacking Shias or other non-Pashtun ethnicities. The militia is neither under the full control of Iran nor Pakistan. Unlike Tehran’s open supply chain for the Taliban so that attacks against US troops and interests do not stop, Islamabad has relied on the movement’s political aspects to keep foreign powers from curtailing Pakistani interests in Kabul. Nevertheless, in 2018 the Afghan position on Iran changed. The Afghan government continued blaming Iran for military support to the Taliban. Some Afghan security officials expressed fears that Iran might turn Afghanistan into a theater for a proxy war with the United States by its constant support to the Taliban.
Third: Afghan Workers and Iran’s Economic Crisis
Over the last decade, Tajiks – who distanced themselves from the Iranian regime owing to its ultra-sectarian rhetoric and its wars in Syria and Iraq – have turned to Turkey. There has been a shift in the Iranian approach towards the Hazara community as well which has been sent back in large numbers to Afghanistan.
The exodus of Afghans from Iran has not only impacted cash flow to the country but also hampered the Afghan government’s capacity to impose its writ as well as to provide services. Meanwhile, the Afghan government continues not only to complain about the ill-treatment of Afghans in Iranian camps but also their enforced recruitment in the Fatimyoun brigade to fight in Syria to defend Bashar al-Assad.
The plight of refugees in Iran has adversely affected pro-Iranian sentiments in Afghanistan, especially with the forced recruitment to join the Fatimyoun brigade to fight in Syria. Often and rightly so, Iran and Afghanistan are referred to as two countries with a common language, Persian or Dari, which nearly the entire (7 to 15 percent) Shia population of Afghanistan speaks. However, there is a state of enmity towards Afghans within Iranian society. Iranians stereotype Afghans as poor workers and opium addicts as well as dealers. In addition, Afghans are stereotyped as people who mistreat women. Iranian workers constantly complain that Afghan employees are exacerbating the unemployment problem in Iran, while Iranian employers believe Afghans work hard for low wages, unlike Iranian workers. The devaluation of the Iranian currency against the US dollar has prompted Afghan workers to go back to their country due to the decline of their income in Iran.
Over 700,000 unregistered Afghan refugees were forced to leave Iran last year, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The number is over three times that of 2017 when 187,000 returned. Iran is home to over 1.5 million unregistered Afghan refugees besides an estimated 1 million who are registered. Iran needs more support in hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world, said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
Fourth: Iran and Ethnic Balances in Afghanistan
Iran seeks to achieve ethnic balance in Afghanistan through its cultural relationship with the Farsi-speaking Tajik community. At the same time, it aims to enhance its relations with the Afghan ruling elite predominantly composed of Pashtuns. However, Iranian interference in Afghanistan has been strengthened by its ties with the Shiite Hazara which Iran significantly supports by granting scholarships to their children to study in Iran in addition to financial and political support to this minority. Indeed, Iran has succeeded in increasing the participation of the Hazara minority in Afghan political life by increasing their parliamentary representation to 61 seats out of 249 seats in the current parliament, representing more than 24% of the total number of seats in parliament.
The Iranian-backed Sunni-Pashtun Gulbuddin Hekmatyar will run in the 2019 Afghan presidential elections. He is a strong and new candidate who entered politics noting that Iran granted him asylum after the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996. Relations between Hekmatyar and Iran have continued despite him and his movement laying down arms and declaring loyalty to the Afghan constitution.
Besides such long-term investments in sectarian and political plans, Iran has been handing out money to politicians such as to the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, as well as to non-governmental organizations and to non-Shia religious figures. One manifestation of Iran’s soft- and illicit-power was the vote in Pakistan’s parliament on sending troops to Yemen. Iran’s money and its lobbyists were effective in ensuring a vote in Iran’s favor.
Iran’s influence in Afghan media has been on the rise. Instead of focusing on a particular media group or news agency, Tehran has focused on decision-makers and popular individuals on the TV screen to influence public opinion. Besides funding the Afghan Voice Agency, “there are four TV stations that support Iran, such as Tamadon.” Iranian media muscle can play a crucial role in the upcoming Afghan elections. Tehran normally follows the Russian model of dissemination, i.e. creating a distraction by spreading half-baked or completely fake news.
If Iran does not agree to renegotiate the nuclear deal in line with Trump’s demand and the sanction waivers are not extended for another six months, Iran’s economic woes may become unsustainable. For instance, the Iranian Rial which was traded at 119,000 to the dollar on August 1 slid to 42,100 at the start of 2019. Iran has its own reasons beyond its economic crisis to confront the smuggling of narcotics as this has resulted in the addiction of unemployed, unskilled and affluent youth.
The bilateral relations between Iran and Afghanistan will be subject to the outcome of the US-Afghanistan-Taliban talks as well as Tehran’s own economic and political situation. Iran will use all its cards to get its favorite candidate to participate in the Afghan presidential elections in 2019.
The quest for continuity in Indo-Afghan and Indo-Central Asia trade via Chabahar can blunt and make more pragmatic Iran’s approach to Afghanistan. The port has proven Iran’s trump card vis-à-vis Pakistan and China besides helping India win an exemption from US-led sanctions on its oil exports. Iran’s overall behavior in the Gulf, Yemen, Syria and Iraq will largely determine how America and its own allies deal with her. Chabahar cannot deliver for Iran and Afghanistan in isolation from domestic and regional developments.