Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently visited Dushanbe to attend the ninth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) which was held on March 30, 2021. The conference was titled “Strengthening Consensus for Peace and Development” and was led by Afghanistan to enhance dialogue and build trust among regional countries to promote stability and prosperity in Afghanistan and the heart of Asia region. The security situation in Afghanistan hinges on reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Iran remains an important actor in Afghanistan and maintains interactions with both actors. Although Iran did not attend the Moscow Conference on Afghan Peace, it communicated that it is willing to extend its support to an Afghan interim government only if it includes “minority ethnic groups” over which Tehran has a strong degree of influence. During his visit to Dushanbe, Zarif also met with his counterparts from Central Asia and South Asia to discuss opportunities to widen economic interactions.
Washington is pushing the Afghan government and the Taliban to reconcile quickly as the proposed US deadline for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan nears, although, Biden has recently said that the security situation in the country is not conducive for a comprehensive withdrawal. A recent newspaper report revealed that the Biden administration is planning to pressure all parties to reduce the levels of violence and eventually withdraw US troops. The Taliban is unwilling to negotiate with the United States to extend the US troop withdrawal deadline and has urged the United States to observe the deadline at any cost. Iran’s close interactions with the Taliban are important here as both the Taliban and Tehran blame the United States for the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and are eager to minimize US influence in the country. Reflecting their growing interactions, Iran recently hosted a senior Taliban delegation despite their ideological and theological differences. The Taliban in recent months has increased its violence targeting journalists, media workers, and judges. Moreover, if US troops are not withdrawn by May 1, 2021, this will eventually lead to the Doha Accord collapsing.
On the side-lines of the HoA-IP, Zarif also met with other foreign ministers and national leaders. Zarif met Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and discussed various ways to widen bilateral cooperation with Tajikistan. Iran in recent years has tried to repair its ties and increase bilateral economic interactions with Tajikistan especially through infrastructure projects like the Istiqlol tunnel and Sangtuda 2 hydroelectric power plant. Zarif also met his Azeri counterpart, Jeyhun Bayramov on the side-lines and discussed geopolitical developments in the Caucasus region and Tehran-Baku cooperation regarding the Caspian Sea and other issues of mutual interest. Iran’s interactions with Azerbaijan in recent years have been complicated especially amid Tehran arresting several Azeri activists and its meddling in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict via supplying Armenia with weapons. The demarcation of the resource-rich Caspian Sea remains a lingering issue with increasing competition among Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Turkey, and Iran. As per some experts, Iran intends to take advantage of Turkey’s growing role in the Caspian Sea to extend cooperation with Russia to counter Ankara’s deepening influence in the region.
Zarif met Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and exchanged views on the Afghan peace process and ways to improve bilateral relations. Another important meeting on the side-lines was between Zarif and India’s Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar. The meeting took place amid renewed attempts to improve India-Iran relations although New Delhi has still not resumed oil imports from Iran. India recently handed over two 140-ton mobile harbor cranes to the authorities at Chabahar port for the development of phase-1 of Shahid Beheshti port in Chabahar.
Zarif’s visit to Dushanbe was significant for two important reasons. Firstly, Iran wants to ensure US troops withdraw from Afghanistan and its interests are preserved in any new political set-up in the country. This is reflected in its growing interactions with the Taliban as well as with other actors in the country. Rahaina Azad, an Afghan lawmaker, confirmed that Iran helps the Taliban in Herat, Helmand, Farah, and Ghazni. Azad said, “If Iran really wanted to be an honest, neighbourly nation, they should stop funding and training the Taliban.”
Secondly, Iran remains desperate to repair ties and advance bilateral relations with prospective long-term partners, especially from Central Asia and South Asia to revive its ailing economy which has suffered immensely due to harsh US sanctions. As per a recent US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, one of Iran’s coping strategies amid US sanctions has been to diversify the countries it exports to in order to widen its economic interactions. Iran’s resistance economy remains a major reason for its ongoing economic crises, and it has impacted the country’s access to foreign exchange reserves. Moreover, a recent study indicates that the Iranian people are angered about the Iranian government’s policies in general and they believe that its handling of the economy has worsened over time leading to more socio-economic suffering.