Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah held meetings with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and other senior officials during his recent visit to Tehran. Abdullah mentioned that cooperation with neighbouring countries such as Iran is important for regional stability and reiterated that the latest developments in line with the Comprehensive Document on Cooperation signed between Iran and Afghanistan would benefit both countries. Abdullah’s visit took place at a crucial point in time against the backdrop of the peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government and is important considering Iran’s influence and interests in Afghanistan.
Abdullah contested the last presidential elections and declared himself president despite losing the elections. President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah later reached a power-sharing agreement after months of political uncertainty. As per the agreement, Ghani will remain the president while Abdullah will lead the peace talks with the Taliban and will appoint an equal share of ministers from among his loyalists to the Afghan cabinet.
The power-sharing agreement comes in the aftermath of the US-Taliban agreement signed in February this year in Doha. Despite this fragile agreement, several reports indicate that the Taliban has increased attacks on Afghan forces in recent months and the violence has spilled over into almost 24 provinces in Afghanistan, raising questions around the Taliban’s commitment to the peace agreement.
Iran has had a complicated relationship with Afghanistan in the past and Tehran has focused more on preserving its interests in the conflict-ridden country. Tehran has pursued strategic hedging in Afghanistan as the Taliban and Iran have some converging views in relation to the United States although they share a long history of ideological and political contentions. Iran is engaging with the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban simultaneously. During an interview last year, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that it is impossible to have a future in Afghanistan without the Taliban having a role, however, he stated that the Taliban should not have a dominant role. Tehran’s engagement with the Taliban primarily affirms Iran’s support for groups capable of contesting American interests and several reports suggest Iran has covertly supported the movement’s fighters with training and weapons.
Afghanistan’s political landscape reflects deep ethnic polarization. The Pashtuns remain the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan followed by the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. The Pashtuns and Tajiks have traditionally opposed each other, vying for greater power/influence in Afghan politics and were bitter opponents during the civil wars that erupted in the country in the 1990s. Tajik political leaders have for a long time opposed President Ghani and criticized him for showing favoritism towards the Pashtuns. In Afghanistan’s current political context, the ethnic polarization in the country becomes clearer with Abdullah primarily relying on support from Afghan Tajiks, while Ghani depends on the Pashtuns mainly from the southern provinces. The promotion of Abdul Rashid Dostum, who spent time in exile and is accused of war crimes and human rights abuses, to the rank of marshal in the Afghan Army is also indicative of the ethnic split in Afghan politics. Dostum largely draws support from the Uzbeks in the country’s northern provinces. Mohammed Taherian, Iran’s special envoy for Afghanistan, has exerted efforts to meet prominent Afghan politicians from different factions. Iran’s strategy rests on interacting with Kabul while strengthening and increasing its influence among Afghan political factions. Iran’s influence is significant despite Abdullah’s recent comments after he visited Iran, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. He said, “We have had a different past in our relations with these countries. They assured that they will not act like the past, will not have a preference in Afghanistan, and will accept the peace that is acceptable for Afghans.”
The Iranian government has strengthened its influence among the Hazara Shia community in Afghanistan. This minority shares a long cultural and religious relationship with Iran. Some of Iran’s largest reconstruction and infrastructure investment projects are located within the highly populated Hazara areas of the country. If needed, Iran may also shift the Fatemiyoun Division, an Iranian proxy largely comprising Afghan Shia fighters involved in Syria, to Afghanistan to fight against anti-Hazara groups in Afghanistan.
Iran has upheld its strong influence among Farsi speaking Tajiks in Afghanistan. The country’s ethnic polarization has led each faction to look for strong external support. Abdullah has widened his ethnic influence by supporting prominent Hazara warlords like Mohammed Mohaqeq and Mohammed Karim Khalili. Abdullah has received support from major political parties like the Tajik dominated Jamiat-e Islami, and the Hazara dominated Hezb-e Wahdat, as well as the Junbish-e Milli party led by Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Amid concerns regarding the Taliban’s commitment to the peace agreement signed with the United States and an upsurge in insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, Tehran is monitoring ongoing developments. Abdullah in a recent interview stressed that if the Taliban fails to be flexible in negotiations with the Afghan government, there will be a war for many years in the country, worsening ethnic tensions and violence. Iran is keen on ensuring security along the shared Iran-Afghan border and driving away potential terrorist threats.
The recent developments indicate that Iran is keen on maintaining the regional strategic calculus in its favour, minimizing anti-Shia uprisings and conflicts as well as reducing the US presence in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation could prompt Afghan Tajiks and Hazaras to pursue further external support, thus entrenching Iran’s influence in the country, and allowing it to preserve its long-term economic and strategic interests in Afghanistan.