Iran in Afghanistan: Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

 By Col. Harsh Vardhan Singh
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Iran has strong religious and cultural ties and a long shared border with Afghanistan, Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, is one of Afghanistan’s two official languages and is used by intellectuals and the elite. Until 1857, Herat was part of Iran and only after Iran and Britain signed the Paris Treaty of 1857[1] did Iran abandon its claim, although it reserved the right to send forces to Afghanistan “if its frontier is violated.” From Afghan independence in 1919 until 1979, Iran’s relations with Afghanistan were friendly. After the 1979 revolution, Iranian policy on Afghanistan went through crests and troughs while supporting some groups and at times working at cross purposes with the dispensation in Kabul. In 1992, an alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shiites, under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, overthrew the caretaker government left behind by the Soviets[2]. This was the first time non-Pushtuns had dominated the government; a victory for Iran. Iran’s role in the putsch is unclear, but Massoud’s victory without Iran’s support would have been difficult. The victory was short-lived, as Afghanistan descended into a devastating civil war and Tehran had neither the diplomatic skills nor the resources to bring peace to Afghanistan. During the civil war, Iran supported the Kabul government, but also covered its bets by supporting Shiites who worked both for and against the regime. As Taliban, rose to power with their ideology which was a strange combination of Wahhabism and Deobandism steeped in Anti-shia rhetoric. Iran’s strategic investment was the Northern Alliance. India and Russia supported the alliance, but Iran was its principle source of military assistance. Iranian support for the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s most formidable rival, created serious animosity between Tehran and Kabul. They severed diplomatic relations in 1997. Since the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance ended Taliban rule, Iran has developed friendly relations with National Unity government. It has engaged in reconstruction of Afghanistan, continued supporting its traditional allies and pressed for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country.

Iran’s attempts since 1997 to preserve its interests in conflict-ridden Afghanistan have not received much attention from the outside world, but it remains one of the most important neighboring countries for Tehran’s foreign policy and hence as an extension to the India influence in Afghanistan is predicated on India’s geo-political equation with Iran. The Iranian influence over key ethnic groups including the Tajiks and Hazaras and their respective political parties and its religious diversion from Sunni dominant Taliban denies it mass acceptability and is viewed with a jaundiced eye by the Pashtun majority. 15% of Afghans are from Shiite sect[3], among them are the Hazaras a much prosecuted Asiatic community. The Hazaras have been able to exert influence in Kabul by occupying key government posts. Karim Khalili[4] a Hazara leader is bound to play a key role in future of Afghanistan. Iran is likely to use its influence with Hazaras and other Shiite groups to exercise influence. Iran meanwhile has also courted Pashtun groups and has long maintained relationship with Gulbeddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami. Iran has been able to steer its political calculations away from sectarian dynamics whenever necessary and the same is very much evident in Afghanistan where it has ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds.

Iran is an ambitious regional player with a clear understanding of its complex surroundings and a cautious plan to chart a path through them. Iran’s complicated ties with Afghanistan can be attributed to its unremitting opposition to the United States, which is a strong partner of the Kabul regime. As a Shia dominant country, Iran had a long history of ideological differences and political rivalry with the Afghan Taliban. During the ill-fated Taliban regime in the late 1990s, Iran supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a non-Pashtun coalition of other ethnic groups. Although Iran held Track-II talks with the U.S. following 9/11 on how to stabilize Afghanistan and eliminate Al-Qaeda, several structural barriers prevented the informal talks from being institutionalized. At present, an important dimension of Iran’s understanding of the Afghan crisis is related to how it perceives its relations with Washington. For a long time now, Tehran has been pursuing a risky policy of “Hedging” in Afghanistan; simultaneously providing support to the Afghan government and the Taliban in the hopes of keeping them divided and influencing political developments once the U.S. withdraws its forces this September. Due to this seemingly contradictory dual policy; one ambivalent and one conciliatory, one overt and one covert; it is difficult to analyze Iran’s intentions and influence in Afghanistan. There have been many reports of tactical understandings between Tehran and the Taliban. This stands in sharp contrast to the era of the Taliban regime, which received patronage from Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch rival. However, in the post-9/11 world order, old attitudes changed as new geopolitical realities emerged. One such change was Saudi-Taliban ties, as it became hard for the Saudis to favor the Taliban at the cost of its traditional ally, the U.S. In recent years, Saudi Arabia’s harsh stance against Qatar, where the Taliban maintains its political office, and Qatar’s improved relations with Tehran have helped Iran and the Taliban become closer. This explains Iran’s ability and willingness to play different roles depending on the context and changing circumstances.

Afghanistan’s Shi’a Hazaras have deep socio-cultural bonds with Iran who during the years of the Afghan civil war looked to Tehran as a counterweight to the Sunni Taliban. Iran hosts millions of Hazara refugees who are now fighting on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria as part of the Fatemiyoun Division[5], motivated by promises of money and permanent residency in Iran. Despite being historically anti-Taliban, Tehran seems to have changed its tune on the understanding that the Taliban would no longer persecute Shi’a Hazaras. The Taliban has also reciprocated, and the reason seems tactical. Ahead of the intra-Afghan talks, the Taliban has pulled out all the stops to gain legitimacy among Afghan Hazaras. For instance, the Taliban’s newly appointed northern district governor, Mawlawi Mahdi Mujahid, is an ethnic Hazara Shi’a cleric. In a recent video message, Mujahid asked his co-religionists to fight against the “Jewish and Christian invaders.”[6] Mujahid’s utterances and political messaging are in tune with the Taliban’s anti-Western narrative.

Since the beginning of peace talks with the United States, several top Taliban leaders have been to Tehran for consultations, and Iran has been trying to maintain good ties with almost all Afghan stakeholders. There are reports that Iran’s special representative on Afghanistan, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, has regularly interacted with the Taliban’s political leaders[7], as well as Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s Jamiat-e Islami, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the chief of the Islamic Dawah Organization of Afghanistan[8]. It should also be noted that Abdullah Abdullah, in effect the number two in the Afghan government, has historical ties with Iran. Following the disputed presidential election last fall, when Abdullah challenged the outcome, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed the need for the creation of an inclusive government, implying a tilt in favor of Abdullah. Deeming this statement to be a sign of interference, the Afghan government condemned Iran’s proposal. Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, has toned down his anti-Taliban stance since the group’s rapprochement with Tehran.

After assassination of Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020[9], U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of undermining the Afghan peace process by using militant groups in the country, and also asked the Taliban to disengage from Tehran. Soleimani’s successor, Gen. Esmail Ghaani, who was his deputy was previously responsible for Iran’s engagement with Afghanistan, primarily with Shi’as in the Af-Pak region.[10] It is too soon to tell for sure, but given his professional background, Ghaani’s command of the IRGC-QF could potentially see it step up its activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Taliban commanders and leaders linked to Iran are trying to sabotage negotiation efforts aimed at ending the conflict. In particular, mention should be made of a new Taliban faction, Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami, currently based in Iran[11]. Although the extent of this faction’s influence is unclear, it is among a number of Taliban offshoots with links to Tehran. As intra-Afghan negotiations enter a crucial phase, Tehran is preparing itself to play a king maker role. Since U.S. has often confronted Iran’s ideological and geopolitical interests in the Afghan conflict, Iran is keen to maintain a favorable balance of power in post-American Afghanistan.

Although geopolitical factors and cultural links have enabled Iran to exercise significant influence in Afghanistan in recent years, Tehran now faces greater constraints amid growing social and economic problems at home. Years of authoritarian rule have made Iran’s youth population restive, while its economy has deteriorated due to ongoing Western sanctions and low oil prices. Iran is unlikely to become an example for the Taliban on how to establish a theocratic state based on political Islam, but Tehran will likely continue to maintain its ties with the Taliban for tactical reasons. Tehran has long viewed Washington’s military presence in Afghanistan as part of a plan to encircle Iran. This has given it common ground with the Taliban, which has waged war against U.S. forces in Afghanistan for decades now; the age-old dictum that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” has created an opportunity for rapprochement between the two sides. Tehran and the Taliban also share a common animosity toward the rise of ISIS’s local affiliate in Afghanistan, Islamic State-Khorasan Province, further supporting cooperation between the two sides. Despite their temporary shared interests, however, it remains highly debatable whether Iran’s covert and overt support for the Taliban will win it any real influence in Afghanistan in the long run, especially after Taliban is integrated into Afghan governing structures. Hence, India and Iran have jointly opposed the possible return of the Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan asserting that the war-torn nation could not go “backwards”, Afghanistan Times reported. Both Tehran and New Delhi have expressed concerns about the Islamic Emirate. Speaking on 17 Apr 2021, Mr Jai Shankar called it an ‘existential threat” against Pakistan and a “national security threat” for Iran and India.  Furthermore, he asserted that India was not a rival to Pakistan when it came to the Afghanistan crisis. “This is an illusion to think that what India does in Afghanistan indirectly targets Pakistan. These words harm India’s efforts in Afghanistan,” he added. Peace in Afghanistan is more likely to be realized through a regional approach, in which the strategic and economic interests of Iran, India as well as Pakistan, are not ignored. The ability of India to communicate with both Iran and USA on equitable terms provides a key leverage to the situation in Afghanistan. This merits an early and detailed examination

Endnotes:

[1]http://marxengels.public-archive.net/en/ME1014en.html accessed on  23 Apr 2021.

[2]https://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-afghanistan accessed on 24 Apr 2021.

[3]Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life/Mapping the Global Muslim Population ///home/alpha1/tmp/mozilla_alpha10/Shiarange.pdf

[4]Karim Khalili was the last chairman of the Afghan High Peace Council,which was dissolved in 2019. He served asVice President from 2004 to 2014, Since 1989 he has been one of the main leaders of the Wahadat Party representing the Hazaras.

[5]Tobias Schneider, “The Fatemiyoun Division: Afghan fighters in the Syrian civil war,” The Middle East Institute, October 15, 2018, https://www.mei.edu/publications/fatemiyoun-division-afghan-fighters-syrian-civil-war. Accessed on 23 Apr 2021.

[6]https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/taliban-reaches-out-to-shias/article31545562.ece accessed on 24 Apr 21.

[7]https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/447608/Iranian-special-envoy-holds-phone-talk-with-Taliban-officials accessed on 25 Apr 21.

[8]https://en.mehrnews.com/news/157839/Iranian-envoy-meets-with-different-Afghan-sides accessed  24 Apr 21.

[9]https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/who-is-general-qasem-soleimani-and-why-was-he-so-popular/article30467687.ece accessed on 24 Apr 2021.

[10]https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/esmaii-qaani-shadow-commander-irans-quds-force-200118191907985.html accessed on 25 Apr 2021.

[11]https://www.rferl.org/a/afghanistan-taliban-splinter-group-peace-deal-iranian-links/30661777.htmlaccessed on 24 Apr 2021.