Stabilising Afghanistan: Iran Factor

 By Gurpreet Singh Bajwa
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The Taliban takeover on 15 August of Kabul and the events leading up to the last US sortie out of the Kabul airport have indicated the chaos and pitfalls that have befallen the region. A Taliban government with power centres in Kandahar and Rawalpindi will not lead to a stable Afghanistan but will lead to persecution of the minorities and create space for Islamist forces which can be unleashed onto the world.

The subsequent Taliban declaration of victory against the National Resistance Front at Panjshir evoked a diplomatic response from Iran suggesting a ‘foreign interference’. Tehran has earlier challenged the Saudi and UAE led dominance of the Middle East, and it holds enough capability to ‘Enforce an inclusive government’ in Kabul with assistance from Russia and India. One needs to examine Iran’s capabilities in the ‘operations other than war’ specific to Afghanistan to enforce and protect its interests. In light of the US withdrawal from the area, Iran would become the key Pivot to contain the Taliban and its support to Islamist groups.

Iran- Aghan Relations

Iran has a 900 km long border with Afghanistan and has a geostrategic interest in Helmand River waters being a lower riparian state and Herat which was historically and culturally part of Greater Iran up to 1857 when it relinquished its claim. In fact, Iran’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Investments were focused on Herat. It consisted of a $60 million Road Islam Qala border crossing to Herat and a $660 Million Railway line (225 KM) Khaf to Herat of which 140 km was operational on Dec 20. Afghanistan exports in 2019 were 20 million USD and the Iranian exports to Afghanistan, mostly in form of petroleum products were over 2.8 billion USD in 2018. Besides cultural and educational linkages with Afghanistan, it also trades hugely in oil and other finished goods like medicines, in fact, the cooking oil of Iran is a big hit in Kabul. Iran has supported the Taliban as a legitimate actor in the Afghan settlement process since 2014. Iran has cultivated Warlords and Power Brokers in Kabul to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan.   

Iran’s approach to Afghanistan Security and Stabilisation has been regional rather than international, it opposed the deployment of NATO in Afghanistan. It has been part of the 6+2 framework i.e., Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan plus the USA and Russia, it has taken a favourable view of an UN-led peace conference of regional countries on Afghanistan and it sees itself along with India as a counterweight to Pakistan in Afghanistan. Iran has also deployed Afghan militia ‘Fatemiyoun Division’ in the Syrian conflict. Iran’s strategic message in Afghanistan if it decides to deploy the Fatemiyoun as part of the National Resistance Front could be “Shias and other minorities are being persecuted by Taliban and we are here to help”. Iran has also been recruiting Shia preachers and mullahs in Rural Afghanistan to propagate its message and spread its soft presence, besides they have a presence in the universities in Afghanistan. Ismail Khan (warlord) prevented the Taliban assault on Herat for two weeks and on surrendering was given a safe passage to Iran.[1]

Iran Capability

Iran presently suffers from US sanctions due to the Nuclear Issue. It is working to establish an ‘Economy of Resistance’ outside the ambit of US-controlled financial structure and now trades to Afghanistan will only increase, the oil supply has already resumed. It has also established an indigenous defence industrial complex which has some achievements to write home about. The accurate ballistic missiles attack the US airbases in Iraq: a “proportional response” to the assassination of General Suleimani, the head of the Quds force on Jan 20 and the naval strategy in the Persian Gulf wherein the smaller boats crisscross the pathways of American Destroyers are signs of resistance to the US hegemony in the region. But it’s the support of its proxies that have blunted the Saudi and UAE plan to dominate the Middle East post the Arab Spring and has been able to limit Turkey through strategic support to Kurds. It has even launched its own satellite becoming a space launch capable nation on Apr 20 [2]. It has demonstrated its cyber capabilities with attacks on ARAMCO and Israel.

Iran had cooperated with the USA in 2001 in removing the Taliban with the help of the Northern Alliance comprising of Tajikistan, Uzbek and Shia Groups and has cooperated with Russia in the Syrian Conflict enabling the restoration of the Syrian government writ in almost all population centres of Syria. It backs Hamas and Islamic Jihad Council in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Pakistani Zanibyoun and Iraqi Kaitaib Sayyid al Shahuda and Houthis in Yemen alongside footprints in Libya. The Abrahamic accords in the Middle East have forced Iran to develop its own ‘Axis of Resistance’ based on shared hostility of West and Israel, it’s rumoured to have cooperated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda post US sanctions. The Quds Force (Jerusalem Force) is the fifth arm of the Iran’s military and is said to answer directly to the Ayatollah. U.S. Army’s Iraq War General Stanley McChrystal describes the Quds Force as an organization analogous to a combination of the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in the United States.[3] Its main achievements have been in achieving synergy between its proxies and ensuring the Iranian hegemony in the Middle East.

Fatemiyoun Division

Iran raised the Shia militia from its Afghan refugees for its Syrian Campaign in 2013. It presently reported to have around 5000 to 7000 active fighters, they had peaked to 20000 during the intense period. Most of them joined to increase their social status, once recruited they were provided with training in camps for just four weeks before deployment, they were provided with a transit slip for movement around Iran and a residency permit for their family for up to 10 years renewable each year. Their stated Aim in Syria is to ‘Defend the Shrines of the Prophets Grand Daughters in Damascus’. [4]. Those martyred are buried in high profile graveyards in Qom and paid respects to by Ayatollah himself. Their families receive pensions and grants.

The organisation mirrors an Iranian IRCGC division (Artash). It operates as a mobile force in Syria and was used as a Shock Force. It has six active brigades each with four battalions of 200-250 militias, backed by a reserve Military Base called ‘1800’ led by an IRCGC commander Haji Ismail, who manages the division and provides discipline and addresses any weak areas. Fatemiyoun has a vertical structure with instead of one leader they have seven. Currently, Abdul Baquir Allawi coordinates the operations alongside six additional leaders, all equally powerful. It has the potential to be a powerful player in the National Resistance Front. Some of these fighters have now returned to Afghanistan and can be re-enlisted readily. Some have been enlisted into the Syrian Army and have been allowed to relocate their family into Syria and some deployments have been mentioned to be in Yemen and Libya against a paltry monthly salary of $400-$500.

Russian Collaboration  

In 2016, Abdullah Salahi commanding a unit of about 500 fighters based in the Syrian eastern city of Deir Ezzer accepted an offer by Russians of enhanced training and support. The Russians presently have a military base in Tajikistan and Kyrgystan. Russia had deployed Air Power in Syria along with mercenaries like the WAGNER group(CHVH Vagner).

Can India-Iran Tango

India – Iran relations span a millennium and the two nations shared borders upto 1947. They share several common features in their language, culture and tradition. Both Persian Gulf and South Asia have strong commercial, energy, cultural and people to people links. [5]

Political    

Both nations have had strong highest level engagements, some milestones are: Friendship treaty (Mar 1950), Tehran Declaration (Apr 2001), New Delhi Declaration (Jan 2003), PM Modi visit (May 2016) signed trilateral agreement ‘ Transit and Transport’ in presence of the Afghan President. In Feb 2018, in New Delhi, the contract for the interim operation of Chabhar Port was signed in the presence of the Iranian President. Besides the NSA has attended Six Nation NSA talks in Tehran in 2018 and 2019. The Iranian Defence Minister Brig-Gen Amir Hatami attended the first conclave of the defence ministers of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in Feb 2021 [6]. Our Raksha Mantri, Shree Rajnath Singh had visited Iran in Sep 2020. The 2019 naval exercise between India, Russia and Iran in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman is a prime example of this balancing act in play as Moscow’s increasing role in West Asia is also being factored in. Iran has objected to Pakistan’s unilateral efforts to draft Anti-India resolutions at OIC and Human Rights Commission. Iran is also an observer in SAARC.

Commercial Trade          

The bilateral trade is presently down 72% i.e. from $17.03 Billion in 2018-19 to $4.77 Billion in 2019-20, due to the end of the Significant Reduction Exemption Period on 02 May 2019, earlier India had imported $12.11 Billion worth of Crude Oil in 2018-19.

Chabahar Port

The first phase of the Shahid Beheshti Port was contacted. It has a planned capacity of handling 8.5 MT and India has offered a line of credit of 150 million dollars for the development of the Port. The contract saw an investment of $86 million for procuring equipment for the port. From Dec 2018 the operations commenced and upto Aug 2020 it had handled 8200 TEUs and 1.28 MT of bulk cargo. Around 110000 tonnes of wheat and 2000 tonnes of pulses was sent via the port in 2017-2018. India also shipped 75000 MT tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan through the port. Chabahar is also an important linkage to the proposed North-South Corridor (St Petersburg- Mumbai) and a potential outlet for the Central Asian Republics.

Road Zaranj- Delram Highway has been constructed with Indian financial support (Border Road Organisation- 213 KM) and an MOU for the Railway Line Chahbahar to Zahedan exists May 2016.

People to People Contact

India has a Shia population of around 26 Million(2009) that is around 9% of the entire Shia world population and around 10-15% of the Indian Muslim population.[7]. The cultural hotspots include New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Kargil. The Shia pilgrimage circuit is subscribed to by Indian Shia pilgrims: In Iran- Qom, Mashhad, Hamedan and in Iraq- Karbala and Najaf. Around 20000 Iranians visit annually to mainly Delhi- Agra-Jaipur, Mumbai-Pune-Goa and Hyderabad. Education and medical tourism are also subscribed to.

Humanitarian Assistance

In 2019 India provided 103 tonnes of aid for floods in Iran and in Apr 2020, PPE Kits and PCR machines were provided and in Jun 2020, Malathion Pesticide to fight the menace of the desert locust was handed over.

Way Ahead for India: Towards Multipolarity

Pakistan continues to view India as an existential threat and all its activities are coloured by its Kashmir agenda and almost all efforts towards rational peace initiative ultimately devolve into a Zero-Sum Game. India on the other hand now seeks a multipolar and a Rule-based order approach in dealings with the world. The same is visible in its diplomatic efforts seen at QUAD, SCO, SAGAR, Act East, Neighbourhood First, International Solar Alliance and Vaccine Diplomacy to name a few.

India needs Iran in its balancing act in West Asia. Gulf Countries and Israel on one side (due to the Abrahamic Accords) and Iran on the other side. This geopolitical play will not be easy but its essential to ensure India’s presence in and around Afghanistan which presently is degenerating into a messy and chaotic affair post the ‘Deconstruction of a Nation’ which had the support of the international community and appeared to be inclusive. Some of the steps India should consider in the near future are:-

Security     

India needs to ramp up significantly its engagement with Iran and the Central Asian Republics with the ultimate aim of an Inclusive Afghan Settlement ensuring peace productivity and open commerce in the region. There is also a need to actively monitor the present militia-based governance model unfolding in Afghanistan to prevent its replication in other Islamist hotspots. India should also finalise the Preferential Trade Agreement with Iran at the earliest.

Connectivity       

India needs to speed up the development of the Chabahar port to prevent Gwadar port from emerging as the outlet for Central Asia.

Defence Cooperation

India needs to explore and innovate the defence cooperation once sanctions are waived off, including Naval engagements in the Indian Ocean Region and Defence Sales and cooperating in Afghanistan.

End Notes:

[1]The Iranian Approach to the Taliban: Understanding Changes and Continuities By Dr Deepika Saraswat dt 25 August 2021 https://www.icwa.in/show_content.php?lang=1&level=3&ls_id=6293&lid=4318  (accessed on 26 Sep 21)

[2]Iran successfully launches military satellite dt Apr 24 2020 by Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan https://www.orfonline.org/research/iran-successfully-launches-military-satellite-65141  (accessed on 26 Sep 21)  

[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quds_Force (accessed on 26 Sep 21)

[4]Fatemiyoun: Iran’s ‘Good Taliban’ By Kanishka Nawabi, dt 07 FEBRUARY 2021 https://tolonews.com/opinion-169821  (accessed on 26 Sep 21)

[5]Embassy of India, Tehran: India-Iran Relations https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/India-Iran__Aug_2020_.pdf (accessed on 26 Sep 21)  

[6]Analysing Iranian Defence Minister’s visit to India by Kabir Taneja dt 02 Feb 21 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/analysing-iranian-defence-minister-visit-to-india (accessed on 26 Sep 21)

[7]Shia population in India. https://www.pewforum.org/2009/10/07/mapping-the-global-muslim-population (accessed on 26 Sep 21)