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Afghan Presidential Election and Possible Impact on Tehran-Kabul Ties

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Ja'far Haghpanah
By: Ramin Nadimi

As predicted, the presidential election in Afghanistan has gone to a runoff. The following interview represents an effort to shed more light on the general conditions governing political rivalries during Afghanistan’s elections and to discuss the future outlook for cooperation between Tehran and Kabul as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran's expectations from its eastern neighbor.

Dr. Ja'far Haghpanah is a visting professor at the University of Tehran as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ School of International Relations. He teaches regional studies and is among prominent analysts of regional issues. In the following interview with Iran Review, he has tried to present a clear picture of the situation in Afghanistan on the eve of the second round of presidential election in that country. In addition, he has also reflected on the security pact between Afghanistan and the United States and future perspective for relations between Afghanistan and Iran under new government in Kabul. The text of the interview follows.

Q: The scheduled date for the second round of presidential election in Afghanistan is approaching and before long a new government will come to office in that country. What is your opinion about the importance of this development for Iran? Also, what is your opinion about the prospect of future cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan after the establishment of the new government in Kabul?

A: I believe that to answer this question, we must first review the overall arrangement of political forces in this country and see in what way the results of political competition in this election may affect Afghanistan’s relations with Iran. First of all, it should be noted that throughout the contemporary political history of Afghanistan, power groupings and political rivalries have been mostly a function of traditional power relations and have pivoted around specific ethnic issues. In fact, powerful traditional forces such as tribal chieftains, elders and warlords had the first say in such issues. However, in spite of this historical fact, the power relations in this country are gradually undergoing important changes. In addition, emergence of new forces in the political scene of this country and the new power relations are quite meaningful. As for the emerging forces, I must say that we are witnessing the gradual evolution of a new middle class in Afghanistan, which is still far from strong and only represents a small but rapidly growing civil society. The emergence of this new middle class has been quite evident within the past decade and these forces have gradually acquired a certain form of self-awareness. At the same time, the nature of power in this country has been gradually changing. Unlike the past, we are witnessing for the first time that Afghans are paying more attention to forming alliances and are increasing their distance from unilateral moves and sectarianism. As a result, instead of a special ethnic or religious group trying to gain the power on its own, they have preferred to form political alliances and this trend is gradually being institutionalized in the country. Moreover, we saw that modern media, the Internet, satellite channels, cyberspace, and new publicity methods were used as a substitute for traditional methods of publicity that were mostly based on forming alliances behind the scenes. I believe that, at any rate, such emerging and new variables will finally have a very powerful effect on the foreign relations of Afghanistan, including with regard to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Q: It seems that Dr. Abdullah has a higher chance of being elected as the new president of Afghanistan. What is your opinion about the possible effect that the election of Dr. Abdullah would have on relations between the two countries?

A: Of course, Mr. Abdullah stands a better chance on paper. The support accorded to him by Mr. Zalmai Rassoul, as a presidential candidate who is close to the government of [incumbent President Hamid] Karzai, in addition to support from Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former Pashtun jihadist leader and his deputy, Mr. Ismail Khan, has been also effective. However, any forecast in this regard should be made with due caution because it is quite evident that Mr. Abdullah’s archrival, that is, Mr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, has been also making efforts to attract more votes in the second round of the polls. He has been actively promoting his campaign within other religious and ethnic groups and has been relatively successful in this regard. For example, not all people belonging to Hazara ethnic group support Dr. Abdullah, but some of them, like the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which is theoretically closer to Mr. Khalili, have been supporting Ashraf Ghani. In addition, the Uzbek ethnic group is sure to support Mr. Ghani because he has chosen Abdul Rashid Dostum as his first vice president. At the same time, it should be noted that ethnic aspects of elections will be more prominent in the second round of the presidential polls because Mr. Abdullah belongs to Tajik ethnic group as opposed to Mr. Ghani, who belongs to Pashtuns.

It is also noteworthy that Pashtuns still sway a majority in terms of their population, though that majority is not absolute. Therefore, we must make any prediction with due caution and, at the same time, take into account that other regional and international factors are also playing their parts in this regard. It seems that Mr. Abdullah has brought a group of Iran's historical friends together in his effort to rally support. This means that a number of former jihadist forces have currently joined his campaign, who also enjoy good relations with Iran. Mr. [Mohammad] Mohaqiq (the founder and chairman of the People's Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan), is one of those people who in addition to being a central figure in the Islamic Unity Party and an influential personality among Afghanistan’s Shias, is also on friendly terms with Iran. There are other people from jihadist forces, including Ismail Khan, who is very influential in Herat Province and areas close to Iranian border. These political elites can help to bolster Afghanistan’s relations with Iran as s result of their personal influence. However, a more important issue is that Mr. Abdullah is among those people which have been also close to Iran at a regional level as well. Let’s not forget that during all these years, he has had good relations with officials in countries like India and those players, in turn, have good relations with Iran and their viewpoints on the political developments in Afghanistan is more or less close to those of Iran. This issue also holds water for European countries as well. Dr. Abdullah has good relations with some of those countries. In general, if these countries were able to influence Abdullah’s approaches and viewpoints, it would mean that his election would boost Iran's roles in Afghanistan’s developments.

Q: Now, imagine that Ashraf Ghani has won the election. What possible difference would it possibly make to Iran? Will Mr. Ghani go the same way (as Abdullah with relation to Iran) or will he, for any reason, including ethnic or political matters, choose a different approach to Iran?

A: Once again, I want to make a distinction between personal credits and background of these people and the environment in which they will have to work in the future. In personal terms, we must accept that Mr. Ashraf Ghani follows powerful Pashtun ethnic tendencies and he has never hidden those tendencies during all the years that he has held official positions (from 2002 up to the present time). He has been finance minister, president of the University of Kabul and the official in charge of overseeing withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. His performance in all those fields shows that he has been trying to keep a relative distance from Iran. Mr. Ghani has a number of consultants and friends who help him to keep that distance. He was the only person among presidential candidates in the recent polls that did not choose a Persian speaking Tajik figure as his vice president. This issue is very important because in his team, unlike Mr. Abdullah’s election team, we see few people, if any, who are known for their cordial relations with Iran and this issue will certainly affect Afghanistan’s relations with the Islamic Republic. However, Mr. Ghani is also facing a number of realities and it is important to note that his Pashtun backdrop does not mean that he is in agreement with Pakistan, as the traditional political rival of Afghanistan. Of course, we can say that Pakistan’s approach to the possible election of Mr. Abdullah is negative. Mr. Ashraf Ghani is more inclined toward the West. All told, although the election of Mr. Ashraf Ghani will not, in my opinion, lead to further promotion of Afghanistan’s relations with Iran, at the same time, it will not lead to a general freeze in the two countries’ relations either.

Q: Let’s discuss the issue of security in Afghanistan. Mr. Hamid Karzai has refrained from signing a security agreement with the United States and has left it to any president that would succeed him. What is your opinion about this agreement and do you think that its conclusion will have any specific effect on relations between Iran and Afghanistan?

A: Mr. Karzai refrained from signing the pact with Americans in order to appear as a national hero. Of course, his decision was also based on an ethnic requirement. We know that since Pashtuns have been regularly ruling Afghanistan during past centuries, they have been also in charge of making important foreign policy decisions. Some of those decisions are not remembered by later generations of Afghans with great joy. Therefore, Pashtuns and Mr. Karzai do not want to become “notorious” for making a similar decision and this is why he has deterred signing of the agreement until after the election of a candidate who will not probably be a Pashtun. Although Mr. Ashraf Ghani has announced that he will sign the agreement, since the chances are higher for the victory of Mr. Abdullah, the signing of the agreement will most probably be done by the Tajik ethnic group. This issue also proves that the security pact with the United States may have certain dimensions and consequences which are not still evident even to Afghan political elites. That is, they think that the agreement, if implemented in full, will turn Afghanistan into a leased military base for the United States. This is especially true about an article in the agreement, which officially recognized the right of capitulation for the American nationals in Afghanistan. In terms of national honor, this issue is very important for Afghans and I think that from this viewpoint, the issue of the security pact should be taken quite seriously.

Q: So, how Tehran is supposed to get along with the paradox of being interested in the election of Dr. Abdullah as the next president of Afghanistan, on the one hand, while on the other hand, he has already indicated his willingness to sign the security pact with the United States?

A: I think that this issue should be accepted by Iran – and in fact, Iran has already accepted it – that Afghans should be free to enforce their sovereign rights within the framework of their domestic affairs and Iran has no problem with this issue. The government in Tehran has accepted that while protecting and respecting the interests of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries, including the Islamic Republic, the next president of Afghanistan should act independently with regard to his country’s foreign relations. Iran is well aware that Mr. Abdullah will sign the security agreement with the United States, but he is also sure to take those points that are important to Iran into consideration. The issue of limited number of foreign forces present in Afghanistan was also emphasized in a recent speech by [the US President] Mr. [Barack] Obama in Kabul. He stressed that the number of such forces in Afghanistan will be very limited and they will stay in the country not longer than 2016. This proves that they are also taking steps to reduce concerns of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries to a minimum.

Key Words: Afghan Presidential Election, Tehran-Kabul Ties, Power Groupings, Political Rivalries, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Abdullah, US, Security Agreement, Haghpanah

*Photo Credit: IRNA, Tabesh

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