Ghani Seeks Balanced Foreign Policy through Iran Visit

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ja'far Haghpanah
Assistant Professor of Regional Studies at the University of Tehran, Iran

A recent trip by Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani to Iran should be considered something beyond ordinary meetings between the officials from the two neighboring countries. At the bilateral level, major issues that have been consistently on the political agenda of the two countries’ leaders have included such complicated and chronic problems as drug smuggling from Afghanistan into Iran, the issue of Afghan refugees and immigrants, border rivers as well as issues related to the expansion of economic and political relations. During the recent visit to Iran by Ghani, he was accompanied by high-ranking Afghan officials from ministries of foreign affairs, interior, higher education, and immigrants, as well as officials from the Ministry of Energy and Water and the Ministry of Frontiers, Nations and Tribal Affairs. During their stay in Iran, Afghan officials met and conferred with their Iranian counterparts and two memorandums of understanding were signed between the two countries’ ministers of foreign affairs and higher education. This can be considered as the first step that the national unity government of Afghanistan has taken for the development of Kabul’s relations with Tehran. The meeting between Ashraf Ghani and the Iranian Vice President and Head of the Department of Environment Masoumeh Ebtekar, and Ghani’s promise to solve the problems related to Iran's Hamoun Lake and border waters in Zabol region, in addition to establishment of a joint committee between the two countries for this purpose, were among other highlights of the trip. Cooperation between the two countries in this field can solve problems related to exploitation of border rivers in the gradual manner. Also, establishment of a joint chamber of commerce between the two governments, which will have branch offices in border provinces of both Iran and Afghanistan, can be expected to give a great boost to the two countries’ economic cooperation and cause exchanges to go way beyond the current meager figure of less than 2.5 billion dollars.

Another important aspect of this trip is the effect that full relations with Tehran will have on political and security equations in Afghanistan and relations among various power blocs in the political society of that country. Most topics on the agenda of the two countries’ leaders for the regulation of bilateral realties are, in fact, related to important social, political and domestic security spheres of Afghan society, the most important of which include the issue of immigrants, drug smuggling and border security. On this basis, political, security and social processes in Afghanistan are intertwined with the resolution of problems that exist between the two countries as a result of which Iran can be considered an effective and responsible actor in the domestic policies of Afghanistan. The promise given by Iranian officials to their Afghan counterparts for providing more assistance in fighting drug smuggling by promoting cultivation of alternative crops can be construed along the same line.

The level and quality of Iran's influence in its eastern neighbor, however, is not limited to the aforesaid areas. Most observers believe that Iran has played a very effective, and of course less publicized, role in the establishment of the national unity government in Afghanistan and the settlement of political disputes following the country’s presidential polls in 2014. Iran used its influence among various political groups as well as Tajik, Hazara and Shia elites who were objecting to the process and the results of that election, in order to facilitate the establishment of a national unity government by Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.

The Afghan president’s Tehran trip was also important in that it coincided with major regional developments that have influenced the balance of power among major power centers in the Southwest Asia’s security subsystem. The national unity government came to power at a time that the international coalition made up of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States was taking most of its forces out of the war-wracked Afghanistan. In view of the continuation of instability in this country, especially the emergence of ISIS Takfiri group, which poses a common threat to both countries, Iran's role in helping stability and security in Afghanistan appears more pronounced. Iran's positive track records in cooperation with big powers to help stability in Afghanistan in 2002 has left a good precedent which raises hope in the repetition of that process in future. Gradual resolution of Iran's nuclear case has also raised hopes about constructive cooperation between Iran and other big states over important security-related case in the region, including in Afghanistan.

It seems that the government of Mr. Ghani gives special priority to the establishment of concerts of governments in order to help maintain security in Afghanistan. Afghans do not want their country to become an arena for proxy wars among other countries again. For this reason, they pay special attention to maintaining a balance in their relations with major regional powers that have influence in Afghanistan and are also engaged in certain rivalries there.

Therefore, it should be noted that although Mr. Ghani came to Iran a long interval after his previous trips to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, China, Europe and the United States, due to geopolitical and geocultural advantages of Iran, the balance of power has been maintained. Even a recent position taken by the Afghan president in support of Saudi Arabia’s aggression against Yemen will not have a remarkable influence on this situation. In the long term, Afghan officials are sure to regulate and balance their relations with all regional powers. The dual nature of the national unity government will also help bring balance to the foreign policy of Afghanistan.

As a result, one may predict that although Afghanistan has changed some of its priorities, including by pursuing more cooperation with Pakistan instead of India, the dominant trend in the country’s foreign policy will finally return to the same track that was laid during 12 years under the former president, Hamid Karzai. As a result, it will give the highest priority to keeping a balance in relations with regional and international powers. Afghan leaders are well aware of the important role that those powers play in the establishment of stability and security in their country and continuation of the reconstruction drive. Therefore, the best way to ensure importance and position of Afghanistan with regard to significant and prioritized security matters in the region is to boost cooperation with all governments. In doing this, Kabul should attach special importance to cooperation with neighboring countries such as Iran.

Key Words: Afghanistan, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, Iran, Drug Smuggling, Afghan Refugees, Immigrants, Border Rivers, Economic and Political Relations, Abdullah Abdullah,NATO, ISIS Takfiri Group, Balance of Power, Haghpanah 

More By Ja'far Haghpanah:

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*Afghanistan Offers Common Ground for Iran-Saudi Cooperation?:

*Iran Facing New Opportunities in Afghanistan:

*Photo Credit: President.IR

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