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Iran Facing New Opportunities in Afghanistan

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Interview with Ja'far Haghpanah
By: Ramin Nadimi

As his first official visit to Afghanistan on Tuesday January 20th of 2015, the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with top Afghan officials to discuss different issues like counternarcotics, peace building and economic development of Afghanistan. During his one day visit to Kabul, Iran’s foreign minister met with President Ghani and his chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah, Hanif Atmar who is President Ghani’s National Security Advisor and ex-president Hamid Karzai. On behalf of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif officially invited the Afghan president to visit Tehran. Since the ouster of the Taliban regime and formation of the new Afghan government back in 2001, Iran has always been active in areas like counternarcotics, reconstruction, and building of roads, dams and power transmission lines in Afghanistan. Now, the government has been changed to a National Unity one, it seems that both sides are willing to boost their ties in order to bring more peace to the region. In an interview with Dr. Ja'far Haghpanah, an assistant professor of regional studies at the University of Tehran, Iran Review has discussed about Iran’s role in the progress of Afghanistan, Iran’s mutual expectations and demands from the country, Afghanistan’s fight against Taliban, and possible strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: During his visit to Afghanistan, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asserted that “a good opportunity has been provided for Iran to play a serious role in the progress of Afghanistan.” Has this opportunity been offered just recently? And what serious role Iran can possibly play in the progress of Afghanistan?

A: I believe that what Mr. Zarif meant by new opportunity was in reference to the withdrawal of the American and NATO forces from Afghanistan, which has always been a major political and security concern for Iran. On the other hand, Afghan political and military forces are now in charge of state-building process and establishment of security. Under these circumstances, it is natural for Afghanistan to see new horizons in its relations with all neighboring countries, especially Iran, in all areas, in particular, political and security. The withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan will dispel at least part of Iran's political and security concerns. Those concerns have been constantly an issue for Iran during the past years when Afghanistan was an arena for strong presence of the American and other Western forces that influenced all political, social, security and cultural fields in that country.

Q: What are Tehran’s expectations and demands from the new government in Kabul?

A: It seems that both countries have a host of longstanding and fixed issues on their respective political agendas for improvement of relations. Just as put by Mr. Zarif, issues like security along common border, border rivers, water resources, immigrants, and drug smuggling are major topics on these agendas. Of high importance are also bilateral economic and trade exchanges as well as the security in Afghanistan. I think that under the present conditions, Iran's demands are mostly revolving around political and security matters. In fact, Iran wants to see better political and security conditions in Afghanistan, especially in southwestern and western parts of that country. Tehran also seeks to strengthen border security and expects the government in Afghanistan to take a serious approach to the issue of illegal immigrants and drug smuggling into Iran. Iran also seeks new interactions with Afghanistan with respect to the situation of border rivers. When it comes to economy, Iran wants to see lasting relations between the two countries, especially to meet Afghanistan’s need to fuel, energy and electricity. Tehran has also voiced its readiness to work with Kabul in this regard. However, due to absence of necessary infrastructures and sufficient security in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that Iran will be able to achieve this goal in near future. On the other hand, in the field of transit of goods, Iran is willing for the Afghan side to boost its transit activities and help construction of a proposed railroad from the Iranian city of Mashhad to the Afghan city of Herat, to be finalized. This railroad will be very beneficial for both sides, especially for the Afghan side, which can use the railroad to have access to free waters of the Persian Gulf on the one hand, and to Central Asia and Europe, on the other hand.

Q: The activities of extremist and terrorist groups in the region have reached a serious and alarming level. Doubts about the ability of Afghanistan’s army and security forces to put up an effective fight against Taliban have further fueled those concerns. How Iran can be of assistance to Afghanistan in this regard?

A: I believe that Afghanistan is now facing different conditions within its borders. The country has now an army with about 350,000 troops, which of course is not in a totally good shape in terms of capabilities, equipment as well as training and readiness. In terms of organization and capacities, Afghanistan’s army has been gradually transforming from a classic eastern army to a different one built on the basis of a Western model. However, due to the absence of a powerful air force and lack of sufficient capacities, on the one hand, and as a result of dilapidated equipment, on the other hand, the Afghan army is not very capable in fighting against radical currents. The important point is that the type of training provided to Afghan forces by Western armies has not been very suitable for the climatic and environmental conditions of Afghanistan. On the other hand, the quality of their trainings has at times been at odds with the traditional culture of Afghanistan and has been frequently met with resistance on the part of Afghan troops.

Perhaps, Iran has more experience to share with Afghanistan for the indigenization of Afghan army’s training and is in a better position to boost that country’s capabilities for fighting those groups that avail themselves of asymmetrical military tactics. In addition, there are many cultural and language commonalities between the two countries, which can be used as further grounds to facilitate such exchange of experience. Due to these commonalities, the Afghan army is also more willing to receive its training from Iran. During a recent visit to Iran by Mr. Mohammad Hanif Atmar, the national security advisor to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, these issues were discussed. As a result, if foreign parties do not interfere and create a negative atmosphere, there is hope that cooperation between the two countries will further expand next year.

Q: Mr. Ashraf Ghani is expected to pay a visit to Tehran soon in order to finalize a strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran. What will be the characteristics of such an agreement from your viewpoint? Is Iran really willing to play a role in Afghanistan similar to the role that the United States has been playing thus far?

A: News about possible signing of this agreement during the forthcoming visit of Mr. Ashraf Ghani to Tehran was first announced by Afghan president’s office. If done, such an agreement will pave the way for the implementation of previous agreements that were reached between the two countries under Afghanistan’s former president, Mr. Hamid Karzai. Afghanistan has also signed strategic agreements with other countries such as India and the United States. This is apparently becoming a new trend in the foreign policy of Afghanistan. From my viewpoint, if Afghanistan is really willing to sign such an agreement with Iran, it will be mostly focused on security cooperation, especially with regard to border regions. The agreement will also cover defense issues such as military training for the Afghan army. Naturally, the scope of Afghanistan’s agreement with Iran will not be as vast as the country’s previous agreements with India and the United States, at least, in medium term. This is because Afghanistan will have to follow some sort of negative-balance policy toward regional and neighboring countries. In fact, the scope of its security agreement with Iran will be similar to the agreement that it, for example, may sign with Pakistan. However, in my opinion, there are reasons for the government in Kabul to sign the aforesaid strategic and security accords with the Islamic Republic. This is true as Kabul aims to build trust with and respond to the legitimate security demands of Iran. On the other hand, Afghanistan wants to assure Iran that it will not sign any military agreement with other countries that would pose a threat to Iran. At any rate, I think that the important point is to implement such agreements and accords. It is not important what amount of good words are put on paper, but the important point is whether the two sides can create necessary practical capacities within their various state-run bodies and institutions, and also adopt a single procedure for the implementation of these agreements. I believe that in Afghanistan, viewpoints about any other country are two-tiered at best, because any country has its own lobbies in other countries, including in Afghanistan, and, on the other hand, there are certain currents that oppose further expansion of Afghanistan’s relations with Iran. Iran is currently facing this situation and the main determinant will be the final balance between various internal forces that determine Afghanistan’s interactions with other countries. Fortunately, a certain sort of consensus exists in Iran with regard to Afghanistan as Iranian elites and officials are becoming more and more aware of the strategic importance of Afghanistan to Iran's national interests and security. So, let’s hope that they would be able to take the best advantage of new opportunities with regard to Afghanistan.

Key Words: Iran, New Opportunities, Afghanistan, Mohammad Javad Zarif , Hassan Rouhani, Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai, Hanif Atmar, Expectations and Demands, Border Rivers, Water Resources, Immigrants, Drug Smuggling, Extremist and Terrorist Groups, Afghan Army, Strategic Agreement, Haghpanah

More By Ja'far Haghpanah:

*Future Outlook of Tehran-Riyadh Ties in Post-King Abdulla Era: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Future-Outlook-of-Tehran-Riyadh-Ties-in-Post-King-Abdulla-Era.htm

*Iraqi Prime Minister’s Tehran Visit Facilitates War on Terror in Region and World: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iraqi-Prime-Minister-s-Tehran-Visit-Facilitates-War-on-Terror-in-Region-and-World.htm

*Turkey and the Dangerous Game of Playing ISIS Trump: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Turkey-and-the-Dangerous-Game-of-Playing-ISIS-Trump.htm

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