Iran-US Relations in Afghanistan following the Nuclear Deal

Thursday, August 27, 2015

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

Afghanistan, as a buffer zone, is a country prone to infiltration in Southwest Asia. A combination of social fault lines inside the country and its permeability to foreign interventions, has led to a unique degree of instability in Afghanistan whose main consequence is the spread of insecurity in the region and even the world. This situation can be explained through the theory of “omnibalancing.”

According to this theory, domestic issues in Afghanistan have been used as an excuse for intervention by governments to do away with their rivals and protect themselves against all kinds of insecurity that may pour into the country through the borders as a result of foreign interventions or domestic unrest. Perhaps this is why when it comes to the issue of Afghanistan, the possibility of cooperation among governments has been less than the possibility of rivalry and waging proxy wars.

At the same time, recent developments show that neither the enemy of our enemy, nor the friend of our enemy could be necessarily our friend. Meanwhile, neither the models of rivalry and animosity, nor the principles of friendship and cooperation are totally stable and strong. The measures taken by al-Qaeda in past decades have proven that how extremist groups, which enjoy the backing of Arab and Western states, can turn into headstrong foes of their own supporters. On the other hand, this very case showed that rivals of the United States, like Iran, can offer more secure tactical and even strategic cooperation in the fight against extremism than the US allies.

Although Iran and the United States are poles apart from an ideological viewpoint, both of them are much more at odds with extremism in ideological terms, and this factor can bring them close together in confrontation with an irrational and violent foe who is against those who think in a different way. Apart from the ideology, from a realistic viewpoint, both Iran and the United States are facing a serious threat from violent extremism.

So, why despite this common threat and other threats such as drug trafficking and the issue of asylum seekers, there has been no continued cooperation on Afghanistan between the West, especially the United States, and Iran? To answer this question, we must take a retrospective approach. During past decades, despite receiving the least possible assistance from the West, Iran has been a pioneer in fighting against drug trafficking and hosting millions of Afghan refugees – taking into account that there are still about three million legal and illegal refugees in Iran who are not willing to go back to their country.

Following terrorist attacks against New York Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, which originated in Afghanistan, Tehran not only condemned the attacks, but also when it came to diplomacy, Iran extensively cooperated with the anti-terror coalition forces by encouraging Afghan Mujahedeen to work with those forces and join the state-building process through the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. Iran also cooperated in the establishment of the interim government in that country. Iran also played an effective role in the formulation of the new democratic constitution of Afghanistan.

Under both the former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and his successor, Ashraf Ghani, Iran allocated USD 560 million in aid to the reconstruction of the country while granting scholarships to 36,000 students, hosting three million refugees, and providing free education to hundreds of thousands of Afghan students.

But what was the answer given to Iran's measures by the West and the United States? In early 2002 and at the peak of its cooperation and secret bilateral diplomatic negotiations, Iran was labeled by former US president, George Bush, as a member of the Axis of Evil. Washington also implemented a scenario which aimed to put Iran out of all kinds of international political initiatives on Afghanistan, and restrict Iran's presence in cultural, political and economic fields in Afghanistan, including for the reconstruction of that country.

What is currently going on in Afghanistan is nothing but resurgence of insecurity, continuation of the refugee crisis, unprecedented increase in production of illicit drugs, widespread corruption, and squandering resources allocated to the reconstruction of the country. However, more dangerous of all these is the infiltration of the ISIS virus into the country. Continued attacks by the Taliban, slow pace of peace talks between the Taliban and the government, internal rifts in the group following the death of its leader, Mullah Omar, and joining to ISIS of some disillusioned members of the Taliban, as well as the announcement of the Khorasan Emirate by ISIS are all worrisome news.

However, what is the current position and role of Iran and is there any hope about increased cooperation between Tehran and Washington – despite past unkindness of the West and existing distrust between the two sides – in the fight against spiraling violence and extremism in Afghanistan, especially in view of the reduction of tensions between Iran and the United States following the nuclear deal? Perhaps, the following points would be helpful in answering this question:

1- Due to cultural and geopolitical bonds, the interests and security of Iran is more intertwined with the continuation of stability and security in Afghanistan than any other country. Insecurity in this country first threatens Iran and then other countries in the region as well as the West. Therefore, while putting emphasis on the need to safeguard stability of Afghanistan, Iran monitors role of other countries in Afghanistan from this viewpoint.

2- From the viewpoint of Iran, stability and security in Afghanistan depend on broad-based participation of all ethnic and religious groups and establishment of an efficient democratic system, because the existing crisis in Afghanistan has no military solution. Iran is the sole country that has credibility and influence with Afghanistan’s government, jihadist elites and opposition political parties, and even the moderate segment of the Taliban. The Islamic Republic has also cordial ties with all tribes and ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazara people, Uzbeks, Shias, Sunnis, and Ismaili Muslims. During controversial presidential polls in 2014, in addition to the role played by the United States, it was Iran's power of mediation that made opposition groups led by Abdullah Abdullah sit down for negotiations and pave the way for the establishment of a national unity government.

3- By accepting the sovereign right of the Afghan government to follow its own independent foreign policy, Iran puts emphasis on the principle that all governments are responsible for saving this country especially governments like the United States, which during the past 14 years have been influential in creating the existing conditions in Afghanistan, and stresses the need to interact with these governments. Of special importance is the threat posed through the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan and the escalation of violence and war between the Taliban and ISIS, which has necessitated cooperation among influential regional and transregional powers more than any time before.

4- Frequent positions taken by the US President Barack Obama about the possibility of interaction with Iran on regional issues and rejection of allegations about Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of some regional countries, are more relevant in Afghanistan and can form a basis for common action. This is especially true after the Supreme Leader of Iran announced that if the nuclear case reached its final conclusion, it would be possible for Iran to interact with the United States on other regional issues.

It seems that the outcomes of the nuclear deal between Iran and the West and reduction of tensions in Tehran-Washington relations will be demonstrated more rapidly and more notably with respect to Afghanistan’s affairs than other areas of cooperation. Officials in Kabul, who have been trying to keep a balance by maintaining strategic relations with Tehran and Washington, welcomed Iran nuclear deal before officials in other countries. Meanwhile, surveys conducted in Afghanistan show that most people in this country favor reduction of tensions between Iran and the United States because millions of Afghans, like Iranians, have suffered from sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. Given the cultural commonalities that exist between people in Iran and Afghanistan and the economic needs and relations between the two countries in addition to the presence of millions of Afghans in Iran over the past 36 years, such a positive attitude toward Iran seems only natural.

Like the Iranian people, Afghan people living in Iran will be also benefited by the removal of sanctions. Obviously, the issue of Afghanistan is a good case for the analysis of Tehran-Washington relations following the nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions. It is also a good case for increasing bilateral cooperation, at least, to defuse common threats especially with regard to fighting violence and extremism, which is not as complicated as other crises in the Middle East, and in which the role of disturbing factors is less prominent. Perhaps, it would be better for both countries to start interaction in this suitable context, which is beneficial to both of them, and more than that, to the people of Afghanistan.

Key Words: Iran, US, Relations, Afghanistan, Nuclear Deal, Extremist Groups, US President Barack Obama, Violence and Extremism, Taliban,  ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Omnibalancing, Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani, Haghpanah

More By Ja'far Haghpanah:

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*Turkey Reducing Security Ties with West, Turning to East:

*Photo Credit: IPS, DW

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