Between the Barbs: Afghanistan in the US-Iran Tussle
Photo Credit: Reuters
By Chayanika Saxena

Between the Barbs: Afghanistan in the US-Iran Tussle

May. 23, 2018  |     |  0 comments


The last few weeks were eventful for the world for both encouraging and upsetting reasons. Where the diffusion of tensions between the two Koreas had made the world rejoice, this happiness, however, did not last long. True to his electoral campaign promises, US President Donald Trump scrapped the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) deal that the preceding Obama administration had struck in the hope of “normalizing” a pariah Iran. The need for having normal ties was, perhaps, mutually felt. It was also thought that a more open and involved Iran could increase its interest in peace in the Middle East where it is known to be involved in many proxy wars. But three years down the line, this deal, which was described as “horrible” by Trump, was revoked.


Plenty of reasons have been offered for this decision. On the one hand, some believe that this action had been taken to force regime change in Iran. On the other, the domestic pressures to make good on his electoral promises are believed to have been responsible for Trump’s decision. Whatever may have been the reasons, the fact that the world could not stop the Trump administration — including European leaders like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel who made last ditch efforts to change Trump’s mind — has opened a big can of worms.


Where the regional rivalries between Iran and Israel and Iran and Saudi Arabia have already intensified as a result of the American withdrawal from the deal, its impacts are bound to be felt beyond the Middle East. South Asia and Afghanistan in particular are also expected to face the potential fallout, with many expecting it to have a negative impact on the efforts at peace that are underway there.


When the Elephants Fight, The Grass Gets Crushed


Unfortunately, such have been the state-of-affairs for Afghanistan, which for the last three centuries, has found itself in the middle of global and regional rivalries. While they are not equal powers and therefore rivals in the strictest sense of the term, the hostility between the US and Iran has assumed a matter-of-fact aura in the international order. They both see each other as more than just economic or political threats. They each treat the other as a moral affront to their own existence.


Caught in a quarrel that has nothing to do with it per se, Afghanistan has been a theatre where Iran and the US have exhibited their mutual suspicions towards each other. However, their interactions over Afghanistan have not been all that bitter. Interestingly, the two countries see eye-to-eye on a vital issue — which is to keep Afghanistan from falling into the hands of Sunni radicals once again. However, their shared apprehensions have not stopped them from either trading allegations or supporting groups and activities that are at cross-purposes with the entire peace process.


Will Cooperate, Won’t Cooperate


Afghanistan has proven to be a turf where the respective geopolitical interests of Iran and the US have brought them to cooperate with each other. While their ties had started going sour in 1979, the very same year in which the Soviets marched into Afghanistan, and stayed so all the way up to the end of 20th century, they started to look up with the fall of the Taliban in 2001.


The Taliban, the radical Sunni group that ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, has been a nuisance for the Shia state of Iran. Where their ideologies and sectarian concerns were at odds with each other, their frosty ties could have taken a turn for the worst following the assassination of Iran’s Embassy staff by the Taliban in 1998. Iran was reported to have mobilized a twenty-thousand strong force along its border with Afghanistan in response to this incident and had planned to wage a full-fledged war against the Taliban-ruled state — a regime that it had refused to recognise as legitimate both bilaterally and internationally.


For the Americans, the Taliban became an issue following the 9/11 attacks. Although the US had been concerned about the state-of-affairs in Afghanistan for a host of humanitarian issues, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan became a strategic concern for it only when its domestic security was breached. The fact that Al-Qaeda and its leaders were being sheltered by the Taliban gave the US a reason to orchestrate its “Global War on Terror” with Afghanistan as its centrepiece. And thus the war which began in October 2001 is still awaiting an end.



Peace in Afghanistan, as I have noted elsewhere, is not being negotiated for its own sake but for what it can achieve for other interested parties.



Following the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, both Iran and the US felt an urgent need to prevent the revival of radical Sunni tendencies in Afghanistan. Motivated by their own concerns, the two countries came onboard together to install a transitional government in Afghanistan. In fact, as James Dobbins, the US’ representative to the Bonn negotiations has noted, the American and Iranian “objectives for this meeting, and the governance of post-Taliban Afghanistan, were largely coincident.”


Cooperation between the US and Iran also had a strategic angle to it. According to reports, Iran had provided assistance to the American forces by giving them mapped accounts of the Taliban’s positions in Afghanistan. Iran had also conducted arrests of Al-Qaeda operatives on its soil. All in all, these steps taken by Iran were in sync with the goals of the American-led international forces. In addition to this, Iran had offered to train 20,000 cadets to join the Afghan armed forces. This offer was not accepted because of American reluctance as well as its shifted war priorities.


American suspicions of Iran back then as well as now have left a major dent on the prospects of cooperation between them in Afghanistan. This is not to say that Iran has lived up to its part of the deal. Iran, on its part, has been accused of doing things that have been of no particular help to the peace process. For instance, it has been claimed that Iran provides material and monetary support to the Taliban. Interestingly, much like its shuras in Pakistan, the Taliban is said to be operating a part of its activities out of the Iranian city of Mashhad. In fact, the second rehbar (leader) of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was reported to have been returning from Iran when his car was intercepted in a drone strike along Iran’s border with Pakistan. Many reasons have been cited for Iran’s extension of support to the Taliban, including its desire to keep its options open in case the Taliban returns to power either through a power-sharing agreement or on its own. Furthermore, Iran and the Taliban share a common enemy in the form of the Islamic State, which after being rounded-up from Iraq and Syria, has made deadly inroads into a volatile Afghanistan.


Iran’s treatment of Afghan refugees has been another matter of concern. Where a general level of mistreatment prevails towards them, it has also been reported that Iran coaxed many Afghan refugees into joining the militias that are fighting its proxy battles in Syria and Iraq with promises of food, money, and even citizenship for their family members. Iran has also flexed its muscles on matters like water sharing with Afghanistan, with the latter accusing the former of harassing and even killing its citizens along their shared Helmand river basin.


On the other hand, a not-so-misplaced threat of encirclement by American forces continues to impact Iran’s approach towards Afghanistan. Its fear that Afghanistan could be used as a base to attack it in the future is more than conjectural. In fact, the facts that the US has withdrawn from JCPOA but has decided to stay put in Afghanistan — which happens to be one of the few external US commitments on which Trump has not pulled the plug — are making Iranian apprehensions sound more credible. Moreover, the Iranian (and Russian) allegations that the US has been supporting the Islamic State in Afghanistan have made the waters even murkier. Adding to the trouble, President Trump’s tweet in support of the protests against the Iranian regime in December 2017 rubbed Iran the wrong way.


With Iran sensing trouble, it can be expected that it will try to tighten its grip on the reconciliation process in Afghanistan while it continues to fan out its influence amongst the local groups there. Iran, which was invited to the Moscow-led peace process for Afghanistan, is likely to latch onto the Russian bogey more than before. This could also imply an increase in support to the Taliban, which is said to also have developed closer ties with the Russians. Moreover, with the Chinese moving into Iran with their bullet train, the Russian-Chinese-Iranian-Pakistani dalliance over Afghanistan can be expected to get a greater push as America isolates itself on many turfs.


Where does all this leave Afghanistan? In the light of the current events, Afghanistan is expected to find itself doing a tightrope walk between Iran and the US. It cannot afford to take sides as it knows the relative power and leverage both these countries enjoy not only in matters relating to Afghanistan’s peace process but also on its other domestic dynamics. Calling it a regretful move, the Afghan High Peace Council sounded pessimistic about the possible ramifications the American withdrawal from JCPOA could have, and said that it only “hoped that the political tension between Iran and US will not affect the Afghan peace process.” But hopes have hardly worked for a country that has been a battleground of rivalries and geopolitics for centuries now.


The tragic part about Afghanistan’s recent political history has been its hyphenated existence in the global and regional order. Every other country that is in Afghanistan — be it the US, Russia, India or Pakistan — is there for its own reasons. The result of this I-before-you approach is that the peace process has become a by-the-by talk and not the centre of negotiations. Peace in Afghanistan, as I have noted elsewhere, is not being negotiated for its own sake but for what it can achieve for other interested parties. This strain of self-service in the dealings of these regional and global stakeholders continues to hold the reconciliation process in Afghanistan at ransom to their whims and fancies. As a consequence, the jolts of major international breakdowns are but expected to have their impact felt in Afghanistan — a country which has been reduced to a pawn in the various (un)great games.



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