President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) might prove detrimental to his policy in Afghanistan. Trump’s policy on Afghanistan had conveyed disinterest in “nation building” and emphasized on “killing terrorists”. The policy also called for greater role to be played by India and warned Pakistan on providing safe havens to terrorists. There was however no mention of Iran in the policy. Considering the level of influence Iran exercises inside Afghanistan, inclusion of Iran in the overall American policy towards Afghanistan is important and it seems plausible to argue that antagonizing Iran is a self-defeating move, in the Afghan context.
Iran shares a 963 Km long boundary with the Republic of Afghanistan and has a deep socio-cultural influence on the state. Dari, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan is similar to Persian, Iran’s official language. Further, Iran during the soviet occupation had supported Afghan- Mujahedeen Shia factions and welcomed a large number of Afghan refugees. In the civil war that followed with the withdrawal of Soviet Troops, Iran supported the northern alliance with arms and money, against the Taliban that rose to power in the midst of chaos. The Taliban had been avowedly anti-Shia and anti-Iran and the murder of Iranian diplomats by it in Mazar-e-Sharif had resulted in the accumulation of troops by Iran along the western border of Afghanistan.
Post 9/11, the American overthrow of Taliban in Afghanistan had received support and assistance from Iran. Removal of the anti-Shia Taliban perfectly overlapped with the Iranian interests in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, an ally of Iran provided tactical support for the American led Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. But the drawing of Iran into the axis of evil by the Bush administration, diverged the Iranian and American interests in Afghanistan. It resulted in the culmination of concerns, among the conservatives in Iran, over the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, which can be used as a base to attack important installation in Iran.
Ever since then, Iran has helped Afghanistan by providing support for different groups and has been flexible and pragmatic in its choice of factions, even to the extent of going beyond its ideological leanings in its collaboration with the groups. Off late, there have been reports of a working relationship between Iran and the Taliban. Further, since the signing of strategic partnership between Washington and Kabul, which can possibly be translated into permanent presence of American troops in Afghanistan, expelling foreign troops from its immediate neighbour has been a priority for Iran. And it is safe to assume that the rise of common enemy ISIS in Afghanistan, further, has brought the Shia Iran and Sunni Taliban closer. This partnership can draw the Afghan peace talk and other US led efforts to bring stability in Afghanistan into uncertainty. This marriage of convenience between Iran and the Taliban has also been incentivised by the need to create a buffer zone between Iran and Afghanistan to protect its borders from ISIS and hostile troops.
Iran had also played a significant role in the reconstruction efforts after the American invasion and donated about 500 million dollars in building roads, energy infrastructure and schools. Further, Iran in 2018, emerged as the largest trading partner of Afghanistan.The height of Iranian influence in Afghanistan is visible in Herat, a province that has been nicknamed ‘Little Iran’. The city is flooded with Iranian goods and has attracted Iranian investments in infrastructural projects. Iran has also invested in the education sector, to expand its cultural influence in the country. Iran’s Payame Noor university set up a campus in Kabul in 2011, and in 2016, announced that the university would provide new courses to cater to the Afghan requirements. If bringing stability to Afghanistan is a precursor to American withdrawal, constructive engagement with Iran in the American policy towards Afghanistan is important.
To enhance further access to Afghanistan, India has been involved in developing the Chabahhar port in Iran and has pledged to invest 80 million dollars. India on its part, very much in line with Trump’s Afghanistan Policy has been playing an increasingly efficient role in strengthening the central authority in Afghanistan by extending aid for developmental initiatives. But, considering the re-imposition of US sanctions, the Indian investment and its ties with Iran is put in jeopardy which may eventually affect India’s meaningful engagement with Afghanistan.
Iran has critiqued India over lapses in promised investments and has urged India to continue buying its oil, despite the sanctions, leaving India in a tight spot to choose between the USA and Iran. If Afghanistan does not manage to get waivers, it will remain dependent on Pakistan, throwing the weight of American Afghan policy on the benevolence of Pakistan authorities, thereby reducing India’s ability to contribute to developmental projects in Afghanistan.The conquest by the Taliban with 2800 soldiers was an extremely ambitious attempt which with its it probable success would have increased the buffer region of Iranian influence in Afghanistan.
One of Trump’s justification for scraping the Iran nuclear deal was Iran’s support for terrorist activities, further claiming the removal of sanctions which had resulted in the generation of wealth through trade which was funnelled to terrorist organisations like Hezbollah. Going according to this argument, now that the other parties have promised to uphold the deal, Iran would continue to remain integrated to the globalised world although in a limited capacity and would generate revenue for the state, which can be used to enhance its support to the anti-US factions in Afghanistan and destabilize the economic and security situation.
The withdrawal from the painstakingly engineered nuclear deal and sanctioning Iran would have its effects on Afghanistan. It galvanizes Iran to step up efforts to hurt the United States, paralyse India of its ability to enhance its soft power and trade with Afghanistan and enhance the significance of Pakistan. The endeavours of Washington in the region around Afghanistan should be coherent with its Afghan policy and refrain from making decisions unilaterally to the detriment of stability in Afghanistan.
Picture Credits : mintpressnews