Can Iran and India come together to manage the Afghanistan crisis and the security threat posed by it?
On 10 November, India played host to senior national security officials from seven regional states to discuss the evolving situation in Afghanistan, the first such meet by New Delhi since the Taliban took control of Kabul in August. The outcome of this conclave was the ‘Delhi Declaration’, where the participating countries, namely Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, highlighted joint concerns over the developing situation in Afghanistan, specifically when it comes to terrorism and the prospects of the Afghan geography becoming a hub for extremism, drug trafficking, terror financing, and so on.
Afghanistan was arguably on top of the agenda for this outreach, as the Taliban took power a mere 10 days after Raisi was sworn in as Iran’s eighth President in August.
While India’s relations with the Central Asian states is critical for the future trajectory of how New Delhi deals with a Taliban-led Afghanistan, at least in context of the near future, it is India’s outreach to Iran that, perhaps, holds significant weight when ideating about potential collaborations with other regional states on this issue. India’s Minister of External Affairs, Dr S Jaishankar, was perhaps the only representative who met Iran’s then President-elect and now President, Ebrahim Raisi, in Tehran even before he officially took over the leadership role. Afghanistan was arguably on top of the agenda for this outreach, as the Taliban took power a mere 10 days after Raisi was sworn in as Iran’s eighth President in August.
The Delhi event on Afghanistan was an extension of the format hosted by Tehran in October, where India did not participate, most likely due to the presence of Pakistan. And as reciprocity in diplomacy permits, Islamabad, though invited to Delhi, did not attend the conversation (and neither did China). In Delhi, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, highlighted the positive movement of the Tehran meeting to Delhi, and the push by regional states to convene on the crisis, calling for an ‘inclusive’ political ecosystem in Afghanistan.
Prior to these diplomatic manoeuvres, India and Iran were regularly clubbed as two states that had the potential to collaborate around the fall of Kabul. This view, of course, is rooted in history as both states were supporters of the Ahmed Shah Masood-led Northern Alliance’s pushback against the same Taliban in the 1990s. However, as they say, 24 hours is a long time in politics, and 20 years is certainly a time-warp in geopolitics. Even though India and Iran do converge on many points over the Afghanistan crisis, it is easier said than done, with multiple other reasons acting as barriers for a fundamental and institutionalised bilateral effort on the crisis.
For Iran, the presence of the US in Afghanistan was a double-edged sword. Despite Tehran’s tacit support for Washington DC in the months following 9/11, former US President George W Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ speech in 2002, which at that time clubbed Iraq, Iran, and North Korea together, was an undoing. Of course, the Washington–Tehran issue goes much deeper, more contemporarily tracing back to the Iranian revolution of 1979. However, like for many regional players in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood, the US security blanket over all these years was beneficial, including for Tehran. And now, like others, Iran is worried over the new security paradigms rising on the long Iran-Afghan border.
India and Iran do converge on many points over the Afghanistan crisis, it is easier said than done, with multiple other reasons acting as barriers for a fundamental and institutionalised bilateral effort on the crisis.
However, Iran’s view of the Afghan crisis can be considerably different from the view that India has. While interests between the two do coincide, and a level of cooperation is achievable, as seen during the evacuation of India’s consulate in Kandahar, an operation that used Iranian territory as a staging area to plan and execute this mission, the Afghanistan crisis is not viewed only through an ‘Afghanistan’ lens, but both regional and international geopolitical decisions, especially for Tehran.
Perhaps, the most important thing to remember from an Iranian perspective here is that Tehran, for the past many years, has supported both a section of the Taliban and the Afghan government and its processes simultaneously. A policy of ‘ambivalence’ and ‘conciliation’, ‘overt’ and ‘covert’ at the same time, as vividly described by scholar Vinay Kaura. The Iranian side has engaged with the Taliban for a long period of time, amidst widespread reports and accounts over the years that Tehran also provided refuge to al-Qaeda leaders that fled Afghanistan as US military operations intensified. Scholar Assaf Moghadam sketches Iran’s ties with al-Qaeda to at least a decade before 9/11, highlighting the secret visit of Ayman al-Zawahiri, then the Emir of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and now leader of al-Qaeda to Iran in 1991 as a pivotal moment.
Despite the history, the Taliban’s announcement of an interim cabinet after the August takeover did not go down entirely well with Iran. New Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reached out to former Afghan leaders Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah as news filtered in of a largely Pashtun-led Taliban interim cabinet, with the Haqqani Network holding several key positions. The Iranians have fought the Haqqanis in the past, and figures such as Sirajuddin Haqqani becoming responsible for Taliban’s Ministry of Interior poses a challenge for Tehran’s views of an ‘inclusive’ ecosystem in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s appointment of Maulavi Mahdi, a Shia Hazara, as a district shadow governor was seen as a bridge between the Taliban and the Hazaras, and Iran, by association. This, along with host of activities, such as social media reports by Taliban-aligned accounts showcasing them providing security during Ashura commemorations did not do enough despite a level of acceptance from Iranian security establishment.
The Iranian side has engaged with the Taliban for a long period of time, amidst widespread reports and accounts over the years that Tehran also provided refuge to al-Qaeda leaders that fled Afghanistan as US military operations intensified.
Iran’s foreign policy today is largely devised around being vehemently against the US. The long-running P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme which ended in the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015 was expected to be a pivotal moment. These actions were aimed at bringing Iran out of decades long economic and political isolation. However, an unceremonious exit from this arrangement by now former US President Donald Trump in 2018 and a return of military threats by the US and Israel alike emboldened the conservatives in Iran, many of whom had been against the JCPOA negotiations being designed under Iranian moderates. Now, the P5+1 and Iran are returning to the drawing board later this month. In the meantime, Iran has worked towards comprehensive strategic agreements with both China and Russia, increasing its hedging capacity with the US.
For Iran, the US remains the biggest draw in its geopolitical thinking, and that includes in Afghanistan. A dual approach to Afghanistan, as mentioned earlier, allowed Tehran to raise the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia comprising of Afghan Shias that was deployed in Syria to fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), prop-up the Assad regime against western pressures and push back against threats posed by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Many of the Afghan Shias of the Fatemiyoun fought and made their way back to Afghanistan, giving Iran access to a battle-hardened ecosystem within the Afghan militia landscape, despite the complexities of ‘reintegration’. From a distance, Iran, a Shiite Islam theocracy now has a Sunni Islam theocracy on its border, and strategic management of this historically heavy ideological crevasse will be critical to maintain a semblance of peace on the border.
All the above can be seen in play simultaneously from an Iranian perspective in Afghanistan today, a ‘hot and cold’ approach, one designed around intervention and recession alike. During Iranian Special Envoy for Afghanistan Hassan Kazemi Qomi’s visit to Kabul, the representative accused the US of supporting Islamic State Khorasan (ISKP), an argument imported from the Syrian theatre, and equated western sanctions against Iran as a similar tactic being employed against Afghanistan, causing widespread anguish to people.
The India–Iran relations have arguably been on the backburner, despite regular high-level exchanges between the two states, largely due to US sanctions against Tehran upending oil trade. The interpretation of Iranian strategic and foreign policy choices from an Indian perspective should come from recognising Iran for what it is, a survivalist state, transactional in nature, and more than challenging to deal with, sanctions or no sanctions.
Iran has the capability of managing the fallout of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban for reasons mentioned earlier. Both India and Iran have repeatedly called for an inclusive and representative political government there, however, Iran, despite its direct proximity to Afghanistan, has a much more strategic take than an outright theological one. However, setbacks in ties between New Delhi and Tehran over the past few years due to US sanctions will be leveraged by Iran if India intends to work with them on Afghanistan beyond just the basics. Iran’s envoy to India, Ali Chegeni, has highlighted that New Delhi should resume oil trade with Iran, without which trade between the two states comes down to almost bare bones. Meanwhile, India’s legacy infrastructure projects such as Chabahar Port and development of Farzad B hydrocarbons field have dragged on for years, and even decades in some cases progressing at slower than a snail’s pace. Hardly any new major projects have been announced between the two states in the recent past.
Iran’s envoy to India, Ali Chegeni, has highlighted that New Delhi should resume oil trade with Iran, without which trade between the two states comes down to almost bare bones.
Some other examples of attempts to collaborate more under the umbrella of western sanctions include India attempting to pay Iranian oil dues over many years, including attempting to use Halkbank in Turkey as a mediator. Halkbank itself came under scrutiny for ‘taking part in a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran’, shutting down this avenue. However, India has also often pushed back on US pressures, for example, allowing Iranian banks to open branches in Mumbai to ease financial flows despite US sanctions to air its strategic autonomy. New Delhi had refused these requests from Iran for a long time, largely owing to US pressure, while also helping the West simultaneously, prodding Tehran on the benefits of a nuclear deal during negotiations. Other such examples are peppered across the past decade between India, Iran, and the US as middle grounds of engagement with Iran became a diplomatic dance in itself.
While India–Iran bilateral has been challenging, from a regional perspective, the recent US-UAE-India-Israel ‘quad’ meet during Foreign Minister Dr S Jaishankar’s visit to Israel also adds a new layer of concern for Tehran. For Israel, this meet along with the Blue Flag 2021 military exercise which it hosted, and where India participated, was at some level a confluence of ‘friends’ in favour of Israeli interests, which automatically is aimed towards Tehran. The Israel–Iran regional tensions have found their way to India as well, with attacks against Israeli mission in 2012 and in 2021 being blamed on Iran. Overall, a fast-paced economic and security relationship with UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) will be seen by Tehran as trends that New Delhi should balance out with Iran as well.
The Israel–Iran regional tensions have found their way to India as well, with attacks against Israeli mission in 2012 and in 2021 being blamed on Iran.
Finally, perhaps the most important interest from an Afghanistan perspective for India in Iran is the fact that Tehran and Islamabad have an uncomfortable relationship, and host severe undertones of covert conflict between each other when it comes to issues such as Afghanistan, extending to border issues between the two countries in the restive Baluchistan region. In September, in midst of the fall of Kabul, a Pakistani soldier was killed in cross-border fire from the Iranian side, and other such incidents have been reportedly regularly from the Pakistani side into Iran. While both blame obscure micro-regional militias and gangs for such incidents, the argument here goes much deeper to fundamental issues between the two neighbors. Iran’s almost visceral reaction to a Pakistan-brokered Taliban interim cabinet, heavily staffed with the Haqqani Network, offers a good case in point to study these regional tensions further. Shamkhani had taken to Twitter to air dissatisfaction with the lack of ‘inclusivity’ in the Taliban cabinet, which scholars Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Hamidreza Azizi highlight as Iran already ‘losing’ the battle of influence in Afghanistan to Pakistan, and this is despite Tehran’s relatively amicable relations with other active regional players such as Qatar and Turkey.
While Iran and India may see eye-to-eye on many developing issues in Afghanistan, including the overreaching influence of Pakistan, the variables for any extended collaboration with India is unlikely to be seen from an exclusive lens of Afghanistan. Iranians are experts in trade-offs, being a survivalist political order that has, whether the West likes it or not, endured and arguably thrived, in some areas, despite both international exclusion, significant domestic challenges, and an expansive area of foreign policy operations. Whether these are detrimental or beneficial for regional and international orders is another debate.
For India, Iran is a natural partner to debate Afghanistan and the security situation that emits from the developments in that country. However, seeing Iran as a true all-weather partner will have its challenges, as Tehran will unlikely see any co-work on Afghanistan as exclusionary, and will bring in international and regional issues tied to any deliverables beyond a certain threshold, playing on its capacity of installing a policy of ‘duality’ a long time ago, having one foot in with the Taliban and one foot in with the dispensation in Kabul. As this author has argued previously, India’s West Asia balancing policy has had a ‘three poles of power’ approach between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran, and with a thaw between Arab states and Israel, this change while adding ease on the Arab and Israel front, adds a bit more friction on the Iran front. The good news for India is that these complexities are not new, and New Delhi is well-equipped with experience to play out these intricacies keeping its own strategic goals at the forefront. However, it may be that the strategic goals themselves may need a dose of realism on Afghanistan.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme.Read More +