At first glance, Iran appears to be unconvinced about Afghanistan’s new President Ashraf Ghani, and the feeling is probably mutual. Ghani chose Saudi Arabia, China and then Pakistan as the first countries to visit as president, and has yet to visit Tehran.
Iran’s ambivalence toward Ghani’s rise to power in Kabul still cannot lessen Tehran’s interest in remaining a key actor on the Afghan scene. Nor should it. Iran is, after all, one of the largest stakeholders in the future of Afghanistan. Thanks to its geographic proximity, Afghan affairs — good or bad — have an instant impact on Iran.
And yet, Tehran’s Afghan policy is out of date. Security-centric, it mostly focuses on Afghanistan’s Shiite and ethnic Tajik minorities and lacks a long-term holistic vision. Worst of all, Iran policy has for too long been embedded in a zero-sum-game mentality that invariably pits Iran against not only the United States but also Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. For it not to fall behind the curve, Tehran first must come to terms with a lasting US interest in Afghanistan as serving Iranian interests on a number of fronts.
While Tehran welcomed the unity government in Kabul, there is little that the Iranians would have liked better than to see Ghani’s chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, win the presidency. Iran’s ties to Abdullah run deep, going back to the 1990s, when Tehran was the chief backer of Abdullah’s Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban.
Ghani, on the other hand, is a man who has spent a good part of his life in the West, including many years in the United States. He has clearly stated that the United States has a critical role to play in the future of Afghanistan, and Ghani has made sure to let the Iranians know where he stands on the matter.
In an interview with Iranian Diplomacy, a prominent outlet preferred by moderate voices in Tehran, Ghani said that Kabul’s foreign policy has certain key pillars. He said that his administration will focus on the immediate neighbors, the Islamic World, the United States, Europe and NATO. Ghani first pointed out several positives in Afghan-Iran relations.
They are both “Islamic republics,” he said, and there is “no border dispute between the two countries,” unlike Kabul’s ruinous border conflict with Pakistan. “We have a very extensive strategic economic agenda, as far as Iran is concerned,” Ghani stated in the interview. He pointed out that Iran is a major importer of food and that this was an opportunity for Afghan farmers to produce for the 80 million-strong Iranian market.
Ghani also pointed out that landlocked Afghanistan sees Iran as a top transit option to reach the rest of the world, and pointedly encouraged Tehran to complete Chabahar, an Iranian port on the Arabian Sea that is planned as a key gateway for Central Asian trade. “Chabahar is critical for Afghanistan,” Ghani said, touting the port as one that will facilitate regional trade.
But Ghani’s most telling statement involved the future of Afghan-US relations. Knowing that Iran continues to be concerned about the implications of a prolonged US military presence, Ghani made two pointed observations. He said the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) signed in September — which will keep the US military in Afghanistan — is not a threat to Iran.
In Ghani’s words, the Iranians should not fear the BSA, but welcome the deal, as improved Afghan security is tantamount to an enhancement of Iranian security. To assure his Iranian neighbors, Ghani pledged that Afghanistan will never become a staging ground for any intervention against Iran. Aside from Ghani’s assurances — as important as they are — the implied message was clear: Iran would be wise not to expect Kabul to walk away from its partnership with Washington.
By all accounts, the Iranians quietly accept the basic premise of Ghani’s position but seem unable to do so publicly. At times, Tehran’s opposition to a continuing US military presence in Afghanistan comes from people seemingly devoted to improving US-Iranian relations, and who advocate for cooperation whenever there is mutual interest.
Back in late October during the Istanbul Conference on Afghanistan held in China, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — a man otherwise devoted to a policy of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran — called for all foreign militaries to withdraw from Afghanistan.
On paper, this stance puts Tehran in line with its archenemy, the Taliban, which also seeks the withdrawal of all foreign troops. But the last thing the Iranians would want to see is the return of Taliban control to Kabul, which is exactly why Iran’s categorical opposition to a US military presence in Afghanistan fails to be persuasive on several levels.
First, the bigger strategic objective in the moderate camp of the Iranian government is to find mutually beneficial arenas for cooperation with Washington. Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former top official who currently lives in the United States but remains close to the government of President Hassan Rouhani, recently spelled out the utility of US-Iran cooperation in post-2014 Afghanistan.
He openly urged the United States to make Iran its “strategic partner” in Afghanistan. Given Zarif’s earlier statement, US policymakers should be forgiven if they seem baffled about Iran’s Afghan intentions. Even the moderate camp in Tehran has still to make up its mind about this critical question.
While Tehran learns to live with uncomfortable Afghan choices, such as Ghani’s seemingly solid commitment to partnership with the United States, the Iranians also have to consider not only lost economic opportunities but the diplomatic cost of becoming a lesser factor in Kabul’s calculations.
The director of the Asia and Oceania Department in the Iranian Foreign Ministry was recently asked in an interview why the United States, Turkey and Pakistan have all managed in their endeavors, but Iran’s bid to sign security treaties with Kabul has stalled. The answer from the official — that the agreement is “being prepared” — was less than convincing.
In other words, Iran’s leverage in Afghanistan is less than it could be today because of Tehran’s instinctive opposition to the prominent US role in the country. By accepting that the Afghans — at least for now — have chosen to stay in a strategic partnership with Washington, the Iranians can free up more opportunities for themselves, both in Afghanistan itself and also in US-Iran relations.