This week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bharam Qasemi expressed Iran’s support for the upcoming elections in Afghanistan, saying Tehran will accept any result. In these two years of Ghani-Abdullah government, relations between the two countries have formally been marked by a narrative of cooperation and goodwill, as repeatedly stated during both Mr Abdullah’s (January 2016) and Mr Ghani’s (July 2017) visits to Tehran, as well as after last September’s trilateral meeting between Iran, Afghanistan, and India in Kabul. Yet, the Iran-Afghanistan relationship is a little bit more than a simple relationship of good neighborliness.
Much has been said on Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan after the 2001 events. However, Iran has been playing a pivotal role in Afghanistan since well before 2001. If nations, as Anderson put it, are imagined communities, Iran and Afghanistan create a sort of shared cultural space, with ethnic, religious, and linguistic ties transcending borders and time. This is especially true in the northwestern Afghan region of Herat, till 1857 considered an integral part of Iran and representing today the region where Iran’s sphere of influence is most visible.
Actually, the strategic intertwining between the two countries is such that what happens in one of them reverberates in the other. This has clearly led to difficulties in the relationship. Kabul, in particular, seems at times to suffer from its exposure to this cumbersome neighbor, denouncing Tehran’s excessive meddling in its local affairs.
Iran’s ambiguous relationship with the Taliban is a key factor of disagreement with Kabul. While Tehran has constantly been denying its involvement with the group, several reports have emerged over the years exposing Iran’s role in hosting, protecting, training, and arming them. Despite the old-hatred, epitomized in the 1998’s Taliban massacre of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i sharif, Iran seems to have subsequently come to terms with the organization, giving it covert support as it was considered a powerful instrument for driving US soldiers out of the country. In particular, Kabul holds Tehran responsible for the recent clashes in Afghanistan’s western province of Farah, where Iran would have worked with the Taliban in order to secure control of local resources, particularly water.
The dispute over water usage rights is another major factor of disagreement between Kabul and Tehran. Over the last few months, declining rainfall, prolonged drought, and mismanagement of water resources has brought water shortage and environmental challenges to crisis level in Iran, also triggering anti-government protests in several regions of the country. Tehran, while refusing to acknowledge its own responsibilities, has been blaming neighboring countries’ water management policies, with the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani pointing at Turkey and Afghanistan as the main actors responsible for the crisis. Afghanistan, in particular, has come under fire for its dam construction projects in the north and the south of the country – the Kajaki, Kamal Khan, and Selma dams – as they are reported to impact the Iranian southeastern provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan. With protests erupting over the country, Tehran recently made clear that water scarcity will be treated as a national security issue. In addition to warning Kabul of possible retaliatory actions such as suspending the export of electricity to the country, Tehran has also issued a veiled threat concerning the possible use of military and hard power. Afghan representatives from southern provinces have already reported arms transfers from the IRGC to the Taliban aimed at disabling some of the existing dams or preventing the construction of new ones. With Tehran asking Kabul to consult Iran before engaging in new construction projects, and Kabul instead actively seeking foreign assistance to build more of them, tension over water between the two countries is only set to exacerbate.
Iran and Afghanistan also share strong economic ties. In 2017, Iran replaced Pakistan as Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner, with a trade totaling about $2 billion, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. As Iran’s economy suffers for the reintroduction of US sanctions, Afghanistan’s growth is set to slow down too. The economic crisis that Iran is currently experiencing, which has sent unemployment soaring and the national currency plummeting, has also led to a mass exodus of Afghan migrants from the country. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a record number of 550,000 Afghans have left Iran since the beginning of the year. This has obviously led to a decline in remittances, thus in less money coming in from Iran, combined with an intense competition for new jobs among returnees. But the reintroduction of US sanctions is also set to affect trade between the two countries, with the risk of endangering the ambitious Chabahar port construction project and undermining regional connectivity. Iran’s Chabahar port, located in the southeastern region of Sistan-Baluchistan, at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, is part of a new transportation corridor for Afghanistan that could potentially cut Kabul’s dependence on Pakistan. But the development project, led by India, risks to be halted by the return of US sanctions, as New Delhi looks reluctant to expose itself to potential US Treasury punitive measures. Currently, the fate of Chabahar, as well as the possibility for Afghanistan to relieve its dependence on Pakistan, hangs on the concession of sanctions waivers from Washington.
Another side effect of the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, which has led to the steep fall of the Iranian rial, has been the development of a foreign exchange black market along the Afghanistan-Iran border. According to estimates, nearly $5 million enter Iran illegally from Afghanistan every day, helping to ease the economic woes of eastern Iranian cities like Mashhad. This kind of informal economy also allows Afghans to profit from the depreciation of the rial, as Afghan businesses buy cheap goods from eastern Iran and sell them for higher prices in western Afghanistan.
Last but not least, the interconnection between Iran and Afghanistan is also evident in the security domain. As Tehran formally commits to contributing to peace and stability in Afghanistan, its objectives in the country remain tied to its regional strategy, resting on the overall goal of reaffirming its role as a regional power and getting rid of US presence in the region. Tehran’s shadowy relationship with the Taliban acts as a leverage in this sense. However, Tehran has a true interest in Afghanistan’s stability, since further destabilization of the country could lead to the spread of militant movements, coming back to haunt Iran, as well as to the intensification of narcotics trafficking, for which Iran is a major destination. Stability is an objective that Tehran shares with Washington. Indeed, Iran has a history of helping the US in Afghanistan, first by brokering a deal – in late 2001 – which paved the way to the establishment of Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government, and then by cooperating with the international forces to counter the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite a perception among analysts that the current deterioration of US-Iran relations risks to jeopardize the common effort towards stabilization, Iran is set to continue playing a crucial role in the country. Tehran, in fact, perceives its commitment to the region as an instrument to break the Washington-imposed isolation. As part of its renewed “Look East policy”, Iran is trying to consolidate its ties with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries in order to escape the isolation and to withstand increasing US pressure.
In conclusion, even if between ups and downs, Iran is set to continue to project its influence on Afghanistan, perhaps even more in the context of a US-sponsored attempt to isolate Tehran in the region. How to bring Iran to play a responsible and constructive role – aimed at the stabilization of the country – depends on the Western openness to engagement and dialogue with Tehran. A mere containment approach – as the one advocated by the Trump administration – will not contribute to Afghanistan’s stabilization, if only for the simple fact that it is extremely difficult to rescind established cultural, economic, and security ties between countries whose border has for long been considered an imagined barrier.