Nearly 11 months after the Taliban’s return to power, all six states bordering Afghanistan have grave concerns about terrorism, extremism, and other threats emanating from within Afghanistan. Insecurity in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the growing presence of armed groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) are pushing countries in the neighborhood to bolster their security cooperation. These circumstances are likely to foster a stronger relationship between China and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Having both faced hostility from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) during its 1996-2001 rule, Beijing and Tehran have stakes in promoting stability in Afghanistan and finding ways to establish functional relations with the “Taliban 2.0.” The Chinese and Iranian aid to Afghanistan following the 6.1-magnitude earthquake on June 22, which was the deadliest to hit the country since 2002, underscored both Beijing and Tehran’s determination to prevent worsening humanitarian problems in the country from fueling greater instability.
Ultimately, China and Iran want to avoid hostile relations with Kabul, fearful of how further tensions with the IEA could directly and/or indirectly harm their interests in greater Central Asia as well as in their home countries. Although neither Beijing nor Tehran has fully formalized diplomatic relations with the IEA, both China and Iran have, to different extents, moved in that direction since last year. China along with Pakistan, Russia, and Turkmenistan have formally accredited Taliban-appointed diplomats in the Afghan diplomatic missions in their countries while Iran has joined Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other countries in accepting IEA diplomats in theirs.
Ultimately, both China and Iran are attempting to pragmatically deal with post-US Afghanistan’s only de facto government, which both Beijing and Tehran see as necessary to advancing their interests in relation to the war-torn country and the wider region.
Stability in Afghanistan is important to Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Chinese officials have often expressed interest in expanding their USD 62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan. Although this has yet to come to fruition, Taliban officials have expressed support for the idea, saying that they wish China would play a greater role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction and economic development while guaranteeing the safety of Chinese investors and workers in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, Chinese officials have concerns about the IEA ruling in ways that could make stability difficult to achieve in Afghanistan, particularly mindful of the fact that the “Taliban 2.0” has not governed inclusively.
The Chinese government is also concerned that militant Uighur groups could exploit conditions in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and use havens in the country to plot terrorist attacks in China. According to Beijing, during the Taliban’s 1996-2001 time in power, the IEA permitted the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement to maintain a presence in Afghanistan which resulted in the group carrying out violence attacks on Chinese soil. To assuage these Chinese fears, the Taliban relocated Uighur militants from areas of Afghanistan that border China, and the IEA may soon move to deport Uighurs at Beijing’s request.
Iran also has its own economic and security interests in post-US Afghanistan that will probably lead to Tehran and Beijing working closely in several ways. With Iran and Afghanistan sharing a 585-mile-long border, Tehran has concerns over Afghan security, including the flow of Afghan migrants and violent jihadist groups. In an effort to contain the threat, Iran has deployed tanks and troops along their shared border, which has resulted in several border clashes.
Tehran has long viewed Afghanistan as a haven for Sunni extremists who pose a grave threat to the Islamic Republic, as well as Afghanistan’s Shia/Hazara minority whom Iran’s government feels an obligation to defend. With IS-K continuing to threaten the IEA and all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, it is safe to bet that Tehran will want to collaborate with the Taliban to combat the Islamic State’s Central Asian franchise. Yet it is unclear the extent to which Iran will be able to do so.
Recognizing that a worsening refugee crisis would add to Iran’s enormous economic burdens and exacerbate existing security problems, managing the flow of Afghan refugees has been high on Tehran’s list of priorities. Tensions over this already flared up in late April when an Afghan immigrant stabbed three clerics in Iran’s Imam Reza Shrine, killing two of them and severely wounding the third. In the following days, there was increased harassment of Afghans in Iran, and Afghan protesters attacked Iran’s consulate in Herat, calling for military action against Iran. Tehran responded by suspending consular services in Afghanistan for ten days. The incident illustrates that Iran must tread carefully to address the situation in Afghanistan and avoid rending bilateral affairs.
In any event, China and Iran’s shared concerns surrounding the countless unknown variables in post-occupation Afghanistan will push Beijing and Tehran closer together. “Rebuilding Afghanistan will likely be an important area of cooperation for Iran and China, as both nations are invested in establishing good relations in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal,” Bill Figueroa, a Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Center, told Inside Arabia in an interview.
“Chinese businessmen have shown substantial interest in Afghanistan, and their success will rely on the continued stability of the country, and so China has embraced the Taliban and is promising economic and political support to rebuild the country. Similarly, Iran seeks to stem the flow of migrants and illegal drugs from the Afghan border by promoting a stable Afghan nation, despite tensions with the Taliban,” added Figueroa.
In the post-COVID period, the situation in Afghanistan will continue to create fear in China, particularly in terms of the threat of Islamic extremism in the conflict-ridden country as it emerges from twenty years of American occupation.
Recognizing that concern, Jacopo Scita, an al-Sabah doctoral fellow at Durham University, told Inside Arabia, “One can read Xi Jinping’s announcement of the launch of the procedure to admit Iran as a full member of the SCO at the 2021 organization’s meeting in Dushanbe as a sign that China is increasingly trying to create stable links with Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries to cooperate on concerning security matters, including Afghanistan.”
Against the backdrop of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action appearing increasingly likely to collapse in acrimony, President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration is pursuing a “Look East” foreign policy agenda. The current leadership in Tehran sees building stronger relations with China, Russia, Central Asian countries, and the Gulf Cooperation Council states as the key to circumventing US-led efforts to sanction and isolate the Islamic Republic. Thus, Tehran will continue signaling to Beijing its desire to boost bilateral security ties, with Afghanistan probably being central to this cooperation for months and years to come.