A year after the signing of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban, prospects for peace in Afghanistan remain unclear. What is equally uncertain is how Iran aligns with the objectives of the deal, keeping in mind it shares a long 936 km (582 miles) border with its Afghan neighbor, and several religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups with significant cultural overlaps between the two countries.
The Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan was signed in Qatar in February 2020. Dubbed the Doha Agreement, it called on the Taliban to assume accountability by rejecting terrorism, in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Iran is trying to carve a role for itself in Afghanistan’s future by accelerating diplomacy which involves outreach to Qatar. Iran’s Embassy in Kabul welcomed the conclusion of the inter-Afghan talks in Doha in September 2020, and the Iranian Embassy in Doha held meetings with the Taliban.
Tehran wants foreign forces out of the region, but it remains concerned that a hasty withdrawal is not the best way to move forward. U.S. intelligence reports suggest that the Taliban could take over Afghanistan if the withdrawal happens prematurely. Likewise, Iran believes there are no alternative moderate Afghan forces to replace the U.S. military role.
Tehran wants foreign forces out of the region, but it remains concerned that a hasty withdrawal is not the best way to move forward.
This explains why Iran has aimed to ensure a strong central government in Kabul, by helping resolve some power-sharing tensions between President Ashraf Ghani and the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah. Given that the outcome of the peace talks empowered the Taliban, Iran received a green light from the Afghan central government to open up talks with the group through its Embassy in Kabul.
When the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani established contacts with the Taliban and traveled to Kabul last January, Tehran stressed that this outreach only meant it wanted an agreement between Afghanistan’s central government and the Taliban to minimize intervention by rival foreign actors. It further insisted that a Taliban plan to revive an Islamic caliphate was not practical.
Tehran wants the minority ethnic and religious groups which it supports in Afghanistan to have a say in the country’s future. Indeed, Iran retains influence over the Afghan Shia Hazaras, and contacts with former Afghan Sunni warlords from different ethnic groups. But if Iran’s calls for inclusion of minorities fails to yield results, it could resort to non-diplomatic options in order to ensure its foothold in Afghanistan.
Iran built the Afghan Fatemiyoun brigade to fight in Syria, which it could potentially employ to secure a role in Afghanistan’s future. Members of Iran’s Quds Force, which conducts extraterritorial military and paramilitary operations, reportedly visited the Bamyan Province in Afghanistan to build networks with local Shias as early as 2018.
Moreover, Iran’s new special envoy for Afghanistan, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, has since attended meetings in Kabul to address Tehran’s concerns with the Islamic State (IS) forces that have moved from Syria to Afghanistan. As the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (IS-KP) regroups to claim the area along Afghanistan’s borders with Iran, Iran has accelerated cross-border trade through a comprehensive agreement to boost its bilateral interests with Kabul.
However, if Iran is to make real progress as a mediator in Afghanistan’s conflicts, it needs to resolve its tensions with Washington over the Iranian nuclear file which so far has kept Tehran on the margins of the Afghan talks. This is where Tehran appears to be split. Hardliners in Iran who see any leniency toward the U.S. as a potential sign of weakness could reject working with Washington.
This is why Tehran will need Doha on its side at times to navigate Afghanistan’s future prospects. In talks with his Qatari counterpart Mohammad bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on April 25, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered his views about building political agreements that could lead to an inclusive Afghan government. Zarif traveled to Qatar a day after, to confirm the importance of Doha-Tehran relations and to discuss ways to reduce regional tensions.
Tehran is also counting on Kabul to abandon its totalitarian and non-inclusive views about the structure of Afghanistan’s future government. To achieve this goal, Iran might coordinate some of its stances with Qatar, which facilitated Tehran’s earlier contacts with the Taliban and the group’s past visits to Iran.
Tehran is concerned that the inter-Afghan talks built on the Doha Agreement are moving slowly.
Still, Tehran is concerned that the inter-Afghan talks built on the Doha Agreement are moving slowly. As a result, Iran is in frequent talks with Afghanistan’s neighbors including Tajikistan, with which it recently concluded a security and counter-terrorism agreement. While attending the ninth Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HoA-IP) held in Dushanbe on March 30, Zarif conveyed Iran’s message that the minority ethnic groups it supports should be included in the Afghan peace process.
Iran also sees Pakistan as another critical player in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi returned to Tehran in late April to deepen border agreements and bilateral relations. Iran needs Pakistan’s and Qatar’s help combined if it is to engage with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to secure peace in Afghanistan.
But given the frequent tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, some Iranian pundits are instead advising Tehran to build a coalition of Afghan forces that receives support from Russia, India, and Iran. This coalition, they argue, can sustain pockets of stability within a potentially loose federation or a formal federally-structured future in Afghanistan in which multiple external actors are involved.
Afghanistan’s complex and shifting peace prospects, and Iran’s fluid diplomacy on the issue, mean that Tehran will turn to Doha for leadership. But Tehran is mindful that it could be sidelined by Qatar investing in its superior ties with other regional and international stakeholders in Afghanistan.
In March, Qatar, Turkey, and Russia held talks about Syria without the participation of Iran. Iran was equally concerned about the Moscow conference to advance the Afghan talks, also held in March. Pundits in Iran saw these meetings as a sign that Russia and Qatar might ignore Tehran. The U.S.-backed Afghan Peace talks scheduled to take place in Turkey after Ramadan, which Qatar will join, could further seal the final deal according to Abdallah Abdallah. In that case, Afghanistan could draw closer to Turkey and Qatar, rather than Iran.
Regional initiatives that threaten to sideline Iran may prompt it to explore a collective regional security framework to face threats from Afghanistan.
Regional initiatives that threaten to sideline Iran may prompt it to explore a collective regional security framework to face threats from Afghanistan. But it is the Doha Agreement which marks a turning point for Iran’s regional policy. In March, Tehran stressed the need to respect the outcome of the agreement.
However, if Iran pivots against the agreement, it will likely resort to para-diplomacy to engage with Afghan sub-state and non-state actors, some of whom could be armed. Tehran believes that the Afghan conflict cannot be resolved militarily, but it also rejects any future for Afghanistan if its government is not adequately represented by groups that Iran supports.
These positions are not enough to ensure a strong bargaining position for Iran in the future of Afghanistan since it has invested heavily in its ties with Kabul, only to watch the Taliban get stronger. As for the Taliban, the group has entered into an agreement with the U.S. that has secret clauses which could restrict Iranian influence in Afghanistan even further.