The electoral victory of Ebrahim Raisi, the favored Principalist candidate and rumored successor of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has left the clerical establishment now in full control of all branches of government. This lead observers to wonder how radical a shift in foreign policy can be expected from the Raisi administration at a time of extreme vulnerability on Iran’s eastern flank with the on-going withdrawal of United States (US) military personnel from Afghanistan. Tellingly, not too soon after Taliban’s significant territorial gains brought the Doha process to a screeching halt, Iran kick-started a high-level intra Afghan dialogue, indicating the importance of stable Afghanistan for Iran.
Iran’s Principalist camp seem to be employing a ‘wait and see’ approach while carrying out a multi-lateral diplomatic engagement with all Afghani stake holders. However, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has not fundamentally changed the security imperatives guiding Tehran’s policy towards Kabul.
Beyond Afghanistan, Raisi is likely to continue Iran’s longstanding and unsuccessful policy in Central Asia which has focused on boosting regional trade and connectivity since the latter’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1990s. However, the potential contradiction between a security-centered policy in Afghanistan and a geo-economic strategy in the rest of the region may encourage Tehran’s continued marginalization in the development of the region’s economy.
A dangerous gamble: Iran’s ‘wait and see’ strategy
On the 25th of June, Kayhan, an outlet close to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, published an article in which it argued that it was possible that Taliban has evolved beyond the modus operandi of their 1998-2001 rule. On the 26th of June, an article on the Centrist news site Arman argued that to the contrary, Taliban militia have deliberately targeted Shi’a civilians in their ongoing offense.
The backlash against Kayhan’s minimization of civilian harm prompted Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh to declare that “Taliban does not represent all Afghanistan, but is part of that country and part of the way out of crisis.” Sensationalizing the article’s statement on Taliban’s supposed change, however, risks obscuring the article’s more crucial strategic aspects, as the article describes Taliban as a disjointed and uncoordinated force, casting doubt on Taliban leadership’ ability to capitalize on their recent military gains by consolidating a one-party government.
The past and current engagement of hardliners, who have great influence in security agencies, is key to understanding how Raisi may come to support more pragmatic policies in Afghanistan. Despite their ongoing dialogue with Taliban, concerns remain among Iranian policymakers on alleged links between Taliban and the US, as well deeper questions around the group’s outlook towards Iran, which has prompted them to maintain strong ties with other actors, such as the Jamiat-e Islami Party.
Having cultivated ties within both Taliban and anti-Taliban factions, Iran is well posed to use its network to maintain some level of influence in Afghanistan’s future security landscape. As such, it is highly unlikely that Tehran will make any bold maneuvers until the dust has settled from the current round of fighting.
Iran’s interests in Afghanistan: security vs. economics
Tehran’s focus on increasing its influence in the post-US Afghan security landscape should be understood as a primarily defensive maneuver to safeguard the porous Iran-Afghanistan border and prevent rival powers from establishing a foothold near Iran’s territory, though the tactical distinction between offense and defense often blurs in practice.
Beyond security, Tehran also has an interest in Afghanistan’s economic and trade sector and sees investment in crucial infrastructure and connectivity projects as a means to bypass sanctions and revitalize its own economy. This element of expansion has a more proactive objective, in that it is meant to further advance Iran’s position in Eurasia as a strategic transport hub. These two fields roughly correspond to Iran’s security and geo-economics interests in Afghanistan.
All the players in Afghanistan: a new Great Game?
Tehran has to contend for its spot with an array of other regional and extra-regional actors in Afghanistan. In the opening of the 14th Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) in March, the interventions of the five Central Asian Republics focused on the potential benefits of turning Kabul into the heart of a Eurasian transit network. India and Iran have recently joined in the infrastructure investment frenzy. Some analysts see Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran as an emerging troika set to determine the future of Kabul, while others point at the convergence of economic interests between China, Russia, and Iran.
However, all these analyses risk missing a potential turning point in Central Asian geopolitics: the joint statement of the five ex-Soviet Republics and China on Afghanistan’s future. This may be the start of Beijing’s political capitalization on the trade and investment hegemony that it has enjoyed in Inner Asia for the past decade. A more hands-on involvement from Beijing in Kabul’s economic recovery would substantially reduce Iran’s maneuvering space, especially if China directs its recovery towards opening trade routes to Central Asia while marginalizing Iran. Despite the recent signing of a memorandum between Beijing and Tehran, China has been reluctant to rely on Iran as a key node in its New Silk Road development. This has led some to see the memorandum as more of a jab at Washington than as a real commitment to Tehran. Moreover, the fact that China is publicly coordinating its Afghanistan strategy with Pakistan rather than Iran indicates that for now Beijing sees Kabul’s strategic value primarily as a node in the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor, rather than as a route to Iran.
While a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan may seem to be a threat to China’s investments in the region, reports are now claiming that Beijing is willing to cooperate with a Taliban-led government if it results in a stable Afghanistan. In fact, the Diplomat already reported last year on China’s talks with the Taliban, as well as on China’s alleged request for Taliban to prevent Uyghur militias from settling in Afghan territory in exchange for its tacit support. Moreover, in spite of the considerable risk that involvement in Afghanistan may pose, disengagement from Kabul may prove to be even more dangerous for Beijing, especially with the risk that conflict and separatist sentiments may spread across the region and to Xinjiang.
Tehran’s unsuccessful Central Asian policy will need to change
Beijing’s reluctance to coordinate with Tehran on Afghanistan is ultimately grounded in the same issues that keep Central Asian Republics wary of deeper economic and political engagement with Iran. Iran’s objective in Afghanistan may seem to converge with Beijing, as both are in talks with Taliban. However, there is a deeper strategic divergence between the two powers: Beijing wants a stable Afghanistan regardless of who rules, while Iran wants a friendly Afghanistan regardless of its stability.
With Raisi’s election, the renewed commitment of Iran’s state cadres to the ideals of the Islamic revolution may cool relationships with Central Asian states even further. This is especially the case with Uzbekistan, an emerging regional hegemon, who has recently intensified crackdowns on Islamic practices. In fact, all of Iran’s current and potential regional partners have an interest in keeping Iran weak and in an asymmetric relationship. Pakistan and Turkey are likely to cooperate on ad-hoc solutions to prevent the conflict from further deteriorating, but are unlikely to allow a strong Iranian influence in Afghanistan’s future government. Similarly, neither Russia nor China want to see a strong, independent Iran with enough political and economic capital to be a credible regional power.
The only exception is India, who may see Tehran as a useful counterbalance to Islamabad and a secure route to Kabul through the Chabahar port development. President Elect Raisi will have to muster all of Tehran’s acumen and diplomatic experience to find a successful way forward on Iran’s broader Central Asian policy, especially if it wants to see Khamenei’s policy of economic independence from the West come to fruition after the possible lifting of sanctions. But to revitalize its economy and integrate in regional developments, Iranian policymakers may have to compromise on their traditional strategy of security through clientelism beyond what they are ready to concede.