Will Iran-US Rapprochement Benefit Afghanistan?
If signs of a diplomatic thaw between the United States and Iran come to anything, it could have knock-on benefits for Afghanistan, political analysts in the country say.
Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iranian president in June and his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month have been interpreted as a sign the country’s foreign policy may be softening. Seen as a reformer, Rouhani, has presented a more conciliatory face to the world than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
“I would like to say to American people: I bring peace and friendship from Iranians to Americans,” he told CNN during his New York visit.
For its part, the White House expressed hope that Iran would address international concerns about its nuclear programme and reverse the isolation – complete with punishing economic sanctions – which increased during Ahmadinejad’s eight years in power.
Afghan president Hamed Karzai attended Rouhani’s inauguration in Tehran in August, and afterwards both leaders said they were hoping for better relations.
Afghanistan and Iran have had a complicated relationship for years, with the former accusing the Iranians of interfering in politics, the economy and even culture, and also of supporting insurgent groups as a way of hurting US forces. Water is a particularly sensitive issue, and the Afghans have repeatedly accused Iran of trying to prevent the construction of hydroelectric schemes that might stem water supplies from cross-border rivers. (For more, see Iran Again Accused of Trying to Halt Afghan Dam.)
Afghan refugees living in Iran, numbering around one million, have also been used as a tool to pressure Kabul. People illegally crossing the border to seek work in Iran have been shot dead by border guards, and hundreds of Afghan nationals have been executed for drug smuggling.
Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, head of the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament, says the Iranian ambassador in Kabul warned him and other lawmakers last year that there would be mass expulsions of Afghans if the government signed a strategic partnership agreement with the US, a precursor to the planned 2104 departure of NATO troops.
Political analyst Jawed Kohistani argues that a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington would change this dynamic.
“Once Iran no longer sees the US as a hostile presence in Afghanistan, it will clearly not support anti-government groups in that country,” he said. “Iran-fed intelligence networks and groups in Afghanistan will lose importance; ethnic, sectarian and linguistic conflicts perpetuated by these networks will diminish; the US will allow Iran to implement large-scale economic projects in Afghanistan, and imports of Iranian goods will increase.”
Sayed Fazel Hussein Sancharaki, spokesman for the opposition National Coalition, agreed that a better relationship between Washington and Tehran would ultimately be in Afghanistan’s interest.
“There is no doubt that the economic sanctions imposed on Iran have had an indirect effect on Afghans,” he said. “We hope that with improved relations between America and Iran, these sanctions will be lifted. Also, Iranian interference prompted by the US presence will soon end. As [US-Iranian] relations get better, Afghanistan and Iran, too, can build better cooperation in the reconstruction process, the war on terrorism, counter-narcotics, the economy and so on. We want this relationship to improve.”
Abdul Ghafur Lewal, director of the Regional Studies Centre in Kabul, warned that Rouhani still faced significant resistance from conservative elements in Iran. One positive sign, though, was that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the ultimate decision-maker – had spoken of “flexibility” in Iran’s foreign relationships.
Lewal also said that a renewed US interest in Iran could reduce the attention paid to Afghanistan.
“If US-Iranian relations improve and Iran becomes a strategic ally of the US, Iran will receive the benefits that Afghanistan now gets from the US and the international community,” he said. “It will increase the US focus on Iran, and reduce the attention paid to Afghanistan.”
Moin Marastiyal, deputy head of the Rights and Justice party, expressed scepticism about the prospects for reform in Iran. He said Rouhani’s tactics were just a means of removing economic sanctions, while real power remained in the hands of a clerical establishment that would continue to decide both foreign and domestic policy.
“Changes of government and president will not deflect the Iranian religious polity from its objectives in the region,” he said. “Iran wants to be a regional nuclear power like India and Pakistan. It is trying to expand the Shia faith in the region, something that Saudi Arabia opposes. And Saudi Arabia has good relations with the US as well. Iran is concerned about the expansion of Arab – especially Saudi Arabian – influence in the region, and is trying hard to halt this so as to exert indirect religious and cultural control in the region.”
Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's Afghanistan editor. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.