Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kabul Deal Promotes Regional Stability?

Relations between Pakistan and Iran could improve as a direct result of the Afghan government accord.
By Ali Ashrafi

The shape of the recently agreed Afghan transitional government is likely to continue the already improving nature of Iran's relationship with Pakistan.

The two countries had for a long time viewed each other with suspicion but since the start of the US-led attack on Afghanistan they have begun to move closer together.

Ground-breaking talks have already led to an accord on defence cooperation and the two have set up a joint commission to work on the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

The reason for this rapprochement is that Pakistan and Iran are no longer power-brokers in Afghanistan. The factions they supported - Pashtuns and the Northern Alliance, respectively - are now in government. Just as these once warring groups will have to cooperate, so will their onetime sponsors - if they are to continue to have any more influence in the country.

One reason why collaboration might work is that Pakistan and Iran's allies are more or less satisfied with the composition of the transitional government.

Seventeen of the thirty new ministerial positions are occupied by members of the Northern Alliance, but the post of premier went to the Pashtun tribal leader, Hamid Karzai.

Both countries have their reservations over the new government, of course. Iran is concerned that its closest Afghan ally, the Cyprus Group, declined a ministerial position on the grounds that it expected far greater representation. Pakistan was also disappointed that its favourite, the Peshawar Group, refused to take part in the government for similar reasons.

But the fact that Karzai was made prime minister will have pleased Pakistan and the appointment of the five Hazara Shia as cabinet ministers is likely to have buoyed Iran.

Mitigating against cooperation between Iran and Pakistan, however, are their fundamental political and religious differences.

Religiously, the countries are still at odds, with hardline Shia Iranians against any rapprochement with Sunni Pakistan. Although the Iranian president Mohammed Khatami is pursuing a more conciliatory policy towards the west and Pakistan, he is at the mercy of the hardline clergy.

Khatami only managed a return to power in presidential elections earlier this year because he had kept his moderate opinions out of the limelight. Any overt signs of cooperation with Pakistan could endanger this delicate balance.

There is also a problem in Iran making overtures towards Pakistan because of the former's current allegiances in the region.

Tehran has had close ties with Russia, India and the CIS states ever since they began supporting the Northern Alliance following the Taleban seizure of power in 1996. These countries might perceive an Iranian rapprochement with Pakistan as endangering their own alliance.

However, there is an historical precedent for a policy of appeasement between Tehran and Islamabad which predates 1979 - the year of the Iranian Revolution. Before this date both countries led a pro-US policy.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, regional alliances redressed themselves as far as Afghanistan was concerned. The election of a moderate Afghan government out of the direct control of its neighbours is doing the same.

Ali Ashrafi is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in London

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