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Iran indispensable partner for securing influence in the new Afghanistan

Rapprochement with Iran most likely way for India, US to curtail Chinese influence in Afghanistan

U.S. and Iranian flags. (CNA image)

U.S. and Iranian flags. (CNA image)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Iran will play a pivotal role for Eurasian powers looking to extend their interests in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the U.S. military withdrawal from the country.

A lot of media attention has been focused on what the Taliban takeover means for Beijing’s grand strategy in the region.

As opposed to China, which had built strong links with the Taliban before it took over, New Delhi seems caught on the back foot.

While there are no foregone conclusions in the current geopolitical reshuffling, it seems neither power will get far without Iran on their side.

Can't go it alone

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid recently reiterated that China would play an important role in Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

“There are rich copper mines in the country, which, thanks to the Chinese, can be put back into operation and modernised. In addition, China is our pass to markets all over the world,” he said.

Mujahid also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and how it could benefit Afghanistan’s economy and increase connectivity with other countries.

Yet China is aware that, while it has more leverage vis-à-vis the Taliban than others, it cannot stabilize Afghanistan alone and needs to work with other countries. During a conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) said the U.S. needs to work with the global community to stabilize Afghanistan and guide the Taliban.

Sino-American cooperation here is unlikely though. Besides bilateral tensions, the two do not even have the same groups in mind when talking about terrorists in Afghanistan, as some analysts have pointed out.

Iran, however, having earlier this year signed a 25-year “strategic cooperation pact” to strengthen economic and strategic cooperation with China, is Beijing’s preferred partner.

The stage was set for closer Sino-Iran ties after the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018. The power vacuum in Afghanistan could now bring the two closer still.

Wang Yi more recently spoke with his Iranian counterpart, Amir-Abdollahian, where he reiterated the point that Beijing and Tehran needed to work together in Afghanistan.

“As common neighbours of Afghanistan, China and Iran need to strengthen communication and coordination to play a constructive role in achieving a smooth transition and peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan,” he said.

India’s indirect play

Interestingly, New Delhi, too, has been edging closer to the Islamic republic in recent months. Believing Biden’s Iran policy will differ markedly from Trump’s, and anticipating the recent chaos in Afghanistan, New Delhi has sought to rekindle its formerly strong ties with Tehran.

In 2019, ties between the countries dipped after India stopped buying oil from Iran under pressure from the U.S.

Slow progress on the Chabahar Port Project — India’s supposed gateway to Afghanistan — became another awkward sticking point. Tehran said that it would welcome other countries on board the strategic project, irritating New Delhi.

Recent months have seen bilateral ties back on track. During his visit to Tehran in July, S Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, met then president-elect Ebrahim Raisi and attended Raisi’s swearing-in last month. During their meeting, Iran’s new president spoke in favor of working with India in Afghanistan.

While Delhi does not boast as strong links with the Taliban leadership in Kabul as other neighboring powers, it does have a partner in Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the head of the Taliban’s office at Doha.

Stanikzai, who favors cordial ties with India, also wants to see trade through the Indian-operated Chabahar Port. The port aims to counter China’s Gwadar Port in Pakistan and promote an Indian vision for regional connectivity independent of the BRI.

Stanikzai also pitched for Afghanistan-India trade through Pakistan despite the Taliban having earlier closed transit routes, and he has sent out a strong message that the Taliban does not view regional connectivity purely from a Chinese lens.

The nuclear option

Iran’s approach to Afghanistan in large part rests on the fate of the dormant nuclear deal. If the U.S. fails to show flexibility, Tehran will have no option but to fall into the Chinese orbit.

This would shrink India’s options and would prove that deepening ties with Washington costs its partners elsewhere. It is important the Biden administration does not allow domestic politics or pressure from Israel to come in the way of a mutually acceptable agreement for the revival of the JCPOA.

While Washington’s rushed exit from Afghanistan has cost it prestige in the short term, there is still time to correct course and make the right moves with key players in the region. Beijing has rightly calculated the importance of Tehran in this new context. Now it is up to India and the U.S. to do the same and keep each other’s interests in mind as they forge new paths forward.