The Iranian Studies Unit of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies hosted Adjunct Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia Amin Saikal on 29 April 2021 to present his lecture “Iran and Afghanistan: Complex Shared Interests,” with moderation by ISU head and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar Mehran Kamrava.

Saikal began by emphasizing the complexities of the two neighbours’ relationship. Given mutual and reciprocal cross-border cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and sectarian links and security considerations, both Iran and Afghanistan must ensure neighbourly cooperation and peaceful coexistence. Historically and until today, the imperative for cooperation has periodically come up against divergent domestic and foreign policy outlooks and security posturing. Each do have their own national and regional priorities. Saikal observed that the imbalance in the relationship between a highly resourceful Iran and relatively poor and war-torn Afghanistan accords the former greater bargaining power.

Saikal also discussed the shared and divergent interests that have influenced the relationship between the two countries, particularly during the US-led intervention in Afghanistan. He analysed Iran-Afghanistan relations from an Iranian perspective addressing three issues: the objectives of Iran’s policy behaviour towards Afghanistan; the extent of Tehran’s influence in Afghanistan and the means available to it to advance Iranian interests; and Iran’s position in a post-US Afghanistan. Saikal emphasised that “Iran’s foreign policy is primarily a reflection of its domestic politics,” with the confluence of internally and externally generated factors exceptionally influencing Iranian behaviour towards her neighbours. With the onset of upheavals in Afghanistan that were coterminous with the rise of the Islamic Republic, the impact of Afghan turmoil on and within Iran has always been a concern for Tehran.

Saikal considered that the October 2001 US intervention in Afghanistan had contrasting outcomes for Iran: it toppled the extremist, anti-Iranian, Sunni Islamic Taliban regime backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabiadispersed both leadership and operatives of al-Qaeda. But at the same time, it brought Iran’s main adversary right next door to build military bases in Afghanistan, very close to the Iranian border.

The removal of Taliban from power provided President Mohammad Khatami with the opportunity to reinforce his “dialogue of civilizations” advocacy. Khatami sought to ease tensions with the US and Iran took part in the December 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan, led by the United States and supported by the United Nations. This conference legitimized the US intervention and laid out a plan for Afghanistan's post-Taliban state-building. Tehran also backed Washington’s preferred interim administration candidate, Hamid Karzai. Javad Zarif, Iran’s current Foreign Minister, led Iran’s delegation with a message of the Khatami government’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the US, but the message was ignored by US President George W. Bush, the latter infamously describing Iran as a member of an “axis of evil.”

Tehran’s policy toward Afghanistan pursued three interconnected ideological and geostrategic goals: to foster stability within Afghanistan and back the Shia and Persian speaking segments of the Afghan population to prevent Afghanistan’s troubles from spilling over the Iranian border and to support a functioning state which Iran could expand its influence; to ensure that competing actors such as the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan do not pose a threat to the Islamic Republic and undermine its national and regional security interests; and to improve relations with Afghanistan so that it might benefit from the economic and infrastructural rebuilding of the war-torn country. Saikal considered that the Islamic Republic relied primarily on soft power to achieve these goals, but when necessary, it could resort to “harder” means of exerting influence in Afghanistan: “Tehran has more or less practiced in Afghanistan what it pursued in some of Iran’s other regional neighbours, cultivating and backing deceptive groups as actual or potential proxies, while also actively participating in Afghanistan’s post-Taliban reconstruction,” Saikal said.

Saikal remarked that while Iran-Afghanistan relations have been positive, they have not been without challenges. Since the nineteenth century, disputes over the Helmand River have been a source of tension between the two countries. Saikal predicted that “since both countries suffer from water shortages, this will continue to be a major point of contention.”

Afghan refugees in Iran have been another contentious issue between the two countries. Until recent years, Iran enabled Afghan refugees to access social security programs, but Iran’s own economic difficulties in the face of US-imposed sanctions have hit Afghan refugees especially hard. “Iran has also periodically made use of the Afghan refugee issue to gain political leverage with the Afghan government or deal with their refoulement to Afghanistan.” Tehran’s recruitment of Afghan refugees for deployment in Syria, cross-border drug trafficking, and Tehran’s distrust of nuclear Pakistan all complicate further Iran-Afghanistan relations.

Finally, Saikal reflected on Iran’s stance in relation to a post-US Afghanistan with the scheduled 11 September 2021 withdrawal of US military forces from Afghanistan - by the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “The US military withdrawal must please Iran’s ruling hardliners, but because it occurs without a universal ceasefire and political settlement that could lay the groundwork for a long-term power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and other warring parties, Afghanistan faces a serious risk of descending into wider and deeper turmoil,” Saikal opined. Tehran appears to have sufficient assets to defend its objectives, should the Taliban regain ascendancy in the country. “Whatever direction Afghanistan may take,” Saikal concluded, “one should not underestimate Iran’s ability to work closely with Russia, China, and possibly also India to shore up her regional geopolitical interests.”