Afghanistan-Iran Relations & the proposed BSA

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The Afghans have last sacked Iran in the early eighteenth century by ruling it from 1722 to 1730. The internal decline of the Safavids, especially during the reign of strictly orthodox and last Safavid ruler Shah Sultan Hosain, worked to the advantage of Afghans. That was an era when classical empires, in the Middle World, were coming to an end. From then on, Iran has quite a successful, though extremely turbulent, history of becoming a relatively cohesive nation state. Afghanistan has lagged behind Iran in this state building process. Historians and political scientists have provided some explanations for this difference between Kabul and Tehran. But, the recent visit of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Iran was not about differences. It was in the context of charged regional geopolitical templates.   

It needs emphasis that the suggestion that Hamid Karzai should lead Afghanistan was raised by the Iranian delegation to the international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in 2001. According to the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Dobbins, he and Javad Zarif, then Iran’s delegate to the conference and its present minister of foreign affairs, found informal settings in which to “accidently” meet and hold important substantive discussions.

Shireen Hunter, in her book “Iran’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era” quotes Barnet R. Rubin, who attended the Bonn Conference as part of the UN delegation, talking about Javad Zarif. Barnet said about Zarif that he “supported efforts to frustrate Rabbani’s goal of preventing the meeting from reaching agreement in the hope of consolidating his own power and formation of a broader government. Zarif’s last minute intervention with the Northern Alliance delegation chair, Yunus Qanuni, convinced the latter to reduce the number of cabinet posts he demanded in the interim administration.”

Iran had been satisfied with the overthrow of the militant Taliban and their allies; as earlier, the situation in Afghanistan was extremely pesk for Tehran. In September 1998, several Iranian officials were murdered in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. By the end of that horrid month, seventy thousand revolutionary guards were exercising along the Afghan-Iran border. Then, in October, 200,000 Iranian troops were ordered to take positions on the same border – Tehran’s largest ever mobilization and deployment against its eastern neighbor. The US policy had thus helped Tehran in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Iran is now confronted with the possibility of US bases in Afghanistan. Earlier, the US intervention in Afghanistan to remove the Taliban setup had also provided Washington with an opportunity to expand rapidly its ties with the Central Asian states. Herein lies a strategic trade-off that continues to confront the Iranian diplomacy.

Hamid Karzai is under extreme US pressure to expedite the signing of the BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) which is a document of a far-reaching character for Afghanistan’s future and regional geopolitics. In such a charged regional setting, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has taken a position to reinforce the Afghan Presidency. Rouhani has stated, “We are concerned about the tensions arising from the presence of foreign forces in the region and believe that all foreign forces should exit the region and (control of) Afghanistan’s security should be ceded to the people of that country.”

Is Tehran the solitary supporter of Hamid Karzai’s present defiance to the US in Afghanistan? James Dobbin claims so in his testimony before the US senate foreign relations committee in Washington. But, what about Beijing and Moscow? Are they really willing to make accommodations with the BSA in Afghanistan? And in the immediate neighborhood, has an accurate assessment of the thinking in Islamabad and New Delhi been made?

Interestingly, Iran and China maintain longstanding civilization and geopolitical links. To mention one related example, On May 9, 1980, Iran’s then foreign minister Sadeq Qotbzadeh met with China’s then premier Hua Guofeng for a half hour at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade, while attending Josip Tito’s funeral. John W. Garver, in his book, “China & Iran: Ancient partners in a Post-Imperial World” recounts that Hua and Qotbzadeh other than discussing and agreeing on the expansion of Sino-Iranian relations on the basis of mutual respect and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs also agreed that “Soviet forces should withdraw immediately from Afghanistan, leaving the destiny of Afghanistan to be decided by its people.

On last Sunday in Tehran, Yang Jiechi, a senior member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China held a meeting with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. Yang is reported in the Iranian press telling Shamkhani, “Iran and China could work together to help promote peace and stability in Afghanistan and Syria.” 

In the meantime, the Afghan government has released the text of the BSA, which is of a climacteric reading time for any serious Afghanistan watcher. 

Asimov Arifov is a political scientist/researcher with The École des hautes études en sciences sociales, (EHESS) Paris, France. He is about to publish a book on the geopolitics of the Hindukush Region. He can be followed on twitter @asimovarifov for his latest updates.

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