Russian Federation Ambassador, Alexander Mantytskiy, left, hands over an AK-47 to Afghan National Security Advisor, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, center, at Kabul International Airport, on February 24, 2016. The Russian embassy in Kabul announced that the Russian government handed over 10,000 AK47s as a military donation to Afghan National Security Forces
In recent decades, political entities, along with accepting the globalization of existence methods in the international arena, have attempted to redefine their interests and identities within regional frameworks. These new cooperative trends in regions are frequently interpreted within the context of New Regionalism Theories. The concept of new regionalism has provided an appropriate ground for forming various layers of regional cooperation in an independent framework, separated from global trends and based on two elements, ‘thematic openness’ and ‘geographical flexibility’.
This article sets about addressing the question by looking at the Iranian-Russian relationship and the role of new regionalism in drawing both states closer to cooperate in Afghanistan. The analysis focuses on a question that has been central to the debate: How Iran and Russia could cooperate closely in establishing peace and security in Eurasia and Afghanistan in particular. This article will argue that based on new regionalism theories, Iran and Russia, despite a diversity of interests, can come to a common definition of identities and norms for establishing stability and security in Afghanistan. The result would be a closer cooperation on resolving regional conflicts and promoting shared interests in the region.
New Regionalism: A Framework for Cooperation between Iran and Russia in Afghanistan
The Iranian and Russian Empires have been collaborating and interacting with each other for more than five centuries. Moreover, their relationship has had its ups and downs. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s together with the formation of The Russian Federation created an opportunity for new relations between the two countries. This event, along with some regional and international changes, has paved the way for a relationship based on cooperation.
Although contact between Iran and Russia in various fields seemed friendly over the past twenty-five years, a stable collaborative dialogue was never formed between them at a regional level due to each party’s definition of interests, framework, and forming structures.
Russia and Iran are considered the owners of substantial oil and gas reserves in the economic arena which would give them a competitive advantage in energy markets. However, even competing in the field of energy pipelines from the Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to the international markets, and building regional trade routes, reminiscent of the Silk Road’s time of prosperity, have not paved the way for regional economic collaboration between the two.
Needless to say, Russia would certainly want to continue its military superiority in the peripheral regions. In recent years, Iran’s access to advanced weapons was limited due to the rising tension between Iran and powerful Western governments; thus, the Iranians had to use domestically produced armaments and Russian or Chinese arms. The Russians also would want to continue their military collaboration with Iran and maintain selling armaments to the Iranians. However, this collaboration has not yet expanded military arrangements between the two at a regional level.
Moreover, there has not been much collaboration in terms of cultural and ideological issues between the two neighboring states in the recent years. Despite challenges and problems, Iran and Russia still have common interests at the regional and extra-regional levels which would provide them with an opportunity to work together.
One of the main incentives for their partnership would reveal itself in Russia’s approach for establishing a multilateral structure at an international level. After the collapse of the Soviet Union followed by changes in structure of the international system, Russia once again attempted to define its superiority in a new framework in order to acquire its former position in the international system by pursuing ideas such as Eurasianism and Euro-Atlanticism. Russia’s attempt for maintaining its authoritative presence in a region dubbed as ‘Near Abroad’, the newly independent republics, indicates the pursuit of such policies by the Kremlin.
Iran has always followed a confrontational approach towards the West over the past decades and therefore can be considered a reliable peer. Iran’s and Russia’s belief in the necessity of establishing an international system based on multilateralism and also their common belief in countering the West’s attempts to establish its superiority have led them to collaborate at the level of regional institutions. Based on this new approach, all the global and regional powers would try to resolve common problems by following an agreed-upon framework in a noncompeting and collaborative way. In fact, the common threats against the interests of the two at a regional level have made them work together. Examples of such threats can be seen in the Enlargement Policy of the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO), continued since 1993.
Moreover, the existence of intra-regional threats like the establishment of religious extremist groups such as the Taliban, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and drug trafficking mafia causing insecurity and instability along and within the borders of Central Asian countries and the Caucasus, would bring the two countries closer in terms of their regional positions and joint attempt for finding a solution to handle these crises.
Joint collaboration in resolving the regional crises in countries such as Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Afghanistan is an indicative example of Iranian-Russian partnership. Moreover, the two countries’ collaborative efforts to prevent the promotion of ethnic and religious separatist demands in the region are important parts of this collaboration.
Therefore, the geopolitical pragmatism and the definition of identity and norms governing the foreign policy of the two countries in the international relations would make them work together in regard to both regional and extra-regional affairs.
Afghanistan is a familiar territory for Iran and Russia. The cultural, historical, and identity ties between the Iranians and the Afghans have created such unity between the two nations for thousands of years that sometimes they can be hardly distinguished from each other. The Russians in the contemporary era and during the establishment of the communist government in Kabul in particular, have had a strong presence in the Afghan society, and therefore played an important role in shaping the society’s political structures as well as its transition towards modern institutions and structures.
Although it was expected that after the collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Iran and Russia would play a vital role in organizing the new political regime, their presence brought about several distinct attempts in some areas and not in the form of a regional collaboration.
In fact, in the post-Taliban period, the countries that were not directly involved in the conflict with the fundamentalist extremist groups could hardly participate in Afghanistan since the Taliban was removed from power by the help of NATO and the US-led coalition forces. Although Iran and Russia considered the Taliban their enemy and were indirectly cooperating with the international coalition groups, the new government in Kabul failed to cooperate effectively with the two countries. Furthermore, the United States and its allies were not welcoming towards other regional and international powers in Afghanistan. As a result, Russia which sought to establish military bases in Afghanistan in order to help generate security and stability, especially in the northern parts of it, failed to obtain a good relationship with Karzai’s government. Consequently, since the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were implementing security in Afghanistan for more than a decade, Russian merchants and investors did not trust the Afghan markets for investing or trading; therefore, they are now playing a minor role in Afghanistan’s economic structure.
At the same time, Iran which has formally and repeatedly called for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, could not establish a collaborative relationship with the international groups on the Afghan soil. Moreover, Iranian goods gained a favorable position in the Afghan markets due to the vicinity, presence of millions of Afghans in Iran, and the cost-effectiveness of exporting these goods to Afghan cities for both sides. This turned Iran into one of the main exporters of consumer goods and energy to Afghan cities; however, Iran could not acquire a favorable position in the long-term investment of Afghanistan’s key industries. In the current years, China is considered the major exporter of goods to Afghan markets and India is also regarded as one of the major investors in various industrial sectors of Afghanistan.
Furthermore, parts of Afghanistan turned into a utopia for extremist and fundamentalist groups because of the growing tensions in the region and the continuous insecurity in the country caused by the emergence of extremist Islamic groups like ISIS. This is a serious security threat for Iran and Russia. Both states have always tried to communicate with the Afghan government and some branches of Taliban to prevent ISIS from infiltrating into the Central Asia as well as their own territories. However, the political authorities in Kabul believe that Iran and Russia could cause further regional instability and weaken the Afghan government against the extremist groups. Moreover, Kabul demands that regional and international powers support the country’s legitimate government in defeating the extremist and terrorist groups.
Afghan authorities believe that fundamentalism in Afghanistan had more to do with the economic difficulties and way of life along with the existing deprivation in various remote urban and rural regions than any ideological reasons. According to their argument, the best way to weaken the fundamentalist groups is by raising the quality of life of Afghans. Therefore, investing in various sectors of the country’s economy and increasing employment and income could help to create political stability, economic growth and also increase social security in the fragile Afghan nation.
Iran and Russia, as two powerful countries in the area of regional cooperation at the Eurasian level, certainly can play an important role in the development of Afghanistan’s economy in an effort to stabilize the country. This could happen either by tripartite cooperation or within a new cooperative framework with the help of countries such as India and Kazakhstan resulting in several benefits: first, increasing the stability and security of the region; second, the long-term benefits of the economic sectors from the investment in Afghanistan; and third, this cooperation is in line with the identity and nature of these countries’ foreign policy that seek to establish a multipolar international system. Therefore, cooperation with Afghanistan in the economic area as well as strengthening its government against the extremist groups could be effective in increasing stability and regional security as well as securing the national interests of Iran and Russia in both aspects.
It might have been expected that a ‘New Great Game’ would develop in post-Soviet Eurasia in which not only global powers but the regional ones, namely China, Iran, Turkey, Russia and India would vie with each other for greater influence in the newly independent states of Central Asia. While a lighter version of such new great game has played in the region, it is, indeed, not that much ‘great’ as had been expected. Instead of rivalry, the regional states have attempted to stabilize these newly independent states aimed at territorial security at home and institution-building abroad.
At the turn of century, with respect to common considerations in their foreign policies, Iran and Russia definitively proved that both states are seeking cooperation rather than rivalry and hostility. From the Iranian perspective, Russia is a strategically capable actor enjoying a powerful seat in the United Nations (UN), supplier of a part of Iranian military equipment and among the major states implementing the Joint comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). To Russian decision makers, Iran is regional power holding many cards in the region. In that regard, Moscow requires Tehran partnership within the regional arrangements in order to take both benefit of Iran’s capabilities in the region and contain the possible damage it could render to Russia’s regional interests.
In sum, this regional interdependence developed from regional institution/organization establishments is clearly demonstrating the conciliatory approach of the powerful states in Eurasia for the sake of collective interests and security. It goes without saying that cooperation for the expansion of security in the region after US-led forces left Afghanistan in 2014 can also cultivate another field for regional integration among Iran, Russia and other neighboring states of Afghanistan.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.
Mandana Tisheyar, an assistant professor at the Allameh Tabatabai' University, is the senior fellow at IRAS.
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