Hamid Karzai, formerly the President of Afghanistan, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma (L-R) attend a plenary session titled 'The World of the Future: Moving Through Conflict to Cooperation' as part of the 14th annual meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi
Afghanistan has historically been a zone of exclusive interests for both Russia, whose history is filled with fruitful cooperation and good neighbourly relations with the Afghan people, and for Iran, which shares a state border with its eastern neighbour, as well as a number of many civilizational features. The profound political and socioeconomic crisis and the permanent military-political conflict that has riven Afghan society for decades, pose a regional geopolitical problem. While dealing with internal disputes and conflicts is the main priority and prerogative of the socio-political forces and people of Afghanistan, reacting to their external consequences that spread beyond its territory has placed a heavy burden on the neighbouring states and has formed the basis of the regional security system in the late 20th
and early 21st
It is true that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, which began in 2001, and the withdrawal of a significant portion of the U.S.-led NATO contingent from Afghanistan in 2014 brought about serious changes to the region. But the situation remains in many ways uncertain and unstable. The combination of old and new challenges and threats emanating from the military-political crisis in Afghanistan largely determine the design and characteristics of international relations in Central and Southern Asia. The perception of the “Afghan problem” and the principles and mechanisms for the leading regional actors – notably the Russian Federation and Iran – to resolve it are crucial in many ways. This article attempts to answer the pressing questions that arise in this context: how do Russia and Iran see the threats coming from Afghanistan? How can Moscow and Teheran influence the situation? Is cooperation with third countries on the issue possible?
For many years, Russia and Iran have pledged and delivered support to the central government of Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai (2002–2014) and Sharif Ghani (since 2014). Both states want the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (IRA) to preserve its territorial integrity and sovereignty under a legitimate parliament and government which fully control, and are responsible for, the country’s territory.
Until recently, however, these two countries have placed an emphasis on different aspects of Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Thus, while Teheran has flatly rejected any foreign presence in Afghanistan, both throughout the presence of ISAF and until today, Moscow took a more reticent stand. Refraining from value judgements on any issue other than the fight against terror and drug trafficking, the Russian political establishment used the U.S. military presence pragmatically to pursue its own goals in Afghanistan (the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda) and in the region as a whole (military-political integration within the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Collective Security Treaty Organization).
At the same time, Russian officials at various levels have repeatedly expressed a readiness to develop partnership relations with any agents to address the common problems and threats in Afghanistan and Central Asia, such as the production and transport of narcotics, the activities of international terrorist groups, and ensuring food and environmental security. Although these initiatives often did not elicit any response from the United States and NATO, Russia has remained committed to its declared principles and has made some progress in these areas in the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a fact that has not been lost on Iran. Exchange of experience in fighting extremism and terrorism, as well as cooperation in this sphere between government structures in Iran and Russia – bilaterally or within the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure – takes on added significance due to the increased threat of radical Islam in Afghanistan after DAESH cells began springing up on its territory.
The worsening of the relations between Russia and the West in 2014–15 brought the Russian position closer to that of Iran. Thus, Moscow no longer derived any benefit from the constant military presence of U.S. and NATO forces close to its borders and the zone of its vital interests (i.e. Central Asia). Meanwhile, the remaining challenges of Islamic terrorism, drug trafficking and environmental, food and migration security are equally important for Russia and Iran, which motivates expanded and deepening bilateral cooperation and interaction in a whole range of areas.
Both Moscow and Teheran consider a victory of the Taliban in its ongoing civil war against the current regime in Afghanistan to be unacceptable. The readiness of both states to recognize the Taliban as a party to the political process is a forced concession prompted by the realization that the use of exclusively military means to resolve the existing crisis is futile, and does not mean that they agree to deal with a revived Islamic Emirate of the Taliban as a legitimate government of Afghanistan. Although the military threat posed by the Taliban to the territories of Russia and Iran is more imagined than real, the restoration of the regime that was crushed in 2001 could contribute to the further spread of the infrastructure of international Islamist terrorist groups in Afghanistan. This is a scenario that can destabilize the situation in Central Asia, as well as on Russia’s southern brooders and in Iran’s border areas. The threat is posed not only by terrorism, but also by uncontrolled migration, a new wave of “drugs export,” a worsening of the crime situation in the neighbouring states (especially the border areas) in the short term and the total exclusion of Afghanistan from the regional political and economic system for many years to come.
Even so, the security problem, which appears to be of paramount importance, does not cover the entire sphere of the two countries’ interests in Afghanistan. No less important is the economic sphere, in which both countries look at Afghanistan from at least two angles.
First, Russia and Iran see Afghanistan as a market for exports. Naturally, the scale of Iran–Afghanistan cooperation in this field is far greater than that between Russia and Afghanistan, though the structure of export differs. Iran’s primary exports to Afghanistan are fuel and energy, including petroleum processing products. Russia can currently offer mostly military products. In the long term, exports can be expanded to include agricultural produce and electricity (jointly with Central Asian partners). Thus, Iranian and Russian goods do not compete in the Afghanistan market; both countries are interested in seeing the market grow and develop.
Secondly, both Russia and Iran see Afghanistan as a transit country in the system of regional and inter-regional trade. Afghanistan’s geographical position makes it an indispensable part of trade exchanges between the East and the West on the one hand, and the North and the South on the other. Direct routes linking Iran, China, Central Asia (whose transport infrastructure is oriented towards Russia) and South Asia pass through Afghanistan. The Iranian leadership under Rahbar Ali Khamenei sees its country’s future in the light of its grand “Looking East” development strategy in which Afghanistan is assigned a special place. In a way, the concept is related to the Chinese Silk Way Economic Belt project which, among other things, shapes the Chinese vision of future cooperation with Iran in the field of energy and goods trade. These relations have continued to develop throughout the period of sanctions against Iran and are set to grow stronger. Thus, pipelines can be laid across Afghan territory to carry Iranian oil and gas to China and to Central and South Asian countries. The most important challenge facing Russia is to establish transit relations with India (as a key BRICS partner), and in the near future with the SCO across the territory of Central Asia and Afghanistan, in order to diversify and increase bilateral trade by bringing in members of the Eurasian Economic Union.
There are a number of objective obstacles to the full use of the potential of bilateral cooperation between Iran and Russia in Afghanistan. For example, the two countries do not have any experience of cooperating in those economic areas where such cooperation is possible. Besides, because of the complicated military-political situation in the country, most of its territory is characterized by a high risk of insurgency, local crime and terrorist cells, thus making it impossible for Russian companies to do business. By contrast, Iranian businesses invest close to the Iran–Afghanistan border (mainly in the Herat, Farah and Nimroz provinces), where the local pro-Iranian Shiite and Tajik population ensures a sufficient level of security. For Iran, investing in the rehabilitation of these parts of Afghanistan constitutes a long-term investment in the development of production capacity on its own territory and in strengthening security on its eastern borders. By building up cooperation with the border areas of Afghanistan, Iran does not just create jobs on its own periphery, but secures a market for its goods and services. Russia does not at present have such exclusive zones and opportunities in Afghanistan, which increases the risks, involved in independent economic activity many times over, considering lack of stability and the weakness of the state and the central government as the preferred Russian partner in the country.
The United States, China, India and Pakistan – the most involved external parties to the Afghan conflict – have serious instruments for influencing the situation in Afghanistan. However, while cooperation with the United States over Afghanistan is limited for Iran and Russia in the medium term because of the overall negative background created by developments in Ukraine and Syria, the mood both in Moscow and Teheran concerning the prospects of interaction with other powers is fairly upbeat.
Pakistan wields influence over those segments of the Afghan political elite – both government and anti-government – with which Iran and Russia have for various reasons failed to find a common language, something that must be done if they are to achieve their declared goals. Islamabad remains the key economic partner of Kabul while at the same time continuing to show an interest in integration and mutually beneficial interaction with the countries in the region within the SCO structure. The persisting tensions between India and Pakistan remain a powerful destabilizing factor in and outside South Asia. While Iran has experience of interacting with Pakistan in economics, regional politics and security (including energy security), the links between Islamabad and Moscow are confined to intelligence and military structures and a limited trade and economic agenda.
India is interested in peace in Afghanistan and the elimination of the “Islamist threat” emanating from the zone of instability in Pashtunistan on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For India, the economic agenda is secondary, which makes it similar to Russia in many ways as it is interested in forging effective alliances of states to resolve the “Afghan problem” by available means and methods. Russia–India relations have a solid foundation, which holds out a promise of further development, whereas cooperation between India and Iran runs into numerous obstacles. Therefore, successful cooperation between Russia and Iran with regard to Afghanistan may either be used to mend fences between Teheran and Delhi, with Moscow as the mediator, or it may breed mistrust on the part of India if it feels that the rapprochement between Russia and Iran does not meet its interests.
Russia, Iran and Pakistan are no match for China, India and the United States in terms of economic might. But they have experience of, and instruments for, dealing with security issues, which form the core of the Afghan problem. Russia and Iran can complement each other, compensating for the weaknesses of the other partner in the pursuit of common goals.
Russia as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which has experience and authority in organizing the negotiating process in Syria and which is an important participant and initiator of regional integration initiatives (CSTO, SCO) and their military component, together with Iran, which has historical, ethno-linguistic and religious ties with Afghanistan and, at this time, greater political and economic presence on its territory, have the capacity to cooperate to mutual advantage in overcoming the key threats generated by the Afghan crisis.
Security is undoubtedly the quintessence of the “Afghan” interests of Russia and Iran as partners in bilateral cooperation and members of regional interstate associations and organizations. The problem of security lies at the root of any future plan for the development of Afghanistan, as well as of foreign participation or assistance in such development in pursuit of their own national interests in the region. The continuing armed conflict between the Kabul government and the Taliban is a long way from being resolved in spite of the split within the Taliban camp, which helps maintain a high level of insecurity inside the country and spreads instability beyond its borders. Thus, the need for developing and intensifying bilateral cooperation in this area is objectively relevant to Russia and Iran because they depend on, and are interested in, a prosperous, united and sovereign Afghanistan.
Fresh efforts to coordinate and institutionalize joint actions in the region may give an impetus to intensified bilateral contacts with regard to Afghanistan. It is necessary both on a bilateral basis and within the SCO to intensify contacts between Russian and Iranian representatives in a whole range of areas in order to determine the prospects for cooperation, not only at the strategic, but also at the tactical level. In doing so, it is necessary to distinguish two areas of interaction: cooperation in countering the threats emanating from Afghanistan (drug trafficking, terrorism, uncontrolled illegal migration, etc.) and promoting reconciliation inside Afghanistan. In the medium term, Russia’s economic leverage is fairly limited, and its economic interests in Afghanistan are uncertain. This offers extra opportunities and removes certain limitations for other regional actors in building constructive relations with Iran in the medium term. Iran’s economic presence in Afghanistan meets Russia’s interests and may help the latter achieve its own strategic goals. The issue of assisting the restoration of Afghanistan is relevant, while Iran’s experience in that field is interesting and useful for Russia – though it is still secondary because it hinges on the solution of political and military problems. Not being rivals, but sharing common goals, Russia and Iran have a chance to realize the mutual benefit of bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan by improving the system of reacting to security threats, agreeing and coordinating actions to shore up and restore Afghanistan and develop the regional security and cooperation architecture.
NB: This article first appeared at "Russia-Iran Partnership: an Overview and Prospects for the Future", co-published by IRAS and RIAC.
Grigory Lukyanov, deputy head of Department of World and Russian History at Higher School of Economics, is the senior fellow at RIAC
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