The road to peace runs through Tehran

The Iranian card could help India enhance its role in stabilising Afghanistan

Even if an American military pullout from Afghanistan is on the cards, the U.S. will want to leave behind a stable country. And any peace settlement in Afghanistan will stand a better chance of staying on the rails if it is supported by regional powers. In other words, ties between Afghanistan and its neighbours, including Iran, will impact the security of southern and western Asia. Like India, Russia, China and the U.S., Iran would want to see a steady hand at the helm in Afghanistan. While lacking military influence, India can build on its good ties with the U.S. and Iran to secure Afghanistan.

Iranian continuity

Iran is not a newcomer to regional diplomacy in Afghanistan. First and foremost, India should try to dissuade the U.S. from dealing with Iran, Russia and China as enemies. In fact, U.S. President Donald Trump’s perception of all three as foes is at odds with America’s earlier engagement with them to end its military campaign in Afghanistan. For instance, from 2014 to 2016, Washington and Moscow quietly arranged talks on the Afghan peace process. The meetings, known as the 6+1 group, included representatives from Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and the U.S. The 6+1 process assumed that each of these countries was essential to the achievement of a political settlement in Afghanistan. Moreover, last November, the U.S. and the Taliban joined for the first time the Russia-hosted conference in the hope of promoting a negotiated solution to achieve peace and national reconciliation in Afghanistan.

Regional powers could put their weight behind a negotiated settlement that will ensure Afghanistan’s stability. Iran, Russia and China — and the Central Asian states with which India and Afghanistan wish to cooperate in countering terrorism — fearf that continued instability in Afghanistan could spill over into their countries. India will also be adversely affected if negotiations break down. In that event, extremist exports from Pakistan to Afghanistan or India would probably increase.

It could be worthwhile for India to explore the Iranian diplomatic options to secure Afghanistan. On good terms with Tehran, New Delhi would gain by developing the Chabahar port in southern Iran. And looking beyond Chabahar, India, Iran and Russia were the founding countries of the International North-South Transport Corridor project — as long ago as 2002. The corridor is intended to increase connectivity between India, Iran, Russia, landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia — and Europe. It would also advance their trading interests.

India could remind Washington about the past coincidence of American and Iranian interests on Afghanistan. Together with the U.S. and India, Iran supported the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. In the international negotiations which followed in Bonn that year, Iran supported the installation of Hamid Karzai as President and favoured the exclusion of the Taliban from his government.

Admittedly, U.S.-Iran ties have often been fractious. As the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran after 2005, Iran saw the Taliban countering American influence on its borders and gave them arms. Iran continues to oppose the U.S.’s presence in Afghanistan, largely because it fears that American troops in Afghanistan could be used against it. To allay Iranian fears, Afghanistan recently said that it would not allow the U.S. to use its bases in the country to conduct any act of aggression against Iran.

Last December, Iran also held talks with the Taliban with the knowledge of the Afghan government. But it should assure Kabul of its good intentions. In recent months Afghan officials have accused Iran, which the U.S. says is trying to extend its influence in western Afghanistan, of providing the Taliban with money, weapons and explosives. Iran denies the charge.

The U.S. and Iran could be advised of the mutual, and regional, advantages of improving ties. Such advantages could range from stability in Afghanistan, and beyond, to increased trade prospects, especially in South and West Asia.

Win-win prospects

Iran could gain by strengthening trading ties with a secure Afghanistan. In 2017 it supplanted Pakistan as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner. At a time when Iran’s economy is weighed down by American sanctions, it would want to build up trade ties with neighbouring states.

The U.S. would also gain. After all, Iran is the geopolitical hub connecting South, Central and West Asia and the Caucasus. The Strait of Hormuz, that crucial conduit, links Iran westwards to the Persian Gulf and Europe, and eastwards to the Gulf of Oman, South and East Asia. Moreover, an improvement in U.S.-Iran relations would be welcomed by America’s European allies, who are opposed to Washington’s unilateral sanctions on Iran.

The U.S. should not lose the chance to act in concert with Iran to improve Afghanistan’s security. And, as the U.S. airs the idea of withdrawal from Afghanistan, now is the right time for India to act as the honest broker between them and to play a larger role in regional security. The status of India and Iran as regional powers as well as the stability of South, Central, and West Asia would simultaneously be enhanced. It is to be hoped that Mr. Trump’s display of America’s “superpower” in opposition to Iran — and Russia and China — will not block such an opportunity to stabilise Afghanistan.

Anita Inder Singh is Founding Professor, Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delhi