By Saaransh Mishra*
Ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi won Iran’s 13th Presidential election with a majority amidst the lowest voter turnout in Iran’s political history. Under Raisi, who is extremely close to Ayatollah Khamenei, foreign policy is expected to follow a similar trajectory because most foreign policy decisions are taken with the approval of the Supreme Leader. But, Iran’s foreign policy in Afghanistan could undergo a change and it could get much more deeply involved, owing to Raisi’s ideological considerations and his emphasis on reviving Iran’s economy, on which stability in a post-US Afghanistan will have a very direct bearing as it is one of Iran’s most important economic partners.
Resultantly, instability, which seems entirely likely in a post-US Afghanistan, will be viewed unfavourably by Tehran and Raisi, giving the Islamic Republic a formidable reason to act. However, Iran’s deeper involvement in Afghanistan, with multiple violent stakeholders harbouring varied interests and ideologies will only cause friction amongst these groups, exacerbating the abysmal security scenario in the country.
The Iranian economy has been in the doldrums due t international sanctions. It has steadily been shrinking since 2017, and contracted an estimated 4.99 percent in 2020. Unemployment has already skyrocketed and an estimated 11.2 percent of the population is expected to be out of work by 2021. Iran’s trade deficit had fallen to a concerning US $3.45 billion in 2020, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that Iran’s gross domestic product will grow only at a meagre 3 percent in 2021, and inflation is also expected to rise from 36.5 percent to 39 percent in 2021. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the Islamic Republic, impelling them to ask the IMF for US $5 billion in emergency funding to tackle the pandemic.
Focus on economic revival
Considering Iran’s grave economic predicament, Raisi centered his campaign on stabilising the economy. Notwithstanding the long-prevailing anti-Americanism in Iranian foreign policy and the fact that both Raisi and Khamenei have been vociferous critics of America, the President also expressed his willingness to re-engage in negotiations with America over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) for financial relief. This testifies to Raisi’s desperation on resuscitating the economy.
Thus, Afghanistan should be one of Raisi’s foreign policy priorities due to Iran’s economic relationship with its eastern neighbours and Raisi’s focus on building trade ties and capitalising on export markets with regional allies that prominently includes Afghanistan. Iranian exports constituted 22 percent of Afghanistan’s US $11.5 billion consumer market in 2017–2018. Despite the re-imposition of US sanctions in May 2018, Iran remained the top exporter of goods in Afghanistan and the real import figures are speculated to be much higher because of lack of border controls and trafficking. Afghanistan imports a variety of goods from Iran like oil, kerosene, mazut, dissolvents, cement, and electricity. In 2020 itself, Iran exported US $1,264,000,000 worth of goods to Afghanistan, including oil products, wheat, machinery, fabrics, etc. making Iranian exports equivalent to Afghanistan’s own net exports, underlining their robust economic partnership.
Iran has so far pursued a pragmatic policy of openly supporting the Afghan government while maintaining ties with some factions of the Taliban to keep options open, without getting too deeply involved in Afghan affairs. It has also refrained from proxy-warfare in Afghanistan through Shiite militia, unlike throughout the Middle East. Yet, the failure of the stakeholders in the Afghan peace process to attain a negotiated political settlement despite the swiftly approaching withdrawal date and the recently intensifying tides of violence and instability perpetrated by the Taliban should seriously concern Raisi.
The Taliban’s refusal to adhere to its end of the 2020 Peace deal validates the Taliban’s intentions to seize absolute power in a post-US Afghanistan. In view of the recent takeover of Northern Afghanistan by the Taliban and the Afghan Security Forces surrendering without a fight, US intelligence assessment concluded that the new Afghan government could collapse anywhere between six to 12 months, with some estimates even suggesting three months. A neighbouring Afghanistan rife with lawlessness and without a government is something that Raisi would be wary of.
Additionally, even though the Taliban’s relationship with Iran’s fierce regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have deteriorated lately, some factions of the Taliban still remain close to these countries. Them wielding considerable influence in a future Afghanistan would be a cogent reason for Raisi and Iran to comprehensively safeguard Iranian interests.
Barring economic motives, ideological considerations could also enable greater involvement in Afghanistan because Raisi wants to succeed Khamenei as the Supreme Leader. This is pertinent with respect to Iran projecting itself as the self-proclaimed custodian of Shia Islam globally and the continued persecution of a sizeable Shia Hazara minority in Afghanistan. With foreign troops departing and the hefty prospects of the Taliban coming back to power, the Hazaras could become susceptible to increased violence. Raisi, wanting to become the highest authority of a Shia theocracy, would prefer to maintain his credibility, which could be hampered in case the Hazaras are continually oppressed in Afghanistan by the Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant–Khorasan Province (ISKP).
Additionally, continued violence and persecution could also trigger an influx of Afghan refugees (predominantly Shias) towards Iran again, the burden of which a decimated Iranian economy will have to bear. Iran already hosts around 780,000 Afghan refugees and approximately 2.5 million undocumented Afghans. Further chaos would most certainly spill over to Iran because of an exceedingly porous border. Iran had already deported roughly 700,000 undocumented Afghans in 2018 after its economy dwindled due to re-imposition of sanctions. Over the years, the economy has only worsened further, making it tougher to shoulder an inflow again.
Iran is infamous for using asymmetric warfare in pursuance of foreign policy objectives, with its preferred foreign policy tool lately being the deployment of proxy Shia militias across the Middle East with approximately 70,000 fighters. These groups known by names such as Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa Zainebiyoun, Aliyoun, and Haidariyoun are deployed to confront Iranian adversaries across Syria, Iraq, and Yemen and advance Iranian interests. Even though there have been no direct indications so far that Raisi would prefer this policy in Afghanistan as well, he firmly said recently that the Islamic Republic’s support for Shia militias across the region is “non-negotiable,” underpinning its strategic importance for Iran and his proclivity towards the same as a foreign policy tool.
An anticipated power vacuum, coupled with violence and instability could propel Iran to station Shiite fighters in Afghanistan to act as a buffer against the escalation of violence that would threaten Iranian economic interests, secure the Shia minorities, and also stop the inflow of persecuted refugees into economically-dwindling Iran through the 921-kilometre-long border. Essentially, Iran would try to boost its own influence and mitigate instability in the country that is vastly consequential to the amelioration of its economy.
Afghanistan is currently under civil-war with constant fighting having surged between the US-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban, along with the ISKP and the Taliban being adversaries as well. Furthermore, there exist various other extremist outfits within and outside Afghanistan such as the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other ethnic tribal militia that have sometimes similar, but also overlapping interests, which legitimises the possibility of an exceedingly complicated civil war in the absence of a power-sharing political settlement that has proved to be elusive so far.
Afghanistan has reportedly seen approximately 35,000-40,000 civilian casualties in the 20 years of war, in addition to casualties amongst belligerents. Despite the perennial presence of foreign troops responsible for handling the security situation, the numbers are unnerving. In absence of these troops and the possibility of a bloodier civil-war looming because of the stakeholders’ inability to reach a consensual arrangement, an addition of Iran-backed Shia fighters amongst multiple other militant outfits (majorly Sunni) with gross ideological and strategic differences will only further complicate the scenario by causing deterioration in the lives of the population, mass migration, and also the spillover of extremism to neighbouring countries.
It is natural for an economically floundering Iran to shelter its interests in Afghanistan, since Raisi believes that regional export markets are central to Iranian economic resurgence. But his unwavering inclination towards the usage of regional militias as a sacrosanct foreign policy strategy is distressing, especially with reference to Afghanistan. This strategy would only foment more violence and instability in the region, that would not just threaten Iranian interests but also cause the brittle security situation to plummet significantly, leading to serious ramifications for a future Afghanistan and also regional powers with vested interests in the country.
Iran’s historical predisposition towards using warfare irrespective of its cataclysmic implications, as indicated by the hundreds of thousands of casualties in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, means that Raisi, a figure infamous for grave human rights violations to suit Iranian interests, could eventually lean towards this policy in Afghanistan as well.
The author is a research intern at ORF.