The Trump Administration has rolled back the nuclear deal of 2015 with Iran and slapped sanctions including measures to throttle Tehran economically by mounting pressures on its client states to reduce and end oil imports by November 2018. Iran has been alleged being involved in ‘malign activities’ with its extension of support to militant groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban to sabotage peace and stability in the neighborhood.
On the other hand, Iran has reacted to the developments with its President Hassan Rouhani saying “US can’t be trusted” for its act of reneging on the nuclear deal. Reversal of the nuclear deal which the Washington argues is directed at putting pressure on the Iranian regime to stop its authoritarian and subversive activities is reported to have begun affecting Iranian population and has allegedly enhanced Iranian subversive activities.
For instance, rise in the Taliban offensives in the western part of Afghanistan in recent past has been allegedly propped up by Iran with training and arming the Afghan Taliban.
Imposition of stringent American sanctions on Iran can be construed as a geopolitical move to marginalize Iran in energy politics by preventing it from laying down Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline as recent developments indicated. It is noteworthy that in February 2018, the Trump Administration inaugurated the process of laying down the US-funded Trans-Afghan pipeline project which is pursued within the rubric of ‘peace pipeline’ project. Sanctions on Iran have also enabled the US to prevent its strategic partner – India from coordinating its efforts in developing Chabahar port which is considered vital by Tehran from a geopolitical perspective to reach out to Central Asian energy resources.
To understand the current US-Iran standoff in Afghanistan in perspective, there is a need to understand the reasons behind Iran’s desire for an independent and robust role in and around the Middle East region and the American drive to contain it and expand its own sway. Conflicts over a host of regional issues including Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine revolve around the core issue of Iran’s aspiration to be an independent and strong regional power and the American efforts at containing Iran’s ambitions and seeking to establish its hegemony in the region.
It noteworthy that the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979 changed the geopolitics in the Middle East region dramatically as it not only ended the status of Iran as an American protégé (Iran courted the US under the ruler Shah), it engendered a long-term Iranian desire to assume an independent role for itself in the region. It became a key challenger to the prevailing status quo in the Persian Gulf which the US with the support of its allies such as Iran under Shah, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia assiduously maintained.
To realize its independent status, Iran abandoned the CENTO just after the Islamic revolution and joined Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). It was also witnessed cancelling many weapon orders from the West. The revolutionary leaders stressed that it is only the non-alignment policy that could meet the goals of developing states like the Islamic Republic of Iran and that would also be appropriate to the Iranian religious, cultural or historical context. The fact that Iran successfully withstood Iraq’s overwhelming military power supported by the US during the eight-year long Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) although it did not win the war was considered a remarkable achievement in the Iranian foreign policy establishment and enhanced its confidence to play a significant role in regional geopolitics.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union and emergence of the resource-rich Central Asian region, Iran looked for an expanded role for itself spanning from the Persian Gulf to Caspian Sea region. To Iranian advantage, the Central Asian states in their attempts to shed their past Soviet identity and carve an independent identity were willing to diversify their supplies to different markets through various supply routes diluting Russian monopoly over the supply routes.
According to most of the independent energy experts as well as the Western oil companies, Iran provided the shortest and cheapest route to the Gulf and to the South Asian markets as the Central Asian states could plug into the already existing Iranian pipeline system. While the countries of the Caspian Sea region turned their attention towards Iran as a future exit route, Washington sought to deprive Tehran of that privileged role and quickly invigorated its efforts to discuss proposals for alternative pipeline routes with Central Asian states such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline through Turkey and the other one TAP pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan which became TAPI later with India joining the project. Both routes were planned to bypass Iran and Russia.
It was reported that US granted official invitation to the presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan for this purpose and it was further alleged that the US administration had exerted pressure on oil companies to accept the projects despite the security and financial non-viability of the projects. From Iranian perspective, its interest in providing pipelines for the supply of Central Asian energy resources has the long term objective of enabling it to become a regional power rather than merely profiting from the transit fees. Tehran believes besides transit fees, by facilitating oil and gas transit, it would be in a better position to develop trade with the Central Asian region which could eventually become an important market for Iranian manufactured goods.
Although Iran is better positioned than Pakistan vis-à-vis Central Asian states as the former does not necessarily need Afghanistan as a corridor to connect itself to the Central Asian energy resources for it borders on Turkmenistan and is a direct neighbor of the Central Asian states whereas Pakistan is separated from the Central Asian region by Afghanistan, the US engaged Pakistan in its attempts to contain Iran’s regional aspirations and in its bid to provide alternative routes to transfer of Central Asian resources to the world market. It is worthwhile to recall that the shortest and most secure routes from the former USSR’s energy sources to the Gulf Sea passing through Iran had been kept under sanctions by the US since the American Embassy takeover in Tehran.
The core principles of market economy such as provision of shortest, cheapest and the safest exit routes for the transfer of energy resources from the landlocked Central Asian states were sidelined by the US which sought to expand its sway into the Central Asian geopolitical landscape by excluding Iran from the leverage of providing supply routes.
The emergence and evolution of the Taliban as a strong non-state actor challenging Iran’s crave for a larger role in the regional geopolitics pointed to failure of Iran’s policy of uniting the various Persian and Dari speaking groups during the Afghan civil war. On the other hand, Pakistan saw in it an opportunity to create a belligerent group outside Afghan soil to take over the Afghan government.
The growth of the Taliban outside Afghan soil could ensure enormous aid from Saudi Arabia and US. The US also did not have to break the treaty obligation of not interfering in Afghan domestic affairs. The American and Pakistani interests converged to use Afghanistan as bridge to Central Asia and the Taliban was considered as an instrument to promote those objectives.
As Ahmed Rashid observed, “The Clinton Administration was clearly sympathetic to the Taliban, as they were in line with Washington’s anti-Iran policy and were important for the success of any southern pipeline from Central Asia that would avoid Iran. The US Congress had authorised a covert $20 million budget for the CIA to destabilise Iran, and Tehran had accused Washington of funneling some of these funds to the Taliban – a charge that was always denied by Washington” (Ninan Koshy, The War on Terror: Reordering the World, Naya Rasta Publications, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 63-64).
The confrontational ambitions and role that Iran and the US assumed for themselves presaged that the cooperation between the US and Iran witnessed initially following 9/11 could not sustain longer. Iran categorically objected to any bilateral arrangement between the US and Afghanistan that would allow the Americans to deepen their presence in Afghanistan primarily because Iran and Afghanistan share a long border and Tehran was suspicious of Washington’s moves in the region.
Iran was opposed to possibilities of strategic treaty and ties between the US and Afghanistan arguing that it would pose a threat to the Iranian security. Iran resorted to mass expulsion of Afghan refugees in an effort to show that it could indirectly put pressure on the US in Afghanistan by precipitating economic crisis. Iran has had considered the western Afghanistan as its sphere of influence and a bridge to Central Asian states. The Iranian government accused the US of aiding the Balochi Sunni insurgent group Jundullah, which was responsible for killing several senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officers.
The confrontational geopolitical aspirations became quite evident when the American President George Bush included Iran in the “Axis of Evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union speech. The same Administration designated Pakistan as the US’s closest non-NATO ally. All these happened when Iran was cooperating with the US in the aftermath of 9/11.
Undeterred by the American threat, Iran continued to invest in Afghan reconstruction activities. It made concerted efforts at diverting much of its aid towards infrastructure projects mainly which would help it establish transportation links between Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian states. Iran and Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan collaborated and guaranteed supply of electricity to Herat and parts of the northwestern provinces while Iran and Tajikistan planned a joint dam project for the production of hydroelectric power.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama although came up with his fresh approach towards Iran in his attempt to reset relations and successfully clinched a nuclear deal, he was witnessed saying that the new Administration had not changed the previous Administration’s characterization of Iran as a “profound threat to U.S. national security interests”.
The Administration under Obama’s leadership sought to enforce strategies which supported the opposition to the regime instead of promoting and strengthening current democratic trends within Iran. For instance, in the 2010 US budget, $67 million was appropriated for Iran democracy promotion ($19.6 million through DRL and $48.6 million through the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs/USAID). The US lent support to the democratic movements in the Arabic states with arms and aid under the rubric of “Arab Spring” to promote its geopolitical interests which threatened Iran’s national interests. In the Syrian context, it was argued that the US would welcome any movement claiming to be democratic to topple the Assad regime to break the Iran-Syria alliance even if the end result might be a fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood government.
The US continued arms sales to the Gulf States like Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia within the framework of Gulf Security Dialogue as part of its containment strategy. It was under the Obama’s leadership that the Department of Defense announced arms sales to these states totaling more than $4 billion. There were instances of an intensification of military contacts, visits and joint activities between NATO and the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Apart from this, the American continued policy of strengthening Israel emboldened the Iranian fear of encirclement. In this context of the American geopolitical gambits in the region, Iran not only continued to support the Arab countries’ aspiration for independent Palestine, it considered development of nuclear weapons as an effective instrument to bolster its security and contain American ambitions.
For long, Iran’s aspiration to become a regional power was also reflected in its attempt to become a nuclear power despite international sanctions. However, continued American sanctions robbed it of its resource capability to sustain its nuclear program and resulted in the 2015 nuclear deal which promised waiver of American sanctions in exchange for suspension of nuclear development program by Iran. Even while Iran followed the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Trump Administration reversed the deal and called for fresh sanctions on the ground that the deal did not deal with the menace of terrorism, missile programs and human rights abuse perpetrated by Iran.
In order to bolster its role in the larger region expanding from the Middle East to the Central Asian region where Afghanistan figures prominently Iran has been allegedly providing support to non-state militant groups like the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah with finance and arms to undercut American geopolitical aspirations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other areas of the region. Iran continued with its strategy of strengthening the Shiite sect and Hazara ethnic group in neighboring countries where they are a minority. For instance, in the 2010 parliamentary elections, Iran apparently provided monetary support to the Hazaras who gained considerable prominence and clout in the Afghan political scene. They won disproportionately far more seats in relation to their population.
Alleged Iranian role in bolstering Sunni groups like the Taliban and Hamas pointed to the fact that Tehran wanted to enhance its support-base cutting across religious and ethnic lines to challenge American hegemony in the region. It seems that Iran-US stand-off in Afghanistan as well as other areas ranging from the Middle East to the Central Region would continue so long as Washington does not recognize Iranian claims in the expanded region and Iran does not reconcile its ambitions with American geopolitical interests in the region.