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Iran’s Strategy In Afghanistan Faces Many Challenges – OpEd

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By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami*

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It is arguable that Iran is of particular importance for the Taliban — at least at the present time — given that the international community has yet to recognize the group as the de facto ruler of Afghanistan and Tehran is ready to offer it the necessary support and cooperate with it in all fields, particularly commercial and economic, as well as in relation to energy supplies.

For Iran, however, Afghanistan is of critical importance in both the short and long term. This is because of the issues that are closely intertwined with its own security and stability, such as countering the threats posed by terrorist outfits, stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers, ending drug smuggling, and resolving disputes related to the construction of dams and water sharing between the two countries.

Since the Taliban reassumed power in the country last summer, Iran has intensified its efforts to create a supportive atmosphere in Afghanistan to enable it to maintain its interests in Kabul. At the same time, however, Iran fears that strengthened ties with the Taliban will make Afghanistan the source and center of greater pressure on it. It seems that, overall, Iranian efforts to initiate confidence-building measures with the Taliban and forge closer ties with the group could soon face more challenges and crises.

Tensions between the two countries over water resources were heightened when Afghanistan built the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River, located on the border between the two countries. This river, which is considered the most important water source for Afghanistan, is also one of the most crucial tributaries flowing into the Hamun Lake, whose shores are situated in both Iran and Afghanistan. Tehran believes the establishment of this dam will reduce the flow of water into Iranian territories, especially in Sistan and Balochistan Province. As a result of this concern, Tehran has continued to exert pressure on Afghanistan to release the water behind the dam. Increasing tensions over ever more scarce water resources have, in recent times, triggered fierce clashes between Iranian and Afghan forces. These could easily have escalated into a genuine crisis if the two countries had not taken rapid action to contain them.

Another challenge that could obstruct Tehran’s efforts at promoting greater openness with Afghanistan is the question of Afghan refugees in Iran. This issue has overshadowed relations between the two countries since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which prompted millions of Afghans to flee across the border. Due to the relative political and economic stability Afghanistan witnessed in the subsequent years, particularly when compared with the mistreatment and dire economic conditions suffered by Afghan refugees in Iran in the same period, most returned home.

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After the withdrawal of US forces and the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, however, the number of Afghan refugees doubled, hitting 5 million, according to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Iranian officials and the public believe that this enormous number of refugees places a great economic and security burden on the country, especially considering the deteriorating economic and living conditions being experienced due to US sanctions.

This issue ratcheted up tensions between the two countries after an Afghan refugee was this month accused of killing two Iranian clerics in the city of Mashhad. This incident sparked new waves of violence against Afghans in Iran, with video footage showing several refugees being beaten and insulted, arrested on false charges and sent to live in squalid camps, where they are detained in dreadful conditions and face horrendous mistreatment. Tehran insists, however, that the footage and reports are fabricated and aim to sabotage relations between the two countries.

Despite Iran’s assurances, such incidents prompted the Afghan Foreign Ministry to express its concern about the situation faced by Afghan refugees in Iran and call on Tehran to issue the necessary instructions to its security services to ensure their proper treatment. In Kabul, demonstrations were held in front of the Iranian Embassy in protest at the beatings and brutal persecution faced by Afghan refugees in Iran. In the city of Herat, protesters hurled stones at the Iranian Consulate, set fire to its main gate and destroyed surveillance cameras. Although the Taliban had, in September 2021, banned any unlicensed demonstrations throughout Afghanistan, they turned a blind eye to the protests in Herat and Kabul.

All these points indicate increased tensions in the relationship between the two countries and suggest that the Taliban are dissatisfied with Iran’s handling of several issues that concern both countries, including the issue of refugees. It also seems that the Taliban are intent on taking steps to counter Iranian influence in Afghanistan. In mid-April, the Afghan security forces arrested and interrogated Yarmohammad Rahmati, the head of the Tebyan cultural center in Kabul. Two days before his arrest, he participated in a gathering in front of the Iranian Embassy to defend what he called the strong and amicable relations between Iran and Afghanistan. While the Taliban did not disclose the reason for Rahmati’s arrest, the move signaled the group’s opposition to that recent gathering, during which flowers were scattered in front of the Iranian Embassy. Some Afghan analysts also suggest that the group is suspicious of the center’s activities, given its Iranian backing.

In addition to these challenges, Pashtuns, who make up the majority of the Afghan population, strongly distrust Iran and often work to impede its tireless efforts at extending its influence in the country. Even the Hazaras, strongly backed by Iran due to their common cultural, sectarian and linguistic denominators, could resort to changing their policies toward Tehran to stave off disputes with the Taliban and militant groups that recently targeted their educational centers in Kabul. The Hazaras may seek to change the widespread impression among the Afghan public that they are Iran’s proxies, serving its interests and implementing its agenda in Afghanistan.

Iran, which is keen to forge stable relations with its eastern neighbor, has thus far resorted to diplomatic channels to contain the crisis. It has already begun blaming enemies for the tensions between the two countries, including accusing the Iranian opposition Mujahedin-e-Khalq movement of posting fabricated videos about the mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran, as well as blaming regional and Western powers for fueling the tensions between Iran and Afghanistan.

However, Iran’s insistence on a government in Kabul that includes all Afghan factions as a condition for its recognition of the Taliban — in addition to some Iranian officials ratcheting up hostile rhetoric against the Taliban, accusing the group of being inefficient administrators, especially after the recent bombings that targeted the Hazaras — may further complicate the crisis and create additional divisions and disunity in relations between the two countries.

  • Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami

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Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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