On January 7, 2019, two Iranian research organizations – Iran’s Supreme National Defense University and the Defense Diplomacy Strategic Studies Center (RAAD) – held a conference under the banner, “The International Conference for the Protection and Safety of Western Asia.” Among other things, it dealt with the struggle against extremist organizations and solving regional conflicts. Political and defense bodies from Asia and Europe attended the conference, alongside Iranian senior officials, including Hassan Firouzabadi, former Iranian chief of staff; Ahmad Vahidi, defense minister in the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former commanding officer of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; and Ali Shamkhani, representative, leader, and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.
Meetings with the Taliban
The participants discussed the solution to regional conflicts and primarily “ways to put an end to the intervention of the United States and Israel in the region.” During the discussions on Afghanistan, Shamkhani confirmed that he had met with representatives of the Taliban in that country at the end of December 2018 in an attempt to advance peace talks there. However, he dismissed the possibility that Iran was holding contacts with the jihadi organizations, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.1 He even expressed concern about the entrenchment of ISIS in Afghanistan and warned against a similar scenario in Syria and Iraq.
Iran is concerned by the contacts held in the middle of December in Abu Dhabi between the United States and the Taliban, attended by representatives from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (where the Taliban leaders have found refuge and a base for their activities in Afghanistan). Contacts were advanced between the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban. Meanwhile, another round of U.S.-Taliban talks, scheduled to be held in Doha on January 9-10, 2019, have been postponed indefinitely. Khalilzad will lead an inter-agency delegation to India, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan from January 8 to January 21.
Following these discussions, several Iranian elements also held meetings with the leaders of the Taliban in Tehran and Afghanistan, and Tehran has stated that these will continue.
During his visit, Shamkhani also met with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, and former President Hamid Karzai. The Afghani officials knew about the meeting with the Taliban. According to the Iranian and Afghan media, collaboration on terror and bilateral issues were discussed at the meeting.2 During the meeting with Karzai, Shamkhani said that the U.S. presence in the region was the source of its instability.3 Karzai for his part maintained that Iran’s connection with the Taliban would have a favorable result for Afghanistan.4
A short time after Shamkhani’s visit to Afghanistan, a Taliban delegation arrived in Tehran, where it met on December 30, 2018 with Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Abbas Araqchi, with the knowledge of the Afghan government. The head of President Rouhani’s office, Mahmoud Vaezi, confirmed that the meeting took place. He said that Iran had coordinated it with the Afghan government, and Iran was not the only country to meet with the Taliban. According to Vaezi, Iran is concerned about the spread of instability in Afghanistan into its territory and is interested in galvanizing the peace process in that country.5
The United States is interested in promoting dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban in order to find a political solution for the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan. The Taliban is insisting on the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country before it joins any peace process. The Taliban recently announced that it has absolute control over 61 out of the country’s 407 provinces, and it will continue with its struggle to gain control over the rest of the provinces. At the same time, it reported that the extent of government control or influence over the remaining provinces stood at slightly over half. In this context, former U.S. diplomats warned that Trump’s statements about reducing U.S. forces in Afghanistan could complicate attempts to achieve peace, as well as Khalilzad’s efforts in this regard.6
Shamkhani: U.S. Elements Want to Meet with Me
Shamkhani rejected all of the American claims that Iran has asked to conduct talks with the United States. He said that it was specifically the United States that “has asked me twice during my last visit to Afghanistan to hold talks with it.” But he refused “because of the U.S. tendency to violate international law, as well as its obligations, for example, the nuclear deal.” Shamkhani added that as a result of the U.S. decision to withdraw its forces from Syria, Washington did not fulfill a significant role in the defeat of ISIS in Syria, while it played a negative part in Afghanistan and did not carry out any of its obligations to impose order and peace to that country. In fact, the current situation there demanded its withdrawal also from Afghanistan so that it would gain security.
Confrontations and Discord
Iran’s activities in Afghanistan are being managed in two primary ways. On the one hand, it is trying to be seen as a moderate mediator who is holding contacts with the government and the Taliban to promote peace and stability. On the other hand, it continues to provide military equipment to various elements and carry out confrontations on Afghan soil, as Afghan defense services and U.S. elements have discovered. The leader of the campaign for the war on terror at the Herat police district bordering Iran recently accused Iran of being behind the assassination of Afghan merchants and security personnel. According to him, the Iranian consul in the city is guiding the Revolutionary Guards who are behind 80 percent of the murders in the province. Other Afghan sources have claimed that Iran is trying to sow discord between the country’s various ethnic groups.
American sources and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan accuse Iran of assisting various organizations in striking at the U.S. forces stationed in Afghanistan and have even provided them with weaponry.7
The U.S. Department of Treasury stated (October 2018):
The United States and our partners will not tolerate the Iranian regime exploiting Afghanistan to further their destabilizing behavior. Iran’s support to the Taliban stands in stark violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions and epitomizes the regime’s utter disregard for fundamental international norms… We will continue to actively target those providing financial support to the Taliban until there is a negotiated peace settlement. The inclusion of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF) members supporting Taliban elements in this action highlights the scope of the Iranian regime’s malign activities and regionally destabilizing behavior, and furthers the U.S. maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
An Attempt to Influence the Agreement Taking Shape
Against the backdrop of intensified contacts from Washington to advance peace efforts in Afghanistan, Iranian officials and members of the Afghan government and the Taliban will soon meet. Iran is interested in being part of the arrangements taking shape in its own backyard – Afghanistan. In the future, these arrangements may have a direct effect upon Iranian security interests on the sensitive border, and Iran is passing on messages that it can also affect (also negatively) the main players and processes in that country. As mentioned earlier, behind the scenes Iran is continuing, by means of the Revolutionary Guards and its intelligence services, to conduct subversive activity and to strike against various elements in Afghanistan, especially in the regions close to the border, for its own religious-ethnic, economic, political, and security interests.
In any case, even if the peace process eventually does get started, the road to achieve it will be long and convoluted. It will also need to take into account the interests of Iran and Russia, which held a conference in 2018 on the issue of peace in Afghanistan, attended by representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban, and ended in failure. In addition, the president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan said during a press conference with the head of Pakistan’s government on January 4, 2019, that he intended to host the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan in Istanbul in March 2019 in order to advance peace in Afghanistan. Many regional elements with conflicting interests continue to meddle in Afghanistan’s burning affairs. Trump’s announcement that he was considering reducing the American presence in Afghanistan has injected an additional dimension of urgency. In any case, Iran is interested in cutting through the bonds of the “siege” and the U.S. influence over its immediate strategic surroundings. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the planned withdrawal from Syria, and the possible reduction in the U.S. presence in Afghanistan are perceived in Iran as another “Divine intervention” and shows that its determination and subversive activities in various places lead to results.
Iran is primarily concerned about the increased presence of ISIS in Afghanistan and the possibility of the arrival of other activists, particularly in the wake of several “show” attacks that the organization has carried out in Iran. Similarly, Iran believes that the arrangement of the intervention of its prominent rivals and competitors – the United States, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Turkey – and its own absence will not advance the issues related to its shared border with Afghanistan (particularly with regard to the crossing of terrorists and drugs into its territory). With this in the background, Tehran will continue with its policy to assist various terrorist elements against the Afghan administration and the Western forces working in that country, all the while presenting itself as a mediator between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan.
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