India and Iran Will Have Their Hands Full on Afghanistan

Aryaman Bhatnagar

Iran’s newly minted president, Ebrahim Raisi, declared during a meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar earlier this month that “Iran and India can play a constructive and useful role in ensuring security in the region, especially Afghanistan.” Raisi went on to claim that “Tehran welcomes New Delhi’s role in establishment of security in Afghanistan.”

Jaishankar’s two-day visit to Iran to attend Raisi’s inauguration ceremony on Aug. 5  underscored New Delhi’s recent push to deepen engagement with Tehran. This was Jaishankar’s second visit to the country in less than a month. In between the two trips, he also held telephone calls with his outgoing Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif.

While the two sides discussed many aspects of the bilateral relationship during these interactions, their main focus was on Afghanistan, where events have unfolded at a head-spinning pace. Jaishankar’s trip this month coincided with the beginning of the Taliban’s astonishing sweep across Afghanistan, capturing nearly all of the country’s provincial capitals in a matter of days. The blitz culminated in the insurgents entering Kabul over the weekend, quickly followed by the collapse of the Afghan government. The nature of the administration that will replace it—whether it is a repeat of the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate that ruled the country prior to the U.S. invasion in 2001 or a Taliban-dominated government formed after negotiations with other Afghan stakeholders—remains unclear for now. 

Given the rapid developments, every country will be forced to rethink their policy toward Afghanistan. For India, the options are limited. While it may opt for a passive approach, waiting for greater clarity as the situation is still unfolding, India could also intensify its consultations on Afghanistan with like-minded countries. Lacking any capacity to unilaterally influence the situation on the ground there, New Delhi needs partners in Afghanistan. Cooperation with China and Pakistan is a nonstarter, and the U.S. and its NATO allies are in retreat. While Russia is a close historical partner for India, Moscow is generally looking to Pakistan to help safeguard its interests in Afghanistan, reducing the prospects for closer collaboration with India. That leaves Iran as India’s most important ally on Afghanistan, as some analysts have suggested, even though this potential partnership has its limitations—made even more challenging now.

There is indeed a strong convergence of interests between the two countries. Both India and Iran desire a stable Afghanistan run by an inclusive government, one that is neither dominated by the Taliban nor under Pakistan’s thumb. Both then have reason to be wary of the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. India fears that such a scenario will prompt a repeat of the 1990s, when, under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a haven for anti-India terror groups supported by the Pakistani military establishment. Iran, on the other hand, nearly went to war with the Taliban in 1998 following the group’s massacre of Iranian diplomats after it captured Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan. Despite their recent engagement with each other, Shiite-majority Iran fears that the Sunni extremist Taliban will harbor other like-minded outfits that could use Afghanistan as a base to attack it. Tehran is also concerned about the plight of the Shiite minority in Afghanistan and the potential for a spike in narcotics trafficking across the porous, 572-mile border between the two countries.

Iran could be India’s most important ally on Afghanistan, even though this potential partnership has its limitations—made even more challenging now.

For India, Iran’s biggest draw has always been geography. Lacking a border with Afghanistan, and with Pakistan denying overland access, India has always viewed Iran as a viable entry point to Afghanistan and beyond, to the markets and mineral riches of Central Asia. To leverage this advantage, New Delhi and Tehran have worked together to develop and upgrade the Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran. India has long hoped to sell Chabahar as an alternative sea access point for Afghanistan, reducing the landlocked country’s economic dependence on Pakistan’s ports. Despite Chabahar’s strategic importance, though, its progress has been slow. New Delhi blames Iran for the delays, but the threat of U.S. sanctions also derailed India’s involvement. While the port was officially exempted from sanctions, India remained wary given former President Donald Trump’s hostility toward Iran. India has so far disbursed only a limited amount of the $500 million earmarked for the port’s development and struggled to involve its private sector in the project.

The Taliban’s ascent to power puts Chabahar’s utility as a “secure, viable and unhindered access to the sea for Central Asian countries,” as Jaishankar put it last month—as well as Afghanistan’s broader potential as a gateway to Central Asia—on hold for the time being. Before the fall of Kabul, the insurgents had managed to capture several border crossings with Iran, as well as the capitals of all three provinces neighboring the country: Herat, Farah and Nimruz. Iran has been forced to shut its borders with Afghanistan, potentially cutting off annual trade worth nearly $2 billion. The Taliban’s control of Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province, is particularly critical given the city’s status as an important hub on the Chabahar transport route. The Indian-constructed highway from Zaranj to Delaram, in northern Nimruz, connects the Iran-Afghanistan border with the Kandahar-Herat highway, and from there to other major Afghan urban centers. In the longer term, India is concerned that a Taliban-dominated government would increase Afghanistan’s trade via the Pakistani ports of Karachi and Gwadar rather than Chabahar.

This means that instead of promoting regional integration, India may turn to Iran in order to explore possibilities for jointly dealing with the resurgent Taliban. This may seem like an obvious solution given that during the 1990s, New Delhi and Tehran, in partnership with Moscow, extended political, military and financial assistance to the Northern Alliance, a group of Afghan leaders then fighting the Taliban government. However, Iran’s ties with the Taliban have significantly evolved since then, as Tehran has carefully cultivated ties with the group over the past decade, despite some apprehension. This has included the supply of weapons to the insurgents to balance the U.S. presence in the region and, more recently, diplomatic engagement with the Taliban in anticipation of their return to power.

Tehran may be willing to hedge its bets for the moment and keep its channels open with them, hoping that its past engagement may ensure some security for its interests in Afghanistan, and possibly even a mutual co-existence. New Delhi itself seems to have reached out to the Taliban in recent months, realizing that it needs to engage all Afghan actors. But India also remains the most reluctant, among all regional countries, about engaging the insurgents, let alone recognizing their government. Its engagement with the group thus far has been tenuous, with the Taliban seemingly unwilling or unable to reciprocate New Delhi’s outreach.  

Iran nonetheless is likely to keep military options open against the Taliban, in case their ties sour. India too may be willing to support a local Afghan resistance in the future. However, unlike in the past, India and Iran may struggle to find common ground. The erstwhile Northern Alliance is struggling to unite, as many of the country’s warlords have been captured or have fled the country, so Iran may turn to the Fatemiyoun Division, a group of Afghan Shiite fighters that it trained, to fight the Taliban. Tehran has previously deployed these fighters in Syria, and has indicated its willingness to use this group in Afghanistan. While the proposal was rebuffed by the then-Afghan government, Iran could still potentially deploy it unilaterally at a later stage depending on the situation. India, on the other hand, seems to prefer a more broad-based alliance against the Taliban. New Delhi will be concerned that the use of the Fatemiyoun carries the risk of fueling sectarian violence in Afghanistan, which could cause further instability.

The challenges on the Afghanistan front could also have a broader impact on India-Iran bilateral ties. India had hoped that Jaishankar’s recent diplomatic outreach to Iran would help reset bilateral ties that have been strained over the past few years, mostly because of their completely contrasting approaches to the United States. India has found it difficult to maintain a balance in its relations with the two rivals, often curtailing its engagement with Iran due to the threat of U.S. sanctions. To complicate matters more, Iran recently signed a 25-year strategic agreement with China, India’s main strategic adversary, while New Delhi has strengthened its strategic ties with Tehran’s regional rivals, namely Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Afghanistan had provided, and perhaps still does, the most viable avenue for bilateral cooperation between India and Iran, with Iran also seemingly willing to engage with India on this issue. But whether it can evolve into an effective partnership while simultaneously helping improve India-Iran ties remains in doubt.

Aryaman Bhatnagar is a foreign policy analyst based in India. He tweets at @aryaman89.

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