Tehran meeting on Afghanistan underlines Iranian regional strategy

The Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry (Credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/siposoft, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report 2785-2598 Volume 12 Issue 14
Author: Silvia Boltuc

The meeting on Afghanistan organised in Tehran confirms the Iranian desire to have a major role in Afghan and regional dynamics and stressed how several Asian countries are strongly promoting greater regional cooperation that in the future might contrast Western local interests and presence.

On October 27th, 2021, the second Foreign Ministers meeting of neighbouring countries of Afghanistan was held in Tehran (Pakistan virtually hosted the previous one on September 8th, 2021). The Foreign Ministers of Iran, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and a representative from Russia attended the meeting whose goal was to promote an inclusive government and territorial integrity and sovereignty for Afghanistan.

The U.S. withdrawal, followed by Ashraf Ghani’s government collapse, left the country in a vast humanitarian, economic and socio-politic crisis. The Taliban takeover of control worries neighbouring countries and other regional actors because it represents a threat of extremism and terrorism diffusion that might involve the entire region.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian labelled the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan an invasion and he defined Washington and its allies as ‘bullying powers’ that have caused dramatic conditions in Afghanistan.  The Minister affirmed that regional actors must join forces and strive to create a more prosperous, secure, and stable environment, considering that no mechanism will last in-country without paying due to social and ethnic considerations and nuances. Furthermore, he underlined that a poor economy, low per capita income, the high rate of illiteracy and a lack of job skills are factors that impel individuals to join gangs and terrorist groups.

Geopolitical scenario

Iran has faced hard economic conditions due to the U.S. sanctions and the protracted failure of negotiations on the JCPOA. Therefore, Tehran has promoted a strategy focused on playing a major role in Eurasian dynamics and looking for new partners and markets.  The recent U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan offers Tehran the opportunity to promote its foreign policies that under Raisi’s leadership no longer intend to tolerate the interference of foreign actors in regional dynamics. Over the past year, Iran has pushed for the strengthening of bilateral ties with its natural neighbours, and the Afghan crisis is an occasion to impersonate a primary role and enhance collaboration with some key actors.

On the summit sidelines, Iran held bilateral meetings with target countries for its economy. Hossein Amir Abdollahian met his Uzbek counterpart Abdulaziz Kamilov and discussed economic cooperation between Tehran and Tashkent in the transit and energy sectors. Kamilov called to speed up a meeting of the Iran-Uzbekistan joint economic cooperation commission, declared Tashkent’s willingness to use the Iranian Chahbahar Port’s transit capacities (Geopolitica del porto iraniano di Chabahar), and suggested a three-way meeting between Iran, Uzbekistan and India to strengthen trilateral transit cooperation.

Abdollahian also met with his Turkmen counterpart, Rashid Meredov. The two countries are determined to upgrade their relations to a strategic level. One of the main topics on the discussion table between Iran and Turkmenistan was the latest developments related to the Caspian Sea and cooperation in transportation and transit, including road, rail and sea.

Moreover, the Iranian Foreign Minister met his Tajik counterpart Sirojiddin Muhriddin, emphasised the need to expand cooperation in all fields, describing the deep cultural and linguistic commonalities with Tajikistan as an essential capacity for bilateral cooperation. Abdollahian stressed furthermore that Iran and Tajikistan have close views on counterterrorism, extremism and separatism (Iran e Tagikistan rafforzano la cooperazione nei settori energia e sicurezza).

Iranian strategy in Afghanistan

Tehran’s meeting on Afghanistan highlighted the Iranian intention to play a leading role in regional dynamics and the resolution of the Afghan crisis. Under the leadership of President Raisi, the country has taken a more decisive line, less interested in coming to terms with Western pressures and determined to revive its economy by turning its attention to the Eurasian markets and corridors. In this regard, the participants in the meeting suggest which are the primary allies to which Tehran looks for. Iranian Foreign Minister stressed the historical, cultural, religious and geographical bonds between Asian countries whose commonalities in the region are much greater and stronger than their short-lived differences and grievances.

Furthermore, during the meeting, Iran calls on regional actors to exchange Intelligence on Afghanistan, demonstrating the need not only to cooperate but also to control each other and maintain a balance of powers within the country. In this regard, the participants agreed to create a mechanism for regular meetings of special envoys for Afghanistan and representatives of embassies in Kabul.

In addition, the foreign ministers agreed to hold the third round of Foreign Ministers meeting of neighbouring countries of Afghanistan in 2022 in China, underling Beijing’s willingness to establish itself as a leading actor in the Afghan scenario, being interested in including Afghanistan in the Belt and Road Initiative, as the country is a strategic regional corridor rich in natural resources, such as water and minerals.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov began his speech thanking the countries represented in the meeting to have had an active part in the recent Moscow format of consultations on Afghanistan, underlining the essential Russian part in the Afghan crisis’ stabilisation. In accordance with the Iranian political line, Lavrov called on Afghanistan’s neighbours to prevent U.S. and NATO forces from entering their territory, stressing once more that Russia will not accept the deployment of foreign military bases in Central Asia.

Conclusion

The recent meeting held in Tehran, rather than presenting developments on the Afghan question, reveals the involved actors’ strategies. If, on the one hand, they call for greater regional cooperation and integration of economic tools, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), demonstrating that they understand the benefits of a cohesive and stable continent, on the other hand, they pursue their national interests aiming to counter each other’s strategy in the race to establish itself as a regional superpower. The meeting confirms a progressive move away from the West and a solid anti-U.S. stance of some of the key Eurasian players. The Russian decision to take part in the Tehran meeting and not in the format proposed by the Western countries is de facto a stance that further distances the two blocs.