Iran and Pakistan’s Policy Outlook: From Afghanistan to Caucasus
The takeover of Taliban in Afghanistan has been impacting the geopolitical calculus of all regional stakeholders. It is increasingly clear that except Tajikistan, all Afghan neighboring countries are not greatly perturbed by this seismic change within Afghanistan and are gradually adjusting to the new reality. Yet on the geopolitical scale, there are those who are relatively better placed vis-à-vis this new political chessboard in Afghanistan, and Pakistan with its historic linkages with the Taliban is a case in this regard.
On the other hand, regional actors, particularly Iran, may not have opposed the developments of the last four months but are nonetheless cautious of the monopolization of power by Taliban and the resultantly greater leverage of Pakistan. This was apparent when Iranian foreign office spokesperson indirectly criticized Pakistan for its so-called military intervention in Panjshir on behalf of the Taliban and against the national resistance front of Ahmad Massoud. Still, statements coming from Tehran need to be viewed in the backdrop of changes in Iran’s greater neighborhoods ranging from Afghanistan to the Southern Caucasus. As Pakistan and Iran’s foreign policies diverge in both theaters, there will be an impact upon the nature of the Pakistan-Iran relationship which has yet to recover fully from the Kulbhushan Jhadav episode of 2014.
Historically, Iran had backed the Northern Alliance groups against the Pakistani backed Taliban in Afghanistan. However, after the American invasion of Afghanistan that led to the demise of the Taliban regime, Iranian authorities started to engage with the militant group and developed a tacit relationship with local Taliban commanders and operatives active in Afghanistan’s south and southwest. As an intra-Taliban feud emerged between some local commanders and central leadership loyalists in western Afghanistan, Iran preferred to back the loyalist cadres against the rebels.
Statements coming from Tehran need to be viewed in the backdrop of changes in Iran’s greater neighborhoods ranging from Afghanistan to the Southern Caucasus.
In this manner, mutual goodwill increased between the two sides. However, with the Taliban now in power, Tehran will be increasingly judging them in terms of their treatment of minorities, particularly the Shi’ite Hazaras, a group that remains exceptionally close to Iran. Hazara militiamen from Afghanistan have been recruited by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to fight in Syria under the banner head of Fatemiyoun brigade. Additionally, Iran will be keen to see more representation of those Talib figureheads in the government that have worked closely with Iranian authorities in the past. The appointment of Mullah Ibrahim Sadr and Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir as the deputy minister for interior and defense respectively might serve this purpose. For now, probably both sides are adopting a wait and see approach, but this may change in the long term if Iran concludes that under the Taliban its political, economic and religious interests in Afghanistan are not served.
Geopolitical uncertainties along the eastern borders are not the only concern for Iran. Developments on Iran’s northern border alongside Azerbaijan and Armenia have been complicating matters further for Tehran and present it with a new set of strategic challenges. As the conflict heated up between Azerbaijan and Armenia last year, Azerbaijani forces were able to retake a sizable chunk of the Nagorno-Karabakh region alongside its other lost territories.
With Azerbaijan now in control of its southern districts of Fuzuli and Jabrayil, its border with Iran has also increased in length but most critically, Azerbaijan under the auspices of the cease-fire agreement is trying to develop a direct connection with its enclave of Nakhchivan through the Zangezur corridor from the Armenian region of Syunik. This Armenian region now remains the only physical connection between Iran and Armenia, a route that frees Iran of connecting with Europe without depending on Turkey or Azerbaijan. As Azerbaijani troops advanced within kilometers of Syunik region, they started blocking the movement of Iranian truck drivers, further complicating bilateral ties.
Furthermore, Iran says it is concerned with regards to Israeli activities within Azerbaijan. From an Iranian perspective, an increase in Azerbaijani control over its northern border means more openings for Israeli intelligence. Iran has alleged that the Israeli theft of sensitive material related to Iranian nuclear program in 2018 happened with Azerbaijan as the staging ground for the operation. Yet, Iran is not only concerned about Israel within Azerbaijan but also the growing proximity between Turkey, Pakistan and Azerbaijan and their military cooperation. An Iranian lawmaker also objected to the joint exercises of the special forces of the three countries.
In this state of affairs, allowing Balochi militants to use Iranian soil against Pakistan and Chinese interests in Pakistan will only aggravate Iran’s problems. And will further isolate it within its neighborhood.
- Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89