Iran’s ambiguous attitude towards the Taliban, “the West” and “the East”

Iran and Afghanistan in the focus of attention (source: Pixabay, CC0)

The foreign policy ambiguity in Iran is mixed with an large diversity of internal crises

The Cross-border Talks

The second segment of the third episode of Cross-border Talks deals with the Iranian attitude towards the takeover of power in Afghanistan by the Taliban, which happened in August 2021. It also studies the recalibration of the Iranian foreign policy following the start of the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi and its relative orientation towards what Iran considers “The East” and the region. Also, the issue of the negotiations in Vienna over the renewal of the nuclear deal between Iran and the international community is reviewed. Finally, the discussions deal with the various crises in the country: the economic, social, medical, corona crisis and water shortages. In an international system focused on power relations, the Iranian people are paying the price on one hand for Iran’s tendency for strict control over domestic affairs and being part of “the axis of resistance”, and also for the economic warfare against the country coming from leading countries in the West. 

This video was released on 24 August 2021. Subscribe to the YouTube channel of the Cross-border Talks podcast here

Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat: Welcome to Cross-border Talks again. We are staying in Central Asia, still looking at Afghanistan, like most of the world community is now doing, and in this part we are going to discuss reactions to Afghani events as seen as one of its key neighbors. It is the country that had not only watched cautiously the outcome of events but also made itself ready for different scenarios. I’m talking about Iran, as you might have already guessed, country which, apart from being involved in regional power games, has also been undergoing a kind of political transition: Iran held its presidential elections this year and the procedure of accepting to government ministers is under undergoing just now, when we are doing this recording. I am going to ask questions to Vladimir Mitev, my colleague who has devoted a good deal of his journalist work to Iran and its relations with neighbours. Hello, Vladimir again!

Vladimir Mitev: Hello, Malgorzata!

And for those who are not yet our subscribers, please don’t forget, subscribe to Cross-border Talks channel at YouTube. So, Vladimir, what were the initial reactions of the Iranian government after a fall?

I believe that Iran as a neighbour of Afghanistan is studying the situation very carefully and in fact, in my view, the official reaction is not coming yet. There are quite many things that need to happen. We see that now the Taliban have given a deadline that foreign troops must leave the country. The Kabul airport is still not cleared, and my guess is that the Iranian officials or the elites of the country are carefully observing what is the situation in Afghanistan around, about what happens with the community of Afghanistan, what happens with the Tajik community, which speaks the same language as the language in Iran, and we know that there is some kind of resistance in the Panjshir Valley. And this is another issue which has to be, I guess, understood before coming out with some positioning on the part of Iran.

But of course we heard, and there were even speculations, that we heard the newly sworn-in president of Iran, saying something which in some views is an endorsement of the Taliban. In other views it is rather an endorsement of the reality, the fact that when you have a neighbour you need to be able to speak to its government and if there is a change, this change must be respected. So that is one thing.

In my view, Iranians are still studying the situation of the country, the foreign policy and the situation. I believe also Iran is a country which has a great complexity, internal complexity. Maybe our readers, listeners, viewers, are aware that it is a country which basically has two armies and that suggests certain complex balance of forces within the country. There is one army which is, which deals with the national boundaries of the country, and there is another which is more loyal to the religious element of the country – the Revolutionary Guards.

Plus, there are divisions in the Iranian society with regard to the Taliban. In the past there have been clashes, there have been misgivings between Shias in Afghanistan and the Taliban and I believe for a number of Iranians the Taliban don’t have a good image.

There were even, I would say, very tragic points in the common history. For instance, it is still remembered in Iran how, in August 1998, the Taliban captured the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and killed 11 Iranian diplomats and Iranian journalists in the Iranian consulates there. So why now the Iranians are signaling that they would like to work with the new Afghan government? Is it pure realism or some more hope? Or perhaps it is a part of the Turn to the East in iranian foreign policy?

I need to remind you that just this summer Tehran, the capital of Iran, was host to a meeting between the Afghan government, which used to be ruling the country until recently, and a group of the Taliban. They were negotiating over the future character of power or essence of power in Afghanistan and they were negotiating on possible inclusion of Taliban in the power, this process of the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan. It has been going on for quite some time and let me just remind you that on the 29th of February 2020 the USA signed The Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan with the Taliban. It was an initiative which started under Trump. 

So these are processes which are not starting to happen right now. We may have the feeling it’s something extraordinary or very fast, but these processes have been preparing for some time and the Iranian state, of course, in my view, is interested to have some knowledge or control so that it can exert some influence on what is going on in Afghanistan, including among the Taliban. For a simple reason: if Iran remains away from discussions with the Taliban or doesn’t engage the Taliban, they may take a direction against Iran or against the Shia community in Afghanistan, against the allies of Iran of whatever type, including the economic allies. So that is one reason: pragmatism.

Iranians, I think on one hand, judging from the analysts, they fear that Afganistan can get destabilized, there might be civil war, it might be a trap. In short, there is a fear on one side, that Iran may get involved in a never-ending war in Afghanistan which can drain resources and can lead to suffering and casualties, just like Turkey got involved in Syria. In a way we know that after Syria was destabilized, Turkey got involved in this war there. So that’s one thing. But also the other thing is that the Taliban: there have been a lot of discussions whether they are the same Taliban as 20 years ago or they have somehow changed. We see the image they try to portray, a certain image a little bit more open to modern relations with the world. But also importantly, there are signs that they are more open to the Shia community of Afghanistan. And one guess we can make is that it is also the Iranian influence over the Taliban or negotiations which Iran has been doing for some time with them, that somehow changes the attitude towards the Shia community of Afghanistan.

Finally I need to say that it looks like the Revolutionary Guard will be the power structure, which will be conducting an important part of the relations with the Taliban, and that is. because it is the army which has this capacity to move abroad. We know that it has participated in Syria and it has also been building a coalition of powers among the communities in the whole region of the large Middle East. Curiously or importantly, Esmail Qaani, the leader of the Quds Force, which is the special unit of the Revolutionary Guard, has been very active in Afghanistan for decades, so he knows the region well. He is, I believe, known also by a number of Afghanistan powerbrokers, if I may say so.

There are a number of prerequisites, both international and regional, in Iran, between Iran and Afghanistan or between Iran and the Taliban that somehow lead to this development. But I believe it’s not only the Taliban in Iran. This complexity of the Iranian state will mean also that with one hand maybe it will be doing some business with the Taliban, given that they will form the future government, but with the other hand maybe it would be again looking for allies among those forces that oppose the Taliban. And we know that in the previous life of the Taliban, when they were resisted by the Tajik community. It is widely commented that this Shia community was maybe also receiving support from Iran.

From what you say, I can assume that different power centers in Iran are preparing for different options in future relations with Afghanistan, the advocates of different ways of behaving towards their neighbor. And now I wanted to ask for a little bit of a wider picture, because the relations with a neighbor to neighbor are always a part of a bigger foreign policy that is led by a country. So do we expect in Iran a bigger turn to the East and what will be the country’s relations with China and Russia?

Let me start first of all that the Rouhani government, especially the first government of Rouhani, which started in 2013 had more ministers with PhDs from American Universities than those in the administration of Obama. Imagine: it was a government that represented a real opening to the West. 

This opening was rejected by Trump, who came in power later in 2017. As a result, sanctions on Iran were reimposed. This change of policy by the USA somehow affirmed the understanding that Iran should look for other directions, for realisations of its interests. But I’m certain that those people who wanted the opening to the West remain in Iran.

So maybe it’s not exactly right to say there is game over for this pro-Western policy. But also the world is changing. And now we see that the USA is withdrawing from Afghanistan. And that happens while China is rising. I guess, those people who make foreign policy in Iran, are observing a number of tendencies in the world and maybe they notice that if we simplify the options as the East and the West, the East seems to be rising, especially in the region of the Middle East. So in this context we see that there is a proposal for a foreign minister, Amri Abollahian, who is related to the Revolutionary Guard. It’s been widely discussed in the Western press that he is not so fond of policies opened towards the West. He is more interested in engaging the large countries of the East and also he made some statements that Iran should be active in the region.

These approaches seem to be closer to the understanding of the Revolutionary Guard. It is more active in the region of the Middle East, building a network of alliances. And maybe that tendency could be also observed in the fact that recently, just maybe one week ago or ten days ago, there was an article in the Tehran Times, which suggested that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could be ready for accepting Iran. And we know that this is a security organization which is led mostly by Russia and China. It also has India and Pakistan as members, as well as the Central Asian countries. 

As I said, Iranian politics is I believe ambiguous and it lies in a constant, careful balancing. At least maybe that’s my impression. But now the course and the policy seems to be leaning towards the East. We need to say that the Iranian middle class, in my view at least, is very open to the European Union and we know that the Iranian Intellectuals have good knowledge and contacts with the West. So we need to be very careful when judging when the direction of a certain country.

And could you give us a balanced opinion on what is going on with regard to the nuclear programme of Iran? Because you said that this is not game over for Iranians’ turn to the West. Just a few days ago the foreign ministers of France, Germany and the United Kingdom expressed concern about Iran’s atomic activities and called for negotiations instead of establishing facts on-the-ground. That’s what they said. So what is the future for the nuclear deal with Iran?

I need to remind once again that Iran was fully complying with nuclear agreement which was signed in 2015, and it was the USA which left this agreement and imposed sanctions inflicting a big social price on the Iranian people. In this context, the administration of Biden came to power. It had a few months in which it could have acted, maybe boldly, to renew the nuclear agreement with the previous administration of Rouhani, but we see that this didn’t happen. The nuclear agreement’s renewal didn’t start immediately after Biden came into office. As a result of that, the nuclear program of Iran is a function of the Vienna negotiations, which are now stopped and obviously they have to be continued with the new administration of Raisi.

However, we need to be aware that the supreme leader of Iran is the one who approves all the decisions and I believe there must be certain internal agreement within the Iranian elites about the course which will be followed in Vienna, given that the president has just changed. Rouhani was replaced with Raissi. Now, with this crisis in Afghanistan, I guess things become even more complex.

There is another issue in Iran’s relations with the West. There are some suggestions that Iran may start hosting even more refugees from Afghanistan. According to the official data of the United Nations, it costs 3,5 million Afghan refugees. Let us see whether there will not be some negotiations around the idea that Iran takes in more refugees but also become something like a partner in taking care of them. And all that is in fact a very complex process of negotiations between various entities. We also know that the European Union is a complex organization, so I think I can not be more specific right now. There are just too many crises going on.

As the events are going on fast and now we don’t have much time to talk in detail about Iran’s domestic policy or social situation, nevertheless I wanted us to discuss for a moment the big social price that this society, the Iranian society, is paying for American sanctions that you mentioned. Not far ago we witnessed another wave of protests in Iran and some of the Western analysts went as far as to predict the collapse of Islamic Republic, which in my opinion, is definitely a far-fetched conclusion. Nevertheless, can you tell us a little bit more about the current situation of Iranian society and the social crisis that you mentioned?

Iran has been paying a large price on a number of indicators dimensions. For example, medicines have become too costly and various illnesses have been difficult to be treated in Iran, even if those medicines are relatively accessible on international markets. But their price have increased for Iran, because sanctions prevent it from direct acquisition. They must be somehow obtained through a more complex processes on international markets. That is just regarding the social price.

But also Iranian economy has been hit. A number of factories have not been working or the oil has not been exported in sufficient quantities for the country to have money for its needs or services. And on top of that we have the coronacrisis. In August we saw that the official number of victims, people who have died out of coronacrisis, has reached 100 000. There are also opinions, I think, even on the Iranian side, that this is the official number, but the real number is much higher. And on top of that Iran also has a very dry year, which means that the rainfall is much smaller than previous years. That leads to situations in which zones, various zones of the country, have no water. And maybe our listeners and viewers are aware that in July there were protests over water shortages in Iran. That is another existential issue, maybe even more important than those related to the security, I mean the military security of Iran. 

There is a general tendency, as we know, of climate change. It is already felt strongly in Iran. The water is insufficient. So I would just say that all those crises, in my view, require greater international cooperation, and that means that relations with Iran or between Iran and the world should not be seen only as power relations. There must also be interest towards the people of Iran and the human price they’re paying for the fact that they are in Iran and there.

Well, nevertheless, for decades the US in particular paid no attention to the suffering of Iranian people that was caused by the sanctions. So you expect that now, with the climate change, with the climate crisis of global scale, something could happen?

I must always be optimistic. I mean if we don’t believe that something will happen and change in international relations, they become very gruesome and even pointless. I believe even our podcast is in a way made to promote certain change. So we need to make an appeal to any party that participates in international relations to take care not only of art, politics or power play in international relations, but also to understand that we are mortal and we have limited resources and we are vulnerable, et cetera. There must be also human touch to international relations.

Indeed, the word would be a much better place if the human dimension was not lost from sight and if we cared. We and the politicians we elect cared not only about hard geopolitical and power games.

Well, with this surprisingly optimistic appeal, I think we might finish our talk. I’m sure we will be returning to Iranian topics, as Vladimir is really an expert on the subject. We will discuss more details of the situation in Central Asia as the events progress, and I thank you very much for those, to those who are listening to us, forget to subscribe to crossborder talks and see you again.

Photo: An August 2021 article from the Washington Post (source: screenshot)

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