Will the US and Iran find common ground in Afghanistan?

Introduction

On July 7, 2021 Iran hosted talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban (the Taliban delegation was led by Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai). The same day, the Taliban attacked the Badghis provincial capital Qalat-i-Naw (Badghis is one of thirty-four provinces in Afghanistan). Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif emphatically stated that the Afghan people should decide their own future, while also stating that there was a major threat to security. As of Friday, the Taliban claimed to have captured 85% of Afghanistan’s territory (it is tough to verify such claims however).

Zarif also underscored the point that dialogue was the only option for finding a way out of the current imbroglio in Afghanistan:

…commitment to political solutions the best choice for Afghanistan’s leaders and political movements

Tehran, which shares a 945 kilometre border with Afghanistan, also hosts 3 million Afghan refugees and migrant workers, and has expressed its concern with regard to the growing turmoil in the country as a result of US withdrawal of troops.

Important symbolism

If one were to look beyond the Afghan-Iran bilateral relationship, as well as the fact that Tehran is likely to be impacted by events in Afghanistan, the meeting is an attempt by Iran to send out a message to Saudi Arabia (which for long has positioned itself as the key geopolitical player in the Middle East) and the US with regard to its geopolitical relevance.

Tehran’s ties with Riyadh have witnessed an upswing in recent months, with Saudi Arabia expressing its keenness to resolve bilateral issues. Senior officials from both countries met in Iraq in May. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a media interview in April 2021, clearly batted in favour of better Saudi-Iran ties, while not denying that differences did exist between both sides. Talks were held between Saudi and Iranian officials in April and May in Baghdad and are likely to shift to Oman.

Iran-US ties

Iran’s ties with the US under the President-elect Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner in comparison to outgoing president Hassan Rouhani, are likely to face more challenges (at least in the short run). The Biden administration had made attempts to rejoin the Iran Nuclear deal/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but it had limited time. (The US had signed in 2015, but the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.)

While the Iranian Presidential election was held in June, the Vienna negotiations (in which US participated indirectly) began only in April 2021. Some ice has been broken between Iran and the US, but no real outcome should be expected till August, when Raisi takes over. Iran’s announcement that it would begin producing enriched uranium metal has also drawn severe criticism from the E3 countries (France, Germany, and the UK) and could act as an impediment to the renewal of the JCPOA. It would also be pertinent to point out that, due to domestic pressures, it was very tough for both sides to move away from stated positions (while the US had said it would remove sanctions once Iran fully complies with the terms and conditions of the 2015 deal, Iran stated that it could only do so after US removed economic sanctions).

Need for US-Iran engagement on Afghanistan

Biden has shown pragmatism on a number of foreign policy issues. A strong example of this is how, in spite of his criticism of Russia, he has not refrained from engagement and finding common ground with Moscow. Similarly, realising Turkey’s importance in Afghanistan (Turkey had offered to safeguard Kabul Airport after the withdrawal of US troops), he has sought to improve ties with Istanbul. During a meeting between Biden and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, on the sidelines of the NATO Summit, a number of issues were discussed and both sides agreed that the meeting was positive. During the Summit, Turkey — a NATO member — made a commitment that it would keep its troops in the country, to safeguard Kabul Airport.

It is important that the US engages with Iran in a more pro-active manner (albeit indirectly), and not just on JCPOA but also Afghanistan; so far Biden has publicly spoken about the role of Russia but given the tensions with Tehran he has not really made a mention – though there has been a growing chorus by US allies for a back channel with Iran on Afghanistan. Given the fact that the US is engaging with Iran indirectly on JCPOA and other changes taking place, some engagement would already be going on but this needs to be substantial and more effective. On the other hand, Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran have been working to find a common strategy to counter the likely security challenges in Afghanistan.

Neither Tehran nor Washington can engage publicly, but it is important for Biden to open an effective back channel to Iran via US allies in the GCC, such as Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Iran, in spite of moving closer to Beijing and Moscow in recent years as a result of Trump’s flawed Iran policy, would not like to send out a signal that it is blindly kowtowing to any external force, including China (the Iran-China 25 year agreement was viewed with suspicion in Iran by many including Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who called it a suspicious deal), and a working relationship with Washington on the Afghanistan quagmire would only produce benefits.

In conclusion, the Biden Administration should give priority to the relationship with Iran seeing the changing political landscape. While due to domestic pressures and lobbies within the US, progress with regard to Washington getting back on board the JCPOA has been impeded, it is important that the US does not miss out on pro-active back channel diplomacy and engagement with Iran on Afghanistan.

Is a Persian-Saudi thaw on the horizon?

Introduction

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) recent comments, where he batted for better bilateral ties with Iran, have understandably drawn attention given that, in recent years, ties between both countries had hit rock bottom. Said MBS in a television interview on April 27, 2021:

At the end of the day, Iran is a neighbouring country and all that we hope for is to have good
relations.

MBS did not deny that Riyadh had differences with Tehran over a number of issues (specifically Iran’s nuclear program and some of the proxies which it was supporting in the Middle East).

The Saudi crown prince also said that his country wanted Iran to prosper, and to contribute to regional and global growth. Both countries have been jostling with each other for influence in the Middle East. In recent years, tensions have exacerbated as a result of Iran’s support for the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen, while a coalition of Sunni Arab forces has been backing pro-government forces. Riyadh, which like other GCC states has moved closer to Israel, has also accused Tehran of meddling in Iraq and Jordan, and for plotting a strike on Saudi oil installations in 2019. In 2016, both countries had cut diplomatic ties after Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi Embassy in Iran as a mark of protest against the kingdom’s execution of a respected Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Iran’s reaction to Saudi Crown Prince statement

Iran reacted positively to the Saudi crown prince’s statement, saying that this augured well for the bilateral relationship. Officials from Iran and Saudi Arabia had held talks in Baghdad in April (these talks were facilitated by Iraq) on a number of crucial issues.

Many analysts argue that MBS’ recent remarks are an indication of his acceptance of the Biden administration’s policy towards the Middle East, which is vastly different from that of the Trump administration. Not only has the Biden administration released a report which clearly holds MBS responsible for the murder of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi (former President Donald Trump, who shared a close rapport with MBS, refused to release the report), but it has also withdrawn support for the Saudi war in Yemen. Biden did refrain from imposing sanctions on MBS, since a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)/Iran nuclear agreement would be smoother if the Saudis do not create unnecessary impediments. The US President’s decision to not impose sanctions on MBS drew flak from many within his own party, though senior officials have reiterated the point that an excessively aggressive approach vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia will harm US interests in the Middle East.

Progress made during negotiations

In recent weeks some tangible progress has been made during negotiations, held at Vienna, on the Iran nuclear deal. However, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, while commenting on the headway which had been made, said:

We are on the right track and some progress has been made, but this does not mean that the talks in Vienna have reached the final stage.

The Biden Administration has faced criticisms for being status quoist on the Iran issue, but it has been pro-active in trying to move ahead on the issue of the Iran Nuclear Agreement, and has been working closely with E3 countries (UK, France, Germany).

At a time when some progress has been made with regard to the revival of the Iran Nuclear deal, and many are referring to the possibility of an interim deal, MBS’ comments are significant given Riyadh’s stiff opposition to the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal till only a few months ago.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the recent talks held between Iran and Saudi Arabia and MBS’ tone need to be welcomed. While, unlike Trump, Biden has not allowed Saudi Arabia to direct his Iran policy, he is mindful of the fact that for any meaningful progress vis-à-vis Iran, Riyadh can not be ignored. If Iran and Saudi Arabia work towards improving their relations there could be some major changes in the geopolitical dynamics and economic landscape of the Middle East. An improvement of ties between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia also reiterates the point that complex issues can not be viewed through simplistic binaries.