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.

Iran, the US, nuclear deals, and South Asia

In the coming months, US-Iran relations will be watched closely in South Asia (the region’s geopolitical landscape will be significantly impacted as it is by the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan).

India’s ties with Iran are economic and strategic. It has, for example, invested in the Chabahar Port project (during PM Modi’s Iran visit in 2016, India had committed $500 million for development of the port), and in December 2018, India had taken over a part of Phase 1 of the Chabahar Port (Shahid Beheshti). New Delhi has, however, stopped oil imports in 2019 after the US ended the waiver which it had provided to India and other countries for import of oil from Iran.

After India’s decision to stop importing oil from Iran, ties deteriorated and the Chabahar Project also suffered. Iran expressed its displeasure with New Delhi for stopping oil imports and also complained that development of the Chabahar Port had slowed down. This in spite of the fact that the Trump Administration had stated that Chabahar Project would be free from US sanctions on Iran. A State Department spokesperson, while commenting on Chabahar Port, said:

The exception for reconstruction assistance and economic development for Afghanistan, which includes the development and operation of Chabahar Port, is a separate exception, and is not affected by yesterday’s announcement

New Delhi and Tehran have been working towards improving ties ever since the end of 2019.  With the change of guard in Washington DC, however, India sensed a reduction in Iran-US tensions and also a US return to the JCPOA. As a result, it has been paying greater attention to the Chabahar Project, which has been dubbed as its gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia (India has already used the port on more than one occasion for sending consignments to Afghanistan and relief materials during the Covid19 pandemic). Soon after the victory of Joe Biden in the US presidential election, India began to pay greater attention to the Chabahar Port and work on it has accelerated since the beginning of 2021.

It would be pertinent to point out that Indian PM Narendra Modi also sent a congratulatory tweet to Raisi stating that he looked forward to ‘working with him to further strengthen the warm ties between India and Iran.’

While the Tehran-New Delhi relationship seems to have improved in recent months, Tehran kept India out of the development of the Farzad B gas field (this field had been discovered by ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of Oil PSU, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation). The Iranian oil ministry, in a statement, said:

The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) has signed a contract worth $1.78 billion with Petropars Group for the development of Farzad B Gas Field in the Persian Gulf

New Delhi responded by saying that Iran would involve India at a later stage in the development of Farzad B.

Iran-Pakistan ties and CPEC

It is also important to bear in mind the fact that Pakistan-Iran ties have witnessed a significant improvement in recent years.

First, there has been a downward slope in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE (though in recent months Islamabad’s ties with the UAE and Saudi Arabia have improved).

Second, the Iran-China 25-year strategic agreement signed earlier this year is also likely to result in the expansion of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Project towards Iran. (Tehran has expressed its willingness to be part of CPEC project). In recent months, China has already been focusing on Afghanistan as an important component of the CPEC. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian, in May 2021, said, ‘China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are discussing issues related to extending roads and expressways in Pakistan to Afghanistan.’

Conclusion

In conclusion, revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal is likely to take time. The US-Iran relationship is important not just in the context of the bilateral relationship, but is likely to have an impact on the geopolitics of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as important connectivity initiatives of both India and China.

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.

The Iranian Nuclear Deal: An Agreement for All

[Editor’s note: the following is a short essay by Payam Ghorbanian. Payam was born in Tehran, Iran. He got his bachelor of science in Engineering from Zanjan University in Zanjan, Iran. He has been participating in liberal political activities and he was involved with some think tanks in Iran. He is doing research in the field of international relations and Iran’s foreign policy as an independent activist. He is now living in San Jose, California.

I cannot endorse this essay, but I am excited to post it because of its potential as a conduit for intercultural dialogue and exchange. I have left his essay largely intact, but did break up some of his longer paragraphs for clarity’s sake. Thanks to Payam for taking the time to write this.]

On November 24, Iran and the P5+1 group have reached to a historical deal on Tehran’s nuclear program at talks in Geneva, Switzerland. We might have difficulty to understand this process, the process which turns out the agreement to be real, so we must particularly take a look around to the real position of this group of countries plus Iran. It’s one of the Iranian’s attitude and way of thinking to say what they wanted to get and what they really ended up to.

In Iran, Hassan Rouhani was elected as a president on Jun 15, 2013. He is also known as one of the three people who talked to McFarlane in the Iran-Contra affair in 1985 about buying weapons during war between Iran & Iraq. During campaign for presidency, he said an extremely hopeful statement about nuclear program. He said: “It is good for nuclear centrifuges to operate, but it is also important that the country operates as well and the wheels of industry are turning.”

After he got elected, he put his faith in the right person and chose Mr. Mohammad Javad Zarif to be the minister of foreign affairs with the complete authority in action. Mr. Zarif was the permanent representative of Iran to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. He is really familiar with the international policy regulations and the United States’ policy. Therefore, he was chosen to precede Iran’s nuclear negotiations and it was decided that the entire process would be carried out solely within his team.

It was one of the toughest situations for Iranian policy even though the middle class, especially the people who are living in the large cities, are incredibly united and hopeful for solving this nuclear issue; however, the extremists criticized any approach to any kind of agreement. For several years people of Iran have been feeling how sanctions can really cripple their destiny, economy, and their society structure. As a result of these effects, the rates of unemployment, bankruptcy, addiction, divorce, and prostitution have increased without any official and governmental justification. Therefore, we can consider the November 24th, 2013 as a distinguished and remarkable day in Iran’s modern history.

With the above introduction, let’s go through the text of the agreement for some details. It has been said:

“ … from the existing uranium enriched to 20%, retain half as working stock of 20% oxide for fabrication of fuel for the TRR. Dilute the remaining 20% UF6 to no more than 5%. No reconversion line…Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months.”

Although Mr. Zarif announced that according to the agreement, enriching uranium under the 5% is now acceptable and claimed it as a big win for Iran, the majority of the people in Iran really do not care about this subject. They expect the removal of all sanctions and this was the reason that they were following the negotiations and they remained awake up until the agreement came out, which at that time was really late at local time in Iran.

After all these trials and tribulations, now you can find out how hope for the future can make our nation more united. The people clearly understand that it is not the end of the negotiations and it is just the start of long way and they are looking forward to the next 6 month. For the people, it is not just about nuclear program; it is more about their life and their children’s future. President Rouhani is now in the right place and with the supports of Iranians. We hope his social policy would be more flexible as well and we can see more freedom in the society.

We are not going to discuss here the Europe United’s policy during this long term negotiation with Iran. They always want to reserve the important positions for themselves; however, they usually get to every negotiation which others have already accepted. For the people of Iran, the Europeans are best known as those trying to prolong every issue.

On the other hand The Europeans always push the solution to the curb and then try to get back to the first step and ultimately get to the agreement and to take one step further. With flopping back and forth, the conclusion usually would never come out. People of Iran had been disappointed of this kind of policy. From Iranian’s point of view, France should be responsible for the last unsuccessful talks on November 9th. Unfortunately they are unreliable partner for this region.

After all these, it is now time to shift our focus to the president Obama’s foreign policy about Middle East during the last year. Not that far ago, Syria used chemical weapons and crossed the red line, which was mentioned by president Obama before. Moreover, United Nation confirmed that there was no doubt of such use of chemical weapon from Syrians regime. However, instead of taking military action, president Obama decided to follow Russians in this crisis and he still tries to solve this issue through the UN. As a fact, it is clear that in order to go through the UN path to solve this crisis, United States has to deal with Russians and Chinese, since they have the authority to block international actions through the Security Council.

It is a fact that the Syrian’s people have been killed during the last three years. However, it seems that this fact is going to be ignored and denied. On the other side, Obama’s policy in this case would let the conservative countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia to take part in this eternal disaster.  They can easily get rid of their extremist religious groups by allowing them to attend in this catastrophic war in Syria. Also due to the fact of this important unsolved problem in Syria, the pressure of human rights activities and other internal problems in their countries would be neglected. With this aspect of Syria’s crisis and also the failing of Arab spring, having an agreement with Iran is essential for Obama’s policy to get through these consecutive unsuccessful affairs. However, Israel’s prime minister tries to call this agreement as a historical mistake.

Great Britain has recently announced that they are concerned about total failure in Iran because of sanctions. After Great Britain evacuated all embassy staff from Iran in November 2011, now it seems that they are going to open relations with Iran following the election of President Rouhani. Undoubtedly they know the Middle East region much better than anyone else. They know this failure can affect Afghanistan, Iraq and the entire Middle East region. As a result, Britain has consecutively tried to help Iran and U.S. to approach to the final steps of negotiations.

On the other side, China is known as fatal mistake in economic partnership for Iranians during the last 10 years. Chinese took advantage of unjust situation of Iran and also destroyed industries in Iran are caused by importing cheap Chinese products. They have initially accepted the UN sanctions and have blocked about 50 billion dollars of Iran’s money in their banks; however, they ultimately should be happy of this agreement which definitely will moderate oil price and open up the gate of Iran’s market for Chinese investments.

Clearly with their foreign policy being so close to Iran, it is just a pose for Chinese in order to help them to precede their policy in southeast Asia using Iran’s threat for pushing away Chinese threat. Couple weeks ago they extended “air defense identification zones” which it seems will be accepted by United States. There is a common trend for all nations which can be written in this way that you are not going to consider as a powerful country if you just want to please yourself.

Finally, Russia should be indeed considered as the biggest winner of this agreement as well as the Middle East situation. Moreover, with the intent of being leader of the entire world, they forced other countries to accept their decisions on Syria’s crisis and by having this virtual confidence, now they really have plans to ruin all aspects of the free world. On September 12th, President Putin decisively took an issue with president Obama. His article was about United States people and he mentioned: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.”

However, president Obama decided to ignore this article and show respect to the new Russia. I believe working with Russia about Syria’s crisis and choosing non-interventionism for Ukraine crises would be one of the Obama’s failures in the U.S. foreign policy. Now this agreement would help Russia and obviously president Putin to take the rein of power more and more. At the end if Russia and China find out that there are not any obstacles around, they will never ever conceal their ambitious points.