How China and Iran could find more common ground - in Afghanistan

August 6, 2022 GMT

Both China and Iran have long-term stakes in Afghanistan following the United States’ withdrawal. They also have contrasting strategies to deal with the gridlock their interests face from continued instability in the country.

Recent developments suggest that Iran is developing a hands-on strategy towards Afghanistan that could ease the way for China, a cautious and reluctant actor when it comes to involvement in unstable states, to begin tangible work on its Afghan interests.

According to Andrew Small, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Beijing primarily sees Afghanistan as a source of threats to be contained and prevented from spilling over into neighbouring countries where it has major economic interests.

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For example, Afghanistan’s western neighbour Pakistan is the site of the largest trade and transport corridor under China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Despite joint Sino-Pakistani calls for Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to join CPEC, China is wary of a resurgence of terrorist organisations in the vast Afghanistan-Pakistan border regions and a ramping up of their attacks on Chinese nationals and CPEC targets.

Additionally, reports that China wants to deploy its own private security firms to guard its assets in Pakistan show that Beijing does not think its “iron brother” Islamabad can secure itself against the growing threat of Afghanistan-based militancy, let alone help stabilise the country.

China’s ideal requirement is a regional partner whose Afghan strategy involves not only damage control and threat containment to stabilise Afghanistan but also a plan for its subsequent integration with the surrounding region, ostensibly via the belt and road. In this regard, Beijing may find utility in Tehran’s developing approach towards Afghanistan.

Despite the sectarian bad blood between Iran and the Taliban in the 1990s, the former portrays the fall of Kabul to the latter as a historic defeat for the US and has not hidden its aim of working with the Taliban regime.

Iran scholars Hamidreza Azizi and Ali Fathollah-Nejad attribute this to the Iranian desire to burnish the overall concept of Islamist military-political organisations ” a category many of Iran’s Middle-Eastern allies fall under ” and Tehran’s view of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan as a post-US vacuum that it can fill alongside Russia and China to further its “Look to the East” policy.

This is despite the more basic concerns Iran has as Afghanistan’s eastern neighbour, such as combating drug trafficking, the proliferation of terrorism and the worsening of the long-running Afghan refugee crisis.

Thus, Iran’s Afghan policy encapsulates damage control and threat containment but also envisions a scenario whereby Afghanistan’s political and economic future is tied to Eastern/Eurasian integration processes, which essentially means integration with the Belt and Road Initiative.

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Importantly, Iran’s recent moves in the broader Central Asia-Afghanistan region suggest that it is serious about these plans and is not treating them as simply ink on paper.

Afghanistan is a key factor in Iran’s rapid rapprochement with Central Asian states, which saw the presidents of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan each visit their Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran in May and June.

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After each of the visits, which focused heavily on largely landlocked Central Asia’s access to maritime trade routes via Iranian ports, Raisi cited shared security concerns on Afghanistan as a top agenda item.

Moreover, Iran opened a drone factory in Tajikistan in May, giving it a strategic presence near the northern reaches of Afghanistan, bordering Tajikistan. Dushanbe’s tensions with the Pashtun Taliban over its treatment of Tajiks in northern Afghanistan, coupled with the “Persian solidarity” branding of the Iranian-Tajikistan entente, make it clear that Tehran is reserving options to pressure the Taliban if it does not satisfy its regional neighbourhood’s security concerns.

Iran also has a central role in trade routes like the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), which aim to incorporate Afghanistan once (and if) it stabilises.

The INSTC connects India to Iran’s Gulf of Oman ports and then proceeds by land to northern Europe after crossing Azerbaijan and Russia, while an eastern spur connects Iran’s Chabahar Port to Afghanistan by rail, and Tehran wants to extend it to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.

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Overall, Iran’s Afghan strategy has clarity in terms of the broader outcomes it is pursuing, its methods of influencing the Taliban’s conduct and its regional scope.

This makes it stand out somewhat in the region, as Pakistan’s inability to force the Taliban to eradicate anti-Pakistani terrorist organisations exposes its weak hand in Afghanistan while the Central Asian states need to be led by countries like Iran itself to consider regional integration with Afghanistan.

China’s bilateral relations with Iran are already strong at an institutional level, thanks to their 25-year strategic cooperation agreement, and Central Asia-Afghanistan-Iran land connectivity also corresponds with the belt and road’s China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor. As Beijing scans the region for partners on the Afghan file, it will see a strong case for endorsing Iran’s moves in and around Afghanistan.

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Agha Hussain is an independent geopolitical analyst in Rawalpindi with a special focus on Eurasian affairs

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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