Iran is Acting as a Key Partner to the US in its Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Published February 17th, 2021 - 10:32 GMT
The Taliban have welcomed US troop withdrawals /AFP
The Taliban have welcomed US troop withdrawals /AFP

Iran is positioning itself as a useful ally to US troop withdrawal negotiations with the Taliban. Dependent on both the US and a strong Afghanistan for economic growth, Tehran’s talks with the Taliban could increase the likelihood of a speedy return to the Nuclear Deal and make Iran a strong economic partner in Afghanistan’s recovery after two decades of war. 

 

The US is in the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan – a country they have occupied for two decades. In February 2020, Donald Trump agreed to withdraw all troops by May 2021. The pact has already seen US troop numbers fall from 13,000 to 2,500. 

However, the Biden administration has said it wishes to “review” the agreement made with the Taliban. Citing fears over Afghanistan becoming a possible safe-haven for ISIS fighters and worries that increases in human rights will be rolled back if the Taliban are able to regain significant control of the country, the new US administration is yet to reveal its plans over full troop withdrawal.

However, the Biden administration has said it wishes to “review” the agreement made with the Taliban.

In exchange for the withdrawal of troops, the US is expecting the Taliban to “cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan, and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken have been in contact since Biden’s inauguration to discuss these matters.

Afghanistan and Iran are key trading partners and the lifting of sanctions from Tehran would benefit both countries.

Torek Farhadi, a regional analyst and former advisor to the Afghan government, told Al Bawaba that Iran’s strategy differs from its role in other places. “Iran wants to come across as a diplomatic partner in Afghanistan for the US and Russia. They have contacts in Afghanistan for Pakistan, too. They dissociate Afghanistan from the other conflict points they have with other places in the world.”

Writing for the Atlantic Council, Tamim Asey, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Kabul-based think-tank The Institute of War and Peace Studies, writes that domestic and international targets over Afghanistan can be met if three criteria are met.

Writing for the Atlantic Council, Tamim Asey, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Kabul-based think-tank The Institute of War and Peace Studies, writes that domestic and international targets over Afghanistan can be met if three criteria are met.

“…the three inter-related consensuses—national, regional, and global—are built on a minimum set of criteria that are acceptable to all, namely, peace and stability for Afghans, guarantees that the Afghan soil is not used by any force to destabilize Afghanistan’s neighbors and the region, and a counter-terrorism plan led by western powers that will ensure that global and regional terror groups do not regain a foothold in Afghanistan.”

One senior official close to the Biden administration has been quoted by CNN as saying the US predicament in Iran is a "s*** sandwich."

A side-effect of the harsh US economic sanctions on Iran has been the damage done to Iran’s neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan, with whom trade formed an important reciprocal economic relationship.

Iraq, for example, has been described as Iran’s “economic lungs,” representing an ever-increasing portion of Iranian exports (worth $12bn in 2020 and hoping to rise to $20bn in 2021). Harsh sanctions on Iran have therefore caused damage to the US-allied Iraq. Similarly, Afghanistan will be keen to see US sanctions on Iran fall, despite Trump’s exemptions on Afghanistan in the Iran sanctions. 

Iran is Afghanistan’s top trading partner, with the total value of trade between the two countries worth over $2bn (nearly a third of Afghanistan’s annual trade volume).

In the recent past, the large-scale withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan had a major impact on the economy. Iran’s economic growth fell from 14.4% in 2012 to 2%in 2013, and 1.3 and 1.5% in 2014 and 2015 respectively. The decline of the war-economy is thought to have cost around 200,000 Afghan jobs. 

Iran is Afghanistan’s top trading partner, with the total value of trade between the two countries worth over $2bn (nearly a third of Afghanistan’s annual trade volume).

In the US, the military-industrial complex counties to push for a continued presence in Afghanistan. A recent report has shown that "Two of the group’s three co-chairs and nine of the group’s 12 plenary members, comprised of what the group refers to as 'members,' have current or recent financial ties to major defense contractors, an industry that soaks up more than half of the $740 billion defense budget, and stands to gain from protracted U.S. military involvement overseas."

The birth of Revolutionary Iran coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, leaving both countries in a complicated relationship.

The birth of Revolutionary Iran coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, leaving both countries in a complicated relationship.

Following the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington DC, Tehran cooperated with the US invasion of Afghanistan. In over a dozen backchannel meetings between the attacks and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US and Iranian officials met “over potato chips and non-alcoholic drinks at hotels in Geneva and Paris.”

 As the Biden administration seeks to find a sensible route out of Afghanistan, Iran as a future regional ally is proving useful. The new relationship could not only see less of a US military presence in the region but could also restore the battered economies of both Iran and Afghanistan. 


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