India and Iran have contributed substantially to the development of Afghanistan post-2001 and have committed to further increase their involvement in the country in the future. Both countries have also collaborated with each other on a number of critical projects. What accounts for the cooperation between the two countries in Afghanistan? What could be the likely obstacles to such an alliance in the future?
Convergence of Interests
Common concerns and interests account for the collaboration between India and Iran vis-à-vis Afghanistan. For instance, Afghanistan serves as a gateway to Central Asia, where both countries are seeking to expand their commercial interests. India, being physically disconnected from Afghanistan and Central Asia and keen to develop routes that bypass Pakistan and are independent of its tense relations with Islamabad, is dependent on Iran for accessing the region.
Possible Roadblocks Ahead
It is with this in mind that India helped finance the Chabahar port and constructed the Zaranj-Delaram highway, which connects the port to Afghanistan’s western provinces, allowing the transportation of goods to different parts of Afghanistan and from thereon to Central Asia. There is talk of the construction of more highways and rail links that will provide India with access to different parts of Afghanistan. Such collaboration also serves Iran’s aim of emerging as the main hub of transit for the ‘silk route’ trade, which, at the same time, can also help in easing some of the economic pressure of the US-imposed sanctions.
Besides commercial interests, regional stability – important for achieving the commercial aims – and the return of the Taliban are also common concerns. Such concerns had brought India and Iran together in the 1990s when they provided support and arms to the Northern Alliance to balance the Taliban threat.
India fears that a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would transform the country into a training ground for anti-Indian militant groups – a situation which it believes existed in the 1990s – and would enhance Islamabad’s influence in Afghanistan – a development that is likely to be at the expense of India’s own influence, and possibly security, in the region. Similarly, Iran is also apprehensive of such a situation as it could provide an avenue for Saudi Arabia to further increase its ideological presence in the country. A Sunni Islamic bloc – comprising of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan – is likely to be seen as a major ideological and security challenge by the Shia theocracy in Iran.
In light of such concerns, the investments and development projects undertaken by India and Iran – individually and jointly – should be seen as attempts to enhance their influence in the country in order to undercut that of Pakistan and, in the case of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US. In particular, the development of the trade infrastructure is aimed at reducing Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan and enhancing its trade ties with India and Iran.
Both India and Iran also hold aspirations of being important regional players and view Afghanistan as an avenue for increasing their soft power arc. As neither India nor Iran perceive the other to be a competitor in the region, their collaboration is likely to be complementary to their individual efforts to enhance their own presence in Afghanistan.
The most obvious resistance to an Indo-Iranian alliance in Afghanistan is likely to come from Pakistan. The memory of the Indo-Iranian collaboration in the 1990s will possibly play a part in Islamabad’s strategic thinking as the Northern Alliance was viewed as a deliberate attempt to thwart Pakistan’s influence in the country. The increasing influence of India and Iran in Afghanistan and implications of the development of the trade infrastructure for Pakistan will possibly stoke its fears of strategic encirclement, especially at a time when its relations with Kabul are not at their best. Such suspicions have resulted in attacks on Indian targets in Afghanistan by Pakistan-controlled groups in the past, which are likely to continue in the future, and possibly extend to target Iran as well.
Another possible obstacle could be India’s relations with the US, which have strengthened in recent years. This is evident in India’s votes against Iran at the IAEA and its attempts to cut back on oil imports from Iran. They also have different perceptions regarding the US presence in Afghanistan, which can complicate the Indo-Iran equation further. While, Iran perceives the US presence in Afghanistan as a security threat, India is worried that the US withdrawal in 2014 may further worsen the situation. A possible Indo-US partnership in Afghanistan – a new aspect of America’s post-2014 Afghan strategy –could hamper India’s cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan.
Finally, some of Iran’s policies towards Afghanistan may also unravel its partnership with India. For instance, despite not wanting to see a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, Iran has made overtures to them like allowing it to open an office in Zahedan and training and equipping the group. Similarly, it has attempts to fuel sectarian strife in Afghanistan by sending inflammatory text books found offensive by Sunni Muslims. All this is being done in an attempt to frustrate the US mission in Afghanistan by making it tougher for them to manage the situation in the country.
However, such efforts strike at the very foundation of what brought India and Iran together in Afghanistan – opposition to the Taliban and a desire for stability in Afghanistan.