PRESS RELEASE – Panel Discussion “Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process:Iran’s Role in Afghanistan”



Panel Discussion
Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process:Iran’s Role in Afghanistan
August 17, 2021

The Centre for Afghanistan, Middle East & Africa (CAMEA) at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) had a Panel Discussion on ‘Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process: Iran’s Role in Afghanistan’ which is the third in a series of conversations CAMEA will be having on Afghanistan – under its Conversations on the Afghan Peace Process series.

The distinguished speakers included: Dr. Saeed Ghaderi, Researcher at Institute for Political and International Studies (Iran), Prof. Shahram Akbarzadeh, Deputy Director (International) of the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Australia, Prof. Amin Saikal, Adjunct Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia, Mr. Mohammad Hashim Pashtun, Adviser for Research & Policy to Kabul Institute for Peace, Dr. Mohsen Shariatinia, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Shahid Beheshti University ( Iran) and Ambassador Asif Durrani, Former Ambassador of Pakistan to Iran. Ambassador Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Director General ISSI, and Ambassador Khalid Mahmood, Chairman BOG, ISSI, also took part in the discussion.

During her opening remarks, Ms. Amina Khan, Director CAMEA said thatthe situation  in Afghanistantook a drastic turn when the Taliban took over, declaring the war in Afghanistan over. Despite assurances, President Ashraf Ghani made an unceremonious exit, leaving  the Afghan masses angered, confused and most importantly abandoned. With the US exit and  in the absence of a negotiated settlement,  a military takeover by the Taliban was expected, the manner and speed at which the group  has taken over was certainly not anticipated, nor was the relatively smooth manner in which transition has taken place. While there has been talk of an inclusive political set up,little is known about its mandate andstructure. Until then, Afghanistan will continue to  be a major issue of concern  for  the international community and  more so for  the  region. Perplexed by instability in Afghanistan, regional actors like Iran  have come to the forefront to play a more proactive and prominent role in Afghanistan. Considering the repercussions Iran has faced, Tehran shares a consolidated view with its neighbours over Afghanistan,   entailing regional ownership, recognition of a inclusive political settlement,  and role of the Taliban as a major component of a peaceful settlement as well as curbing transnational terrorist  groups like the IS.

Ambassador Aizaz said that events in Afghanistan are unfolding at a breathtaking pace that has surprised everyone. In the lastseven years during Ashraf Ghani’s rule, Pakistan has suffered tremendously as the Afghan government allowed India to operate against Pakistan from their soil. It remains to be seen what kind of government will come to Kabul and what approach Afghanistan’s neighbors will adopt. In this regard, regional countries have been calling for an inclusive government. He said one issue of important concern is to consider humanitarian assistance for the displaced Afghans.

Dr. Saeed Ghaderi stated that Iran is closely monitoring the situation in Afghanistan and istrying to have reconciliation inside Afghanistan. The Taliban must manage the situation peacefully with an inclusive government. Peace in Afghanistan now depends on the actions of the Taliban and the success of dialogue depends on the level of rationality in the Taliban leadership. He voiced concern about how much the Taliban are open to changing their strategy and attitudes specifically towards the Shia minority in Afghanistan. Iran wants a strong and inclusive government in Kabul that could deliver governance in Afghanistan. Iran, being Afghanistan’s neighbor, expects the Taliban to play a constructive role in addressing the regional challenges. Unlike other countries, Iran does not have any favorite group in Afghanistan. Violence and war are never the solutions, he said. 

Prof. Shahram Akbarzadeh said that the leadership in Iran has been sending messages that the Taliban have changed and has been trying to play a hedging game by engaging with both the Kabul government and the Taliban. Iran has traditionally looked at the Taliban as a power to undermine the US since Tehran had been very concerned about the US using Afghan soil to enforce regime change in Iran.  He said that the Iranians are aware of their limitations and though Iran has ambitions of becoming a regional power they have economic constraints. On China he said that Beijinghas several concerns over the situation in Afghanistan particularly in terms of Chinese projects for regional connectivity, hence China has a significant role and interest in Afghanistan as it is trying to expand regional connectivity as well as trying to create its image of a friendly regional actor and neighbor.

On Iran’s potential role in Afghanistan, Prof. Amin Saikalsaid that the Taliban take over in Afghanistan is a very positive development for Tehran particularly regarding US withdrawal.  As long as the government in Kabul is not hostile to Iran, does not cause security concerns and controls refugee flow to Iran as well as addresses bilateral issues such as the distribution of water, Tehran will be very happy with the new regime in Kabul. He was of the view that though the Taliban ideology has not changed their tactics certainly have changed, particularly with regards to regional and international recognition. If a Taliban government wants to be successful they have learned that it is important for their legitimacy to get recognition from the international community. Hence, Iranians will be watching the formation of the government closelyand whether the minority Shia population of Afghanistan will have representation in the government. 

Dr. Mohsen Shariatinia said at the moment it was difficult to say anything about Iran’s role in Afghanistan as things are uncertain at the moment. Taliban is neither a friend nor a foe for Iran. There are grave concerns of academia and the public in Iran, which view these developments as part of a new great game in the region. Failure of  US-led regime change in Afghanistan is a positive development for Tehran. It could pave the way for a potential regional solution to mitigate the crisis in coordination with Pakistan, Turkey, Russia, and China. He said the Taliban’s ideology and international communities’ behavior towards recognizing the Taliban are two significant points for Iran to consider before recognizing the Taliban. 

Ambassador Asif Durrani said that US sanctionsand rivalry have pushed Iran to coordinate with the Taliban against US interests in Afghanistan. On the diplomatic level Taliban are now not alien to the international community and this will probably influence Iran’s stance towards the Taliban. He said that there will be a level of maturity in the future events which will take place in Afghanistan. Though the absence of anticipated violence in Afghanistan has given hope, nothing can be said for sure regarding Afghanistan as events can always change rapidly. With regards to India, he said, at the moment, India does not have a direct role in Afghanistan, though, in the past, India did use Afghan soil to carry out activities against Pakistan and tried to open a second front against Pakistan from the West. Pakistan and Iran have stood shoulder to shoulder in their hard times and there is an emerging consensus between Pakistan and Iran regarding Afghanistan.

Mr. Mohammad Hashim Pashtun said that due to the close historical political, cultural, and linguistic relations Iran shares with  Afghanistan, the former can surely play a vital role in Afghanistan. Moreover, Hazara Shia minorities in Afghanistan look towards Iran to safeguard their interests and for theirsurvival in Afghanistan. He said that there has been a positive change in the approach of the Taliban towards a more pragmatic attitude and underlined that while dealing with the Taliban, Iran must remain cognizant that third parties may try to play the role of a spoiler hence, Tehran must maintain brotherly relations with the government in Kabul for peace and prosperity of the region. Regarding Pak-Afghan relations, he said that the Taliban leadership has always had a positive approach towards Pakistan, which is why it is going to have good relations with Pakistan as this is going to be productive for both sides.

Ambassador Khalid Mahmood said that the relations between Iran and theTaliban were inimical in the past but now the situation has taken a 180 degree turn. Iran now views theTaliban differently. The nature of Iran relations will depend on how much the Taliban put in practice their assurances. So far it looks like they are on the right path which is a good sign.