President Donald Trump’s ill-fated decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal has far-reaching implications, beyond Iran-US relations. There are genuine fears over unwanted escalation of military tensions in the Middle East where the US and Saudi Arabia will escalate their efforts to neutralise Iran’s growing influence. Likewise, Iran could also be tempted to apply more pressure on Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies by supplying the Houthis in Yemen with weapons that could pose a greater threat to Riyadh and the Gulf.
Most importantly, the US is likely to face challenges if Tehran decides to increase its support to the Afghan Taliban insurgency. And if Pakistan and Russia also decide to band together in the Iranian-supported disruption, the US presence in Afghanistan would become more complicated.
The Taliban has been historically considered by Tehran as one of Iran’s enemies. During its initial military campaign to take control of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban used to target Afghan Shia population due to their religious affiliation. One may recall that Iran had almost declared a war against the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan when 11 Iranian diplomats and a journalist were killed by the Taliban in 1998. Iran was also a part of the regional grouping which included India and Russia that had supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
However, with the advent of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) in the region, Iran sees the utility of its long-time rival – the Taliban – as a useful partner in countering the ISKP. According to the Afghan officials, Tehran has provided modest levels of support to the Afghan Taliban. Iran is reported to have supplied small arms and training to the Afghan Taliban.Therefore, it is in Tehran’s interest to help the Taliban get a better position in its fight against the ISKP. On its part, the Taliban has also attempted to demonstrate solidarity with the Afghan Shias when the latter have been targeted by the Sunni-ISKP.
Tehran has historical ties with Shias and Hazaras of Afghanistan, which gives Tehran the capacity to act as a ‘spoiler’ in the US-led efforts aimed at ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan. Post-nuclear deal withdrawal, Tehran is likely to pursue the policy of denying a victory to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan with more vigour. The possibility of Tehran seeking to strike back against America for pulling out of the nuclear deal by increasing its support to the Taliban has increased manifold.
If Afghanistan becomes a theatre of US-Iranian confrontation, politically negotiated settlement with the Taliban will become even more difficult. Afghanistan may also witness renewed rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has been supportive of Trump’s Afghan policy. It may be noted here that in August 2017, Saudi Arabian diplomat in Kabul, Mishari Al-Harbi, had accused Iran of providing military assistance to the Afghan Taliban, which was vehemently denied by Tehran. Riyadh has assisted the US efforts in dividing the Afghan Taliban between moderate elements seeking a political solution with the Kabul regime and the irreconcilable elements seeking to militarily overthrow the Ashraf Ghani’s government. The Saudi Crown recently held negotiations with the US Defense Secretary on the creation of “safe havens” for the Afghan Taliban seeking to engage in peace talks with the Kabul regime.
The Trump administration cannot be expected to remain a mute spectator of possible Iranian disruption. Regime change in Tehran may be the ultimate aim of Trump, but America’s options of taking any military action against Iran from the Afghan soil are currently constrained due to Pakistan factor. It is a well-known fact despite vowing to pressurise Rawalpindi to crack down on terrorists on Pakistani soil that target Americans in Afghanistan, the Trump administration has not been able to follow through with major punitive measures that it suggested could be in the offing. The US is worried that taking punitive measures could prompt Rawalpindi to strike back by shutting down vital supply lines on its soil used by American military in Afghanistan. Due to the poor state of Washington-Moscow ties, and Russia’s growing cosiness with Pakistan, Islamabad is aware of both its ability to use supply lines as a powerful instrument of leverage as well as the Trump administration’s inability to find alternative supply routes in Central Asia. Therefore, the US would not hastily initiate any military action against Iran from the Afghan soil as Pakistan is not likely to approve of its supply lines being used to target Iran.
The Afghan government, which has been facing insurmountable challenges from both the Afghan Taliban and ISKP, would also try its best to avoid getting embroiled in another front. With the insurgents and terrorists doing all they can to underscore the growing vulnerabilities of the Afghan state, the Ghani government’s capacity is already under siege. If the Ghani government gives in to American pressure, it would need to prepare itself for Iran’s retaliatory moves. Besides increasing support to the Afghan Taliban, Tehran is likely to resort to all kinds of behaviour which can further destabilise Afghanistan such as stepping up arms supply and training to the Afghan Taliban, sabotaging the process aimed at holding local bodies and parliamentary elections, and by taking sides in and exacerbating local political disputes through proxies across western Afghanistan where it has more influence through the Shia population
The impact of the new US sanctions regime on Iran will also become quite visible on Afghanistan which needs Iran’s continued support for its much-needed infrastructure development. It remains to be seen how India and Afghanistan keep working with energy-rich Iran despite the sanctions regime as Kabul-Delhi-Tehran are making joint efforts to improve energy security and regional connectivity to reach landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia by developing Iran’s Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman, which is often seen as India’s geopolitical response to the China-backed Gwadar port project in Pakistan.
In addition to unleashing much turbulence, Trump’s unilateral decision will trigger a regional realignment. Given the implacable antagonism of the Trump administration towards Iran, Tehran would go the extra mile to develop warm ties with Beijing. And if Kabul and Delhi are left with no options but to reduce their economic engagements with Tehran, this is bound to dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape of the region. Tehran will undeniably reach out to Pakistan, undermining American objectives in Afghanistan.