Iran, Russia the Taliban
Over the past two years, we’ve seen the Taliban, a primarily isolated and disbanded terror group, invited several times to high-level political meetings, not just in Doha by the Americans, but also in Tehran. Photos which surfaced in February of Iran’s former Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, showing respect to the Taliban deputy political leader, Baradar, took many by surprise but they were choreographed to send a message to President Biden that Iran cannot and must not be ignored in the region.
Iran has high stakes in Afghanistan after all. After 9/11, it provided military intelligence to the United States (its arch-enemy) during their invasion of Afghanistan, and was the second biggest donor in the first few years of the allied war there, taking an active role in the reconstruction of major provinces along the 1000km Afghanistan-Iran border. But it was soon sidelined when President George W Bush made his famous “Axis of Evil” speech.
With Russia, Iran values close consultations on all regional and international issues. This started during the uprising in the Central Asian republic of Tajikistan in 1992 after the fall of the Soviet Union when Iran was supporting the mainly Islamic opposition. Through direct talks with Russia an understanding has emerged that Iran does not interfere in the affairs of the Muslim Central Asians and Russia in turn supports Iran in international affairs.
It was interesting to see how two days after Baradar’s meeting in Tehran, another Taliban leader, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, led a delegation to Russia indicating that Moscow and Tehran had coordinated manoeuvres.
Russia has kept its distance from Afghanistan while the US has maintained its presence there, but has deep concerns of its own about Taliban links with its Islamic in the Central Asian republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The security of Afghanistan’s northern border is Russia’s top priority.
China’s Overarching Power
Now the Americans are leaving Afghanistan, the most important regional leader is by far China, which harbours bold designs for overtaking the United States and shaping the 21st Century over the next twenty years.
The next decade is set to be crucial for a new era of superpower competition between the US and China that could result in both military escalation and a host of subtler changes to the way the world works. The departure of the US is of major benefit to China.
“China has benefited from the irresponsible behaviour of [the US], which has deeply undermined the international image of the US and the relationship between Washington and its allies,” Zhu Yongbiao, a Chinese government adviser on central Asia told the FT.
Additionally, Western powers have been trying to block China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The first stage involves multi-billion dollar investments in building rail and road links to Central Asia and across to Iran, Russia, the Caucasus, Turkey, and Europe. The project has been held to ransom because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, but may now go ahead if that is stopped.
China has a 25 year Strategic Cooperation Pact with Iran, and large investment in Pakistan’s energy and infrastructure projects. It has also been in constant talks with the Taliban too, who have referred to China as a “friend” of Afghanistan.