Reflections on Iran’s Role in the Process of Restoring Peace and Fighting Extremism in Afghanistan and Central Asia

Hesamoddin Hojjatzadeh
November 2018

Tehran's Azadi Hotel hosted a meeting of senior security officials from four major regional countries on September 26. The participants included Nikolai Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation; Ajit Doval, the national security advisor to the Indian prime minister; Hamdullah Mohib, the national security advisor of Afghanistan; Dang Jingwei, a senior Chinese national security official, in addition to Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani. The one-day meeting was held by secretariat of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and was themed “Regional Security Dialogue.” The main items on the agenda of Tehran security meeting, which were indicative of its goals, included to discuss and exchange views on ways to fight terrorism and extremism as well as new threats posed by terrorist groups in the West Asia region.
At the end of the meeting, a statement was released in 11 paragraphs, of which the following four paragraphs were more important:
•The policies and measures, which support or foster extremism in the region, are a threat to security of the entire region. Therefore, the participants committed to cooperate in order to counter such policies and establish sustainable peace across the region (Para. 3);
•They voiced support for the effective steps taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation to counter threats posed by such terrorist groups as Daesh in Syria (Para. 5);
•They expressed concern about transfer of Daesh from West Asia to Afghanistan and Central Asia while highlighting the need to take coordinated and all-out measures to prevent transfer of these groups beyond Iran’s eastern borders (Para. 6);
•They voiced support for the establishment of peace and stability as well as development and reconstruction of Afghanistan while encouraging other countries to help this country’s government in the peace process with the Taliban (Para. 7).
• Apart from Paragraph 5, which contained indirect confirmation of Iran’s and Russia's policies in West Asia, other aforementioned paragraphs directly dealt with the crisis in Afghanistan, unclear future outlook of peace in this country, and the increased possibility that Afghanistan and Central Asia may turn into a new base for Daesh terrorist group in the region and the world.
There are a number of noteworthy points to be discussed in this regard.
1.Pakistan was not present in Tehran security meeting. As put by Rear Admiral Shamkhani, the reason why no Pakistani official was present at that meeting was the election of the new government in that country. However, when Tehran security meeting was still ongoing, Iran’s Javan newspaper took the Pakistani government indirectly to task, noting that the country should take part in the coming rounds of the dialogue, which is planned to be held every year in a rotational manner in the participating countries. The main question is whether the incipient nature of Imran Khan’s government had necessarily anything to do with Pakistan’s absence from a meeting, whose main agenda items included discussing security developments in Afghanistan, the peace between the country’s government and the Taliban, and the activities of Daesh in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Can this issue be considered as an excuse for the absence from Tehran meeting of a country, which is considered as one of the most influential actors in developments of Afghanistan? The answer is certainly no. In addition, observers of Pakistan’s affairs are well aware that when it comes to foreign policy and security matters, it is the country’s army followed by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which have the last say. Therefore, the fact that even a low-level security official of Pakistan had not been sent to Tehran meeting was meant to convoy a number of clear messages from commanders of the country’s influential army to Iran and other participants in the meeting. Firstly, Islamabad does not consider meetings like Tehran security meeting seriously, because they are not in line with Pakistan’s large-scale strategy in Afghanistan. Secondly, the viewpoints of Pakistani army’s officials and the ISI about the peace with the Taliban and how to counter Daesh or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Central Asia, are closer to viewpoints of the Islamic Republic’s hostile rivals – like the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and even Qatar – than the viewpoint of Iran, India, China and Russia.
2.While the issue of Daesh’s increasing influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia was brought up at Tehran security meeting, there were no representatives from five Central Asian countries and the reason for their absence is not clear. This is important because three of those five republics – that is, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan – are directly, and the republics of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are indirectly dealing with the issue of Daesh terrorism, which has been exported to those countries from Afghanistan. Were they not invited to Tehran meeting or Russia represented those five countries and put forth their viewpoints? Perhaps, they were not willing to take part in a meeting, which they possibly considered ineffective and just for show. The certain thing is that the security officials of the Central Asian countries have serious things to say about regional security and preventing the increasing power of terrorism and extremism, which were not heard at Tehran meeting.
3.Turkey was not represented in Tehran security meeting too. Although this country has no common borders with Afghanistan and Central Asia, it has been known as an influential actor in political, security, cultural and social fields in Afghanistan for many years. This is because of the ethnic and language commonalities that Turkey has with many Turkish racial groups in Central Asia as well as Turkmen, Uzbek and Oymaq minorities in north Afghanistan. Turkey is also relatively popular with most Afghans and not just Afghans of Turkish descent. The secret of this popularity is the focus of Ankara’s incessant efforts on investment in cultural and educational fields, and to some extent, development of infrastructure in Afghanistan. The prominent example of such efforts is establishment and expansion of Afghan-Turkish schools in Kabul as well as several capital cities in other big and important provinces of Afghanistan.
In addition, as the sole Muslim member of NATO, Turkey has been playing an important role during the past 17 years in bolstering the security and social base of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and NATO in this country. Regardless of the reason behind the absence of senior Turkish security officials in Tehran meeting, it seems that without Ankara’s presence, issues discussed and decisions reached in such meetings will not be comprehensive and, thus, their implementation in practice will not be likely.
4.Russia, China and India, which had sent representatives to Tehran, are considered as leaders in holding meetings and implementing non-Western and non-American initiatives on peace in Afghanistan. However, they do not necessarily think about details of talks with the Taliban, establishment of ceasefire and peace in Afghanistan, and preventing further influence of extremism in Central Asia in the same way that Iran does. Therefore, participation of senior security officials of these countries at Tehran security meeting does not mean that they confirm Iran’s viewpoints on the establishment of peace in Afghanistan and preventing transfer of Daesh extremists to Afghanistan and Central Asia.
5.Some domestic Iranian media mentioned “stabilizing the Islamic Republic’s positive role in the Asian drive to launch a common fight against terrorism,” as the main achievement of Tehran security meeting. They claimed that the US President Donald Trump could not keep this role hidden from the global community despite all his ranting. The fact that we consider a determining role for our country in regional developments, including in the fight against terrorism, is one thing, but correct or incorrect understanding of the international community, and even Iran’s own neighbors, of the role played by this country in the region and the entire Asia, is something else. In fact, there is no doubt that if it were not for the efforts made by the Islamic Republic, the Takfiri terrorism of Daesh and al-Qaeda would have most probably swept through the entire West Asia by now. But can Iran’s desirable plan for fighting extremism in Syria and Iraq be also copied in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and South and East Asia? The answer to this question can be only given in the future and in view of the practical results of the security meeting in Tehran.
6.Before Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections were due to be held in October 2018, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry said, “Dialogue, establishment of security and achievement of peace must be seriously pursued by the government and opposition” in Afghanistan. He added that the Islamic Republic of Iran “strongly supports any initiative, which would guarantee the interests of the suffering people of Afghanistan.” Let’s consider Tehran security meeting as a link in the chain of non-Western peace initiatives on Afghanistan. The question is has anybody in the totality of the Iranian establishment – not simply Iran’s diplomatic apparatus – ever wondered what is the viewpoint of officials, experts and people in Afghanistan and Central Asia about the role and intentions of Iran for supporting restoration of peace and stability in these regions?
Conclusion
By holding multilateral meetings, Iran is trying to show the United States and other regional and extraregional hostile rivals that it sways increasing influence even beyond West Asia. However, this must not lead to the misconception among Iranian officials that any country, which takes part in these meetings, has accepted Tehran's viewpoints and policies with regard to its neighbors. In fact, turning into the pivot of domestic and international developments needs concurrent strengthening of political, military, economic and cultural mechanisms available to a country. However, at the present time and in view of its own domestic problems and many considerations in its foreign policy, Iran is not able to do this.