On September 28, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis criticized Russia and Iran for providing military and financial support to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The U.S. Defense Department’s criticisms of Moscow and Tehran followed allegations that Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) forces routinely fight alongside Taliban militias in Afghanistan and that Russia had distributed small arms to Taliban fighters via Iranian proxies.
As Russia and Iran have both strengthened their links with the Taliban in recent months, many analysts have speculated that Afghanistan will eventually replace Syria as the next major theater of Moscow-Tehran cooperation. These predictions have been justified by both countries’ mutual desire to counter U.S. influence in Afghanistan and reach a diplomatic resolution to the Afghan political crisis through dialogue between senior Afghan officials and Taliban militia leaders.
Even though Russian and Iranian officials share some common objectives in Afghanistan, arguments for the development of a Russia-Iran-Taliban axis exaggerate the potential for cooperation between Moscow and Tehran in Afghanistan. A closer examination of conditions on the ground in Afghanistan suggests that Afghanistan is more likely to be an area of geopolitical contest between Moscow and Tehran than a sphere of cooperation for two reasons.
The first area of disagreement between Russia and Iran relates to both countries’ relationships with the Afghan government. Even though Iran and Russia both want the Taliban to be represented in diplomatic negotiations on Afghanistan’s future, Kremlin policymakers are much more cautious than their Iranian counterparts to ensure that their cooperation with the Taliban does not strain Moscow’s relationship with President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
To preserve a cordial relationship with Kabul, Russia has invested in 150 major economic projects in Afghanistan, reopened a Russian cultural center in Afghanistan, and helped upgrade Afghanistan’s air force technology. These projects have strengthened trust between Russia and the Ghani administration, and have increased the credibility of Moscow’s efforts to host peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban on Russian soil.
These conciliatory actions contrast markedly with Iran’s increasingly strained relationship with Kabul. Tensions between Iran and the Ghani administration were initially fueled by Kabul’s November 2016 allegations that Iran is harboring Taliban leaders and fomenting sectarian violence in Afghanistan. The Iran-Afghanistan relationship deteriorated further in July 2017, when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized Afghanistan’s water management and irrigation projects for causing environmental damage in Iran.
The marked divergence in the trajectory of Russia and Iran’s relationships with the Afghan government limits the potential for Moscow-Tehran diplomatic and military cooperation in Afghanistan. As Saudi Arabia has strengthened its relationship with Ghani’s government and distanced itself from the Taliban in recent months, Russian policymakers could distance themselves from Iran and pivot toward Riyadh in their attempts to resolve Afghanistan’s security crisis.
The second obstacle to durable cooperation between Russia and Iran on Afghanistan relates to both countries’ differing rationales for providing diplomatic and military support for the Taliban. Many Russian analysts have justified Moscow’s cooperation with the Taliban, by emphasizing the Sunni extremist organization’s opposition to Islamic State and highlighting the Taliban’s effectiveness as a partner in curbing drug trafficking to Central Asia.
In addition to these national security justifications, Russian officials also want to make a case to the United States that the Taliban needs to be incorporated into an Afghan political settlement. Despite this promotion of the Taliban’s diplomatic role, there are serious disagreements between Russian and Taliban officials on Afghanistan’s political future. Russian policymakers largely do not share the Taliban’s assessment that the removal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will stabilize the country, in spite of frequent anti-U.S. statements from senior members of the Russian State Duma, like Alexey Pushkov.
In addition, Russian officials also fear the negative implications of appearing sympathetic to the Taliban’s expansionist ambitions in Afghanistan. During my recent interview with Alexander Lukin, a leading expert on Russian foreign policy at the Higher School of Economics, Lukin argued that supporting the Taliban’s efforts to overthrow the Afghan government does not benefit Russia’s interests, as it would irreparably strain Moscow’s relationships with two of its Central Asian partners, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. To prevent this pernicious outcome, Russia has cautiously engaged in security cooperation with the Taliban, and distanced itself from the organization’s expansionist ambitions.
While Iran shares Russia’s opposition to a Taliban recapture of Kabul, Iranian policymakers disagree with Russia’s tacit acceptance of Washington’s military presence in Afghanistan. Since 2002, the Iranian military has forged alliances with Sunni insurgent groups that aim to “liberate” Afghanistan from U.S. forces. The Iranian government has justified these partnerships by arguing that a large U.S. troop presence on Iran’s borders poses a threat to Iran’s security. In light of this border security argument, Iran’s military cooperation with the Taliban has been most extensive in the three western provinces of Afghanistan that border Iran.
In addition to disagreements over whether to accommodate or resist the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Iran and Russia have different opinions on the ideal timing of a political settlement in Afghanistan. While Russia wants to transition from the military conflict to diplomatic resolution phase of the Afghanistan war as soon as possible, Iran believes its influence over Afghanistan will be maximized through a more gradual shift toward a political settlement.
Since 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has armed and trained the Taliban in western Afghanistan to ensure that an anti-U.S., pro-Iran buffer zone is created on the Iran-Afghanistan border. Iran’s desire for a durable sphere of influence in western Afghanistan is much more likely to be fulfilled through military rather than diplomatic means, and these aspirations explain its tacit disagreement with Russia over the need for an imminent political settlement.
Even though Russia and Iran have forged links with the Taliban in the recent months and are seeking to reduce U.S. influence over Afghanistan’s long-term political future, disagreements over engagement with Kabul and the pace of transition from a military to political resolution of the Afghanistan crisis seriously undercut long-term prospects for Russia-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan. If Russia and Iran fail to settle these areas of disagreement in the near future, Moscow’s collaboration with Tehran in Syria will likely give way to geopolitical competition in Afghanistan in the months to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.