Iran’s sharing of Taliban’s anti-American slogans doesn’t mean having common interests

Iran’s sharing of Taliban’s anti-American slogans doesn’t mean having common interests

Fereydoun Majlessi (source: Fereydoun Majlessi)

The foreign policy analyst Fereydoun Majlessi in an interview with the Iranian Journal of International Relations on the developments in Afghanistan under the Taliban and the Iranian attitude towards them

Ruhollah Souri 

This article was originally published in the Iranian Journal of International Relations:

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the presence of the Taliban in Kabul have pushed developments in Afghanistan in a direction that many observers see as a new era of instability, extremism and terrorism in the country. Meanwhile, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused a great deal of criticism both inside the US and in other countries, because of the developments that took place after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, including the formation of a government consisting of extremist figures in Kabul. Many have interpreted them as a failure of the US foreign policy in relation to Afghanistan and as a failure of US nation-building policy outside its borders. 

In addition to these cases, a significant issue is the type of reactions formed in Iranian society to the developments in Afghanistan, especially after the emergence of the Panjshir resistance movement, which has led to many debates and disagreements in Iranian society between different political and social groups. What should be the appropriate policy and approach for Iran’s national interests? This is a very important issue that has been studied by experts these days and we are witnessing various analyzes in this field. 

To this end, due to the importance of the issues raised, the Iranian Journal of International Relations has conducted an interview with Mr. Fereydoun Majlessi, an expert on international affairs and a former diplomat. Majlessi believes that the desire for money and power explains, to some extent, the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate with the United States and establish political power. Contrary to the insistence of many observers on creating insecurity on China’s borders and involving China in Afghanistan as one of the goals of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Fereydoun Majlessi believes that common interests between China, Russia and the US will enable these countries to cooperate, to maintain security, while having reasonable economic competition. You can read the full transcription of this interview below:

Mr. Majlessi, many people believe that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the formation of a government by the Taliban is a political turning point. After all, many of the new government’s officials were formerly international terrorists, who sometimes were even wanted or spent time in Guantanamo Bay American prison. Some people say that the Taliban’s decision to come down from the mountains and form a government that is supposed to work in an international system of which the US is one of the mainstays is a step forward and a sign of distance. Your Excellency, what is your opinion in this regard?

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was not something that happened suddenly. From the day the Taliban opened an office in Qatar and the United States entered into talks with them through its Pashtun representative, they were in fact preparing for their return. The program was apparently coordinated by the Pakistan Army. From the point that according to the international news and press existence of some natural resources, such as lithium, copper, gold, and iron ore in Afghanistan’s, were so confirmed, the Americans and others were interested in participating in its exploitation. However, the Taliban and their allies sabotaged the operations, disrupting the environment and disrupting investment opportunities. 

We do not know what happened in the Qatari negotiations. But I believe it was enough to ask the Taliban whether they want to live like the Qatari and Emirati emirs and build their country or if they want to stay barefoot and hungry. The barefoot behavior of the Taliban in the small towns of Afghanistan showed that while they were fighting the City, they loved its symbolic ways of life. They were probably saying: “But the people in the emirates have money, while we don’t.” And they were probably told that if the Emiratis have petrodollar, you also have lithium, copper and gold! So if you, the Taliban, after returning to power establish order, security and scratch our back, the US will saturate your appetite, and fill in the pocket of your emirate similar to the emirate of Qatar! The well washed and dressed appearances of the Taliban at the negotiation tables showed the affection for the initial phases of this deal!  And will the Taliban oppose? Of course, the mountaineers who are sent to the street floor need more training, but they ask for money, just as they wore the loose boots and loose uniforms of American soldiers, with their helmets loosening over their heads, and enjoyed swinging and cleaning the wings of the remaining planes. In demand of money they look at their own superiors. The ability of the modern Taliban to carry out their duties and receive their rewards depends on how quickly they may adapt to the conditions and gain public participation and support; otherwise a behavior like the foreign occupiers will provoke popular resistance and the plan of coordinating affairs with the Taliban in the hope of benefiting the secure condition of exploitation will be in vain.   

What are the motives and goals behind the US withdrawal from Afghanistan? Did the US government anticipate an increase in instability and violence in Afghanistan following its withdrawal, or did it make a mistake about the Taliban’s power and influence after its withdrawal? Has it been calculated? And if so, what policy and approach do you think the United States will take in the face of recent developments in Afghanistan?

The main motivation for the United States was said to be the Taliban’s provision of security for work and exploitation of natural resources, which is also supported by China, Russia and Europe. The Americans had certainly been anxious about increasing instability and violence following their withdrawal, but that speed for the program of overall occupation of Afghanistan required inevitably such initial intimidation and violence seemed. On the other hand, for the United States, after twenty years, the important point is to avoid losses and hope to obtain benefits. One of the tricks of repressive systems is to reduce the intensity of action after a hard crackdown to pretend benevolence. That is, if Afghan people get accustomed to unconventional austerity, the people could see a reduction in austerity as a favor. If the Taliban are supposed to maintain their domination, they should gradually reduce their violent attitude, recruit the functionary and experts, and provide more chances of an overall participation.

With the beginning of the negotiation process between the Taliban and the United States and the negotiations between the Afghans, the Islamic Republic of Iran has also pushed forward open efforts to get in touch with the Taliban, and in this regard we have witnessed negotiations with the Taliban representatives in Iran. What is the analysis of this behavior of Iran? Does Iran’s attempt to contact the Taliban come from the predictions and analysis of decision-makers in Iran that the Taliban will rise to power after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the central government in the country will collapse. Weren’t the Iranian decision makers having no choice, but to contact and negotiate with the Taliban in order to protect Iran’s national interests? Or perhaps such a process was pushed forward solely under the influence of Iran’s anti-American policies and forming a sort of common interest with the Taliban against the United States?

Iran’s policy of changing its position towards the Taliban that could have caused very hard reactions, given the history of the Taliban’s hostility to Iran and the Shiites, and especially the memory of the massacre of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif, was very cautious in practice, as if other establishments of the system had been somehow justified. It is also unreasonable to think that the relationship with the Taliban stemmed from the predictions and analysis of Iranian decision-makers regarding the Taliban’s rise to power. And it is childish and simplistic for Iran to approach the Taliban alongside the Afghan National Army only on the basis of anti-American slogans with a sense of common anti-American interests. Hoping to share an anti-American slogan is not about sharing thee common interests; it is sharing the common losses.

The reasonable possibility is that Iran acts within the framework of a kind of principled understanding based on the interests of most countries in the region, especially Iraq, which is potentially the richest country among them and wants to start its economic and social leap like Saudi Arabia and the UAE and avoids the adventures which are destructive for development, and, Saudi Arabia, tired of the burdens of Yemeni war and arms costs, and Iran that should look for the better opportunities by lifting sanctions and make serious use of trade with its neighbors. It makes sense that Iran also could have been kept within the process of the changing approach of Americans and the regional neighboring countries towards Taliban, which have caused several meetings between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iraq, and trips and meetings between Iranian and Iraqi officials. There were even meetings with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, as well as European meetings and talks. Also the recent change in Iran’s nuclear stance, allowing international nuclear inspections in the country happened after the trip of IAEA’s general director Rafael Grossi. Given the shift in the tone of fundamentalist institutions closer to decision-making centers towards dialogue, it can be concluded or hoped that the Islamic Republic of Iran would also adopt a moderate role to be able to play  an appropriate economic role that enables Iran to take steps towards the welfare, employment and internal development of the country.

If this is true, can it not be concluded that Iran and the Taliban may have reached an agreement to remove the central Afghan government, which in Iran’s view led a pro-Western Afghanistan?

Neither the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan could be predicted, nor  forming a united front with the criminal  Taliban, against the United States can have any moral and political justification!

How do you assess the impact of the Taliban coming to power on the national interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran? As some inside believe, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan could lead to a more prominent Iranian role in Afghanistan, especially in the economic sphere, given the opportunity that Afghanistan could create for Iran to establish relations with Central Asia

I suppose that the accumulated losses of the coronavirus era in the world suggests that  Afghanistan could be a platform for cooperation between industrialized nations, all of which desperately need lithium. American capital and equipment could play a greater role in exploiting it. The needs of Europe, Japan, China and Russia will also make them interested in entering this field. In the field of copper, especially in the secondary processing of that, all these countries will play a role. Iron ore will be most popular in China and to some extent in Iran. Arab countries with financial resources will also ask for a share. If these assumptions are not illusory, then the rich neighbor is better than the needy one.

What impact will developments in Afghanistan have on the future of US relations with Russia and China? Should we see competition between these countries in Afghanistan, or can a common interest in the risk of instability lead to cooperation between these countries?

Given the cautious response they have shown so far, and in particular China’s willingness to cooperate with the economy, which is already active in the copper field, I imagine that their common interests will lead to cooperation and the maintenance of security and reasonable economic competition, unless the situation spirals out of control with unforeseen events

Following the recent developments in Afghanistan, some political currents and individuals inside Iran have made efforts to present a different image of the Taliban from the one that exists in the domestic public opinion. In your opinion, should such efforts continue and establish a more formal relationship between Iran and the Taliban. And what impact will the Taliban have on Iran’s domestic scene, especially in terms of public and public trust in politicians?

It depends on the establishment of a responsible government by the Taliban. However, even if the Taliban succeeds to form such a government, gaining the trust of the Iranian people is not an easy task. If this hypothesis is true, even more formal relations between the two sides will require more time and will depend on the Taliban’s treatment of the Tajiks and Khorasanian groups and the realm of the Persian language.

Following the formation of the Panjshir resistance, we are witnessing some demands in the society, especially from the critical forces, regarding the need for Iran’s explicit support for the Panjshir resistance. In your opinion, how can such explicit support requested by sections of society be evaluated in the national interest of Iran, and in the form of such support, should this support be military or political?

It is natural for Iranians to be always interested in and biased towards Tajiks. But if this hypothetical support is possible, then it requires that the Taliban also compromise with the northern powers in order to express goodwill and apply it. Otherwise the Tajiks will pursue resistance against monopoly of power by the Pashtun Taliban and will once again endanger the security in Afghanistan, this time because of the Tajiks’s resistance, and the country’s relations with Iran will be damaged. But in any case, it is not Iran’s job to express more than its political and moral support for the violated rights of an ethnic or minority.  Any military intervention there or anywhere else, and to spend Iran’s financial resources on military adventures abroad is not in Iran’s interest.

In the case of Afghanistan, we now have a series of facts, including the presence of the Taliban in power and the different positions of powers such as the United States and Europe towards the Taliban compared to the previous period when the Taliban was in power in Afghanistan. We face, what can be the best policy that Iran can have in relation to the developments in Afghanistan?

The Islamic Republic of Iran can consider itself an international actor with political weight, especially important in the region, and can primarily seek to remove the obstacles that have imposed isolation on Iran. If it returns to the international political and economic arena, Iran will be able to participate in Afghanistan’s promising market and intervene to compensate for the violated rights of Afghanistan’s majority ethnic groups. If it adopts inflexible policies that are incompatible with the requirements of international relations, it will have to be satisfied with these minimal relations.

Photo: Afghanistan (source: Pxfuel)

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