Iran-Afghanistan-India TRIANGLE Is an ‘Entente Cordiale’ Possible?

Published in Hilal English Jan 2014

Written By: Didier Chaudet

Recent events could give the feelings that some of the Pakistan's neighbours are getting closer to each other, maybe in a way that could be detrimental for Islamabad's interests. Everybody has in mind, of course, the recent President Karzai's visits to Tehran and Dehli. In Iran he has claimed that a “long-term partnership” would be signed between the two countries. As for India, it hosted Mr Karzai for the fifth time in the last three years; proof enough of a strong relationship. During President Karzai's trip, New Delhi officially stated that the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the US and Afghanistan should “reflect the concerns of India as well as Iran.” Such visits and diplomatic exchanges explain the reaction of the adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister on Security and Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, reminding that Pakistan does not oppose any assistance given to Afghanistan, and that “Iran and India should refrain from supporting a particular group in the war-torn country.” But are these trips by President Karzai enough to talk about a true diplomatic triangle between those three states? A true 'Entente Cordiale', the way it existed between the French, the British and the Russians before 1914 with Germany as its target. Likewise, a diplomatic triangle between New Delhi, Tehran and Kabul could only emerge as a force accusing Pakistan of all regional problems related to their own security issues.

It is clear that there are rather good bilateral relations between Tehran and Kabul, Kabul and New Delhi, and Tehran and New Delhi. It cannot be denied that Iran has been positive for Afghanistan's development since the fall of the Taliban. Like Pakistan, it had to deal with the bulk of the Afghan refugees since 1980s; drug trafficking and security-related issues coming from Afghanistan have also been a long-term concern for Tehran during this period. It explains why Iran invested so much in Afghanistan after 2001. Between 2001 and 2009, no less than US $600 million have been given by Iran as humanitarian aid to Afghanistan; a pretty generous support for a state with its own economic difficulties. Iranians have invested in Afghanistan, particularly in Herat, Nimruz and Farah. Until 2008, in Western Afghanistan alone, it had invested no less than US $500 million. It is the second largest trade partner for Kabul, after Pakistan. Clearly, without Iran, Afghanistan would have much more difficulties to rebuild itself. India and Afghanistan have a history of good relations, which unfortunately were not always linked to a desire for stability and peace in South Asia. It was partly based on a common hostility towards Pakistan. Indeed, Kabul was the only capital contesting the right for Pakistan to be part of the UN after its creation, and it fomented revolts and Pashtun separatism before the Soviet invasion, claiming the right to create 'Pashtunistan' that would make the Durand Line nullified.

After 2001, India has been particularly helpful to help Afghanistan rebuild itself. Overall, the Indians have provided more than US $2 billion in aid to Kabul. The last example of Indian investments is the construction of the new Parliament building, the Indian government is financing for the 2015 Afghan legislative elections (US $178 million, on an 84-acre plot). Of course, such generosity is not without motives linked to Indian interests. Indian activities in Afghanistan show clearly, to any independent analyst, that New Delhi is acting with her competition with Pakistan in mind. As for Iran, it is a very important partner for India. Through the Islamic Republic, New Delhi can have access to Afghan and Central Asian markets. Indeed in 2008 the Indians gave to Afghanistan an access to the sea through the Chabahar port after constructing a 218-kilometre road from Delaram (western Afghanistan) to Zaranj (Iranian border). And it seems eager to develop a deep-sea gas pipeline with Iran rather than supporting a pipeline on the land passing through Pakistan, that could be a factor of peace, and much less expensive, but that could make it dependent on its South Asian western neighbour.

But these good bilateral relations do not make an 'Entente Cordiale'. As the time of a war between rigid alliances, the said war being warm or cold, is ancient history. Of course, we do not live in a time when a true international community works for the common good of all. We are far away from such a world. But the 'Cold War mentality' is for sure not a good way to understand the world anymore. Each state is pursuing its own interests and is reacting differently towards threats, as these can be of varying importance from one country to the other.

Indeed, India, Iran, and Afghanistan are getting along to some extent. But there is no coordination between them to create any kind of triangular alliance. Already in the 1990s, when India, Russia, Iran, and the Northern Alliance had a common enemy i.e. the Taliban, they could not create a true alliance against the Afghan Emirate. They had, like the Kabul-Tehran-New Delhi 'triangle' today, rather good bilateral relations. But there has never been, at any point, a systematic cooperation against the Taliban. Even during the time when peace in Central Asia was disturbed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) which was very close to Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda (1999-2001), even after Indian Airlines Flight 814 was hijacked (24 December 1999 – 1 January 2000) by militants who found refuge in Afghanistan, there has been no attempt to create a true alliance against the Taliban.

Only Iran has been truly active, much more efficient than Russia or India to help the Northern Alliance. This Iranian efficiency and the inability of the three states to create a true alliance against the Taliban at the time came from the same cause: the fact that they did not see the Afghan Emirate as a threat. India and Russia have considered themselves as great powers for some time. But still, they are not immediate neighbours to Afghanistan, and they have other, more immediate interests and issues to take care of. The situation was, and still is, different for Iran: Part of the Taliban have shown a great hatred against Shi'a Islam and Tehran. The followers of Mullah Omar gave shelter to Iranian Sunni Baloch and Turkmens in open revolt against their state. The killings perpetrated against the Hazara community, who are Shi’a Muslims, and even more against Iranian diplomats during the capture of Mazar-i-Sharif by the Taliban in August 1998, had made of the Afghan Emirate, an important threat for Iran.

In comparison, Central Asians have sometimes accused the Russians to use the fear of the Taliban as a way to coerce the 'near abroad' into submission, and India has been much too obsessed by China and Pakistan to see Afghanistan as an important issue. Still today, the positions of the three states towards the Taliban are not the same: Iran stays very cautious, but has created diplomatic links with the Taliban, which have made Karzai's government uncomfortable, to say the least. As for India, it focuses on the Taliban and on the Afghan issue mostly, again with Pakistan in mind, rather than to focus on Afghanistan alone.

Indeed, Tehran, New Delhi and Kabul would have difficulties to create any kind of alliance because of other diplomatic relationships contradicting a strict convergence of views at diplomatic level. It is particularly linked to the relationship each of these capitals have with the US. India has tried to manage keeping a rather good relationship with Iran, but had sometimes to submit to American pressure, proving to the Islamic Republic that New Delhi will definitely not be a 'all-weather' friend. India has also developed very strong links with Israel after the Cold War, and even more so during last decade. Since 2007, Israel has surpassed France as the second military supplier to the South Asian giant, only behind Russia. Hence, India has developed a close diplomatic relationship with Iran's two worst enemies. It will not stop Iran and New Delhi to do business together, and to converge on some subjects. But such a situation makes any real strategic alliance unrealistic.

Moreover, Afghanistan has a complex relationship with the US. There can be tensions at times, but one should not mistake those temporary tensions with constant issues. Kabul has shown in the discussions related to the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that it could see the American/NATO presence as a way to “protect” itself against its neighbours, i.e. Pakistan and Iran. Such attitude is dangerous for regional stability; it proves that the diplomatic gap between Iranian and Afghan interests is too deep when it comes to Western presence in the region.

As the US has seen the Iranian regime as an enemy since 1979, and as tensions will probably be there even if we are living now a beginning and very limited “détente” moment between Tehran and the Americans, the Iranians could only feel comfortable with neighbours on its east free of Western military presence, and hence opposed the BSA. But this agreement is directly linked to the Western help, the Afghan state should get after 2014. So whatever happens, 2015 will be a time when foreign troops, even in a limited number, will still be in Afghanistan, making complete friendship between Iran and Afghanistan difficult. Last but not the least, even Afghanistan and India cannot totally move along on all important issues. The scars left by NATO presence in Afghanistan has made anti-Americanism a reality in part of the Afghan population, especially because of the night raids on Afghan villages, and the collateral damages linked to some American actions. If India will continue to have stronger relations with the West for its own benefit, the Afghan position towards the India will stay ambiguous. And if India's foreign policy is any indication now, even if officially India will defend the right for Kabul to have some level of independence from the West, it may not be able to go beyond those supportive words because of her interests. Indeed, despite their discourses, Indian diplomats can only wish for an American presence as long as possible in Afghanistan because they do not have the means to fill America's shoes to help stabilize the country. Hence, Afghanistan and India will not be able to see eye to eye on this important subject.

In fact, India, Iran, and Afghanistan do not have even the same vision about influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan. Indian analysts and diplomats are eager to present Islamabad as the source of all evils in Afghanistan and elsewhere. But actually, there are some who are skeptical about Indian diplomacy towards Afghanistan in India itself. It has been expressed very clearly by Shekar Gupta from the Indian Express, to “leave Af to Pak” as the alternative would be to continue a “Cold War” against Pakistan in Afghanistan that could be costly for India. This explains why India has recently been averse to the idea to give to Karzai, the lethal weapons he has been asking for, during his last visit. Still Indian voices continue to use their help to Afghanistan as a way to pressurize Pakistan, something Iran cannot condone. Indeed, Iranian diplomats have been very critical of Islamabad at times. But there is no faction in the Iranian political/diplomatic spectrum with a true and strong hostility against Pakistan, the way there can be in India. There is not a “pro-Pakistan” faction in Tehran, but there is no “anti-Pakistan” lobby either. At the end of the 1990s, Iran had made it clear to Pakistan that if there were a war between Iran and the Taliban, Tehran would consider Islamabad to be the force responsible behind the Afghan Emirate. But after this period, Iran has always seen Islamabad as a neighbour it could talk to. It unofficially recognized in the 1990s that Pakistan could have some level of influence on Afghanistan, as long as it would not cause trouble for the interests of Iran.

Traditionally, for the last 30 years, Iran has been influential mostly in Western Afghanistan, as a way to protect Iranian territory, nothing more. The Islamic Republic wants peace in her East as its main concern comes from tensions at its West (Saudi Arabia, the US and its allies). It also needs Pakistani cooperation to protect its territory against Sunni jihadists active mostly in Sistan-Balochistan. Iranians occasionally criticize Pakistan for not doing “enough” in that regard from their point of view. But they do remember that this is with Pakistan's help that they have been able to neutralize the extremist “Jundallah” movement, and that to secure Iranian Balochistan, it will need some level of cooperation with its neighbour. Last, but not the least, even if numerous political actors in Afghanistan can be easily seduced by the anti-Pakistani rhetoric they can hear from some Indians, the true men of state will be unable to have an ideological position against Pakistan. Pakistani influence on Afghan economics and security, the very fact that president Zardari and PM Sharif's governments are eager to be part of Afghan stability and, the human link that exists between the Pashtun population of the two countries, makes hostility against Islamabad a suicidal choice for Kabul.

Hence there is no true triangle against Islamabad. In fact, a careful foreign policy towards Iran would make sure that no true opposition to Pakistani interests appear in the near future. Islamabad will have to follow, with continued interests, the political views in Iran and New Delhi's diplomatic choices towards Kabul. But it seems that Indians and Afghans have understood that peace in Afghanistan will be impossible without Pakistan. Hence a classical, realist and reactive foreign policy from Pakistan will be enough to make sure that, after 2014, Afghanistan, and then India, accept a solution respecting complete South Asia's interests for stability and economic development.

The writer is a Visiting Research Fellow at Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). He is in charge of the Program on Iran and South Asia at IPSE (Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe). This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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