BACKGROUND: For various reasons, Iranian-Russian relations have been growing over the last decade. Besides economic interests, the common interest of the Iranians and the Russians in security and stability in Central Asia and the Caucasus and their concern about the destabilizing effects of instability in Afghanistan on the two regions and on their own countries have been major factors in cementing their relations. Being their former historical rulers, Iran and Russia share long borders with the two regions, making them concerned about stability in these volatile areas. In addition to geographical realities, historical, cultural and ethnic ties between the Iranians and the Russians with their Caucasian and Central Asian neighbors make them both interested in their security and vulnerable to their instability. Civil war in any region could easily involve Russia or Iran, given the inevitable inflow of refugees, arms and radical and extremists ideologies from their neighbors. Populations within Russia and Iran have ethnic, linguistic and religious commonalties with the Caucasians and Central Asians, and hence their own populations could be radicalized in solidarity with their kin and in opposition to their own regimes, potentially endangering their territorial integrity. To prevent such scenarios and to secure their own interests, the two sides have worked together to end the civil war in Tajikistan, to prevent new wars in the Caucasus and to stabilize war-torn Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran and Russia have also shared a common interest in preventing American influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, while resisting American efforts to create a unipolar international system. These strategic objectives have created long-term stakes for the two nations to cooperate at the regional and international levels. In particular, they are both concerned about American military presence in their vicinity, which would almost complete their feeling of encirclement by hostile, unfriendly and unreliable neighbors.
IMPLICATIONS: The fall of the Taliban is good news not only for the Afghans, but also for the Iranians and the Russians who also suffered from the Taliban rule over Afghanistan. Their political, financial and military support for the Northern Alliance since the emergence of the Taliban in 1994 clearly demonstrated their perception of the Taliban as a major threat to the stability of Central Asia and themselves. Until its fall in November 2001, the Taliban’s harboring of various regional and non-regional terrorists and its direct involvement in international drug-trafficking were two major sources of threat for both Iran and Russia. The Taliban’s removal from the political scene has created a potential to end the conflict and to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistan for the benefits of the Afghans and many others, including the Iranians and the Russians, who have suffered from instability in that country in one way or another. Iran and Russia have not objected to American military efforts against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda, but are both concerned about the threat of American military presence close to their borders. Undoubtedly, that would have a long-term impact on the political shape of Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf, the three regions of importance to Iran and Russia. If the United States takes the opportunity to remain militarily in these regions permanently and in a large scale, a growing sense of common threat will likely further strengthen Iranian-Russian relations and give them a stronger strategic significance. Iran and Russia have shared a common sense of threat caused by the global growth of American power and the expansion of its military alliance, NATO. Their opposition to the eastward expansion of NATO and to the membership of the Central Asian and Caucasian states in that military alliance has been one of their common objectives since the fall of the Soviet Union. In such circumstances, the American military presence in Afghanistan, in Central Asia (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan), in Pakistan and in the Persian Gulf region (mainly but not exclusively in Oman) have created understandable concern and anxiety in Tehran and Moscow. The Iranian and Russian governments can tolerate the situation if, American military presence will remain a temporary deployment necessitated by the objective of uprooting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, if the Americans and their allies decide to remain in the region, the long-term implications of that development will surely further strengthen their fear and suspicion of the U.S. and its western allies.
CONCLUSIONS: Beside the crucial efforts of all the Afghans and their political leaders, the cooperation of regional (Iran, Russia, Pakistan, China and India) and non-regional (USA) powers with varying degrees of influence in Afghanistan is a prerequisite for achieving those objectives. In particular, the cooperation of Iran and Russia is an absolute necessity for a durable peace in that country. A significant and permanent American military presence in the region will almost certainly discourage the two from contributing to this common cause. Given the persistence of rivalry, mistrust and conflict among the Afghan armed groups along ethnic, religious and political lines and the economic impoverishment of the country in post-Taliban Afghanistan, the absence of a constructive approach from Iran and Russia is likely to contribute to the resumption of a full-scale civil war among the dissatisfied Afghan groups. The recent clashes between Pashtun warlords over ruling a southern region leaves little doubt about the feasibility of such a scenario. Given this situation, a long-term and massive American military presence in the region will be counterproductive as a means to ensure stability in Afghanistan. It will also likely lead to a closer, if not formal, multidimensional alliance between Iran and Russia, which will set the stage for a new round of rivalry between the latter and the United States and its allies in West Asia.AUTHOR BIO. Dr. Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva, Switzerland, and does research in International Relations. His writing has centered on the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Persian Gulf.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved