Before the outside world intervened – a coup in Myanmar, Russia’s jailing of a prominent dissident – the Biden administration planned to use this week to set out its foreign-policy philosophy. According to news reports, the speech, before it was postponed on February 1, was going to center on dispensing with Donald Trump’s “America First” approach in favor of the theme “Restoring America’s Place in the World,” and restoring relations with US allies around the world.
The new administration had already started to do that, announcing last Friday that it planned to review a security deal signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban last year and signaling greater support for its allies in the Kabul government. But Iran has no intention of merely standing by as America resumes its place in Afghanistan; on the contrary, on its eastern side in Afghanistan and on its western side in Iraq, it plans to usurp that place.
The lengthy conflicts in both countries have pushed groups there to accept Iran as an important, almost essential, ally. Both have come to the conclusion that – as Iran never tires of saying – the United States is 10,000km away but Iran is right next door and going nowhere.
America, on the other hand, is heading for the exit.
It scarcely bears repeating that the war in Afghanistan is not going well for the United States. At the end of this year, America’s longest war will enter its third decade with no clear policy goal, and certainly no victory, in sight. Such is the quagmire that Biden is now the fourth president who has to grapple with the consequences of the invasion.
But even without a clear sense of how the American presence might end, there will, at some point, be an end. The security deal between the US and the Taliban a year ago guarantees that. Under its terms, the US agreed to withdraw all its troops by this summer and the Taliban agreed not to grant safe haven to militant groups like Al Qaeda. Even if the Biden administration extends the withdrawal date, it is unlikely to cancel the deal; the violence of the fallout would simply be too much.
Yet the shape of the political settlement the US leaves behind still hangs in the balance, and Tehran is taking active steps to shape what now looks inevitable: the return to power of a militant group they hate, right next door.
Relations between Iran and the Taliban are bitter and complicated. Tehran considered the movement a terrorist group for years prior to the attacks on September 11, 2001. In the same way that Americans have not forgotten the 1979 storming of their embassy in Tehran, Iranians have not forgotten the 1998 storming of their consulate in northern Afghanistan by the Taliban – an attack that resulted in the killing of nine Iranian diplomats. Such was the uproar at the attack that Iran massed 70,000 troops along the Iranian-Afghan border, but ultimately pulled back from an invasion.
Yet the Iranian government is nothing if not pragmatic.
Iran made that clear on January 31, when Iran’s foreign minister met a senior Taliban delegation to outline their conditions for a post-US government. As the date of the US pullout in May gets closer, and it becomes clearer that the Taliban will return to power in some form, Iran wants to be more involved in what the government next door looks like – exactly as have been in Iraq.
Iran’s preference is for an “inclusive” government in Kabul, diplomatic code for a government not dominated by the Taliban and in which the Western-backed Afghan government has a balancing role. But given that as recently as Sunday the Taliban’s political chief stated that Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, had “come to power through illegal means” and ought to “resign…and surrender power to Afghanistan’s true representatives,” such an Iranian “preference” may well be ignored.
On its western flank, too, Iran is seeking to influence the next government, and now has longer to prepare as summer elections in Iraq have just been postponed until October.
Here, intriguingly, both Washington and Tehran have a similar strategy: kick the issue into the long grass. If Washington wants a longer time in Afghanistan before the pullout to bolster the Kabul government, Iran wants a longer time in Iraq before elections to dampen nationalist sentiment.
Such sentiment is what brought people out on to the streets in 2019 to protest against both Iran-supported militias and the US-backed government. It is what may yet provoke the firebrand nationalist cleric, Muqtada Al Sadr, to stand in the elections. And it is what, more than anything else, more even than US influence, Iran fears in Iraq.
For Iran, the longer the interval between Iraqi elections, the longer Iranian militias, contractors and businesses have to root themselves into Iraqi society. A report by Reuters last year on the tussle between Iran and the US in the northern city of Mosul noted, “Iran helps its allies with money, political backing and sticks with them.” The US, by contrast, “has left no real mark on Iraq.” What is true in Mosul is true across other parts of the country, especially the Shia-majority south.
Even if the US and Iran have similar strategies, they have very different timelines, and time is always on Iran’s side. Biden may wish to signal that America is back on the political stage; but for Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran never went away.
But if Iran truly wants to usurp the role of the United States, it faces the same problem in Afghanistan with the Taliban as it does in Iraq with the protestors: it will need to contend with the people who were there first.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.