Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

Can Kabul Carry Two Melons in One Hand? Afghanistan and Iran sign strategic cooperation document

Thomas Ruttig 6 min

Almost unnoticed by the international media, Afghanistan and Iran have signed a “Strategic Cooperation Agreement” during President Karzai’s recent trip to Tehran. The document includes provisions on bilateral military, intelligence and economic cooperation. The sequence indicates importance; the agreement is mainly a security agreement. However, it also contains ideas for a number of trilateral extensions that, noticeably, excludes Pakistan. As AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig points out the two countries are sending mixed signals to both friend and foe (with input by Gran Hewad).

The President's Office announces the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Strategic Cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan

When Afghanistan and the UAE signed a long-term ‘Agreement on Security Cooperation’ on 1 August 2012, someone on Twitter joked that the Afghan government is apparently trying to set a new record for the number of bilateral agreements it enters into. Now, Kabul has followed by concluding a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Strategic Cooperation (in Dari: tafahomnama-ye hamkariha-ye stratezhik) with Iran. It was signed during President Hamed Karzai’s most recent trip to Tehran were he attended the inauguration of the new president, Hassan Rouhani (read our analysis on Rouhani’s election here). The agreement has been drafted at least since mid-2012 and its signing had been preceded by a joint declaration in early June 2013 by the Afghan and Iranian Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs (for political affairs), agreeing on mutual non-interference in each other’s affairs and cooperation on security.

The latest Afghan-Iranian agreement includes planned cooperation and exchanges of experience in the fields of military training, fighting terrorism and organised crime, as well as conducting joint military exercises “against the shared threats of terrorism, narcotics and others” and sharing intelligence on “developments in the field of threats for national security… including in Central, West and South Asia”. Furthermore, the MoU envisages improving cooperation on transit, investment, commercial, scientific and educational exchanges, as well as tourism (full text in Dari and Pashtu attached here). The document was signed by the heads of the two National Security Councils, Rangin Dadfar Spanta and Sa’id Jalili.

The level of the agreement – an MoU – is several diplomatic grades lower than the term used for the “Strategic Partnership Agreement” between Afghanistan and the US. The Iranian-Afghan document is rather a first step towards an improvement of relations rather than a statement about an existing relationship, as would be the case of the US (even though, after a number of spats between the US and Afghanistan, many in Washington have developed doubts about the Afghans’ reliability). In this context, the conclusion of the agreement with Tehran is a signal to the US that Afghanistan has options to diversify its relations and cooperation away from western countries (there is already an agreement on strategic relations with India and Afghanistan has intensified contacts with regional organisations not led by the US, like the Shanghai Cooperation Association). President Karzai has made it clear repeatedly that he does not want to get involved “in any adversarial relation between Iran and the US” (for example see here and here). The MOU signals that Afghanistan feels it does not have to ask Washington’s permission to work with Iran, but the minimal nature of the agreement with Iran also suggests Kabul fully understands where the bulk of its support comes from (ie the US).

Then there is the fact that developing good relations with neighbouring countries is simply common sense and has been pushed even by Washington, through channels like the Istanbul process. From an Iranian point of view, the understanding with Kabul can be read as both provocative – towards the US, as getting the foot better into Kabul’s door – as well as constructive – by playing the regional relations card. After all, Washington and Tehran are in agreement that they do not want the Taleban back in power in Afghanistan.

There is also a Pakistan angle in this development. The agreement between the governments in Kabul and Tehran was signed only a few days after a commando-style attack against the Indian consulate in the eastern city of Jalalabad on 3 August 2013, during which eight civilians, mostly children, were killed – another terrorist attack on Indian interests in Afghanistan. The Indian government attributed the attack to “terror machines” that operate from “beyond the borders”, which all understood as an accusation against Pakistan. Indeed, the modus operandi looked like that of similar high-profile attacks carried out by the Taleban or its sub-division, the Haqqani network with its well-known Pakistani connections. The Taleban, though, denied any involvement.

Both Afghanistan and Iran do not see Pakistan as their closest friend, to say the least. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are often rather hostile, with only a few short periods of reconciliatory tones, often after both sides’ head of states had been invited to friendly get-togethers at Chequers or Camp David. Afghanistan is threatened by Pakistan’s – constantly denied – tacit support to insurgent groups and it is also involved in a border conflict that has escalated increasingly into open cross-border shelling, with many civilian casualties (see our analysis here). Pakistan has reacted with accusations that India is supporting, through Afghanistan, Pakistani Taleban and Baloch rebels.

Iran, meanwhile, although cooperating with Pakistan at least economically, has been entangled with Pakistan in a game over influence in Afghanistan for decades, which will only intensify after most western combat troops have left Afghanistan and western interest and influence in the country have shrunk.

In the Pakistanis context, there are a few more remarkable provisions in the Afghan-Iranian Security MoU that go beyond strictly bilateral cooperation and can be read as projecting Pakistan as the regional menace. Although interested regional countries are “invited” to join in the Afghan-Iranian cooperation, both signatories state that they “will organise” trilateral cooperation, particularly with India and Russia. Both countries are explicitly mentioned. Pakistan is not. That Kabul and Tehran undertake to exchange security-relevant information on South Asia also points to Pakistan: both are concerned about the Taleban and both are concerned about Pakistan’s sectarian anti-Shia groups.

In terms of US-Iran relations, the signing of the agreement could be part of a process in which Kabul might be a conduit to indirectly or – who knows? – directly get the US and Iran to discuss issues more constructively. Or, as our guest author, Bruce Koepke, wrote recently Afghanistan might provide Iran with “a political springboard to engage with the international community”. The desire of Kabul and Tehran to exchange intelligence that the US and NATO do not know about will make governments in Washington and other NATO countries not very happy. But let us not develop illusions about the Iranian intelligence’s ambitions: there have long been signs that it has very effectively supported its Afghan partners, including on eavesdropping capacities.

Not mentioned in the MoU, but surely discussed in Tehran, were more difficult bilateral issues like the high influx of Afghan labour migrants and refugees, the Iranian practice of pushing them back over the border, and the high number of executions of alleged and real Afghan drug traffickers in Iran which has led to a number of anti-Iranian demonstrations in different Afghan cities, including among the Shia population usually considered to be friendly to Iran (read media reports here, here, here and here). There are decades-old, unresolved tensions about how the water flow of Helmand river should be shared (see here and here). Kabul is also irritated about Iranian contacts with the Taleban; the visit of a delegation of the insurgents, including some of their Qatar office staff, had been confirmed by Taleban sources and by Iranian media (see here, here and here).(1)

Former Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, now turned vocal opposition politician, pointed out some further contradictions relating to the signed agreement (in Dari, here). He writes that Iran’s and Afghanistan’s armed forces do not share the same technology or philosophy, nor “common enemies”. This is very true, given the current tense US-Iran non-relationship. Supporting what he sees as the anti-Pakistan focus of the envisaged trilateral intelligence cooperation (including India and Russia) and both good relations with the US and Iran, Saleh – quoting an Afghan proverb – adds his hope that “we can hold these two melons in one hand”.

The uncertainties emerging from Afghanistan’s situation has driven Kabul to secure pledges of cooperation from as many regional and international actors as possible, despite knowing that many of those pledges remain valid on paper only – like many of the other bi- and multilateral assurances on cooperation and non-interference, starting at the 2001 Bonn conference and culminating in a series of recent regional meetings (see our last analysis of the Istanbul process here). Similarly, in the case of the pledged Afghan-Iranian cooperation, it remains to be seen how much of it will actually be implemented.

(1) There were even reports about a Taleban office in the Iranian city of Zahedan, not far from the Afghan border. Iran also has had close relations with the political opposition for decades, while it also channelled direct financial support to President Karzai, creating a scandal when the story broke in 2010.


bilateral relations Bilateral Security Agreement Iran MOU Pakistan Rouhani US