Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

President Rouhani’s Election: Potential impact on Iran’s relations with Afghanistan

Bruce Koepke 7 min

On 3 August 2013, Hassan Rouhani, the seventh president of the Islamic Republic of Iran will be officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and inaugurated by the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, the following day. AAN Guest Author Bruce Koepke explores the potential impact of his Presidency on Iran’s relations with Afghanistan, in the aftermath of eight years under the hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Source: Dr Hassan Rouhani's English Twitter account

Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Iranian government has committed considerable resources to the political and economic reconstruction of Afghanistan. At the same time, the large International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) presence has made Iran uneasy about the potential for a military strike from US and allied bases in retaliation for its intransigence over its nuclear file. The US’ persistent hedging about its military plans post-2014 has clearly not alleviated the Iranian government’s security concerns.

Based on his background and connections, Iran’s new President, Hassan Rouhani, seems to be in a stronger position than Ahmadinejad to engage more constructively on Afghanistan, with the potential to increase pragmatic engagement in the region and to pursue cooperation with the US on converging interests such as security. Afghanistan may indeed provide the Rouhani regime with a political springboard to engage with the international community.

While Iran will almost certainly proceed with its nuclear programme and consequently be prepared to endure the persistence of sanction, Rouhani has indicated that he will work hard to ease the current stalemate through constructive interaction. Yet, with existing conservative political coalitions in the Iranian leadership polarised and highly factionalised, it is not clear how much traction Rouhani can expect for a more cooperative approach to engagement on Afghanistan with Western countries, in particular the US.

Rouhani’s election victory – a new path of moderation?

While independent international observers were not permitted to monitor the presidential election, Iran’s interior ministry reported that 36.7 million ballots were cast, representing a turnout of 73 percent. Rouhani, having secured just over 50 per cent of the votes, thereby obviating the need for a second round, achieved a convincing and broad political mandate to govern Iran. He was the only cleric among the final six electoral contestants and the only candidate who campaigned on a platform of moderation and international dialogue with an intent to seek mechanisms to reduce sanctions.

The failure of the principalists (usulgarayan) – conservative, hardline Islamists who became mainstream with the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 – to coalesce around a single candidate meant that the hardline conservatives ironically ended up contesting each other rather than posing a unified challenge to Rouhani.

Rouhani did not comment on the controversial 2009 presidential election and the ensuing unrest but nevertheless benefited from his late endorsement in the 2013 election campaign by two former presidents – the centrist Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative, and the reformist Khatami – who were marginalised by Iran’s principalists.

Bridging the gap between reformists (islahtalaban), traditional conservatives and principalists, Rouhani represents a moderate compromise with the potential to ameliorate domestic tensions and rifts between ruling political factions, and to move Iran towards a gradual stabilisation of its political system and its foundation of velayat-e faqih (system of the Rule of the Supreme Jurist). He has already announced plans to form a multi-factional cabinet including competent and qualified technocrats from all political circles. He is likely to draw on moderates and centrists, including moderate members from the reformists, traditional conservatives and principalists.

Rouhani’s central position among Iran’ political elite

Rouhani is a Hojjatol-Islam, a middle-ranking cleric, and holds a BA in Judicial Law from Tehran University and a PhD in Constitutional Law from Glasgow Caledonian University. His doctoral thesis was entitled ‘The flexibility of Sharia with reference to the Iranian experience’.

He has held a number of important security, defence and diplomatic portfolios over the last 30 years, including inter alia Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC, 1989-2005) and member of two important advisory bodies, the Assembly of Experts (since 1998), which appoints the Supreme Leader, and the Expediency Council (since 1992), which advises the Supreme Leader and arbitrates constitutional differences, where he was the Director of its Centre for Strategic Research. Rouhani is clearly a trusted, long-standing and important member of Iran’s political elite (find more biographic details in a New York Times portrait here).

As leader of the central committee of the Moderation and Development Party (Hezb-e Etedal va Tosehe), a political movement established in 1999 at the initiative of Rafsanjani, Rouhani has a longstanding interest in issues of moderation and economic development.

Rouhani is known for his ability to negotiate and compromise: in November 2004, when he was the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, Iran temporarily suspended its controversial uranium enrichment activities as a confidence building measure aimed to stress the peaceful nature of its nuclear programme, while negotiations proceeded on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements.

The importance of cooperation with the institutions of the Islamic Republic

Despite his well-established relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the ultimate decision maker in Iran, Rouhani’s success will depend on whom he selects for his cabinet and whether he is able to work with Iran’s ubiquitous security departments, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose leaders are appointed by the Supreme Leader and may have differing agendas on Afghanistan-Iran relations. His relationship with the Majlis, which is controlled by principalists, will be equally important.

While Rouhani’s initial comments pre- and post-election showed signs of optimism – eg “I don’t accept war with the US”, “I aim to convert threats to opportunities”, “I’m going to improve the situation” – on 20 July 2013 Ayatollah Khamenei stated that he was “not optimistic about negotiation with the US,” which he continues to perceive as “unreliable and dishonest.” This comment is a reminder that cooperation with the US will probably not happen in the short term. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that Khamenei has condoned cooperation with the US on Afghanistan and Iraq in the past.

Strengthening Regional Cooperation

In one of his first public statements since his election victory, Rouhani emphasized that the expansion of “ties with neighbouring countries and the strengthening of regional cooperation in order to maintain peace and provide the interests of the regional nations” will be a key foreign policy priority of his presidency. He certainly will have to deal with a range of serious security concerns in the broader region: in Afghanistan, the fragile security system; in Syria, a civil war between Sunni Islamist opposition groups and the Iranian-backed regime of President Assad; in Iraq, the outbreak of renewed sectarian violence; in Egypt, growing civil unrest with the army’s dismissal of democratically elected Islamist President Morsi; in Bahrain, the suppression of Shia opposition groups by the Sunni government, as well as ongoing rivalry with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance.

While the Syrian conflict and Iran’s dispute with the international community over its nuclear programme will undoubtedly dominate Rouhani’s initial term, Afghanistan and Iraq will remain important foreign policy challenges. Iran is expected to continue to actively participate in the Istanbul Process, an inter-governmental forum to foster cooperation and political dialogue on Afghanistan between countries in the Heart of Asia region.

A Return to Pragmatism?

Iran has been an often-unrecognised major supporter of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime (see Bruce Koepke’s SIPRI report). Under the Khatami presidency (1997-2005), the Iranian government pursued a more pragmatic line, cooperating with the US to oust the Taliban, support the democratisation of Afghanistan and strengthen security in the region. One would imagine that Rouhani, in his capacity under Khatami as National Security Advisor and Secretary of the SNSC, was well aware and supportive of Iran’s more open Afghanistan policy.

In his first message to President Hamid Karzai in early July, Rouhani stated that he hoped that bilateral ties between the two countries “would increase through cooperation.” Karzai has confirmed his participation at Rouhani’s inauguration ceremony. In light of their mutual complicated relations with the US, both leaders recognise that a constructive bilateral relationship between Afghanistan and Iran is essential to bolster domestic agendas.

During the Rouhani presidency, Iran’s strategy vis-à-vis Afghanistan will continue to be driven by its relations with the US and influenced by a number of key factors: the withdrawal of ISAF and the likelihood of the US maintaining a significantly reduced, but nevertheless sizeable troop presence in Afghanistan, an active insurgency continuing to threaten the fledging Afghan democracy and generating instability near the Iranian border, and the flourishing narco-industry, which is smuggling drugs to Europe via Iran.

The recent appointment of James Dobbins as US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is timely and may help to spearhead bilateral talks with Iran on Afghanistan. As the Special Representative to the Northern Alliance, Dobbins represented the US at the Bonn Conference in December 2001 where participating envoys, including Iranian officials, agreed on Afghanistan’s interim post-Taliban government. Ambassador Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, Iran’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan, seems to perceive Dobbins’ appointment as a positive signal, describing him as someone who “has lots of experience with regard to…Afghanistan and Pakistan…and has been able to manage issues well.”

Rouhani’s apparent support for dialogue with the US may create a meaningful opening for Iran to more constructively engage on Afghanistan and for its more substantial cooperation on the establishment of a viable security mechanism in the region. Iran’s acceptance of the ongoing training by foreign security officials of Afghan police and military post-2014 and cooperation with their associated logistical requirements, could be one facet of a negotiated concession towards some softening of sanctions.

Afghanistan – a political springboard for international engagement

Under Rouhani, Iran can be anticipated to continue its support for a stable Afghan government given that any further deterioration in security increases the likelihood of the return of radicalised insurgents with possible anti-Shia and anti-Iranian agendas.  Since the end of the first term of the Ahmadinejad presidency, ISAF has repeatedly accused the Iranian government of a dual strategy in Afghanistan, reporting that Iranian weapons have been seized en route to insurgents (see Bruce Koepke’s forthcoming report). This implies that although Iran is advocating for peace and the development of a stable Afghan government, simultaneously, hardline elements within the Iranian government are attempting to undermine the efforts of allied forces. President Karzai has repeatedly officially rejected these allegations.

Although the Iranian government would undoubtedly oppose the reinstallation of Taliban rule, it has been interested in creating “a major headache in Afghanistan” for the US; its clear message to the international community has been that it could easily act as a spoiler if provoked. In view of Rouhani’s familiarity with Khatami’s policies of détente, his presidency now offers an opportunity for more a transparent and responsible cooperation and a shift away from the dual strategy aimed at undermining the efforts of the international community.

Bruce Koepke is a Senior Researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI); his forthcoming policy paper about Iran’s dual strategy in Afghanistan will be published by SIPRI in August 2013. He has been working on and in Afghanistan for the last 15 years. Prior to joining SIPRI in August 2012, he was employed with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), initially based in northern Afghanistan and Kabul and later in Tehran where he headed UNAMA’s liaison office. Most recently, he worked in the Joint Analysis and Planning Unit in the Office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Kabul.


Iran Istanbul process regional cooperation regional relations US