While Barack Obama is considering a "zero option" that would leave no American troops on Afghan soil, Iran is making efforts to position itself as Kabul's key economic and security partner. In the coming months, Tehran's diplomatic maneuvering could decide the stability of Afghanistan, and determine the success of the American withdrawal.
However ambitious Iran may be today, its future is the subject of great speculation. Many analysts forecast that Iran's economy will become increasingly unstable over the next five years. Bank Markazi, Iran's central bank, will struggle to maintain the value of the rial, while its access to foreign exchange is undermined by economic sanctions. SWIFT, an electronic payment system, has already expelled hundreds of Iranian banks, which will prevent the country from repatriating billions of dollars from its oil trade. For a short while, Iran managed to bypass sanctions by selling its fuel oil through United Arab Emirates-based entities, but they were soon shut down under international pressure. Because of EU sanctions, European insurers will be prohibited from insuring Iranian oil shipments anywhere in the world. As a result, Iran will be forced to conduct its oil trades in cash. Countries that continue to buy Iranian oil will provide sovereign guarantees instead of insurance coverage, and will have to pay via gold, cash, or barter.
Iran and Afghanistan
While the economic forecast for Iran is very dull, the country may exert immense political leverage from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Tehran's Afghan policy is likely to become an important part of Iran's regional diplomatic initiatives in the near future. In the longer term, policies with regard to Afghanistan will depend on whether an overhaul of Iran's relations with the United States takes place.
There is no doubt that Iran will try to control the outcome of Afghanistan's presidential elections, which are scheduled for spring 2014, but will most likely be held in the summer. Iran fears that the Taliban may come to power again, which is why any points of pressure on Afghanistan could be of use next year.
Since 2001, when Iran supported the UN-backed effort to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan, relations between the two countries have had their ups and downs. The two have much in common historically and culturally, which is why Iran can rely on strong influence inside Afghanistan, especially in the western and northern provinces such as Herat. The international sanctions levied against Iran in 2006 led to a shift from global to local priorities, and facilitated stronger economic partnership between Iran and Afghanistan. Now that Kabul largely depends on Tehran's benevolence, Iran will use its power (it now provides 25% of all Afghan imports) to control decision making in the country. Iran supplies 50% of all Afghan oil, and in the past, it has resorted to curbing oil supplies for political reasons. There is no reason to think that a new president will refrain from doing the same.
Another vulnerability exploited by Iran is Afghan refugees. Over the years, Tehran learned to use them part of its political games. Some of the 2.5 million Afghan refugees currently living in Iran are periodically expelled from the country. There are claims that Iran may deport 700,000 Afghan asylum seekers by 2015, which could pose a big economic blow to Afghanistan. According to the UN estimates, Afghan refugees send home over $500 million in remittances annually, which amounts to 6% of the Afghan economy. The significance of these remittances will increase in the coming years because international financial operations will decline with the withdrawal of troops. Iran will, therefore, have the chance to use the Afghans on its soil as a major bargaining tool.
Iran and the United States
Many wonder if there is ever going to be a way out of the present deadlock, or if there is room for meaningful dialogue between Iran and the United States. Sanctions can be in place forever, but is there ever going to be cooperation between the two rivals? My answer? It may well happen. In January 2013, Saeed Jalili, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, visited Kabul after spending several days in India. During his visit to Kabul, Jalili met Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who traveled to Washington shortly after for talks with Obama. There have been rumors that Karzai carried a message from the Iranians that presented Iran as a party that could either aid or obstruct the United States' preparations to scale back its operations in Afghanistan. Throughout the next year, Iran will seek to present itself as a potential partner of the United States in stabilizing post-withdrawal Afghanistan. In this context, Afghanistan is only one piece of the bargain, and Iranian policy there will be subject to dynamics within Iranian-United States relations.
Another interesting fact is that there are plans to create a transportation link between the Iranian seaport of Chabahar and Bam, a town on the Iranian-Afghan border from which freight could travel along the India-built highway that goes up to the Afghan city of Delaram, which is home to the U.S. Forward Operating Base. Although there is not sufficient evidence that Iranians see this route as a potential avenue for cooperation, they could not have signed up for this project without considering that their major port would be linked to Delaram. However, there can be no partnership between the United States and Iran while the sanctions are still in place. As mentioned earlier, Iran could obstruct U.S. withdrawal efforts. As such, Tehran's policies could stoke sectarian tensions and destabilize parts of Afghanistan.