Iranian diplomacy has seen major shifts since Hassan Rouhani became the president of the Islamic Republic this year. Rouhani became the first Iranian president to speak with an American president when he and Barack Obama talked by phone in September. He has also led a robust diplomacy geared to settle Tehran’s longstanding nuclear dispute with the West.
Now Rouhani has turned his attention to neighboring Afghanistan, and experts say after years of hostility, Iran is taking a somewhat softer line towards its neighbor.
Under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Tehran overtly opposed the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Iran was even accused of trying to sabotage the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed by President Barrack Obama and President Hamid Karzai in May 2012.
In March 2010, during a visit to Kabul, Ahmadinejad blamed the United States for the war in Afghanistan.
"Why is it that those who say they want to fight terrorism are never successful? I think it is because they are the ones who are playing a double game…what are you even doing in this area? You are from 10,000 kilometers over there. Your country is on the other side of the world. What are you doing here," Ahmadinejad said.
This week in Kabul, elders and important Afghans will gather in a traditional assembly known as loya jirga to vote on a security agreement that will define the U.S. – Afghan relationship once combat troops withdraw next year. But this time Tehran is not voicing public opposition.
Last week Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ibrahim Rahimpor, met President Karzai in Kabul. A press release issued by the Iranian embassy in Kabul following the meeting emphasized enhanced cooperation between Kabul and Tehran but made no mention of any U.S. military presence.
Afghanistan: a test case
Mohsin Melani, a professor of diplomatic studies at the University of South Florida says Tehran’s language towards Afghanistan reflects Rouhani’s desire to improve relations with the West.
“Iranian policy towards Afghanistan has always been based on the nature of Iran’s relations with the U.S. at least for the Islamic Republic, Afghanistan has been an important country in which both Iran and the U.S. have major strategic interests,” he said.
Melani added that Afghanistan could prove an area where the U.S. and Iran could test their improved ties.
“Now, the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, at least on rhetorical level, has changed - after the telephone conversation between President Obama and President Rouhani. There is an attempt by both Washington and Tehran to see if they can agree on certain common objectives and goals and I am not surprised that the language of Tehran about Afghanistan has somehow changed.”
In the Islamic Republic all major decisions, including changes in foreign policy, have to be approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Ahmad Khalid Majidyar, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute says the recent softening tone coming from Tehran about the U.S. presence next door must have been endorsed by Khamenei.
“Major decisions concerning Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon are made by the Revolutionary Guards and particularly by the Quds Special Forces. Major foreign policy issues have also to be approved by the Leader of Iran, Mr. Khamenei. The president cannot change Iran’s policies in the region unilaterally,” he said.
For years, President Karzai has tried to balance competing foreign interests in his war-ravaged country.
Emal Faizi, a spokesman for President Karzai, told VOA’s Dari Radio that the U.S.-Afghan talks have been difficult because as he puts it some “regional states” had opposed long-term U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. Karzai he says has tried to convince Tehran that it is in Iran’s interest to have stability inside Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan must not be a fighting ground for the rivals of Iran. Instead Afghanistan and the rival countries can create an environment of cooperation and all can cooperate in Afghanistan.”
In the past, U.S. and NATO officials had accused elements in the Iranian regime of providing munitions to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan – something Tehran has denied.
Iran did strongly oppose the Sunni Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 1990s and cooperated with U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban in 2001.
So what exactly does Tehran want in Afghanistan as the U.S. is ending its longest war there?
Mohsin Milani says Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are varied.
“Number one, from an Iranian point of view both from the time of Shah and the Islamic Republic, Iran wants an Afghanistan that does not pose a national security threat to Iran. Secondly, I think Iran has invested heavily in the reconstruction of Afghanistan and they want to make sure that whatever government is there, it does not impede the Iranian’s involvement. Finally, Iran wants to make sure that its allies both elements of the Northern Alliance and the Hazaras, Shiites and others are not marginalized in Afghanistan,” he said.
Iran’s softer line towards Afghanistan could be tested soon as the six world powers and Iran meet to discuss how Iran can curb its nuclear enrichment activity, in return for a partial lifting of crippling economic sanctions. If the talks succeed Rouhani’s new conciliatory policies towards Afghanistan would likely be continued. But, if the talks fail and Iran sees no end to the sanctions that are destroying its economy, Tehran’s tone will likely change and neighboring Afghanistan will feel the repercussions.