March 30, 2020
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The View From Tehran

The View From Tehran

THE regional countries with "interest and influence" in Afghanistan finally got into the act. At the initiative of Iran, they assembled in Tehran on October 29 and 30, and called for the cessation of both armed hostilities and foreign interference in Afghanistan. The conference urged the warring Afghan factions to settle their differences by peaceful means, through "inter-Afghan negotiations for a durable political solution and the establishment of a broad-based government".

While the declaration may be seen as the first bit in in the diplomatic manoeuvres revolving around Afghanistan, of equal significance was the list of those who attended the conference and those who didn’t. The participants: host Iran, India, Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, representatives of the UN Secretary General and the Organisation of Islamic Conference, and observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Union. The absentees: Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan.

It is no coincidence that the latter two are closely identified with the Taliban. It is widely accepted that the two countries actively supported the student militia-turned-government. Saudi pumped in a lot of money while Islamabad built up the Taliban’s force. It is believed that tactical and logistical support from Pakistan helped the Talibs overrun the areas from Jalalabad to Kabul in September at a speed that surprised most observers.

In fact, the October 22 resolution in the UN Security Council—which denounced violations of human rights and humanitarian law in Afghanistan and called upon outside states to refrain from interference—specifically mentioned that "foreign military personnel" should not get involved there. While Islamabad may not agree that this refers to the role of its men across the country’s western border, it’s a clear sign that the international community is not blind to what’s happening. The resolution was co-sponsored by the US, Russia, the Central Asian republics, Germany, Italy and the UK. Simultaneously, a Pakistani resolution for an arms embargo on Afghanistan was rejected.

The Saudi boycott of the Tehran conference can be traced back to its old rivalry with Iran. Pakistan’s decision to absent itself stemmed from the Iranian invitation to India and Russia. More importantly, the Pakistanis were not too happy about Iran taking this initiative and staying in the forefront of any future diplomatic moves on Afghanistan. They claimed the notice for the meeting was too short. As a matter of fact, the Iranians had been talking about these dates for a regional conference on Afghanistan for the last two months. When Tehran planned this meet, Burhanuddin Rabbani was still sitting comfortably in Kabul. The idea then was to invite only those countries that share a border with Afghanistan, which would have kept out both India and Russia. Iran, as an observer said, was then "riding the crest of a wave". Confident that Rabbani was there to stay, it was also successful in its bid to keep Abdul Rashid Dostum out of the Taliban’s arms. All that changed by end-September, yet Iran went ahead with the meet, with a changed agenda.

The Tehran conference has come has a great opening for India. For one, India has been recognised as a partner in the multilateral dialogue on Afghanistan. That it found no mention in the original list of invitees was something that hadn’t gone down well in New Delhi.

The Tehran meet was held at a time when the going has got tough for the Taliban. Pakistan is worried. Besides, it precedes the UN Secretary General-sponsored conference on Afghanistan, slated to be held in a couple of weeks.

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