Event recap: “Understanding Russian and Iranian perspectives on the Afghan peace process”

On May 28, 2021, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, the Eurasia Center, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty hosted an event to discuss Russian and Iranian perspectives on the Afghan Peace Process. The panelists included: Fatemeh Aman, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute; Irina Lagunina, Special Projects Editor for the Russian Service at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty; and Ambassador Omar Samad, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. Qadir Habib, Director of the Afghan Service for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, moderated the event. 

Key takeaways from the event 

In order to create a lasting peace in Afghanistan, one must not exclude important regional actors, namely Russia and Iran, without whom peace will be impossible. Both Russia and Iran have played similar roles in post-9/11 Afghanistan by supporting the US-led operation and reforming the Afghan government after the collapse of the Taliban until being dissuaded that forging stronger relationships with the Taliban would be in their greater self-interest. US troop withdrawal in September presents an opportunity for renewed involvement of both Russia and Iran in the Afghan peace process. While the Russian and Iranian perspectives on Afghanistan may vary, their interests converge on key topics related to peace and security; and both countries possess leverage with the Taliban, which if given the chance could be used by both states/actors to play a positive role in the political solution to peace. 

Russian perspective on Afghanistan 

According to the Kremlin and Russian media, the US Troop withdrawal is seen as defeat and failure, leaving Afghanistan in chaos. Irina Lagunina highlighted that Russian and US visions for the future Afghanistan differ due to the fact that women’s rights, democracy, and human rights are not essential pillars of peace in the eyes of the Kremlin. Instead, Russia’s primary objective in creating peace in Afghanistan is to foster a state that is not a threat to Russia or Russia’s neighbors, thereby making its renewed interests in Afghanistan geopolitics and security-oriented. If Russia helps to bring an end to the hostility in Afghanistan, it can credit itself as a “deliverer of peace,” an unusual title for President Putin. In terms of security, by supporting peace in Afghanistan, Russia can minimize threats of ISIS’ influence and the spread of terrorism and drug trafficking within its own borders. Radicalization of terrorists from Afghanistan bleeding into Central Asia often penetrates Russian borders through the Central Asian migrant workers in Russia, and thus, by supporting a peaceful Afghanistan and protecting the Central Asian states from ISIS influence, Russia would be protecting itself. 

Iranian perspective on Afghanistan 

Similar to Russia, Iran is also concerned about the security implications surrounding the future of Afghanistan. Iran’s primary concern is the potential influx of insurgent groups that would fill the vacuum as US and foreign troops leave Afghanistan. Given Iran’s close proximity to Afghanistan, Iran is likely to feel the impact if the country slips into civil war, and fears the likely refugee spillover into Iran as a result. Although currently excluded from the Afghan peace process, Fatemeh Aman predicts that Iran will likely become more involved as the US withdraws its troops by September. Ms Aman underscored the importance of Iran, stating that “Iran does have a mediation skill; they can be destructive, but they can use this skill to bring parties together.” While the US may not be too keen on involving Iran, it is a reality that it needs to accept in order to ensure Afghanistan the best chance of a durable peace.

Russian and Iranian support for the Taliban 

Despite fearing the spread of extremism, both Russia and Iran have continued to forge relationships with the Taliban, which in turn have adversely affected their relationships with the US. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which the US starkly disapproved of, Russia and the Taliban began arms deals that grew into increased partnership and support. After being designated as part of the “Axis of Evil,” and having the US blatantly ignore an Iraninan offer for Iran to train Afghan troops, Iran turned to support the Taliban. Both Russia and Iran saw the importance of the Taliban as it re-emerged and became increasingly empowered over the past 10-20 years. With ISIS on the rise, Iran realized the Afghan government’s inability to fight off insurgent groups, and the Russians quickly came to the realization that without including the Taliban in negotiations, peace was not attainable. 

Russian support for the Taliban has been a “win-win,” claims Irina Lagunina citing countering deteriorating relations with the US, making a profit from arms sales, and establishing relations with a group that is becoming continuously more important in the peace process benefits that have come from the relationship. Neither Russia nor Iran classifies the Taliban as an extremist group. Russia specifically views the Taliban as a fundamental group, deserving of a place at the negotiating table when talking about peace in Afghanistan. Russia has also supported the Taliban on the international stage at the United Nations Security Council, stating it would support a resolution to redefine the status of the currently blacklisted Taliban.  While all of the choices moving forward are not ideal, those involved need to make the most optimal decisions with their current realities, or “aim for a solution that is bad, not worse,” according to Ambassador Omar Samad.  The Taliban is a necessary component of the peace process and Russia and Iran’s relationships with the Taliban need to be leveraged moving forward to make progress towards a tangible peace. 

Creating a peaceful Afghanistan, together

When asked if Washington and Moscow can productively work together on Afghanistan, Irina cited Troika as a stepping stone to Russian and US cooperation that is underway. In terms of collaboration on Afghanistan as a whole, Lagunina stated, “Russia and the United States have mutual interests and have all the possibilities to be working together.” 

Throughout the conversation, Afghan Ambassador Omar Samad highlighted the Afghan perspective and discussed the way forward in Afghanistan through a political settlement that “rebalances politics, economics, integration and access to rights” in Afghanistan. Ambassador Omar Samad and Ms Fatemeh Aman also stressed the importance of the regional component of the Afghan peace process. Ms Aman expressed the importance of not excluding Iran, and Ambassador Samad discussed how “A regional component is the only solution left for Afghanistan short of chaos and civil war” and how if achieved, the ideal outcome would lead to Afghanistan serving as the heart of regional connectivity between South and Central Asia. If a regional component to the Afghan peace process comes to fruition, Russia and Iran should be recognized as key actors who have the ability to play a positive role by leveraging their relationships with the Taliban and neighboring countries, specifically Russia’s relationship with Pakistan.

Emily Carll is a project assistant at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a 2020 graduate of Stony Brook University. In the fall of 2021, she will participate in a Fulbright grant to Serbia and has previously participated in the US Foreign Service Internship Program at the US Department of State working in Washington D.C. and at the US embassy in the Kyrgyz Republic.

The South Asia Center (SAC) is the hub for the Atlantic Council’s analysis of the political, social, geographical, and cultural diversity of the region. ​

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Image: Officials, including Afghan former President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban's deputy leader and negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, attend the Afghan peace conference in Moscow, Russia March 18, 2021. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS