Afghan challenge

| Updated on July 11, 2021

India needs Iran to deal with signs of instability in Afghanistan

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s surprise meet last week with Iran’s President-elect Ebrahim Raisi ticks many boxes. It comes at a time of acute uncertainty in Afghanistan in the wake of the ongoing withdrawal of US troops, with reports of the Taliban gaining control in many districts. The concern is whether Afghanistan will once again slip into Taliban control by overwhelming the Afghan government — even as the US has said that it will extend support to the latter. An equally worried Iran convened talks last week between the Afghan government and the Taliban. India had earlier teamed up with the Northern Alliance and Iran to counter the ISI-backed Taliban. Today, its role as a balancing force in the region vis-a-vis China, US, Iran, Russia and Pakistan has come to the fore. Unlike a decade ago, the US is unlikely to rely overly on Pakistan to ensure stability in the region. Pakistan’s record is uninspiring, having abetted non-state actors and providing a safe haven to promoters of terrorism. Pakistan has veered towards China in recent years, with the latter investing in its economic and military infrastructure. Finally, the present Pakistan government is not averse to dabbling with fundamentalist forces. In its overall strategy of containing China, the US needs India as an ally both in West and East Asia. India’s civilian assistance to Afghanistan should continue in this scenario.

China would like a foothold in the trouble-torn country, not least because of its promising reserves of rare earths. An assertive Taliban can trigger unrest among Uighurs in Xinjiang province that neighbours Afghanistan. Russia needs to ensure that the country does not slip into the hands of fundamentalists who in turn can destabilise the CIS countries in its backyard. Its strong, traditional ties with Shia-dominated Iran will come into play here.

Given Iran’s stakes in the region, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the US-Iran nuclear deal — signed in 2015 and scrapped by Donald Trump later who imposed sanctions — may return in a new avatar. Talks, likely to be managed by the EU and UN, could be rocky as Iran may have gone against some of the terms of the 2015 pact. But Iran needs the deal to shake off sanctions and boost its economy. The world needs Iranian oil to boost supplies and cool prices, even if Iran supplies just about 5 per cent of world output. Among India’s oil suppliers, Iran comes third after Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The rupee-rial trade all but collapsed after India stopped buying oil from Iran in May 2019, post sanctions. The rupees accumulated by Iran from sale of oil sustained India’s farm exports, but that has run out. Bilateral trade has fallen from about $17 billion ($13.5 billion imports from Iran, principally of oil at about $11 billion) in 2018-19 to about $2 billion in 2020-21 (Indian exports at $1.7 billion). The US-Iran deal, amidst a restrained Taliban, will bring considerable gains and stability in the region.

Published on July 11, 2021

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