Angling for Advantage: Iran’s Differential Approach to Southern Asia
Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.
As a revolutionary state, Iran’s grand strategy is perennially torn between the rigid imperatives of ideological consistency and practical considerations of its national interests. Since the onset of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iranian leaders have struggled to achieve a balance between these currents in the pursuit of broader objectives in the surrounding regions. The result has been a demonstrably different foreign policy approach to Southern Asia than to the Middle East.
In the resource-rich, Arab-dominated Middle East, Iran’s long-term strategic aim has been to resist the emergence of a powerful U.S.-backed Sunni coalition that could challenge the Islamic Republic’s pan-Islamic appeal and ambitions. Since the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iranian leaders have consistently linked the survival of their regime with successful resistance of a U.S.-Sunni Arab-Israel axis, which they regard as obstinately bent on overthrowing it. To this end, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – the regime’s praetorian guards and chief purveyors of its revolutionary mission – have over the years cultivated a resilient network of Shi’a militant groups and political parties stretching from southwestern Iraq to the shores of the Mediterranean (the so-called “Shi’a Crescent”). This strategy has played a significant role in the intensification of conflicts along sectarian lines since the onset of the Arab uprisings in 2010, but IRGC commanders have framed it as merely the fulfillment of their revolutionary duties to fellow Shi’a Muslims. They have been especially open about their financial, military, and intelligence support for the Hezbollah-Assad nexus, which offers the Islamic Republic a major strategic foothold in the Levant.
In contrast, Iran’s approach toward Southern Asia has been defined by entirely different geopolitical considerations. First, none of its Southern Asian neighbors pose a threat to the survival of the Islamic regime in Tehran. Whereas major Arab states such as Saudi Arabia have periodically, and at times rather conspicuously, provided support to groups seeking regime change in Tehran, no such existential rivalry for Iran – in either sectarian or strategic terms – has materialized in Southern Asia. As such, the region induces a sense of strategic opportunity, rather than existential angst, in Iranian leaders’ imaginations.
Second, as compared to the resource-rich Middle East, Iran is uniquely positioned to redress glaring energy deficits across Southern Asia thanks to its comparative advantages in the natural gas and petrochemical sectors. Tehran has long sought the development of joint-energy ventures with India and Pakistan in order to diversify its client base and secure a steady flow of revenues outside of the largely oil-based fields in its western Khuzestan province. In crude economic terms, incentives for deepening cooperation abound.
Lastly, ethno-cultural affinities between Iran and its neighbors in the region – in languages, customs, tradecraft, cuisines, etc. – remain remarkably resilient and do not lend themselves easily to binary distinctions in sectarian or ethnic terms as they have in the Middle East. A sense of shared civilizational heritage – however tenuous – has long conditioned Iran’s strategic relationships in Southern Asia. These factors have created a preference for diplomacy and policy coordination over coercive measures in Afghanistan, and the expansion of trade, commercial investments, and cultural ties with India and Pakistan, Iran’s main interlocutors in Southern Asia.
To be sure, this differential approach has not always been effectively applied nor entirely fruitful in delivering on Iran’s objectives in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. For one thing, the countries that act as checks on Iran’s geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East – Saudi Arabia and the United States – have for the most part also restrained them in Southern Asia. For another, contingent factors such as the changing security landscape in Afghanistan and the ebb and flow of India-Pakistan relations have at times severely limited Iran’s options and choice of partners. All the same, on balance, Tehran has pursued non-ideological, non-sectarian ends in Southern Asia. Iranian leaders of various political stripes have consistently resisted framing their troubles in the region in similar existential terms as they have in the Middle East.
Iran’s prudence in Afghanistan has been on display since shortly after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, when Iran played a key role at the Bonn Conference in uniting disparate Afghan factions behind the U.S.-backed interim government of then-President Hamid Karzai. Since then, Iranian leaders have been deeply invested in the stability of the central government in Kabul, which is crucial for combating Sunni extremist groups that otherwise could use Afghanistan as a staging ground for operations against Iranian targets.
The most serious threat of this kind to date has been from the Islamic State affiliate, Khorasan Province, which has targeted both Iranian interests and Afghan government forces in recent years. Iran’s response has been measured, simultaneously boosting its security cooperation with the Afghan government (dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and Sunnis, hardly natural allies of Tehran’s) and even working with the Taliban to counter the influence of non-Afghan Sunni insurgents in the country. In the latter case, not only have Iranian leaders allowed the Taliban to open a regional office in the city of Zahedan in southeast Iran, but they also made a point of hosting several senior Taliban figures in an “Islamic Unity” conference in late 2016.
Given the staying power of the Taliban and its networks of support in Pakistan, Iranian leaders have reconciled themselves to a future role for the group in the Afghan government. Rather than alienating the Taliban, Tehran has resolved to cultivate them in hopes of curtailing Saudi influence (via Pakistan) in the region. Ultimately, the chief aim of this dual approach is to ensure that Iran is regarded by all Afghan factions as a more reliable ally than the United States, whose long military engagement, as pointed out by Christopher Clary in this series, continues to be beset by strategic incoherence. Iran’s treatment of the Taliban starkly contrasts with its actions in the Middle East, where it has declined to acknowledge the political relevance (let alone legitimacy) of Sunni opposition groups in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen – even when cooperation with such groups may indeed result in the cessation of hostilities and foster stability.
Security considerations are compounded by the longstanding struggle against narcotics trafficking that has inflicted heavy losses on both Iran’s and Afghanistan’s police, intelligence, and military units. According to the United Nations’ 2016 World Drug Report, despite leading the world in the seizure of opiates, Iran remains a major artery for trafficking Afghan-cultivated drugs to the Middle East and Europe. But far from being a passive victim of trafficking, it is widely believed that the IRGC exploits the drug trade to fund its own illicit activities in both Southern Asia and the Middle East. For instance, in 2012 the U.S. Treasury Department designated a senior IRGC general an overseer of heroin trafficking in Afghanistan. Recent reports suggest that the IRGC are using drugs and money to supply the Houthi rebels in Yemen with missiles and other armaments.
The IRGC has also sought to take advantage of the swelling number of Afghan refugees inside Iran – numbered nearly 3 million – by offering undocumented young Afghans cash payments or citizenship in exchange for fighting alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria. Iranian leaders have openly heralded this policy, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the commander of IRGC’s elite Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, publicly praising and visiting the families of the nearly 1,000 Afghan recruits killed in Syria. While it is difficult to predict the long-term implications of this policy among the Afghan diaspora in Iran, it indicates Tehran’s determination to exploit displaced Afghans’ limited options to its strategic benefit. It also sheds light on Iran’s differential strategy in Southern Asia and the Middle East that it would be so keen on training Afghans for sectarian ends in Syria – the Iranian government has included them in a paramilitary cohort called “The Defenders of the Sayeda Zainab Shrine” – while adopting a decidedly non-sectarian policy by supporting both Sunni and Shi’a factions inside Afghanistan.
Iran has applied the same strategy to Pakistan and India where, despite numerous deadly clashes between Sunni, Shi’a, and Hindu populations, Iran has refrained from providing any support to the Shi’a or Muslim communities beyond perfunctory calls for reconciliation. This hands-off approach has been especially notable in the case of Pakistan, given that its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has nurtured not only Sunni extremist groups in Afghanistan, but also allegedly funding the avowedly anti-Iran irredentist terror groups, Jundullah and Jaysh al-Adl, which operate along the border with Iran (in Baluchistan). Although some observers have warned that skirmishes between these groups and Iranian military units could eventually break out into full-blown warfare, it is clear that such flashpoints are deeply entwined in the regional web of drug trafficking that both the IRGC and the ISI oversee and even regulate. In fact, when clashes have occurred, both Iran and Pakistan take special care to communicate their intentions clearly with one another so as not to engender misperceptions. Moreover, both countries share an interest in combatting Baluchi separatism on their respective sides of the border.
Pakistan and the Saudi Factor
A possible obstacle to Iran’s cooperation with Pakistan is the latter’s close strategic ties with Saudi Arabia. The two countries have a longstanding history of military and intelligence cooperation, and the Saudis have long cultivated an influential network of ultra-conservative Sunni mosques and madrasas across the country. This combination of financial and soft power has indeed at times compelled some observers to wonder if Pakistan isn’t merely a proxy of Saudi Arabia’s in the Kingdom’s intense rivalry with Iran. At delicate stages of the nuclear negotiations between Iran and major world powers in 2015, for instance, rumors even swirled about a possible Saudi “off the shelf” acquisition of nuclear weapons from Pakistan in the event the Iranians walk away with a favorable deal. More recently, the appointment of the former chief of Pakistan’s army, General Raheel Sharif, as the leader of the Saudi-led anti-terror coalition – widely regarded as mostly an anti-Iran coalition – renewed worries about unhealable rifts with Iran imposed on Pakistan by Saudi Arabia.
But such speculation ignores the fact that both Tehran and Islamabad have for the most part managed their relationship in a manner consistent with their own strategic goals. For instance, despite enormous pressure from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s parliament rejected proposals to join the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen in 2015. Similarly, although Gen. Sharif was eventually approved by parliament, his appointment was opposed by major opposition parties in a bold rebuke of pro-Saudi factions. Pakistan’s major English daily, Dawn, explained the rationale rather bluntly, averring:
Not only can Pakistan not afford to be part of an overtly sectarian military alliance, membership and leadership of the [Islamic Military Alliance] is inimical to the historical and future strategic interests of this country. While a close relationship with Saudi Arabia is warranted, better relations with Iran are necessary too. Pakistan shares a border with Iran… [and] Iran can help Pakistan mitigate a persistent deficit of affordable energy.
Iranian leaders have expressed empathy for Pakistan’s difficult position vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in light of their own expanding relations with India. They have sought to overcome these challenges by focusing instead on deepening economic ties with Pakistan through industrial and energy cooperation. On the industrial side, Tehran has made it amply clear that it would grant Pakistan contracts to develop its economically impoverished border areas into industrial zones as part of Pakistan’s lucrative infrastructure pact with China, formally dubbed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The cornerstone of the bilateral energy agenda has been the agreement to construct a joint pipeline that would carry natural gas from Iran’s South Pars gas fields to Karachi. (The proposal initially had India as a major partner and destination as well, but Indian officials withdrew in 2009 over pricing and security concerns.) However, although Iran has completed the necessary construction on its side of the border, no such progress has been made on the Pakistani side, prompting some Iranian officials to openly question its feasibility. Pakistani officials have cited existing and possible future sanctions against various Iranian entities involved with the project as the reason for the delays on their side. But the real reason might well be Saudi and U.S. opposition to the pipeline, which those countries believe would boost Iran’s profile as a major energy player in Southern Asia.
Pakistan’s wavering on energy cooperation – perhaps at the behest of American and Saudi interests – has compelled Iran to further develop its ties with India. Although India-Iran relations have been periodically tested by conflicting geopolitical and ideological commitments – e.g. India’s ties with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, or Iran’s vocal support of Muslims in Kashmir – these differences have ultimately proven immaterial to the pursuit of common goals such as regional stability and economic cooperation. As such, in contrast to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the choice of pragmatism presents itself more naturally to Iranian leaders in the case of India.
The combination of India’s rising economic status and Iran’s post-nuclear deal emergence from international isolation has resulted in the resetting of relations based on economic and energy cooperation. New Delhi was among the first foreign capitals that Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited after the conclusion of the nuclear deal, and it was soon followed by an all-business trip by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Tehran in May 2016, which resulted in a host of economic agreements between the two countries. In the wake of these high-profile visits, India has restored its purchase of Iranian oil to pre-sanctions levels and settled its $6.5 billion debt to Iran for unpaid oil shipments it received between 2012 and 2016.
Most notably, as part of Modi’s visit, India agreed to invest $500 million to develop Iran’s Chabahar port, providing it with an alternate transit route (bypassing Pakistan) through Afghanistan. The implementation of the landmark trilateral agreement, much like the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project, has been slowed due to concerns about possible future sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Moreover, the expansion of India’s ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel since Modi’s visit to Tehran may have tempered the early enthusiasm for full-scale cooperation. Twice during Modi’s recent visit to Israel, for example, Khamenei conspicuously linked the plight of the Palestinians with those of Muslims in Kashmir. Nevertheless, as keen observers of India-Iran relations have observed, a mutual dependence on energy and infrastructure development will likely keep the Chabahar project and other trade and commercial agreements on a steady track in the long run.
The Persistence of Pragmatism
In contrast to the Middle East, Iran’s foreign policy goals in Southern Asia are largely determined by mutual interests in regional stability and economic cooperation. Iranian leaders have made concerted efforts not to challenge the status quo in the region as they have done with the Sunni-Arab order in the Middle East. Still, Iran’s twin anxieties – Saudi-financed anti-Iran coalitions and U.S. counter-balancing measures – continue to affect the scope and depth of its relations with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
All the same, Iranian leaders’ deliberate eschewing of radical ideological pursuits in favor of pragmatism and constructive engagement have engendered new openings, which, if attended to carefully, could indeed secure Iran’s comparative advantages in energy resources for the foreseeable future.
Hussein Banai is an assistant professor in international studies at the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University-Bloomington.