Analysts and policy makers are deeply concerned that the Taliban will not accept Afghanistan’s democratic political system and not respect women’s rights and religious and ethnic tolerance especially in the context of the Shia and the Hazara. They believe that the Taliban want to establish an Islamic Emirate and implement Sharia Law as they did in the past. In the most optimistic scenario, the Taliban might accept a democratic system, but they will behave as winners and will want to exert significant influence if not outright control in the inclusive national unity government (Allen 2020; Felbab-Brown 2020; Riedel 2020). The worst fears were reaffirmed when on 25 March 2020, during a speech to Taliban supporters in Baluchistan, Pakistan, Mullah Fazel, former top Taliban military commander and senior member of Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha stated, ‘The Amir or leader of [a future government] will be ours. There will be an Islamic Emirate, and there will be a system based on Shari’a [Islamic law]’ (Siddique 2020).
The establishment of an Islamic Emirate by the Taliban by using military means or a national unity government dominated by the Taliban with little or no constraints from other Afghan factions is a threat to Iran’s national security and is against its interests not only in Afghanistan but also in Central Asia. This will bring Iran in conflict with Pakistan (and some Arab countries in the Middle East), a key supporter(s) of the Taliban. Additionally, the continued persecution of Shia and the Hazara by the Taliban (either in an Islamic Emirate or in a national unity government) will most likely force Iran to intervene in Afghanistan. The deterioration in US–Iran relations (as evidenced under the Trump administration)Footnote 12 and the heightening of tensions between the two countries in the Persian Gulf might force Iran to use its proxies against the US in Afghanistan. It might continue to use its proxies against the US in Afghanistan as long as US troops are in the country.
Pakistan was instrumental in the formation of the Taliban after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Pakistan’s Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency), have provided arms, training, and political and diplomatic support to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, a fact admitted by Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan (Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) 2019). After the Taliban was overthrown, it provided sanctuary to Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership, and most of the Taliban fighters found refuge in the tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistan seeks strategic depth in Afghanistan in its rivalry with India.Footnote 13 To achieve its goals in Afghanistan, Pakistan has supported the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other terror proxies including anti-India terrorist organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jasih-e-Mohammad, Harkat-ul-Ansar, Hizbul Mujahideen and others (operating in India and Afghanistan which have links with the Taliban, the Haqqani network and Al-Qaeda) (Fair 2014; Verma 2020a).
Pakistan played a key role in opening up a channel for the US to contact the Taliban for talks. If the talks fail, Pakistan is well positioned to use the Taliban to influence events in Afghanistan. If the intra-Afghan dialogue is successful, Pakistan will still play a pivotal role to ensure the agreement is implemented in letter and spirit. Pakistan has never wavered from its policy of seeking strategic depth and a pliant regime in Afghanistan favorable to Pakistan. Hence, in all eventualities, Pakistan is best placed to meet its strategic and security objectives relative to other countries in the region.
Iran is aware of Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan and the strategies adopted by Pakistan to achieve its objectives. Iran has developed close ties with the Taliban to counter the US in Afghanistan. Additionally, there is a realization in Tehran that peace and stability cannot be restored in Afghanistan until the Taliban is part of the national government in Afghanistan. However, Tehran is completely against the formation of an Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan. It is also against a Taliban led/dominated national unity government. It prefers a minimalist participation of the Taliban in the national unity government with other Afghan factions having the ability to constrain the group (Akbarzadeh and Ibrahimi 2020). Taliban’s Wahabi/Salafi extremist version of Islam is a threat to Iran’s ideology. The Taliban is anti-Shia and anti-Iran. The Taliban also negatively impact Iran’s security and national interests. Iran never recognized the Taliban regime during 1996–2001, and even aided the US and other countries to topple the Taliban regime in 2001.
Pakistan’s preference for the Taliban to be at the helm of affairs in Kabul puts Iran at odds with Pakistan.Footnote 14 Also, in the last couple of years, Pakistan has shown a propensity to side with Saudi Arabia in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, a fact not lost on Iran. An influential Pakistan (via the Taliban or otherwise) in Afghanistan will undermine Iran’s role and interests in Afghanistan and the wider region. (Barzegar 2014). This will in all likelihood force Tehran to intervene in Afghanistan and support other factions in Afghanistan especially the Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Hazaras which will lead to a civil war in the country, reminiscent of the civil war after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Iran and Pakistan have had good political, security and economic relations (Barzegar 2014).Footnote 15 However, there is a lack of trust between the two countries. They have border conflicts and have exchanged fire in the border areas. Iran has compromised Pakistan’s sovereignty by undertaking ‘hot pursuit’ in Pakistani territory to destroy militant hideouts and killed Pakistani citizens (Basit 2018). It has also undertaken covert operations in Pakistan to support Shia who have been frequently attacked by Sunni terrorist organizations (Destradi 2015). Both countries blame each other for supporting NSAs to flame separatist tendencies in their respective Baluchistan province. Pakistan has also been peeved by strengthening Iran-India ties (Basit 2018). It has blamed Iran for not acting against Baluch separatists operating from Iran. In April 2019, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi blamed Iran for the terrorist attack on a bus in Baluchistan which killed 14 Pakistani security personnel (Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFERL) 2019). On 13 May 2020, General Qamar Bajwa, Chief of Pakistan’s Army warned Iran not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the country and to take action against Baluch separatists based in Iran after six Pakistani soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack close to the Iran-Pakistan border (Ahmed 2020). This highlights the tensions and mistrust between the two countries (Rehman 2014).Footnote 16
Iran has grave concerns regarding the Sunni/Salafi terrorist organizations (Taliban and Al-Qaeda supported by Pakistan) operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Daesh) which have conducted attacks against Iran and Iranian interests in Afghanistan (Shams 2019). These organizations not only threaten the territorial integrity of Iran but also regional security and stability. Jundallah, a Sunni terrorist organization formed in 2003 and based in south-eastern Iran, has undertaken numerous attacks in Iran and killed and kidnapped civilians and soldiers especially from Iran’s elite IRGC (Rehman 2014; Barzegar 2014). The group aims to fight for the rights of the Sunni Baluch people living in south-east of Iran who have faced religious and sectarian persecution in the country (Hardy 2010).Footnote 17
Iran has openly blamed the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Taliban for supporting Jundallah (Hardy 2010; Rehman 2014; Basit 2018). Iranian officials have also stated that Pakistan (on Saudi Arabia’s insistence) has provided support to the organization but Iran has not confronted Pakistan over the issue (Rehman 2014; Basit 2018). Recently, Jaish al-Adl, a Salafi group which is alleged to have links with Al-Qaeda, has also undertaken terrorist attacks in Iran.Footnote 18 Iran has warned Pakistan to take action against the group after a suicide attack in Sistan-Baluchistan province in Iran killed 27 members of the elite IRGC (Regencia 2019). It claims that both the groups are based in Baluchistan, Pakistan.Footnote 19 Iran asserts that the two Baluch organizations, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan use drug trafficking to fund their operations which leads to protracted violence and generates instability (Rehman 2014; Barzegar 2014). Tehran has also blamed Islamabad for the massacre of Shias in Pakistan by Sunni organizations such as LeJ, Sipah-e-Sahiba-Pakistan and Jundallah,Footnote 20 (affiliated with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and based in Pakistan) (Fair 2014; Shams 2019). The persistence of Baluch insurgency on both sides of Iran’s border may lead to Iranian intervention which will undermine peace and stability in Afghanistan and the wider region.
Shia in Afghanistan
The Hazaras who are predominantly ShiaFootnote 21 are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan after the Pashtuns and the Tajiks. They constitute approximately 15% of the population of Afghanistan. It is the most marginalized and the poorest ethnic group. Thousands of Hazaras migrated to Iran after the Taliban came to power in 1996. The Taliban along with Daesh consider Shia Muslims as heretics.Footnote 22 There is both an ethnic and religious dimension to the atrocities against the Hazara. In 1998, the Taliban perpetrated one of the worst massacres in the history of Afghanistan when they killed 2,000 ethnic Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif.Footnote 23 Hundreds of Hazaras were also killed in 2000–2001 in Bamiyan Province in central Afghanistan (Alizada 2019).
In the 2018 Taliban offensive in Uruzgan Provinces, dozens of Hazara civilians were killed and 500 Hazara families were forced to leave their homes. In November 2018, in Taliban attacks in Jaghori and Malistan districts in Ghanzi Province, 67 Hazaras were killed and 60%–70% of the people living in the Hazara dominated districts were displaced (Alizada 2019). The group has also kidnapped and killed Hazaras in Ghazni Province for some time (Adili and van Bijlert 2018). The Taliban attacks led to a very swift and strong reaction from the Hazara community. This pressurized the Afghan government to take action. The Hazaras (especially in Kabul) raised money to buy weapons for the local Hazaras in Jaghori and Malistan, and Hazara militias from other areas also reached the districts to fight against the Taliban. This clearly indicates that the Hazaras do not trust the government and will take arms to protect themselves. Analysts assert that the Taliban had been planning for a long time to capture Hazara areas to increase their influence and revenues, and sow discord between the Hazaras and the Afghan government (Adili and van Bijlert 2018).
There are concerns that a return of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s political system either as an Islamic Emirate or a dominant player in the national unity government due to the peace deal will again lead to mass killings. The Taliban have continued to conduct terrorist attacks and suicide bombings against the Hazara community. Additionally, if the Taliban are a part of the democratic political system, it will most likely not prevent attacks against Hazara rallies, shrines and mosques by Daesh (Zucchino and Faizi 2019). Thus, the US–Taliban peace deal will lead to repression rather than peace. The Hazara community will never accept Taliban rule. They have made rapid strides since 2001. The Hazaras are more liberal than the Taliban with majority of the girls attending school. More Hazara boys receive education relative to other ethnic groups (Bezhan 2018). The Hazara community has decided to take arms to protect themselves against the Taliban if the peace deal brings the latter into the government or the Taliban tries to establish an Islamic Emirate (Zucchino and Faizi 2019; Aljazeera 2021).
Recently, the Taliban have tried to build bridges with the Hazaras. It is trying to send a message that it is no longer against the community. On 22 April 2020, the Taliban appointed Maulvi Mahdi, a Hazara, as the head of Balkhab district in Sar-i-Pul, a Shia dominated area. Analysts perceive this as a diplomatic move on the part of the Taliban to attract support with the intra-Afghan dialogue in mind. They assert that the Taliban is trying to win legitimacy among other ethnic groups in Afghanistan and portray themselves as a national movement. The Hazara have also acknowledged the change in the politics and ideology of the Taliban (Mehsud 2020). Others assert that appointment of Mahdi is an attempt to woo Iran which supports the Taliban (Kumar 2020). The Taliban have been successful in co-opting people from the Tajik and Uzbek communities but have no influence over the Hazaras. The killings of Hazaras in Ghazni and Uruzgan Provinces belies Taliban’s commitment towards establishing harmonious relations with the Hazaras (Adili and van Bijlert 2018). If the Taliban become a part of the coalition government or establish an Islamic Emirate, and attacks continue against the Hazaras, Iran—which views itself as the protector of Shias across the world—might be forced to intervene in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia which support the Taliban will also get involved in the conflict thus turning Afghanistan into a battleground for regional rivals.
Iran along with Russia, India and Tajikistan backed the Tajik led Northern Alliance in the civil-war in Afghanistan. Iran welcomed the US and NATO invasion of Afghanistan and along with the Northern Alliance provided intelligence and military assistance to oust the Taliban. Tehran benefitted significantly from the overthrow of the Taliban regime and expanded political, diplomatic and economic relations with Kabul. US–Iran relations remained tense due to Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East and its nuclear program. Bilateral relations hit the nadir when President George Bush included Iran along with North Korea and Iraq in the ‘axis of evil’ in January 2002. Bush also referred to Pakistan as the US’ closest non-NATO ally which raised Iran’s suspicions with respect to Pakistan and the US. The second Bush administration remained silent on Pakistan’s support to the Talban but continued to charge Iran for supporting the group. The US views Iran’s engagement in Afghanistan as a zero-sum game and has tried to reduce Iran’s political, security and economic engagement in Afghanistan (Barzegar 2014).
Iran has been suspicious of US troops in Afghanistan. It has been apprehensive that the US will use its presence in Afghanistan to project influence into Iran and Central Asia, and also drive a wedge between Iran and Afghanistan. Iran developed relations with the Taliban to keep the US troops away from Iran’s borders. After the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, it provided refuge to families of Osama bin Laden and senior Al-Qaeda leaders fleeing from Afghanistan. It also provided training and sophisticated military equipment to some Taliban groups to combat the US and NATO troops. At the same time, Iran continued to provide political and diplomatic support and development assistance to the Afghan government (Akbarzadeh and Ibrahimi 2020).
After the emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan in 2015 and deterioration of relations with the US under the Trump administration, Iran-Taliban relations took a new dimension. It provided sanctuary to the group’s leadership and cadres, aid and arms and ammunition to the Taliban to not only combat Daesh, but also the US and NATO troops. It even opened a liaison office for the Taliban in Zahedan and later in Mashhad which led to the establishment of the Mashhad Shura (council).Footnote 24 In October 2016, it even supported a Taliban offensive in Farah City, the provincial capital of Farah Province, in which four Iranian commandos died. Iran has adopted a policy of ‘forward defense’ that is to fight Daesh in other countries before it threatens Iran. For a long time, Tehran rejected or downplayed the importance of its ties and influence over the Taliban. However, recently Iran has publicly accepted its links with the Taliban (Akbarzadeh and Ibrahimi 2020).
Iran has rejected the US–Taliban peace deal calling it illegitimate and a pretext for the US to legitimize the presence of its forces in Afghanistan. It has stated that true and lasting peace in Afghanistan can only come through intra-Afghan dialogue and if interests of Afghanistan’s neighbours are taken into account (Reuters 2020). The Afghan government is concerned that US–Iran tensions will lead to a spike in violence in the region, and Afghanistan may become an arena for a US–Iran proxy war which will hinder the peace process. After General Qaseem Soleimani’s (former head of IRGC-Quds Force) assassination, President Ghani announced Afghanistan’s neutrality and stated that the country will not allow its territory to be used for strikes against a third country or in a regional conflict (Mashal 2020).
After Soleimani’s death, Iran sought Taliban’s help to increase the intensity of attacks against the US forces in northern and western Afghanistan. On 28 January 2020, Taliban allegedly claimed to have shot down a US-E11 surveillance aircraft reportedly carrying Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) official D’Andrea who oversaw CIA operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. The shooting down of the plane was attributed to Iranian assistance (Bhatia 2020).Footnote 25 There is a realization in the US that Iran may pose a serious threat to reduced US forces in Afghanistan and also hinder the Afghan Peace process (Middle East Online 2020).
Iran–US tensions were further exacerbated in April 2020 when Trump ordered the US Navy to ‘shoot down’ Iranian boats harassing US warships. On 23 April, General Hossein Salami, Commander in Chief of IRGC ordered the Iranian Navy to destroy any US ship ‘that threatens the security of Iran's military or civilian shipping’ (Marcus 2020). There were fears that war of words might lead to military action or accidental conflict which does not bode well for peace and security in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Although analysts and experts are of the opinion that Iran-US relations might improve under the Biden administration, there are concerns that the bilateral relations will remain tense as long as Iran follows a revolutionary foreign policy, and the US tries to contain Iran’s rise (especially Iran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons) and continues to check Iran’s expanding influence in the region. Domestic politics in Iran and the US might also negatively impact relations and prevent/delay the US from re-joining the nuclear deal. At this point in time, both sides are sending signals and trying to gauge each other. The deterioration in the bilateral relationship may also lead to tensions between the two countries in Afghanistan.Footnote 26
How can Iran be a spoiler in Afghanistan?
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Iran has expanded its influence in Afghanistan. It has employed diplomatic, economic and military tools to meet its objectives and expand influence. Iran has primarily relied on soft power tools such as cultural diplomacy, information gathering, economic aid, trade, investment in business and infrastructure development. However, Iran can call upon significant military assets and instruments to intervene in Afghanistan and secure its interests.Footnote 27
Iran through the IRGC recruited tens of thousands of Shia fighters when the civil war started in Syria in 2011.Footnote 28 Since 2012/2013, Iran has recruited thousands of Hazaras and Afghans living in Iran and formed the Fatemiyoun Brigade.Footnote 29 The Fatemiyoun have fought alongside Russian forces, the Syrian Army, other pro-Assad Syrian militias, the Hezbollah and the Zaynabiyoun Brigade (Jamal 2019). Estimates vary about the strength of the brigade with some sources claiming 5,000–20,000 fighters and others 40,000–60,000 fighters.Footnote 30 It also includes veterans of the Abuzar Brigade, an Afghan Shia militia which fought alongside Iran in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Ismail Qaani, the new head of the elite IRGC Quds ForceFootnote 31 played a significant role in the formation of Fatemiyoun Brigade. He was also involved in providing military, financial and logistical support to the Northern Alliance which was fighting the Taliban in the 1990s. As the civil war in Syria has ebbed, the Shia fighters have returned to Iran and Afghanistan. According to Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, approximately 2500–3500 fighters have returned to Afghanistan (Bezhan 2020). Another report states that 10,000 fighters have retuned (Hamidi 2019). Most of these fighters are settled in the Hazara dominated central Afghanistan and western Afghanistan bordering Iran (Bezhan 2020).
According to some analysts, Iran can use the battle-hardened Fatemiyoun militia to meet its objectives in Afghanistan (Juneau 2020; Hamidi 2019; Gannon 2019). Iran can use its proxies against the US troops stationed in Afghanistan and other US interests, the Taliban (if the group assumes power in Afghanistan and continues to persecute the Shia and the Hazaras) and Daesh (which considers Shia Muslims as its mortal enemy) (Clarke and Tabatabi 2020). According to Marine General Frank McKenzie, the top US commander for the Middle East, Iran can use its proxies against the US in Afghanistan and the wider region (Jamal 2019). IRGC-Quds Force can use the most elite members of the Fatemiyoun for covert operations and terrorist attacks in Afghanistan (Clarke and Tabatabi 2020). Some analysts assert that Iran has already started deploying Fatemiyoun fighters in AfghanistanFootnote 32; it is making preparations for Taliban’s return to power in a post-US Afghanistan. Arif Rahmani, a member of Parliament in Afghanistan says, if the Fatemiyoun organize themselves into an armed group, ‘neither the government nor the Shia-Hazara community will be able to stop them’ (Jamal 2019).
Iran can also fall back on other Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek militias which it had supported in Afghanistan in the 1980s–1990s (Bezhan 2020). In 1988, Iran formed the Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami or Islamic Unity Party, an amalgamation of seven Shia groups fighting against the Soviets. It further strengthened the group and continued to support it in Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s. Iran has continued to support the Northern Alliance which is a central part of the National Front, the opposition in the Afghan parliament. Iran can also use some Taliban groups to attack US interests in Afghanistan if the US troops continue to be based in Afghanistan (Kuty 2014; Akbarzadeh and Ibrahimi 2020).
There is a broad consensus amongst experts and analysts interviewed by the author that Iran can use its proxies in Afghanistan to secure its interests. All the 15 experts interviewed agree that if the US and NATO troops stay in Afghanistan beyond the deadline, Iran will continue to extend support to the Taliban. Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow and Director Iran Program at the Middle East Institute says, ‘Iran will do things tactically when needed and provide arms to the Taliban. It can use the Taliban in its tit for tat against the US’.Footnote 33 According to Nishank Motwani, Deputy Director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, ‘If American forces remain in Afghanistan, Iran is likely to continue its current posture of building links with armed groups including the Taliban to act as a hedge that can be utilized should U.S. forces pose a threat to core Iranian interests in Afghanistan or Iranian territory itself’.Footnote 34 However, all the experts agree that Iran will not employ the Fatemiyoun against the US in Afghanistan if US troops stay in Afghanistan. Ali Yawar Adili states, ‘Apart from the Taliban, Iran has no other force/militia to fight against the US. Deployment of the Fatemiyoun is impossible because Kabul is aligned with the US. Deploying the Fatemiyoun against the US will undermine Iran’s interests in Afghanistan and alienate Tehran from Kabul’.Footnote 35
All the interviewed experts are unanimous that a negotiated political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban before the US troops leave Afghanistan is the best option for peace and stability in Afghanistan. They are also unanimous that if the Taliban tries to establish an Islamic Emirate through military force, it will most likely lead to civil/proxy war in Afghanistan. 13 out of the 15 experts agree that in this scenario Iran will be forced to intervene in Afghanistan through its proxies (Hazara militias, Tajiks, Uzbeks and the Fatemiyoun). If the Taliban are able to establish an Islamic Emirate or become a dominant part of the national unity government, and there is continued persecution of the Hazara and Shia by the Taliban, 13 out of the 15 experts believe Iran will arm the Shia militias (it may also deploy the Fatemiyoun).
According to Alex Vatanka, ‘Iran can launch Fatemiyoun on Afghan soil and it will be an entity that Iran will have more control over than they had in the 1990s with the Shia militias’.Footnote 36 Mahmoud Pargoo, Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalization, Deakin University believes, ‘Iran has many cards to play in Afghanistan. Fatemiyoun is one and its relations with Iran are extremely strong. Logistically it will be easy for Iran. Fatemiyoun will be the most powerful Iran proxy in Afghanistan’.Footnote 37 According to Mohsen Shariatinia, Assistant Professor of International Relations, Shahid Beheshti University, ‘Iran understands that main thinking of Taliban on Shia has not changed in recent years. Iran will support the Tajik, Uzbek and other militias if the Taliban becomes dominant. It will support the new Northern Alliance. The role of Fatemiyoun will be to defend the Hazara rather than reshape political order in Afghanistan’.Footnote 38 Omar Samad, Senior Advisor to Abdullah Abdullah and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council believes, ‘If the Taliban assumes full control and establishes an Islamic Emirate and Shia minorities are being targeted, then countries like Iran will revert to proxy warfare. Iran will have to rely on every proxy, maybe they have the Fatemiyoun at one level and on the other hand the traditional bits and pieces of what you call the Northern alliance’.Footnote 39
Factors inhibiting Iran’s deployment of proxies in Afghanistan?
Iran will have little problem in recruiting Afghans based in Iran for its proxies given their socio-economic plight. But considering the biting US sanctions and its impact on the Iranian economy, and the fall in oil and gas prices (due to global slump in demand because of COVID-19), Iran’s coffers have been strained substantially. Oil prices fell to around US$20–25 per barrel in May–July 2020 and are expected to remain low until the global economy recovers from the worst economic crisis since the ‘great depression’ in the 1930s. Iran’s ability to support protracted proxy wars has been substantially affected due to economic problems and prolonged expensive conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. This will limit Iran’s ability to project power in the Middle East and beyond. There are already calls within Iran to reduce or completely stop funding Hezbollah and Palestine, and use the resources for the Iranian people (Juneau 2020; Jay 2019). Iran is also wary of the huge influx of refugees into the country if it intervenes in Afghanistan which will put further pressure on Iran’s weak economy. It will lead to an increase in violence in the restive provinces in eastern Iran and also increase socio-economic tensions between the refugees and Iranian citizens.
The problem has been further compounded by the spread of COVID-19 in Iran. Iran has emerged as the epicenter for COVID-19 in the Middle East. It has the highest number of infections and death toll in the region due to the government’s botched response in tackling the pandemic. Concerns have been raised regarding the government’s decision to remove COVID controls. The government was forced to remove restrictions because of the sagging economy. Valuable scarce resources need to be utilized to combat COVID-19 in Iran. This will put huge constraints on Iran’s ability to use scarce resources for supporting its proxies in the wider region.
Experts interviewed by the author are of the opinion that Iran will not compromise on its national security interests in Afghanistan. It will use proxies to protect its interests. Economic sanctions and hardships did not prevent Iran from arming militias in Iraq and Syria to achieve its interests. Some of the experts are also of the opinion that Iran’s expenditure on proxies is low (and effective) especially compared to Saudi Arabia as evidenced in Yemen. According to Mohsen Shariatinia, “Peace and security in Afghanistan and preserving the Kabul government is a national security priority for Iran. Iran has enough financial and economic resources to support its forces in Afghanistan”.Footnote 40