First of all, it should be noted that under its new president, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan has signed the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, which makes it possible for Washington to keep its military presence in the West Asian country up to 2024 and station its troopers at five important military bases across Afghanistan. As a result, the country will most probably enter a new phase of the intensification of regional and international rivalries as a result of this development.
At regional level, rivalries will take place between India and Pakistan, on the one hand, and the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand. At the same time, such regional states as Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also expected to get involved in regional rivalries over Afghanistan. At international level, the main rivalries will take place among the United States, China and Russia. Of course, European countries, especially three major European powers; that is, the UK, France and Germany, should not be overlooked. On the whole, regional and international rivalries over Afghanistan will become focused on four specific fields:
1. Cultural and religious field;
2. Economic field;
3. Political field; and
4. Military and security field.
It is evident that any one of the aforesaid countries has its own special advantages in every one of the above-mentioned fields and, naturally, should make the most of its advantages. At present the United States has consolidated its military presence in Afghanistan and the viewpoints of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani show that he has apparently accepted Western liberal concepts. Therefore, under present circumstances, culture and religion constitute the most fertile grounds for further cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan with economic cooperation following in the second place. Iran will be facing more obstacles in political as well as military and security fields in Afghanistan. Therefore, and for a variety of reasons, one can expect cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan to be promoted mostly in cultural fields under the rule of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. The main reason is the existence of a multitude of language-related, cultural, civilizational and historical commonalities between Iran and Afghanistan as both countries are considered as parts of the Iranian and Islamic civilization. At the same time, no other country has the same amount of cultural commonalities with Afghanistan, which is a major advantage for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In addition, it is a reality that the United States has currently the power that influences Afghanistan’s general political orientation as a result of which the main field that will be open to Iran’s activities is culture. The Persian language and its prevalence in both countries is a factor which can help promote cooperation between Tehran and Kabul. Of course, there are other cultural fields for collaboration between the two neighboring countries, which include:
1. Education from elementary school to university;
2. Print and non-print media as well as audiovisual media;
3. Publication of textbooks for schools and universities and other kinds of publications;
4. Exchange of academics and students; as well as
5. Training an adequate number of teachers for Afghan schools due to serious need of Afghanistan to teachers and shortage of educational facilities.
It is a reality that Iran has no rival in Afghanistan in the above fields. Although the Islamic Republic has been already active in these fields, the full capacities that exist in this regard have not been taken advantage of. For example, Afghanistan’s textbooks are currently being printed in Germany while it is possible for Iran to do that both because of its technical capacities in the area of printing and due to the existence of the Persian language in both countries as a common denominator. No other country enjoys the same position as Iran in this regard. It is only India that can be a serious competitor for Iran in the field of audiovisual media through its movie industry. However, when it comes to cultural activities with a religious orientation, it would be conceivable to assume that Iran and Saudi Arabia are possible to get involved in an intense ideological rivalry in Afghanistan because the government of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani is expected to give more maneuvering room to Saudi Arabia in comparison with Iran.
Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan have recently signed an agreement for the construction of an Islamic university in the Afghan capital city of Kabul. The cost of the project has been estimated at USD 100 million. It is also supposed to include the construction of the country’s biggest mosque and an affiliated Islamic center, which would admit a total of 10,000 students on a round-the-clock basis. This is one of the most objective examples of the investment that Saudi Arabia is making in Afghanistan with an eye to securing its long-term ideological sway over the country. There is no doubt that such a great Islamic center will have great effects in the long run and if Iran does not increase its activities in cultural fields in Afghanistan, it is sure to lose the competition to Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the Persian language in Afghanistan is facing certain challenges. This is due to efforts made by nationalist Pashtuns who are working hard to make Pashtun the official language and culture of Afghanistan. On the other hand, there is increasing tendency among Afghan youth to learn English. These factors are sure to wear off Iran’s cultural influence in Afghanistan in the long run.
The second fertile ground for the promotion of future cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan under Mohammad Ashraf Ghani is the economic field in which Iran will be competing with China and India as its main rivals. Iranian companies can really get active in certain economic areas in Afghanistan, which include: trade, transportation, exploration and extraction of underground reserves; as well as development and reconstruction projects. The most important advantage of Iran in this field, includes Bandar Abbas and Chabahar port cities in southern Iran, which can be of great help to the landlocked Afghanistan by connecting it to the free waters of the Indian Ocean, thus, facilitating exports from and imports to India. The sole competition that Iran will be facing in this field is from Pakistan. Of course, there are currently political and territorial differences between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Therefore, if Iran succeeded to conclude a bilateral trade agreement with Afghanistan to boost Afghanistan’s foreign trade through its southern ports, the future prospect for cooperation between Tehran and Kabul in all possible fields without serious competition would be totally bright.
Most analysts believe that the room for political as well as military and security cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan will be very limited. This is true as neither the United States will allow Iran to play a determining role in this regard, nor the liberal views of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani will allow Iran, with its dominantly Shia religious ideology, to gain great influence in his country. Although Mohammad Ashraf Ghani pretends to be a believing Muslim, his secular views do not let him establish strategic relations with Iran’s specific brand of Islamic ideology. His first choice for such relations among the Islamic countries will be Saudi Arabia, in the first place, followed by Turkey in the second place. At present, Turks have already started important activities in various sectors in Afghanistan with a view to long-term cooperation. Naturally, Iran should bank on its own advantages in order to organize its strategic relations with Afghanistan with an eye to future collaboration. Therefore, under present circumstances, the field of Islamic and Iranian civilization offers the most fertile ground for cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan.
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