Iran’s emerging efforts to focus on its own region and on Asian partners in an effort to defray the impact of re-imposed US sanctions are likely to face difficulties and multiple complicating factors. As things currently stand, some of the would-be targets of that strategy are prone to contentious relationships with the Islamic Republic, whereby both sides recognize the benefits of mutual cooperation against Western interests but also struggle to let go of their own unique grievances and self-serving ambitions.
This trend was on display, for instance, in an article published at The Diplomat on Thursday, which examined the current state of cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan in trade and other areas. Officials from both countries have expressed interest in substantially boosting that cooperation in the near future, and the article notes that both nations have clear incentives for doing so, as both are suffering from similar economic crises. What’s more, safeguarding their relations could have a knock-on effect upon the prospects for Indian investment in Iran, since much of that investment is focused on the Chabahar port, which would rely on trade routes passing through Afghanistan as well.
Any measures that encourage Indian to maintain trade with Iran would be very significant to Iran’s prospects for weathering US sanctions pressure, since India is one of the major secondary targets of that pressure. It has recently been reported that India is currently planning to cut its imports of Iranian oil to about 50 percent of their current level in hopes of securing a waiver from the US, after which it might reduce the level even further over time.
Additionally, The Diplomat points out that Afghanistan has already been a source of sanctions-breaking illegal trade for the Islamic Republic, and that more of the same could provide a crucial lifeline of US dollars after full-scale US sanctions come back into effect on Iran in November. But despite all of this, and despite the underlying anti-Western cooperation exhibited by both governments, the article notes that relations between Iran and Afghanistan “remain fractious,” in large part because the Iranians have contradicted their claims about promoting peace in Afghanistan, by continuing to finance and cooperate with the Taliban in the interest of maintaining it as a much more committed partner in anti-Western strategies.
Meanwhile, an article at LobeLog highlights another complicating factor in Iranian-Afghan relations, namely longstanding water disputes related to the Helmand River along their shared border. The author points out that this is a dispute that both sides should be eager to resolve, since Iran and Afghanistan “need peaceful relations more than ever before.” But instead, both sides have refused to back down and have levelled blame against the other.
According to the article, this has effectively justified mismanagement of water resources for both governments – a fact that may be damaging not only to Iran’s international relations but also to its domestic situation, since a number of anti-government protests over the past several months have begun as protests over water scarcity and government contributions to ecological problems in general.
Insofar as this story describes Iran’s difficulty in resolving disputes, it describes a problem that is not limited to Iran’s relations with Afghanistan. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported upon another ongoing dispute on Wednesday, even though reports at the beginning of the week suggested that it might have been resolved. According to RFE/RL, that is decidedly not the case, since the recent summit of the five Caspian littoral states left crucial questions unanswered after producing a written agreement that is open to varying interpretations. Major outstanding issues have to do with relations among Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, with the last of these claiming that it is owed two billion dollars for previous gas sales to Iran.
This and other apparently stagnant disputes have halted progress on the Trans-Caspian Pipeline, a project whose completion would almost certainly aid Iran in focusing on eastern trade in order to partially compensate for economic pressures coming from the US and possibly also from its European allies, if they ultimately decide to follow the American example. If conflicts remain unresolved, however, it may threaten more than just the TCP. Relevant projects of regional and Asian trade are announced with some frequency. Tasnim News Agency reported on Thursday, for instance, that Iran is preparing to export electricity to Russia via Azerbaijan. Naturally, such plans depend upon reasonably stable relations among the trading partners.
While RFE/RL declares that relations between Iran and Azerbaijan are “solid,” Al Monitor raises questions about the future of relations between Iran and one of its largest and most important Asian allies, the Russian Federation. Although the article gives no indication of a general collapse of those relations, it does suggest that the glue for so much of Iranian-Russian security cooperation – the Syrian Civil War – is loosening.
It has long been suggested that the interests of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s two main foreign backers could diverge over time. And now Al Monitor makes the argument that although this divergence was held at bay by Assad’s tribulations, it may be starting to manifest now that his rule appears to be secure. The article says that “it's increasingly clear that Iran and Russia aren't getting along the way they did in 2015” and that some representatives of the Syrian government are beginning to question the Iranian mission there, although Tehran’s interests are steadfastly defended by local Shiite militants, some of which have sworn allegiance to the Iranian supreme leader over and above their own government.
Al Monitor does not take it for granted that this is a precursor to a clash between the two factions, or even that Iran and Russia are facing difficulties in other areas. But one might suppose that any signs of cracks in Iran’s existing alliances could be significant. After all, if the White House succeeds in generating consensus among its allies on the matter of exerting pressure on Iran, then Iranian relations with neutral countries and US-adversaries will presumably need to be air-tight in order to counteract that pressure in any serious way.