As the war in Syria “winds down,” as some have been describing it, eyes turn to the next theater of conflict between the regional Middle Eastern powers: Russia, and the U.S., with many suggesting that Afghanistan could be the “new” battlefront.
In October, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis drew attention to the pipeline of weapons, especially machine guns, that Russia and Iran are believed to be funneling to the Taliban. Reports from both American and Afghan intelligence agencies claim that Iran and Russia are jointly arming, training, and financing the Taliban in Afghanistan in an attempt to compromise stabilization efforts led by the U.S.
With the nearly 600-mile border Iran shares with Afghanistan, Tehran is naturally invested in asserting its influence in the region, while Russia needs Iranian cooperation to get weapons and supplies to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. That means Iran and Russia are believed to be arming and training the forces fighting the U.S.-led coalition and aiming to destabilize the Afghan government. It’s unsurprising that the terms “proxy war” and “new Cold War” have been thrown around.
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Iran and Afghanistan
Iran was instrumental in the 2001 Bonn Conference proceedings, which established the Afghan Interim Authority and began reconstruction efforts. According to the Institute for the Study of War, the military presence of the U.S. in neighboring Afghanistan has been interpreted by Tehran as a security threat, leading Iran to seek greater leverage over the Afghan government while simultaneously arming the Taliban.
Further cementing the tensions between Tehran and Kabul, the two have faced repeated conflict over water rights to the Helmand River. In July, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke out against the Afghan water projects, perhaps granting further insight into Tehran’s motives for possibly arming the Taliban. In turn, Afghanistan has accused Iran of orchestrating Taliban attacks on water management projects.
Iran’s goal in Afghanistan seems to be the removal of the U.S. presence. While some analysts have pointed to Afghanistan as the new, or perhaps more accurately, revisited, battleground in the latest proxy war between Russia and the U.S., others assert that Russia is seeking to prevent ISIS from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
What about Turkey?
Historically, Turkey and Iran have a less-than harmonious relationship. Most recently, the two nations have found themselves on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war, with Iran serving as one of the Assad regime’s only allies. Turkey, on the other hand, has allegedly trained, sheltered, and armed the Syrian Free Army in conjunction with one of Iran’s most resolute enemies: Saudi Arabia. Despite these tensions, it seems that the two nations have been moving closer in the past two years.
The Kurdish question, in part, is responsible for the slight thaw in relations between Turkey and Iran. The Syrian civil war has given birth to new Kurdish separatists movements, a fundamentally vulnerable issue for Iran and Turkey, considering that both countries host Kurdish populations less than happy with the status quo.
In this regard, and in the Qatar-Gulf crisis, Iran and Turkey have found themselves on the same side of the conflict. What’s more, trade relations between the two countries remain significant, partially due to Turkey’s sourcing of gas and oil from Iran, although trade has been down in the past few years.
Russia’s relationship with Turkey remains important; 2015 figures reveal that Turkey is in the top ten of Russia’s biggest export partners. In a recent meeting between the respective presidents of the two countries, Putin claimed that they have seen a 30% increase in bilateral trade in the past eight months. The two leaders also drew attention to a joint nuclear energy project and took responsibility for recent successes in Syria, leading analysts to point to potentially deepening ties between the two nations.
Cooperation or competition?
In the nuanced relationships between world powers, the line between competition and cooperation is often blurry.
Russia is not just strengthening its ties with Iran. In October, King Salman visited Moscow, the first Saudi King to make the trip, during which it was announced that Russia was selling its S-400 missile defense system to Saudi Arabia. The arms deal is said to be valued at $3 billion. Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently involved in a proxy war in Yemen, acting out decades of growing tensions.
Both Iran and Turkey have already obtained missile defense systems from Russia, while other Middle Eastern nations have expressed an interest in purchasing the military technology. While the U.S. military industrial complex tends to dominate the proliferation of weapons in the region, Putin has clearly carved out fresh territory for Russia. With new alliances come new customers for Russia’s missile defense systems (S-300 and S-400), made infamous through Russian engagements in Syria.
Turkey, Iran and Russia Alliance
Between the Shia/Sunni divide, Russia’s arming of Iran’s mortal enemy, environmental disputes, and civil wars in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan it’s hard to imagine how three drastically different and often conflicting nations could form the kind of triumvirate-like alliance alarmists are pointing to. That being said, the question must be raised of how much economic interests and common enemies, like ISIS, the Kurds, or the U.S., can outweigh these issues.
Afghanistan’s relationship with a potential alliance remains dubious. Like many other nations in the Middle East, Afghanistan’s international and internal vulnerabilities have led it to become a proxy in the geopolitical maneuverings of the U.S., Russia, and Iran.
While Putin’s motives are often opaque, one thing remains clear: in arming the conflict and seeking to legitimize the Taliban by expanding diplomatic connections, Iran and Russia threaten the stability of the sitting Afghan government, prolonging U.S. engagement in the region. At 15 years, the war in Afghanistan stands as the longest war in American history. In August, President Trump committed to sending thousands more troops to the country.
Ultimately, relations between Turkey, Iran, and Russia are too nuanced to jump the gun and speak of an alliance between the three nations. Cooperation in one realm is unlikely to outweigh competition in another.