The presidents of Afghanistan and Iran have agreed on a long-term cooperation pact, a move which experts believe could further strain Hamid Karzai's ties with the United States.
Meeting in Tehran on Sunday, December 8, the leaders of the Central Asian nations Iran and Afghanistan agreed on a pact for "long-term political, security, economic and cultural cooperation, regional peace and security," Afghan President Hamid Karzai's spokesman said after the visit with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. A formal document would be prepared and signed soon, the spokesman added. Rouhani also said all foreign troops should be removed from its conflict-ridden neighbor.
"They should all leave and leave the security of Afghanistan to its own people," said Rouhani after the two agreed to begin negotiations on the so-called "Comprehensive Friendship and Cooperation Agreement."
"These two Central Asian countries face many common issues," explains Conrad Schetter, research director of the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). "The fight against drug trafficking plays an important role; the two also share a common border that stretches 900 kilometers." Moreover, Iran is home to up to three million Afghan migrant laborers, upon whom Afghanistan will depend on in future, Schetter adds.
But the cooperation between the two states is likely to be met with suspicion in the US. The Afghan president has thus far refused to sign a security agreement with the US until the upcoming presidential elections in April.
Nevertheless, Schetter believes Karzai's decision to push ahead with the Iran agreement is no reason for the US to worry; the Washington and the Tehran deals are "two very different deals. The cooperation pact with Iran is a purely symbolic act, while the security agreement with the US focuses on the issue of immunity for US soldiers." The document, which is expected to serve as a blueprint for a similar agreement between NATO and Afghanistan, gives foreign soldiers immunity from prosecution under Afghan law.
Many Afghan politicians and scientists support the bilateral agreement with Tehran. Ahmad Zia Rafat, a political analyst and lecturer at Kabul University, told DW that the pact could lead to different outcomes, depending on the motives behind it. The deal could be viewed as an expression of "normal neighborly relations" between the two countries, the expert said, adding that this kind of cooperation would be understandable for the US.
Rafat points out, however, that the timing for such an agreement was inappropriate, as US-Afghan ties have been "extremely tense" in recent months. The analyst says the pact could also be viewed as "Kabul sending a message to Washington that Afghanistan doesn't need the international community, banking instead on its regional friends."
South Asia expert Schetter believes that, by getting closer to Tehran, Karzai is seeking to "bind himself with regional actors who don't enjoy good relations with Washington." While this strategy annoys the Americans, it doesn't overstrain Karzai's relations with the US."
Iranians, according to the Stockholm-based political analyst Shojayi Roostayi, seem to not be giving too much weight to the agreement with Afghanistan. "Relations between Tehran and Kabul in terms of security can not replace US-Afghan ties." The expert argues that the "military forces of NATO and the United States are crucial for Afghanistan's stability and security." In this respect, Afghan ties with Iran, no matter how close, do not play that big of a role, Roostayi added.