September 1, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden, Congress Should Not Give the Taliban and al-Qaeda a Seaport

September 1, 2021 | Policy Brief

Biden, Congress Should Not Give the Taliban and al-Qaeda a Seaport

Iranian officials announced last week that Tehran would continue to allow road and rail commercial shipping between Afghanistan and Iran’s Chabahar Port following Kabul’s fall to the Taliban. This development allows both Iran and the Taliban to enrich themselves by taking advantage of a waiver included in U.S. law that exempts the Chabahar Port from U.S. sanctions.

Congress passed the Iran Freedom and Counterproliferation Act (IFCA) in 2012, imposing sanctions on Iran’s shipping, shipbuilding, and port sectors, among others. Lawmakers enacted sanctions on Iran’s ports because the Treasury Department had for years made it clear that Iran’s airports and seaports are controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s praetorians.

However, IFCA’s sanctions include an extraordinarily broad and indefinite exception for any reconstruction assistance or economic development initiatives for Afghanistan.

The government of India and some American policymakers had originally requested the exception, believing that it was possible to provide landlocked Afghanistan a pathway to the sea through the expansion of a port in Chabahar. New Delhi’s intention was for India to finance the construction of the port in Iran, build highway and rail transit from the port to the Iran-Afghanistan border, and enable the global shipment of goods to and from Afghanistan.

These steps would reduce India’s economic dependence on Pakistan, which served as a chokepoint for the exportation of Afghan goods, particularly agricultural products. Furthermore, India could use the Chabahar Port to expand its trade with Central Asia.

While the United States was a participant in the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Obama administration exercised its broader national security waiver authority to suspend all provisions of IFCA, along with most other U.S. sanctions targeting Iran — rendering the Afghanistan exception a moot issue. But the exception took on renewed significance after the Trump administration ceased participation in the JCPOA and reimposed IFCA sanctions. The State Department embraced the Chabahar project as part of its Afghanistan strategy and granted India an exception so it could continue developing the port — ignoring the fact that the IRGC-controlled company Khatam al-Anbiya Construction ran the Iranian components of the port project.

With the fall of the Afghan government to the Taliban, the Chabahar Port project no longer makes sense. It now enriches both the IRGC and the Taliban, further undermining U.S. national security interests. In light of the Taliban’s partnership with al-Qaeda, the latter is also likely to benefit both financially and logistically.

The Biden administration should notify the Indian government that it will no longer allow any sanctions exception for Chabahar and its related infrastructure projects. Washington should remind New Delhi of their shared interest in limiting the Taliban’s income and access to global trade networks.

If the administration demurs, Congress should amend IFCA by removing the exception for Afghanistan reconstruction, thereby limiting the number of options available to both Iran and the Taliban to avoid U.S. sanctions. Since such an amendment would not interfere with President Joe Biden’s broader national security waiver authorities, removing the Afghanistan exception should win bipartisan support.

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Matthew Zweig is a senior fellow and Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior financial economics advisor. They all contribute to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from the authors, the Iran Program, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow the authors on Twitter @rich_goldberg, @MatthewZweig1, and @SGhasseminejad. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_Iran and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Afghanistan Al Qaeda Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Sanctions Iran-backed Terrorism Jihadism Sanctions and Illicit Finance The Long War