BACKGROUND: Iran and Afghanistan share a 582-mile (936 km) border, as well as significant cultural and historical ties. The Dari language is similar to Iranian Farsi. Iranians have maintained close relations with Afghanistan’s Dari-speaking communities, its Shi’a groups (predominantly the Hazaras), and the Tajiks in Afghanistan for decades. Most of these groups live in western Afghanistan, which Iran has historically viewed as falling within its sphere of influence. Tehran’s goals in Afghanistan have been to stabilize the Afghan-Iranian border areas, minimize the influence of unfriendly governments in Afghanistan, and have an Afghan government in Kabul that cooperates with Tehran.
Despite these connections, Afghanistan’s complexity has traditionally limited the influence of the country’s more powerful neighbors. Afghanistan has suffered greatly throughout its history from predatory neighbors, widespread poverty, narcotics dependency, weak central governments dominated by regional warlords, and recurring ethnic and sectarian strife. From the 16th century until the early 20th century, Iran and Afghanistan engaged in numerous military conflicts and ideological battles. Afghanistan’s internal problems have regularly harmed Iran’s national security and socio-economic conditions, such as forcing Iran to house vast numbers of Afghan refugees. Afghanistan has also been a breeding ground for Sunni fundamentalists, who regard Iranian Shias as heretics.
Since Afghan Shiites comprise only about 19 percent of the population, Tehran has not tried to promote an Iranian-type Islamic regime in Afghanistan or explicitly align the country’s foreign policy with that of Tehran. Instead, Iranian officials have called for a multi-ethnic federal government in Afghanistan that pursues a neutral foreign policy independent of Pakistan, the U.S., or other governments. A major Iranian goal has been to enhance security along the Afghan-Iranian border. The Iranian provinces bordering Afghanistan suffer from Sunni extremism, Balochi separatism, disputed water access, drug trafficking, terrorist attacks, and other criminal activities.
Iran has suffered heavily from the export of Afghan narcotics into and through Iran. In addition to Iran’s role as a transit state, the county has more than one million drug addicts who consume Afghan opiates, including heroin and other narcotics. Iranian border forces regularly engage in firefights with Afghan narcotics traffickers, whose bribing of Iranian officials contributes to local corruption. In its anti-narcotics policies, Iran has collaborated most closely with the Afghanistan and Pakistan governments since Western sanctions limit opportunities to work directly with NATO.
Iran believes that the instability in Afghanistan contributes to the insurgency in Iran’s Baluchistan province. It is the poorest and most neglected of province and is predominantly inhabited by Baluchis, an ethnic group whose population lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. They mainly adhere to Sunni Islam and have traditionally refused to accept central authority, especially in Iran and Pakistan.
Iran has also had to support a large Afghan refugee population. Many Afghans sought refuge in Iran during the Soviet invasion, the civil war and the Taliban’s reign. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent invasion by the U.S.-led coalition forces, more Afghans fled the country, with many of them ending up in refugee camps in Iran. UNHCR’s latest figures put the number of registered Afghans inside Iran at over a million. Although generally considered a burden, Tehran has exploited the refugee situation as a tool of influence in Afghanistan. For example its periodic deportations of refugees back to Afghanistan have reminded Kabul that it needs Tehran to keep hosting most refugees until the Afghanistan economy recovers sufficiently to absorb a larger refugee return. There has been recent evidence that some Iranians have been recruiting Afghan refugees to fight for pro-Iranian groups in Syria.
IMPLICATIONS: After 9/11, Tehran welcomed the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan for eliminating the Taliban-led government in Kabul. The Afghan Taliban had aligned with extremist Sunni movements and governments hostile to Iran and engaged in a protracted ideological confrontation with Iran’s regime. Yet, Iran feared U.S. domination in the region and U.S. aspirations to see regime change in Tehran. Furthermore, Iranian leaders have worried that an alternative, competing and pro-Western political model in Afghanistan might trigger unrest among Iranians seeking a less oppressive political system. While the U.S. and Iran have common regional interests such as preventing the Taliban from returning to power and promoting a stable Afghanistan, their enmity has led Iran to pursue an Afghanistan policy designed to counter U.S. influence in the country.
Iran has sought to promote Afghanistan’s economic, political, and security recovery in order to reduce the role of the U.S. in Afghanistan. Since 2001, Iran has provided almost US$ 1 billion worth of foreign assistance to Afghanistan. Although some of these funds support humanitarian projects, they still aim to increase Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Iran has worked to transform Herat – a major city in Afghanistan that serves as a gateway to Iran – into an economic buffer zone and also cultivated local proxies independent of the Kabul government. While Iranian economic influence is most visible in western Afghanistan, Iran has also established economic projects in other provinces, laying the option for a more comprehensive connection between the two economies.
Just as Iran has sought to unite the various Iraqi Shiite groups under its control, Iran has been supporting, empowering, and uniting Afghanistan’s various Dari-speaking minority communities (the Shiite Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks) that have been Tehran’s traditional allies. In addition to supporting their development of independent local power centers, Iran has promoted the teaching and study of the Persian language to help raise cultural awareness of the shared linguistic traditions of the Iranian and Afghan peoples. Furthermore, Iran has pushed to have its allies well represented in the Afghan federal government. But political and religious divisions among these groups, including over the question of how closely to align with Iran, have prevented them from forming a united front on Tehran’s behalf.
According to various sources, just as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards supported the anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq before all U.S. forces’ withdrew from that country in December 2011, some Iranians have allegedly assisted Taliban fighters, warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and other groups fighting the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accused Tehran of playing a “double game” of “offering friendship to the Afghan government” while at the same time giving “low-level support” and money to the Taliban. Yet, this support has been on a much smaller scale than Iran has provided its military allies in Iraq and of a considerably lower magnitude than that provided by Pakistanis to the Afghan Taliban.
Furthermore, Iran has also sought to develop ties with Russia, China, and Central Asian countries whose influence in Afghanistan might dilute that of the U.S. Iranian diplomats have pursued such diplomatic campaigns bilaterally as well as through multilateral structures, such as the United Nations, the Shanghai Cooperation Council and more recently the CICA.
Tehran has also been cultivating relations with Afghan government leaders, including President Hamid Karzai. In October 2010, Karzai stated that Iran has been providing approximately US$ 2 million per year for his government’s budget. Karzai initially sought to develop ties with Tehran to reduce Iranian interference against his government, such as by curtailing its backing of independent regional power brokers, but more recently Karzai has seemed to woo Iran to balance and even antagonize Washington. It is unclear if Karzai’s successor will continue this provocative policy.
CONCLUSIONS: Despite the declining Western military presence in Afghanistan, Iranian officials continue to encourage the Kabul government and Iran’s local Afghan allies to limit U.S. influence in Afghanistan. Iran has been one of the few Eurasian states whose government has explicitly opposed a continued U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Iranian diplomats lobbied Afghan leaders not to ratify the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement, which was adopted in 2012, or the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which awaits Afghan ratification. The BAS would enable U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Yet, whereas Iran is now considering intervening militarily in Iraq, the continued deployment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, along with the country’s smaller Shiite population and the concerns of Russia and other governments, has excluded that option for now.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute.
(Image Attribution: Embassy of Afghanistan in Iran)