Editor’s Note: Iran's support for Syria, presence in Iraq, and enmity toward Irael and U.S. Arab allies is the focus of most U.S. attention. Afghanistan, where Iran plays a major role, is often neglected. As the Trump administration weighs its options there, it would do well to recognize Tehran's ability to do harm. Ariane Tabatabai, my Georgetown colleague, explains Iran's complex calculus in Afghanistan and why the United States might find opportunities as well as dangers.
When the United States initiated what is now its longest war in the fall of 2001, most Americans wouldn’t have fathomed that they’d still be committing blood and treasure to Afghanistan 16 years later, and that Iran would reap the fruits. Yet, as the Trump administration assesses America’s next steps in the faraway country for the next four years, Iranian forces are quietly asserting themselves there, funding groups that shape the contours of country’s politics and security. This makes Iran’s Afghanistan policy critical to shaping America’s own.
According to conventional wisdom, Iran wants to see the United States and its NATO partners leave Afghanistan. After all, the Islamic Republic reminds us loudly and frequently that it believes foreign powers, particularly the United States, don’t have any business in its neighborhood. And the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its offshoot in Afghanistan, dubbed the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), has provided Tehran with an excuse to further poke Washington in the eye by growing and leveraging its influence in Afghanistan. ISKP’s advent has also afforded the country a pretext to continue to fund and support various groups, including some of the Taliban, to push back its regional adversary, Saudi Arabia—whose support Tehran deems vital to ISIS and ISKP’s growth. This has made Afghanistan into yet another battlefront in the proxy war between the two Middle Eastern powers.
Iran doesn’t actually want to see United States and its NATO allies gone from Afghanistan.
But contrary to this conventional wisdom, Iran doesn’t actually want to see United States and its NATO allies gone from Afghanistan. Already in 2001, Tehran welcomed U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and even lent a hand to Washington to topple the Taliban government and facilitate the transition of power. In particular, Iran pushed a critical stakeholder, the Northern Alliance, to make the concessions necessary to making the transition of power successful. This wasn’t because Iran welcomed U.S. and NATO presence at its border. Rather, it shared the U.S. objectives of ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban, pushing back al-Qaeda, and stabilizing the country. After all, a chaotic Afghanistan has direct and wide repercussions for Iran.
Over the past four decades of conflict and instability in Afghanistan, Iran has become home to millions of Afghan refugees and the destination of some of its opioid production, fueling a public health crisis among the Iranian population. Today, the Iranian government estimates that some 2.8 million Iranians are addicted to drugs, a number many deem inaccurate, noting that this number falls 20 to 30-percent short of the actual figures. Moreover, according to Iran’s health ministry, an average of eight individuals die due to drug consumption each day. The Afghan-Iranian border region, and the area joining the two states to Pakistan, in particular, have also become the breeding ground for various terrorist groups, whose operatives have perpetrated attacks on Iranian soil before going into hiding across the border. These groups include Jundollah, a separatist group active in the country’s southeastern Sistan-Balochestan province, which has carried out hundreds of attacks in Iranian territory, killing a number of civilians and troops.
For all these reasons, Tehran’s primary aim in Afghanistan is to make sure Kabul doesn’t collapse.
At the same time, the war in Afghanistan has provided Iran with opportunities, some of which come at a cost to the United States and its NATO allies. These include growing Iranian influence in a critical theater for the United States, which Tehran can leverage to its benefit. This is especially worrisome given that the two countries’ relations have soured since President Trump’s inauguration. Moreover, the Revolutionary Guards’ role in facilitating opioid trafficking stymie NATO counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan while generating revenues for the Guards, who are widely regarded as a challenge to U.S. national security.
As a result, Iran’s Afghan policy is one of balancing: Kabul can’t be too weak to collapse and create a power vacuum or too stable to deadlock Iranian influence there.
Today, Iranians see the growing presence of ISKP in Afghanistan as another reason why their presence there is imperative. In June 2017, ISIS perpetrated twin attacks in Tehran, targeting two symbolic locations: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mausoleum and the Iranian parliament. The attacks left over a dozen casualties and dozens of wounded. But they were most significant as they marked the first successful ISIS terrorist attack on Iranian soil after failed attempts the previous year. And the attacks signaled ISIS’ success in recruiting Sunni Iranians, especially in the border areas. This only exacerbated Iran’s security concerns stemming from the group’s presence in their neighborhood. Indeed, although it’s lost some ground, ISIS continues to remain active in Iraq. And in recent months, it’s managed to penetrate Iran by recruiting operatives in the country’s Sunni areas. For Tehran, even though the Taliban also represent a threat, they’re the enemy they know and can work with. But they view the Islamic State as a different beast (even though the two have some shared objectives and some Taliban operatives have joined the ranks of ISKP). Iran hasn’t been able to work with and deter ISIS, as it was able to do with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
For Tehran, even though the Taliban also represent a threat, they’re the enemy they know and can work with.
These concerns have led Tehran to now work with some Taliban groups. Iran has committed special operations units and other armed forces to provide cover and assist these groups. It has also provided these groups with money, training, and weapons—an approach the country often undertakes in supporting various non-state actors. And in doing so, Iran is joined by Russia and China, whose respective Muslim populations in Chechnya and Xinjiang have also been the target of some successful recruitment by the ISIS and ISKP.
Afghanistan is also an important theater for Iran’s relations with the Arab states in the Persian Gulf. Tehran views Riyadh as a source of funding and support for ISKP and other radical groups. Iranian officials have also noted more active interest by Saudi officials in Afghan affairs for the past couple years, coinciding with the implementation of Mohammed bin Salman’s more assertive foreign policy and the intervention in Yemen. Indeed, Afghanistan’s centrality for Iran and relative lack thereof for Saudi Arabia is similar to Yemen’s importance to the kingdom and its relative insignificance in Tehran’s strategic worldview. Hence, as the Yemeni conflict drags on, costing the Gulf Arabs political capital, resources, and lives, and affording Iran a low-cost opportunity to watch its adversaries suffer in a costly stalemate, the kingdom can do the same in Afghanistan. As a result, Iran sees it as vital to maintain its presence there.
Iran is gaining ground in Afghanistan and is likely to become even more active and influential there. As a result, the United States and Iran will continue to butt heads in Afghanistan as long as U.S. forces are there. And even though the two countries share an interest in a fairly secure and stable Afghanistan and a diminished presence by terrorist groups like ISKP and al-Qaeda, these interests can quickly diverge if Tehran decides to use its growing presence to further inflict harm on Washington. To be sure, Iran has often flip-flopped between being a constructive presence in Afghanistan, as it was in the early days of the war, and a thorn in the United States and its NATO allies’ side, as it has more recently.
With tensions high, small missteps can turn into serious crises, which could further destabilize the already fragile country. To avoid such an outcome, it’s more necessary than ever for the United States to understand what’s driving Iran’s Afghanistan policies. This can ensure a sustainable peace in Afghanistan as the United States considers the future of its presence there. To help manage tensions, the United States should at a minimum contemplate reestablishing a channel of communication with Iran—preferably one that avoids high-profile meetings and ensures some level of continuity—similar to the one created during the Obama administration. This can help address misperceptions and avoid miscalculation. And as U.S. experience in bringing Iran to the table in both Afghanistan and Iraq has shown, dialogue can at least get the Islamic Republic to moderate its own stance and help that of its proxies and affiliated groups. By bringing Iran to the table, the United States can counter and contain its activities in Afghanistan more effectively.