Editor's Note: The United States plans to draw down its military forces in Afghanistan at the end of this year, and for most Americans, this move will put the conflict behind us. One country, however, will continue to play an active role: Iran. Afghanistan offers Iran’s leaders an opportunity for influence, but instability there is a threat to Iran’s security. Sumitha Kutty, a foreign affairs specialist who works on Iran and South Asia, contends that Iran’s interests in Afghanistan are lasting and that Tehran will remain deeply involved its neighbor’s politics in the years to come.
As the United States begins to disengage from Afghanistan, there is renewed interest in Washington to understand the extent of Iran’s involvement in the region.
It’s not exactly breaking news that the Iranians are unhappy with an American military presence in Afghanistan—whether small or large, short or long term. At the same time, Iran does not want to see instability and chaos in Afghanistan. Although Pakistan has traditionally been the United States’ ally in the region, Iran has perhaps more in common with the United States in Afghanistan than Pakistan does. Like the United States, Iran wants a stable Afghanistan that will deny the Taliban sanctuary and will not threaten the region.
Since the 2001 U.S. intervention to overthrow the Taliban, there has been “reluctant recognition” in Tehran that Afghanistan can’t hold its own against insurgents without external assistance. But Tehran has no inclination to fill this security void itself. As General Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. (USMC), the top U.S. general in Afghanistan, shared earlier this year, “the answer the Iranians gave to the Afghans is, ‘we recognize your sovereign right to do what you think you must do in order to provide security for your country.’” In other words, do what you need to do, but don’t ask us for help.
When it comes to Afghanistan, Iran’s influence is here to stay. Nevertheless, there are no indications that Iran looks to involve itself militarily in the country after 2016.
Iran has lasting political, economic, religious, ethnic, and cultural assets in Afghanistan, given that the latter area was historically part of the Persian Empire. The two countries share a 582-mile border along a plain in western Afghanistan. About one-fifth of Afghanistan’s population is Shi’ite, and this remains the focal point of Iran’s interaction. Twenty percent of Afghans speak Dari, a dialect of Persian. The two countries have never fought a war with each other. Yet, despite these deep ties, the bilateral relationship remains fettered by issue-based rivalries over conflicting economic interests, shared river waters, and treatment of ethnic and sectarian minorities in Afghanistan.
Given these circumstances, Iran has four long-standing strategic objectives in Afghanistan.
First, Iran wants a pro-Tehran administration in Kabul: one that will preferably distance itself from the United States and remain wary of the Taliban and its state sponsors (Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). Tehran will also not object to a Pashtun-majority government as long as ethnic minorities (Tajiks and Hazaras) obtain fair representation in the new government. Iran has previously demonstrated such tolerance in 2001 (the Bonn conference) and in the 2004 and 2009 elections.
At the Bonn conference, held in 2001 to formulate the interim Afghan government, the Iranian delegation played a very constructive role, even saving the negotiations from deadlock at one point. It was the Iranians, led by Mohammad Javad Zarif (now Iran’s foreign minister), who first noted that the draft of Afghanistan’s interim constitution failed to mention democratic elections.
In the run-up to the Afghan presidential elections in 2004, Iran convinced the Tajiks and other pro-Iranian factions to strike pre-poll alliances with Hamid Karzai and not field their own candidates. Karzai also chose to not comment on developments in Iran’s controversial 2009 elections that were held two months prior to his own. His silence was acknowledged by the re-elected Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate the Afghan president in an election that was widely believed to be fraudulent.
Iran’s second non-negotiable objective is to maintain is its leverage over the Shi‘ite, Dari/Persian-speaking, non-Pashtun population. Iran has long supported its traditional Afghan allies—the Farsiwan Heratis, the Shi’ite Hazara, and the Tajiks. Iran has also preserved relationships with the various militias it helped train during the Soviet invasion, many of which are led by prominent Afghan political players.
Since 2001, Iran has not only preserved its ties with Shi’ite and non-Pashtun groups, but also struck alliances with Pashtun leaders who do not support the Taliban. As a result, Iran has close ties with key players in the Afghan political landscape, including presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah; vice-presidential candidate and former governor of Herat, Ismail Khan; and Mohammad Yunus Qanooni, installed as vice-president earlier this year. Such political clout will help Tehran advance its influence in Afghanistan, especially if Abdullah Abdullah heads the proposed unity government after the election audit.
Iran’s third priority is to preserve and expand its economic sphere of influence in Afghanistan. Iran provides about 50 percent of Afghanistan’s oil imports. Bilateral trade shot up ten-fold in the last five years to $5 billion, with Iran accounting for 45 percent of Afghanistan's exports. On reconstruction efforts, Iran pledged over $900 million in aid between 2002 and 2013. According to Iranian officials, their “golden era” of support was from 2002 to 2007, with contributions totaling over $560 million. From 2007, funds were directed toward existing projects with the aim of pushing them toward completion. Over half of that amount was spent on infrastructure and power projects in western Afghanistan.
In recent years, Iran has worked meticulously to expand its cultural and economic profile, particularly in the western border province of Herat, which feeds into its regional integration strategy. Iran has long advertised to its landlocked neighbor the availability of land and sea access through Iran to Central Asia and beyond. Tehran’s regional vision also includes the growth of transit trade through its new Chabahar port in the country’s southeast, with the participation of Afghanistan and India.
Iran’s fourth strategic objective is to safeguard its investments in Afghanistan as well as the lives of personnel engaged in diplomacy, trade, and commerce. There are an estimated 2,000 Iranian private firms operating in Afghanistan. For the Iranians, the deaths of nine diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 painfully demonstrated the dangers of a resurgent Taliban.
There are also a few negotiable interests which, if fulfilled, would only make the Iranians happier. These include: cross-border stability—namely, assistance in fighting resurgent Baluchi separatist networks and cooperation in stemming the flow of narcotics into its territory; the repatriation of the 2.4 million Afghan refugees in Iran (only 1 million of whom are legal); and an end to Afghanistan’s policy of using the Helmand River as a political tool. This last point is related to an old bilateral dispute involving the river, which serves as the main source of water for Iran’s Hamoun Lake in the country’s east and an economic resource for the region.
To guarantee its interests, Iran has ensured it has several potent bargaining chips in place. This strategy was particularly encouraged during Ahmadinejad’s tenure as president. Not only did Iran repeatedly threaten to expel over 1 million Afghan refugees from its territory, it also courted the Taliban. From its “measured support” to the group and the reported opening of a Taliban office in Zahedan in the country’s east (all of which have been officially denied by the Iranian government), Tehran’s extensive experience in handling proxy groups has enabled its pursuit of contradictory objectives in Afghanistan.
Challenges to Influence
With Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan comes resistance, particularly in Herat. In August, the Herat police chief claimed Iran was partly behind a wave of attacks in the province. In another interview last year, the provincial governor Said Fazilullah Wahidi was quick to point out the “unfriendliness of Iran.” There were also protests in Kabul in 2013 accusing Iran of funding Afghan provincial council members. Protestors have increasingly targeted the Iranian consulate in Herat and even voiced outrage against one of Abdullah’s vice-presidential candidates when he paid tribute to Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini on the 25th anniversary of his death.
Iran’s tendency (especially during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad) to play spoiler in Afghanistan—as with its dalliance with the Taliban—was aimed at undermining American interests. However, President Rouhani’s actions over the past year suggest a degree of moderation on this front, and given that American troops will begin drawing down later this year, this trend may continue into the future. Furthermore, the Iranian administration has expressed interest in talking with the United States on Afghanistan if significant progress is made on the nuclear issue.
Today, no other country—including the United States—is more worried about what transpires in Kabul than Iran, given that it does not have the luxury of an ‘exit.’ A commonly overlooked neighbor, Iran’s influence perhaps surpasses its ambitions in the region. A critical factor holding Iran back is the sanctions regime that has crippled Iran’s economy and limited its ability to shape events to its liking in Afghanistan. Regardless, Iran will continue to pursue its interests in Afghanistan as vigorously as possible in the coming years.
Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is a foreign affairs analyst and journalist specializing in Iran and South Asia. Her analysis has appeared in several publications including The Washington Quarterly, Asia Policy, Al-Monitor, and Lobe Log. She is also a scholar at Takshashila Institution—an independent, non-partisan, non-profit organization in India.