Many in the West associate Iran with religious fanaticism and an adventurous, confrontational foreign policy. By contrast, Iran is viewed as a force for moderation and stability in Afghanistan. From Kabul’s perspective, the U.S. and Iran share much common ground vis-à-vis Afghanistan — both support the establishment of a viable government in Kabul, have a shared interest in stemming the flow of narcotics across the Afghani-Iranian border, and neither country wants al-Qaeda to re-establish a safe haven in Afghanistan. While U.S. officials weigh the pros and cons of a possible rapprochement with Iran and its implications for the U.S., little is being said about how the prospects for stability in Afghanistan could improve if a thaw does indeed occur.
On one hand, Iran’s Afghanistan foreign policy is contradictory. In 2001, Iran aided the coalition forces that overthrew the Taliban. Iranian pressure on Afghanistan’s Tajik minority to share power with Hamid Karzai (a Pashtun) later contributed to the Karzai government’s successful establishment. Since then Tehran has maintained strong ties with Kabul. On the other hand, Iran has also sponsored the Taliban, which continues to wage an insurgency against the Iranian and U.S.-backed Karzai government. The Iran-Taliban alliance is particularly paradoxical given the Taliban’s anti-Shi’ite ideology and the fact that the movement nearly brought Afghanistan and Iran to war in 1998, following the killing of nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif.
Ultimately, Iranian support for the Taliban sheds light on Tehran’s geostrategic calculations vis-à-vis the U.S. (the perception that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was a grave security threat) more than on Tehran’s long-term interests in Afghanistan. Iran has historically supported Afghanistan’s Tajik, Hazara, and Shi’ite currents that are anti-Taliban. Tehran’s sponsorship of the Taliban is thus consistent with Iran’s strategy of countering U.S./NATO influence through asymmetric proxy warfare. While Iran’s measured support for the Taliban provided Tehran with greater leverage over the Karzai government, it was primarily motivated by its hostile relationship with the U.S.
Sponsorship of the Taliban added to Iran’s capacity to deter the U.S. from waging a military strike against Iran, while bogging the U.S. military down in Afghanistan at a time when the U.S. threatened a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. According to former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Tehran has viewed Afghanistan as a “bargaining chip” against Washington. The Taliban has not been subtle about its preference for a continuation of a hostile relationship between the U.S. and Iran, and is clearly a beneficiary of this animosity. However, once NATO forces have departed, and if relations between Washington and Tehran thaw, it is plausible that Iran would lose interest in maintaining its alliance with the Taliban.
The story of Iran’s influence in Herat throughout the past decade underscores Iran’s potential to promote stability and moderation throughout Afghanistan. Herat (Afghanistan’s third largest city) is situated within 100 miles of the Iranian border. Until the Treaty of Paris was signed — which ended the Anglo-Persian War (1856-1857) — Herat was considered an integral part of Iran. Today, many Iranians view portions of western Afghanistan as within Iran’s sphere of influence. Given the cultural, economic, historic, linguistic, political and religious bonds that connect the Afghanis and Iranians on both sides of the border, an extension of Iranian influence in Western Afghanistan seems natural.
Moreover, since the Taliban’s fall in 2001, Tehran has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into reconstruction efforts throughout Herat and many private Iranian firms (subsidized by the Iranian government) operate in western Afghanistan. Isma’il Khan, a warlord who previously served as Herat’s governor, earned several million dollars each month from taxes imposed on Iranian imports. Up to 500 cars and trucks reportedly cross Iran’s border with Herat province on a daily basis, delivering products into Afghanistan and Pakistan from Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Within the context of Afghanistan’s realities, Herat’s development in recent years has been marked by relative economic prosperity, stability and security; observers note the growth of a vibrant civil society, reflective of more tolerant and progressive values.
Iran looks to Afghanistan as a gateway akin to the Silk Road, as a pathway toward Greater Central Asia. Stability in Afghanistan would bode well for Iran’s interests in establishing future pipelines linking Iran to the Central Asian Republics and China. In the near-term, however, Iran’s security and foreign policy dilemmas will continue to drive Tehran’s policies vis-à-vis Afghanistan. The killing of 14 Iranian border guards near the Iranian-Pakistani border last month underscored the reality that south-western Iran remains troublesome, and the Sunni Islamist group Jundullah remains active and hostile toward Tehran. In addition to the lingering Baluchi insurgency, other transnational issues — such as the Afghan refugee question, water disputes and the narcotics trafficking — will continue to play a major role in Iran’s calculations vis-à-vis Afghanistan.
The Iranian government knows it does not have the luxury of leaving Afghanistan for others to address. Humanitarian crises, sectarian clashes, and terrorism in Afghanistan will inevitably impact Iran. The Iranian government holds no illusions about Afghanistan’s myriad of problems, nor is there any expectation that these will soon be resolved. It is within this context that Iran is vested in economic development and political stability in Afghanistan, contrary to the variables that have fueled violent cycles throughout Afghanistan’s history. Obviously, the U.S. and Iran will not always see eye to eye on the plethora of challenges in Afghanistan, but the important issues that align Washington and Tehran’s long-term interests should be acknowledged as the two governments test the diplomatic waters and entertain a rapprochement. In the interim, Kabul and Tehran’s complicated and paradoxical relationship will continue to confound conventional wisdom.
This article was originally posted in The Huffington Post.