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Iran Seeking Influence in Afganistian

13 February 2007

Since ancient times, the region that is now Afghanistan -- a fragile mix of ethnic and religious groups -- has been an object of interest of its neighbors and other powers. Iran’s recent interest in its eastern neighbor might have risky implications for Afghanistan.

Predominantly Shi’ite, Iran has traditionally backed Afghanistan’s Shi’ites who constitute 20 percent of the country’s population. Iran hosts several-hundred-thousand of the two million Afghan refugees who streamed over its border during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s and the civil war that ensued after the Soviet Union withdrew.

During the internationally supported anti-communist war in Afghanistan, Iran financed and trained fundamentalist Shi’ite militias. In the civil war, Iran sponsored the Northern Alliance, while Pakistan on the eastern and southern borders of Afghanistan, supported the Taliban.

In 2001, the Northern Alliance helped bring down the Taliban. At the 2002 Bonn, Germany talks on the post-Taliban government, Iran promised to help stabilize Afghanistan and pledged $560 million in aid and loans.

Stability Comes First

Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington says Iran has contributed to the reconstruction of Afghanistan because, like any other country, it wants a secure neighborhood.

“One of their big interests is to have stable political entities on their borders, partly because they don’t want fighting in those countries to spill over into their country. Iran is an ethnically diverse country, which has populations with ties to ethnic minorities in Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere. Another strategic interest is to forestall movements for ethnic autonomy in their own country. Iran may not want Afghanistan to be very strong; they may prefer them to be weak, but they certainly want them to be stable,” says Toensing.

Iran has built a new highway in western Afghanistan, erected power lines, and laid fiber-optic cables that provide telephone and Internet access to the region. Iran plans to build a rail line and a new road linking the two countries.

Tehran and Kabul also cooperate in combating drug trafficking. Iran is concerned about the level of heroin production in Afghanistan and drug smuggling across its eastern border.

Underlying Motives

But many analysts note that Tehran has broader political motives for promoting good relations with Kabul. Mark Schneider, Vice President of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says Iran views Afghanistan as a counterbalance to its regional rival, Pakistan.

“Iran previously, very actively opposed the Taliban government. It is currently actively supporting the [Hamid] Karzai government and generally it is opposed to the resurgence of Taliban influence. Also there is a certain anti-Pakistan element to Iran’s foreign policy, simply in terms of being a regional power and wanting to be sure that they remain in the situation in which a secure Afghanistan to some degree is a buffer between themselves and Pakistan,” notes ICG’s Mark Schneider.

But some analysts caution that tensions between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program could affect relations between Iran and Afghanistan.

The U.S. says Iran is providing training and explosives to Shi’ite militias, which are attacking American troops in Iraq. Tehran claims Washington is trying to justify military action against Iran. But Bush administration officials, including White House spokesman Tony Snow, say that while the U.S. is determined to protect its troops in Iraq, it is not making the case for military action against Iran.

“I do not know how much clearer we can be. We are not getting ready for war in Iran, but what we are doing is protecting our own people. And we are going to do it and we have made clear it is going to be a priority,” says Tony Snow.

Risky “Hedging Strategy”

Chris Toensing of the Middle East Research and Information Project says Tehran may be involved in Afghanistan to prevent, what Iran fears, could be a western military strike.

“The problem is there isn’t necessarily good faith. You have the United States threatening the survival of the regime in the Islamic Republic, so that their self-preservation instincts are forced to be first and foremost in their thinking. And they are tempted to engage in various meddling of their own to make problems for the United States. In that kind of atmosphere, it’s probably not possible for rational interests to prevail,” argues Toensing.

According to some experts, among them Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation, Iran is pursuing a two-track policy toward Afghanistan. While it cooperates on the highest level with the Afghan government, its intelligence agents are establishing contacts with Afghan insurgents.

“Over the course of 2006, there area number of indications that they have been more deeply involved in making contact with individuals, such as the Queta Shura [i.e., the local consultative body] in Queta, Pakistan that surrounds Mullah Omar and the top levels of the Taliban insurgency. If the Iranians were to be attacked, I would argue what the Iranians are doing or appearing to be doing in Afghanistan is providing a way that could make life for the United States and NATO much worse. I would characterize the Iranian relationship as cooperative at high levels, but also pursuing a hedging strategy,” says security specialist Seth Jones.

He also points out that western military action against Iran would likely result in weakening the Afghan government.

“If there is no attack against Iran, the implications are likely to be fairly benign. I would guess that Iran would not step up major assistance to insurgent groups [in Afghanistan] if it were not attacked. If it is attacked, that would likely lead to a much greater Iranian involvement in Afghanistan,” says Jones.

There is broad agreement that Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan could threaten the relationship between the two neighbors and further undermine the already deteriorating stability in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

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