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Afghanistan - Iran Relations

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said 16 April 2021 that the Taliban should be a part of the process to establish peace in Afghanistan, rejecting viability of the group’s past plan to revive an emirate in the country. He ruled out the possibility for the Taliban to implement its plan for reviving the “Islamic Emirate” of the 1990s in Afghanistan, saying that plan is no longer viable since the country has gone through a lot of changes over the past two decades and moved toward a democratic system of government thanks to the efforts of the Kabul government and the Afghan people.

Zarif said the democratic institutions established in Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban rule “must remain in place…and become even more inclusive, with the Taliban abandoning violence and entering a political process.” He said there is no consensus in Afghanistan over the Taliban’s plan, and that an “emirate” is not a system that post-war Afghanistan could be built upon.

Zarif also elaborated on Iran’s stance on efforts to restore peace to Afghanistan and Tehran’s negotiations with the Taliban over the role the group needs to play in the diplomatic process. Besides its own national security concerns, Zarif said, Iran held talks with the Taliban to convince the group that “there is a need for a broad-based, inclusive peace in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban should be a part of that peace” instead of attempting to “control” the process. The foreign minister called on all Afghan groups to work together and draw up a “unified peace” plan for the future of their country.

Given cultural and linguistic ties between Afghanistan and Iran, no one is surprised that Iranian influence permeates Afghanistan. Iran aims to play a dominant, long-term role in Afghanistan and the broader region, and seeks the permanent withdrawal of foreign forces from regional nation-states. Iran’s attempts to influence events in Afghanistan include overt support for the Afghan Government; economic and cultural outreach to the Afghan population, particularly to the Shi’a minority populations; and covert support, including the provision of weapons and training, for various insurgent and political opposition groups.

Afghanistan's relations with Iran have fluctuated over the years, with periodic disputes over the water rights of the Helmand River as the main issue of contention. Following the Soviet invasion, which Iran opposed, relations deteriorated. Iran supported the cause of the Afghan resistance and provided financial and military assistance to rebel leaders who pledged loyalty to the Iranian vision of Islamic revolution. Following the emergence of the Taliban and their harsh treatment of Afghanistan's Shi'a minority, Iran stepped up assistance to the Northern Alliance. Relations with the Taliban deteriorated further in 1998 after Taliban forces seized the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and executed Iranian diplomats. Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan's relations with Iran have improved. Iran has been active in Afghan reconstruction efforts, particularly in the western portion of the country.

Relations with Iran generally have been positive. Iran has actively supported reconstruction efforts of the early 2000s. Trade relations also have improved in this period. The main bilateral issue is Iran’s long-standing claim to share the water resources of the Helmand River, which irrigates Afghanistan’s southern agricultural region before flowing into Iran. Other issues are the ongoing presence of Afghan refugees in Iran and Iranian concerns for the Shia minority in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2005, the Karzai government felt substantial Western pressure to eschew closer relations with Iran, which in turn endeavored to create new bilateral links.

Iranian government officials routinely encourage Parliament to support anti-Coalition policies and to raise anti-American talking points during debates. Pro-Western MPs say colleagues with close Iranian contacts accept money or political support to promote Iran's political agenda. Some staff members believe Iranian intelligence officials have infiltrated the Parliament's legal and information technology support offices, compromising the professional staff's legal advice and the legislature's electronic communications. Allegations are difficult to verify and may be inspired more by conspiracy theories and inter-ethnic rivalries than actual facts. Many MPs accuse Hazaras, who like Iran's leaders are mostly Shia Muslims, of having the closest ties with Iran. Moderate Hazaras insist Iranian outreach influences only conservative Hazaras, many of whom received religious educations or lived in Iran while in exile.

Iran also continues to provide lethal assistance, including weapons and training, to elements of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Since 2007, coalition and Afghan forces have interdicted several shipments of Iranian weapons. Tehran’s relationship with the insurgency, though not ideologically based, is consistent with Iran’s short- to mid-term goal of undermining coalition efforts and an international military presence in Afghanistan.

Relations with Iran took a step backward in 2007 as a result of forced repatriation of more than 360,000 unregistered Afghans from Iran, opposition to hydro projects along the border, evidence of Iranian provision of weapons, technology, and training to the Taliban, and Iranian support for the United Front opposition movement (northern, non-Pashtun). But Iran also provided extensive development and cultural assistance, is playing an increasingly dominant role in western Afghanistan, and is ready to cooperate on counter-narcotics.

Iran is highly engaged in efforts to promote Persian culture throughout Afghanistan - activities that sometimes dwarf US efforts to promote US culture. Tolo TV - a popular private television station that holds an almost 90% market share - is being used by Iran to deliver its message of cultural domination and may even be party to crafting it.

Iran actively engaged in the Afghan media, frequently sending journalists invitations for travel, dinners, and distributing free books translated into Farsi at local exhibitions. Rahimullah Samander of AIJA asserts that, "Iranian influence is more dangerous than Pakistan's because the Iranians want to shape our thinking against Western influence." Samander asserted that as soon as popular western books are published, the Iranians translate them into Farsi and distribute them throughout Afghanistan, perhaps an attempt to control how Western culture in "translated" to the Afghans.

Cash-strapped Afghan universities found Iran a willing economic supporter. The real impact of Iranian influence in Afghan higher education lies in the ability to block dissemination of Western ideas and values to the young Afghan generation. The Iranians had a presence in nearly every university, ranging from providing textbooks to study abroad trips to Iran for professors, deans, rectors and even students. While most Westerners believe Iranians' motives are political in nature, no one is sure of their specific objective. By 2009 nearly every book in Afghanistan was published in Iran.

The Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) recognized Iranian influence in a number of ways. The single dominant area of influence came in the form of textbooks. Even though many were translations from western authors and may not contain overt Iranian ideology, these translations have been approved by the Islamic Republic of Iran to omit unsanctioned views. Themes of democracy, free speech, and human rights were conspicuous by their absence. Iran's monopoly on the textbook market influences Afghans by the ideas which simply are not translated.

The most significant Iranian penetration of higher education is in Herat. Iran has been the largest donor by far to Herat University, which is not surprising given the common language and geographical proximity. Herat University has signed MOUs establishing limited partnerships with five Iranian higher education institutes or universities. Most call for sending some Afghan faculty and students to Iranian institutes. At least fifteen professors from the Law and Political Science, Agriculture, Economics, and Sharia Faculties reportedly are studying for Master's Degrees in Iranian universities. Students go for shorter periods of time.

The Iranians took advantage of the fact that Afghans' own conception of their culture has been fragmented by decades of war, leaving them susceptible to the latest impulse (whether it is Bollywood or Iranian films). The Iranians are everywhere, in terms of purveying children's books, films and other cultural media. The message in these media is that Afghanistan is part of Iran. Even vocabulary that is used conveys this message in subtle form.

Iran and the United States share certain interests in Afghanistan, such as counternarcotics and opposition to ISIS-K. However, Iran seeks to expand its influence and limit U.S. influence and military presence, particularly in western Afghanistan. Although U.S. and Iranian political dynamics are not currently conducive to direct coordination on areas of mutual interest in Afghanistan, the United States and its Afghan partners could explore ways to leverage Iran’s interests in support of U.S. and Afghan objectives in the areas of counternarcotics, economic development, and counterterrorism.

Iran’s desire for influence in Afghanistan remains strong. Iran seeks increased influence in Afghanistan through government partnerships, bilateral trade, and cultural and religious ties. Iran’s ultimate goal is a stable Afghanistan where Shi’a communities are safe, Iran’s economic interests are protected, and the U.S. military presence is reduced. Iran provides some support to the Taliban and publicly justifies its relationship with the Taliban as a means to combat the spread of ISIS-K in Afghanistan. Iran’s support to the Taliban undermines the Afghan government’s credibility, adds to instability in the region, and complicates strategic partnership agreements.

Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research group, said the relationship between the Taliban and Iran was more of a contingency plan. "They are creating relationships that they hope will make the Taliban safe if it takes over from the Afghan government," Cordesman said, following reports of Tehran's involvement in the large-scale attack on Afghanistan's Farah province in May 2018, which borders Iran. "Another source of speculation is that Iran is supporting the Taliban as a counterbalance to the growing role of ISIS inside Afghanistan," he added.

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