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Harnessing Iran's Role in Afghanistan

Author: George Gavrilis, International Affairs Fellow
June 5, 2009

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By most counts, Iran has been a better neighbor to Afghanistan than Pakistan. Pakistan has failed to manage its porous border, allowed insurgents to take refuge in its ungoverned frontier areas, and engaged regularly in disputes with Kabul. Iran works furiously to protect its vast boundary with Afghanistan, responds to unrest in its border provinces with an iron fist, and avoids major intrigues in Kabul. This contrast lends a subtle irony to the Obama administration's Af-Pak strategy, a strategy that seeks to deliver nearly $8 billion in military and development aid to Pakistan so that it can essentially behave more like Iran does toward its Afghan neighbor.

If pressed, many policymakers and diplomats in Washington, Brussels, and Kabul will acknowledge that Iran has been good to Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has frequently praised Iran's aid and constructive relations with his government. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has lauded Tehran's efforts to stem the cross-border movement of Afghan opiates. NATO officials indicate Iran's policy towards NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has been one of careful restraint.

While Iran frequently participates in high-level diplomatic discussions on Afghanistan, it does not figure consistently in the international community's strategic plans. Too much talk about cooperation with Iran remains taboo even in the wake of President Obama's carefully crafted, if tentative, statements about engaging Iran.

It's high time for the United States to engage Iran over Afghanistan in a way that is public, decisive, and comprehensive. Strategic cooperation is possible because the United States and Iran have converging interests and common aversions in Afghanistan. Both want a stable, central government in Kabul capable of putting down insurgents and narco-traffickers and wish to avoid the wholesale collapse of the Afghan state. An Af-Ir Strategy that formally recognizes these common interests may expand Tehran's contribution to Afghanistan's security and development. It may also trigger a much-needed thaw in Tehran-Washington relations.

Iran in Afghanistan

The sad state of U.S.-Iran relations over Iraq, Israel, terrorism, and the nuclear weapons program makes it easy to overlook Iran's contribution to Afghan state building. By one estimate, Tehran has contributed half a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance since 2001. More importantly, Iran has a vested interest in a stable, well-governed Afghanistan-an interest that it has protected since the fall of the Taliban.

Crisis Guide: Iran

Tehran was conflicted when U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001. It worried that it would face a U.S. military presence from the east but was buoyed to see the axe fall on Taliban rule and its Sunni brand of extremism. According to Iranian officials, the Taliban government had persecuted Afghanistan's Hazara, Tajik, and Shiia populations, triggered waves of destitute refugees, and provoked escalation along the long common border. Iran participated alongside the United States and United Nations to help put together a new Afghan government. Behind closed doors, Iranian diplomats urged the United Nations to lead rebuilding efforts and insisted that the new Afghan government be composed not of ideologues, but of technocrats who could effectively govern.

Iran's quick assistance and support to the Afghan interim government drew praise from international officials and favorable contrasts to Pakistan's strained relations with the new government in Kabul.

After 2002, Iran's aid and trade role in Afghanistan expanded. Tehran certified joint investment companies, sponsored food fairs, opened cement factories, extended purchase credits to traders, and trained commercial pilots. Tehran also invested in Afghanistan's infrastructure. It extended an electric line into the western Afghan city of Herat and jointly sponsored highway projects with India throughout the Afghan west.

Strategic cooperation is possible because the United States and Iran have converging interests and common aversions in Afghanistan. Both want a stable, central government in Kabul capable of putting down insurgents and narco-traffickers.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated that Iran has armed the Taliban with weapons and explosives. During the author's visit to Kabul in March 2009, ISAF officials did not corroborate these charges, indicating instead that evidence of Iran's covert presence consists of seized passports and literature-not explosives or missiles as Iran provided to it political clients in Iraq. Indeed, to arm Taliban insurgents would undermine Iran's investments in Afghanistan; according to one diplomat, crews building Iranian-Indian sponsored highways in the west were "attracting suicide bombers like flies."

Iran's documented infractions against Afghanistan seem minor. Tehran snatched a pipeline deal with gas-rich Turkmenistan away from Afghanistan. Iranian government officials also triggered a crisis when they deported 62,000 illegal Afghans in 2007. The deportations led to turbulent, fist-flying sessions on the Afghan parliament floor and no-confidence votes against two ministers accused of failing to stop the deportations. While the Afghan government and international agencies in Kabul made much of the political crisis, Iran conceded to UN requests that it slowdown its repatriation campaign until Afghanistan would be politically and economically capable to absorb the returnees. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, some 954,000 legally-registered refugees remain in Iran along with an estimated one million unregistered Afghan migrants, many of whom send crucial remittances to impoverished relatives back home.

Coping with the Neighborhood

The lack of a stable, central authority in Afghanistan fuels the growth of warlords, insurgents, and traffickers whose activities usually spill over international borders. Iranian provinces abutting Afghanistan suffer from Sunni extremism, Baluchi separatism, opium trafficking, and even banditry. Bombings at Shiite mosques in Iran's border areas may be linked to cross-border Sunni extremists. Iranian border guards have been kidnapped by armed groups operating along the frontier. Shootouts with narco-traffickers along the border are common.

Iran has devoted considerable resources to prevent the spillover of instability from Afghanistan - an estimated $600 million annually on counter-narcotics efforts alone. Nearly 10 percent of Iran's conscript army patrols the Afghan border, and walls and ditches dot remote stretches of border. Iranian drug control officials take part in initiatives with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to interdict the heroin trade.

Time for a U.S. "Af-Ir Strategy"

The Obama administration is in a position to broaden Iran's role as a stakeholder in Afghanistan. Engaging Iran in Afghanistan through a new, comprehensive strategy could bolster the international community's beleaguered effort in Afghanistan. It may also create a rare opportunity to reshape U.S.-Iran relations. An Af-Ir Strategy might include the following activities:

-Open a U.S. consulate in Herat, the political and cultural heart of the Afghan west abutting Iran. The U.S. consulate would give the United States a perch from which to engage Iran's role in Afghan security and development. Herat hosts an Iranian consulate, giving American and Iranian diplomats easy proximity. The U.S. consulate could become the main staging ground and public relations outlet for the Af-Ir Strategy. The consulate should take care to operate with great transparency to minimize suspicions that it is a platform for anti-Iranian activities.

-Encourage the creation of special economic zones and lifting of customs barriers along the Afghanistan-Iran border. Iran's trade with Afghanistan rose after the fall of the Taliban but flat-lined afterwards due to customs barriers, poor cross-border infrastructure, and encroaching Chinese goods. The United States could work with the UN and the Afghan government to lower trade barriers and to open special economic zones to encourage development along border regions. This strategy may offer to compensate Afghanistan for revenue lost to lowered customs barriers. These measures will boost the fortunes of Iranian traders, benefit Afghan consumers, and create more job opportunities in the Afghan west.

-Extend assistance to the Afghan side of the Iran border to fight the drug trade. A generously-funded U.S. initiative is training and provisioning the Afghan Border Police. Training has begun for guards on the chaotic Afghan-Pakistan border. By stepping up the training of Afghan border guards slated for duty along the border with Iran, the United States will contribute to rule of law in Afghanistan and to the fight against narco-trafficking. In Iran, trafficking and drug addiction are considered a critical threats to national security and public health.

-Broaden infrastructure projects in western Afghanistan. The United States should greatly expand its projects for road building, irrigation canals, and sewage systems throughout the Afghan west. With the mediation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Development Program, and United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, construction and other project-related jobs can be used to lure refugees and migrants back to Afghanistan. This will create jobs in Afghanistan, ease Iran's migrant crisis, and build goodwill with the Iranian public. Better cross-border infrastructure may also provide a future lifeline to Afghanistan in the event that the security situation in Pakistan disrupts trade routes and lines of communication that sustain the international rebuilding effort.

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