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Iran and the Future of Afghanistan

Authors: Greg Bruno, and Lionel Beehner
Updated: March 30, 2009

Introduction

In crafting a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, U.S. military and political leaders say Iran--once dubbed a member of the "axis of evil" by former President George W. Bush--could play a key role. Despite ongoing concerns over Iran's nuclear program and allegations of arming militants in the region, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the region, says Washington and Iran could coalesce around stabilizing Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the sentiment (PDF) in late January 2009. NATO partners, too, have sought to include Iran in Afghan strategy decisions. German lawmakers have called for the creation of a "contact group" of nations to chart a new regional course. "Such an initiative, that would include Iran, would benefit if it came to direct talks between Washington and Tehran," Andreas Schockenhoff, vice chairman of Germany's Christian Democratic Party, said in a statement reported by German media.

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These overtures have been followed by concrete steps to bring Iran into the discussion on Afghanistan. On March 20, President Barack Obama reached out to Iran through a televised address in which he offered a "new beginning" for U.S.-Iran ties. In his new strategy for the Afghan war unveiled a week later, the president repeated Germany's calls for a "contact group" and listed Iran as a key player. Iran is also expected to attend (Reuters) an international summit on Afghanistan on March 31 in The Hague, succeeding a March 27 Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting on Afghanistan in Moscow, which Iran attended with SCO observer status. The SCO meeting marked the Obama administration's first high-level encounter with officials from Tehran.

Yet matching pledges for broader cooperation with action from Tehran is complicated by Iran's historic relationship to its eastern neighbor. For one, Iran has been accused of supplying weapons to Taliban rebels operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Allegations have been tempered in recent months, but experts nonetheless see a number of reasons why a strengthened Taliban could serve Iran's interests, particularly in keeping U.S. forces off balance. "It is true that Iran was helping the Taliban out," possibly by supplying weapons and training, says Elizabeth Rubin, an Afghan expert. But, she adds, "in the big picture the Iranians do not want the Taliban back."

Cross-Border Ties

Iran has close linguistic and cultural ties to Afghanistan, particularly with Tajiks, Persian-speaking Afghans in Herat Province, and the Hazara, a Shiite minority residing in central and northern Afghanistan. Iranian influence in this region runs deep; the city of Herat served as the capital of the Persian empire in the early fifteenth century, and remained a center of Iranian power and culture until it was taken by Dost Mohammed Khan in 1863 and made a de facto Afghan border state. In modern times, Tehran's role has often aligned with U.S. interests. Iran opened its borders to millions of Afghan refugees during the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Later in the 1990s it worked with various mujahadeen groups, including the Northern Alliance of Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara militias, to undermine Soviet influence and later Taliban rule. After the Taliban took power in 1996, Iran's supreme leader denounced the group as an affront to Islam, and the killing of eleven Iranian diplomats and truck drivers in 1998 almost triggered a military conflict.

A regional contact group “that would include Iran would benefit if it came to direct talks between Washington and Tehran.” -- Andreas Schockenhoff, Vice Chairman, German Christian Democratic Party

Iran's influence, however, has not always been welcomed by some local Afghans. CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh writes in his book, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic, that "fiercely independent Afghan tribes have historically resisted Persian encroachment and have jealously guarded their rights." But Iranian cultural and economic expansion continues apace. Iranian radio broadcasts fill the airwaves, Iran-funded road and building projects are under way, a new teacher training center is planned for Kabul, and a Herat-Khaf rail link (Pajhwok) is being constructed to connect Afghanistan and Iran by train. Iran has also offered humanitarian aid to Kabul in the form of fuel and transport--as much as $500 million since 2001, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service. CFR's Rubin, who has spent years as a journalist in Afghanistan, says Shiite Afghans are better off financially than most of their counterparts because of aid from Tehran.

Mutual Interests and Missed Opportunities

Iran has important domestic interests in seeing a stable Afghanistan rise on its eastern flank. Four percent of Iran's total exports in 2006 (PDF), according to the most recent data available, went to Afghanistan, accounting for more than $503 million in revenue. Iran is also building roads and expanding its industrial base inside Afghanistan's western border. But arguably the most pressing concern for Iran is gaining the upper hand in Afghanistan's booming drug trade. Iran serves as the major transport hub for opiates produced by its neighbor, and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that Iran has as many as 1.7 million opiate addicts.

Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, Iran showed a willingness to facilitate U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, including drug interdiction programs. Tehran worked with Western countries as part of the Six-Plus-Two framework on Afghanistan and also at the Bonn Conference to cobble together a post-Taliban system of government. Tehran also normalized relations with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, and "deported hundreds" (National Interest) of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders who had sought refuge in Iran, according to two senior U.S. officials involved in regional policy at the time.

One of them, Hillary Mann Leverett, who served as director for Iran and Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, told Congress in November 2007 that Iran's cooperation with the United States on al-Qaeda, Iraq, and especially Afghanistan after 9/11 was largely positive (PDF). In each case, she said, "Iran hoped and anticipated that tactical cooperation with the United States would lead to a genuine strategic opening between our two countries." But by May 2003-sixteen months after Bush's "axis of evil" declaration during his January 2002 State of the Union speech-channels of communication with Iran had closed. Mann Leverett now believes failed talks over the years have increased the mistrust between Washington and Tehran to nearly unworkable levels. Discussing limited tactical issues like Afghanistan, she says, must be part of a broader comprehensive strategy where everything--from U.S. nuclear concerns to Iranian frustration with security and sanctions--is on the table.

A Change in Tactic

Soured diplomatic relations were followed by claims of Iranian support to Islamic militants, first in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in June 2007 that "given the quantities that we're seeing, it is difficult to believe that it's associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it's taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government." U.S. officials say that Iranian-made weapons, including Tehran's signature roadside bomb-the explosively formed penetrator (EFP)-as well as AK-47s, C-4 plastic explosives, and mortars have been found in Afghanistan and used by Taliban-led insurgents. They are concerned because Taliban forces increasingly use more sophisticated weaponry and mimic the style of suicide attacks popular among insurgents in Iraq. Iran also stands accused of offering sanctuary to opponents of the Afghan government and violating Afghan airspace. Iranian officials deny the charges.

Experts say a strengthened Taliban would benefit Tehran in a number of ways. Peter Tomsen, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told CFR.org in 2006 that a weakened Afghan state lessens the likelihood it can become a U.S. ally against Iran. By maintaining a certain level of instability, he said, "it keeps us tied down. After all, we have air bases in Afghanistan where we could mount attacks on Iran." Some analysts call it "managed chaos," a strategy they say is similar to the one Iran employs in Iraq. Others see abetting the Taliban as a means to boost Iran's leverage at a time when it is under pressure to end its uranium-enrichment program. Despite Iran's Shiite brand of Islam, Tehran has thrown its support behind majority Sunni groups in Iraq and elsewhere. As Takeyh writes in his book, "[F]or Tehran the issue in Afghanistan has not been ideological conformity but stability."

“If they can get to the moderates … then there is a lot of room for cooperation, especially if it is not pitched as a U.S. plan but a regional one.” -- Elizabeth Rubin, CFR Press Fellow

But experts disagree on whether the Iranian government is directly involved. Some have refuted Gates' remarks and say the weapons could have been smuggled into Afghanistan via various third-party channels. Others suggest they are being supplied by hard-line components within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (the Mashhad-based Fourth Corps is responsible for projecting Iranian power in Afghanistan (PDF)), which has a separate agenda from the Iranian foreign ministry, which in turn has a separate agenda from Iran's business community. "We're talking about rogue elements," Col. Christopher Langton, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, told CFR.org in 2006, "maybe even cross-border organizational criminal groupings." He said that arms factories in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province make copies of the weapons made in Iran.

The United States, Iran, and the Future of Afghanistan

Suggestions persist that Iran might have a positive role to play in stabilizing its war-ravaged neighbor, where in early 2009 violence was spiking and Taliban fighters were gaining strength. U.S., NATO, and UN officials have all noted Tehran's support of the government in Kabul. A number of experts stress that Iran wants stability and prosperity on its eastern doorstep for commercial and trade reasons. Yet Iranian actions continue to raise doubts about Tehran's intent. The January 2009 deportation of Afghan refugees by Iran was just the latest in what Afghan officials in Kabul see as a string of "broken promises" (RFE/RL). An estimated 1 million UN-registered refugees remain in Iran. A U.S. State Department spokesman, meanwhile, expressed "great concern" with Iran's February 2009 launch of a satellite that he said "could possibly lead to the development of a ballistic missile system."

Timeline: U.S.-Iran Relations More broadly, experts question whether the issue of Afghanistan can serve as a bridge to broader negotiations for Washington and Tehran. CFR's Rubin says there is a whole moderate wing of Iranian lawmakers that hope it can: "If they can get to the moderates, and I believe the Iranian ambassador in Afghanistan is one of the moderates, then there is a lot of room for cooperation, especially if it is not pitched as a U.S. plan but a regional one." Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes in an October 2008 policy paper (PDF) that "Afghanistan presents even more fertile ground for U.S.-Iranian cooperation" than the issue of stability in Iraq. And writing in The New York Review of Books, a trio of Iran experts suggests the Obama administration should, unlike its predecessor, treat negotiations over Afghanistan and Iraq border security--vital concerns for Iran--as inseparable from the nuclear issue.

But cooperation over Afghanistan--not to mention the nuclear problem or even Iraq--is far from a foregone conclusion. Barnett R. Rubin, an Afghan expert and director of studies at New York University's Center for International Cooperation, writes that reaching a consensus on Afghanistan is colored by the historic "animus" between Washington and Tehran, which began with the 1953 CIA-led coup in Iran and was cemented by the Iranian revolution of 1979. Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a former envoy to Kabul, says that Iran still sees Afghanistan as a "bargaining chip" (Bloomberg) against American aggression. Masood Aziz, a former Afghan diplomat in Washington, meanwhile, predicts that "Iran is going to be one of the key pillars of our strategy which is going to help resolve this issue. Iran has the potential to be extremely helpful." But he adds: "Discussions and talks are one thing; how to go about implementing cooperation [with Iran] is another."

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