Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan: Implications for US Drawdown

June 23, 2014

           The U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan and Hassan Rouhani’s election to Iran’s presidency “may provide a new opportunity for greater U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan,” according to a new study by the RAND Corporation. The two countries had convergent interests in 2001, when Tehran cooperated with Washington to help bring down the Taliban. But any new cooperation will likely depend on the result of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world’s six major powers. Regardless, Iran “is poised to exercise substantial influence” in Afghanistan. The following are excerpts from the report.



            A state of rivalry between Iran and the United States, exacerbated by tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, has often meant competition in other areas, including Afghanistan. Tehran has viewed the decadelong U.S. presence in Afghanistan with anxiety. Iran’s fears of U.S. military strikes against its nuclear facilities, or perceived American plans to overthrow the Iranian regime, may have motivated it to provide measured military support to Afghan insurgents battling U.S. forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Iran also actively opposes the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) being negotiated between Afghanistan and the United States.
            U.S. policymakers may naturally think that Iran will seek to exploit the drawdown and undermine American interests in Afghanistan. However, the departure of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a new pragmatic government in Tehran, and a possible resolution to the nuclear crisis may provide greater cooperation between Tehran and Washington in Afghanistan.
            Iranian objectives in Afghanistan align with most U.S. interests. Therefore, Iranian influence in Afghanistan following the drawdown of international forces need not necessarily be a cause of concern for the United States. Much like the United States, Iran wants to see a stable Afghanistan with a government free of Taliban control, and Iran seeks to stem the tide of Sunni extremism in the region.
            The extent to which Iran would be willing to directly cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan largely depends on the status of the Iranian nuclear dispute. It is important to note, however, that even if U.S.-Iran tensions remain, Iran’s activities in Afghanistan are unlikely to run counter to the overall objectives of the United States.
            The United States should attempt to cooperate with Iran in countering narcotics in Afghanistan and encourage efforts to bring Tehran and Kabul to an agreement over water sharing. Becausethe Taliban insurgency is largely funded through drug trafficking, counternarcotics effortswould contribute to Afghanistan’s security. Tensions over scarce water resources could also fuelinstability if left unaddressed.
            While many of the disagreements between the two countries appear intractable and beholden to political interests in Tehran and Washington, combating drug trafficking and addressing water-usage issues would be relatively uncontroversial and nonpolitical. It could also lead to increased mutual trust that would benefit broader U.S.-Iran relations. To this end, the United States could lend logistical or financial support to the UN-facilitated Triangular Initiative, which fosters coordination among Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in countering the drug trade. With regards to the Iran-Afghan water dispute, the United States should become active—through the UN and development organizations—in facilitating a mutually agreed upon water-usage system.
            Iran is hedging its bets in order to be prepared for a variety of outcomes following the U.S. drawdown. Iran has maintained close ties with Afghanistan’s Tajik and Hazara populations in order to gain political influence and protect its interests after the U.S. drawdown.
            On the other hand, Iran appears to be open to engaging with the Taliban after the U.S. drawdown. The extent of engagement will depend on the Taliban’s posture toward Iran and its treatment of the Afghan Shia.
            Iran will continue attempting to build soft influence in Afghanistan, especially in the realms of education and the media. Iran has been building and buttressing pro-Iranian schools, mosques,and media centers. Much of this activity centers on western and northern Afghanistan, inaddition to Kabul. Afghan schools have received thousands of Iranian books, many of whichespouse the values of the Islamic republic.
            However, Iran will face challenges in winning over the Afghan populace. The Pashtuns, who are more closely affiliated with Pakistan, remain wary of the Iranians. Meanwhile, many of the Shia Hazara do not favor Iran’s system of governance. In recent years, Hazara political parties have made efforts not to be seen simply as Iranian proxies, and are likely to seek support from Western countries as well.
            Although set to remain generally positive, Iran-Afghan relations likely will experience strain over water disputes and the issue of refugees. Exacerbated by drought, water-sharing disputes are likely to persist as a significant sticking point between Tehran and Kabul as Afghanistan’s plan to boost its agricultural sector will lead to increased water usage upstream, affecting Iran’s supplies. Both countries suffer from a shortage of water, with Iran’s eastern provinces bordering Afghanistan being particularly water challenged.
            In recent years, the status of Afghan refugees in Iran has become a highly politicized issue. Iran has more Afghan refugees than any other country after Pakistan. As economic conditions in Iran have deteriorated, Afghan refugees have come to be seen by many as a burden and have been subjected to discrimination and abuse at the hands of the Iranian government. Numerous protests have erupted in Afghanistan over Iran’s treatment of refugees. Furthermore, Iran has attempted to use the threat of mass deportation of Afghans as a means of pressuring the Kabul government to adopt policies favorable to the Islamic Republic.
            Following the withdrawal of U.S. forces and ISAF from Afghanistan in 2016, Iranian and U.S. strategy there will be influenced in large part by the actions of Pakistan, India, and Russia. As the world’s only superpower, the United States will continue to play an important role in Afghanistan following the ISAF drawdown. It is important, however, to bear in mind that U.S. influence there will be determined in large part by its relations with regional actors and, in turn, their relations with one another. Iran’s overall interests in Afghanistan align with the core U.S., Indian, and Russian objectives in Afghanistan: to prevent the country from again becoming dominated by the Taliban and a safe haven for al Qaeda. Therefore, Iranian cooperation with regional actors in Afghanistan could serve U.S. interests.
            In the event of a nuclear deal, it is prudent that the United States directly engage Iran in bilateral discussions regarding Afghanistan and pursue joint activities that would serve their mutual interests and build much-needed trust.
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