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Iran & South Asia #3: After US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Ellen Laipson

Relations between Iran and Afghanistan have gyrated since the 1979 revolution. How might the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014 affect opportunities or challenges facing the neighboring countries?
            All of Afghanistan’s neighbors will be affected when international troops leave in 2014.  The United States has completed negotiations with the Afghan government for a strategic agreement that would permit a modest number of troops (5,000 to 15,000) to remain in the country. Their mission would be to provide training and other support but not to have a combat role. President Karzai convened a loya jirga (assembly of elders) to consider the agreement. Despite the jirga’s approval, President Hamid Karzai has declared that he would prefer his successor, after spring 2014 elections, be the one to sign the agreement. He has also raised other objections to provisions in the agreement. 
      The Obama administration, however, has urged the Afghan government to finalize the agreement as soon as possible, to permit the orderly removal of equipment and departure of troops. High level officials have visited Kabul to urge prompt passage, but during Secretary of Defense Hagel’s December 2013 visit, he did not meet with President Karzai (left) and said there was nothing more to say about the agreement.
            If U.S. troops remain after 2014, Iran in particular will see this as a threat to its security.  “We find them [foreign forces] detrimental to regional security and peace,” President Hassan Rouhani (right) said in September. Iran “does not consider the signing and approval of the pact useful for the long term expedience and interests of Afghanistan,” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham warned in December.
            The Iranian government, however, has also signaled that approval of a U.S.-Afghan agreement is a domestic Afghan matter, suggesting that Iran may be more accepting of an accord that permits a modest number of U.S. forces to remain in the country.
            Iran would like to play a more active role in Afghan security, particularly in western Afghanistan along the shared border, and in areas where the Hazara minority lives. The Hazara are predominantly Shiite, like Iranians, but they are not ethnically Persian. In December 2013, Iran and Afghanistan signed a new security agreement to advance security cooperation. 
What is the state of relations between Afghanistan’s Sunni-led government and Iran’s Shiite theocracy? On what issues do they collaborate? On what issues are they divided?
            Iran and Afghanistan have complicated relations. Iran was helpful in ousting the Taliban government in 2001 and supporting the Northern Alliance of Afghan forces that are prominent in Hamid Karzai’s government. Iran is also a major aid donor and trading partner. 
            Bilateral trade between the two countries is estimated at over $2 billion per year, and rising. Iranian exports, especially energy supplies, to Afghanistan account for the vast majority of the trade volume. Some 500 Iranian companies were operating in Afghanistan as of July 2013.
            Tehran and Kabul expect bilateral trade to increase once Iran’s Chabahar port is fully operational. The port, which opened in July, is intended to be a conduit for landlocked Afghanistan to trade with India and other countries.
            But Iran has criticized the Karzai government for its dependence on Western (particularly American) military forces. Tehran has reportedly supported attacks on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Some Afghan leaders and intellectuals believe that Iran wants to dominate areas of Afghanistan that have strategic value. They resent that Iran does not treat Afghanistan as an equal, sovereign state. 
             The two countries also have specific disputes, notably over water, illicit narcotics trade, and refugees. Water flows to Iran are likely to be reduced when major hydropower dams are completed in Afghanistan, and water sharing is becoming a more acute source of friction between the two states.
      On drug trafficking, Tehran blames Kabul and Washington for failing to curb opium production in Afghanistan. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran claims to have lost more than 3,700 security forces fighting drug traffickers, many of whom were heavily armed. Tehran estimates that it spends around $1 billion annually on its war on drugs.
      The Islamic Republic has long been a favorite corridor for smuggling narcotics to Europe and elsewhere in the Middle East. But Iran is now facing widespread drug-usage at home with 1.2 million registered addicts and 800,000 casual users, according to government officials. In 2012, Iran’s largest non-governmental drug treatment organization claimed the number of addicts may be as high as five million.
How is Iran building influence in Afghanistan? Where are Tehran’s efforts visible? What countries is Iran competing with?
            Iran’s influence is strongest in western Afghanistan, particularly in Herat province. Tehran has invested in transportation infrastructure, education, cultural institutions and exchanges; it is also an important source of food and manufactured goods. Iran has pledged nearly $1 billion in aid at international aid conferences held to help Afghanistan, and its aid in the first decade after the Taliban’s ouster was estimated at about 12 percent of total assistance for reconstruction and development. The other major donors are the United States, European countries and Japan. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan also send funds to various Afghan groups, but they are less transparent about aid and financial support.
How much influence will Iran have in post-U.S. Afghanistan?
            The United States and Iran actually share some broad common goals:
  • to prevent Afghanistan from returning to full-scale civil war,
  • to prevent return of the Taliban as the dominant political force,
  • to stem the flow of Afghan drugs into the international market,
  • and to support Afghanistan on a path to political and economic stability. 
     Until the question of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after 2014 is resolved, however, Iran will be reluctant to pursue open cooperation with the United States. 
      But if U.S.-Iran relations improve as a result of the nuclear talks, cooperation on Afghanistan might become a less sensitive issue. Promising areas for cooperation include border security, economic reconstruction, and preventing the return of the Taliban to a dominant political position.
What is the status of the more than 1 million Afghan refugees in Iran?
             The Afghan refugees in Iran remain a source of potential conflict in Iran-Afghan relations, even though many have lived for decades in Iran and are now integrated into the economy at many levels.  Afghan laborers working in Iran sent home about $500 million annually, according to a 2008 U.N. study—equivalent to six percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product at the time. When economic strains are on the rise, Iran faces pressure to encourage, or even compel, the refugees to return home.
      The international community is largely positive about Iran’s absorption of refugees, but sometimes reminds it not to force refugees to return against their will and to normalize the status of refugees who cannot return. In June 2012, Iran ended the registration period for its Comprehensive Regularization Plan, which permitted some Afghans to legalize their immigration status. Only some 800,000 of the up to 3 million Afghans in Iran have recognized refugee status, according to Human Rights Watch.

Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service. Read Laipson's chapter, "Reading Iran," in The Iran Primer

Click here for Iran & South Asia #1: Pakistan’s Delicate Balancing Act


Photo credits: Karzai and Rouhani via President.ir, Heroin rocks by SAC Neil Chapman (RAF)/MOD [see page for license] via Wikimedia Commons, 982nd Combat Camera Company Airborne via dvidshub.net, Afghan child working in a refugee camp in Rafsanjan, Iran by Ali Hossein Mohammadi for UNICEF Iran via Flickr

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Stimson: Engaging Iran on Afghanistan

Ellen Laipson

     The Stimson Center on March 15 published “Engaging Iran on Afghanistan” by Ellen Laipson. The following is the summary of the report. A link to the full report is provided at the bottom.

     Engaging Iran on issues of mutual interest has been an elusive goal for the Obama Administration, and in early 2012, prospects of meaningful engagement appear remote at best until after presidential elections in both countries. Nonetheless, the evolution of US policy in Afghanistan over the next three years provides a compelling opportunity for practical engagement. Engaging Iran as one of Afghanistan’s key neighbors as US and international forces withdraw would enhance prospects for a peaceful exit, and for productive Afghan-Iran relations once foreign forces are gone. Successful engagement with Iran – in multilateral or bilateral fora – would necessarily address Iran’s legitimate security interests on its eastern frontier, as well as its broader economic and political interests in Afghan stability.
     After Pakistan, Iran is the most important neighbor of Afghanistan and has the capacity to influence long-term stability there. The fact that Iran does not see itself as the major outside influence on Afghan politics, as it does in Iraq, could well facilitate prospects for finding areas of mutual interest. Its priorities are principally in the areas where its interests are most acute; on its border and in areas of northwest Afghanistan where the demographic ties of religion, language, and ethnicity are strongest. Iran also feels a gravitational pull to preventing dominance of Afghan national politics by the Pushtun plurality; its interests, therefore, do not align with Pakistan’s and may create incentives for Iran to pursue strategies that weaken the central government.
     The US and Iran have had, and will continue to have, some convergent interests in Afghanistan. Both have a stake in a stable country that is not under Taliban control. Afghanistan in chaos or a return of a draconian Taliban regime would be truly harmful to both Tehran and Washington. Both want to build capacity in Afghanistan that would prevent the flow of drugs and refugees across its borders; for Iran, that is a more acute concern than for the US. Both would like to see Afghanistan emerge from decades of conflict into a more reliable trading partner, transit route, and competent state that can prevent non-Afghan non-state actors from operating on its territory.
     But the convergence of US-Iran interests that was clear in 2001 has been overshadowed by more recent priorities and perceptions. The past decade has sharpened Iran’s thinking and fears about American engagement in the region. Iranian officials and independent experts characterize Iran’s strategic concerns about a long-term US role in Afghanistan as an “existential threat” to the Islamic Republic, based on worries that the United States plans to use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack Iran, and to work for regime change in Tehran.
     On a more practical level, the mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear activities and increasingly harsh sanctions related to those activities have made it hard for Tehran to agree to engage directly on ideas for short-term cooperation, out of concern that such cooperation could be construed as an Iranian concession in light of the larger impasse in relations. Iran participates in the multilateral meetings organized by the United States and Afghanistan, and endorses the broad guidelines developed at the recent meetings in Istanbul (November 2011) and Bonn (December 2011) for the future of Afghanistan, but declines to engage bilaterally with Washington at those venues or independently of multilateral events. In fact, Iran strongly supports the regionalization of efforts to help Afghanistan, and sees the regional approach as a stark alternative to an international approach that includes donors and security partners from western countries.
     It is still worth considering where US and Iranian interests (and Afghanistan’s as well) converge over basic issues such as improving border controls, controlling the flow of drugs and other illicit goods, stabilizing economic life in the cities and in vulnerable provinces, and training provincial level security forces. Leaders in all three countries may also agree and tacitly cooperate on helping moderate Taliban affiliates reintegrate into the national security forces, and on strengthening the central government’s institutional capacities and its ability to represent the country’s diverse political and ethnic groups. This level of engagement could occur when the withdrawal of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is closer at hand, when the immediate realities on the ground drive cooperation in very concrete ways.
     Even if cooperation on Afghanistan develops, it is difficult to see how it could directly or quickly affect the larger strategic blockage in US-Iran relations. While in theory such contact could build trust and contribute to both sides’ willingness to engage on other issues, policymakers should have modest expectations and accept that cooperation on Afghanistan is worth doing for its own sake. Conversely, continued or increased tension over the nuclear issue could adversely affect Iran’s willingness to engage on Afghanistan or other regional topics, even when it could be sacrificing short-term self-interest.
Click here to view the full report.

 Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.

The Arab Spring’s Impact on U.S.-Iran Rivalry

Ellen Laipson

  • How has the Arab spring changed the strategic environment for U.S.-Iran relations?
Turbulence in Arab politics will have both direct and indirect effects on U.S.-Iran relations.  The uncertain outcomes–specifically which countries other than Tunisia, Egypt and possibly Yemen undergo leadership or systemic changes–will mean that neither Tehran nor Washington can be sure who their friends and partners will be. Several Arab states may redefine their foreign policies.
In Egypt, policies may be less closely coordinated with Washington, less premised on the 1979 peace treaty with Israel as an anchor of its regional relationships, and more focused on reasserting Egypt’s historic role as a leader and driver of Arab politics. 
Gulf countries, while still willing to partner with the United States on the threat from Iran and radical extremism, are moving to a more assertive posture. Their strong defense of Bahrain’s monarchy suggests that the Sunni-Shiite tensions aroused over the past decade or more in Lebanon and then Iraq could well reemerge as a defining issue for the Gulf states.
All this suggests that the regional relations among Arab states, between the Arabs and Iran, and between the region and the United States, are in flux.  In the best case, a more confident and at least partly democratic Arab world would find its own ways of managing the challenge of Iran’s role in the region.  A region with several power centers—including Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia—would be better able to coordinate on regional security, and to provide a counter-balance to Iran’s ambitions and influence in the region.  Such a development would indirectly converge with U.S. interests and strategies. 
But tensions are emerging between Arab republics, which are mired in messy transitions, and the monarchies of the Gulf, Morocco and Jordan, which are defending the status quo or incremental reform. The shifting regional dynamics suggest that the United States and Iran will continue to compete over which country best embodies the values and aspirations of the peoples of the Middle East.  This may not be central to the prospects for a positive change in U.S.-Iran relations, but it will be part of the strategic context in which the long saga of U.S.-Iran relations takes place.    
  • So far, how has the Arab spring altered U.S. or Iranian influence in the region?
In the short run, both Iran and the United States have diminished influence.  Events since January have been largely domestic. Each society is focused on its own history, its capacity to change, and an effort to find a new political equilibrium that better reflects the people’s will.  The activists who made the Arab spring are proud of the fact that they worked without outside help or interference.  So all outside parties have been observers more than participants, and all are scrambling to learn more about the new and potential leaders of Arab societies and states. 
  • How significant is the resumption of Egypt-Iran relations?  Will Iran be able to make new alliances with changes in Arab leadership?
Egypt and Iran have been in a cold war since Egypt’s commitment to peace with Israel three decades ago.  Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Araby, who was recently elected Arab League secretary-general, said that Egypt wanted good relations with all states, including Iran.  But the requisite legal and diplomatic steps to resume relations have not yet been taken. 
Resuming ties between two pivotal states would obviously be seen as an achievement for Iran and a setback for the United States, which has urged all countries to isolate Iran through political and economic pressures until it changes policy on its controversial nuclear program.  But even if diplomatic relations are restored, most Arab states are likely to remain concerned about Tehran’s intentions and ability to destabilize individual countries or regional relations.  Arab states may be less intensely focused on Iran’s nuclear activities, and more on Iran’s ability to foment sectarian tensions or to encourage Hezballah and other allies to provoke conflict with Israel.  So Iran may well make some advances in formal state-to-state relations, but true alliances with major Sunni Arab states are not likely.  
  • How will the Syrian uprising affect the rivalry between the United States and Iran for influence in the region?
Syria’s turmoil has posed a great challenge to Iran, as Syria is Iran’s most important and close relationship in the Arab world.  Reports suggest that Iran is providing direct assistance to the crackdown against protestors. Many observers see similarities between Iran’s treatment of its opposition since the disputed 2009 presidential election and the Syrian government’s crackdown.  The U.S. position is slowly becoming more assertive against the regime of President Bashar Assad, as the brutality and the human cost of the crackdown increases. 
The fall of the Assad regime would be a grave setback for Iranian influence in the region. But external powers with deep interests in Syria as a regional actor, including the United States, France and other EU members, have not yet declared their support for systemic regime change, given the uncertainty about what would emerge after this long dictatorship.  Change in Syria over time would be a gain for the West and a significant loss for Iran.   


Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


A New Channel for U.S.-Iran Communication

Ellen Laipson

       The State Department's recent naming of a Persian-speaking press spokesman, Alan Eyre, opens a potentially important channel in the long-stagnant U.S.-Iran relationship. The absence of contact or inability to communicate at official levels means that American diplomats are often at a loss to understand the politics and power dynamics inside Iran. Without good information and analysis, policymakers cannot effectively calibrate efforts to either engage Iran for a more cooperative relationship or pressure Iran to comply with international expectations regarding its nuclear program and other issues in dispute.
       Over the years, U.S. diplomats have developed indirect ways to improve knowledge about Iran.  American diplomats in countries neighboring Iran try to glean insights about the thinking of Iranian officials through third parties and more generally from Iranian visitors.  Dubai and Turkey are particularly important hubs of information-gathering on Iran, places where transiting Iranian visa-seekers, businessmen, intellectuals and politicians can directly or indirectly offer some sense of what is happening in Tehran.
       But the stream of reporting may not be sufficient to steer U.S. policy. It rarely provides an authoritative link to Iran's decision-makers, and it is only one input to a policy process in Washington that is already framed by longstanding judgments about Iran's intentions and behavior. A major shift in U.S. thinking about Iran would more likely come about in two different ways: either Iran declares a new policy that the US can verify, or traditional, secretive intelligence methods that reveal a change the Iranians do not publicly acknowledge.    
       These views--including a growing demand from traveling Iranians for more attention to the Islamic Republic’s domestic human rights record--can occasionally have an impact, according to recent press accounts. Since Iran's disputed elections in 2009, U.S. policy has increasingly focused on the rights of Iran's citizens who protested those elections and demanded change in Iranian government policy.  The reporting from individual Iranians gathered by U.S. diplomats in the region may have been helpful in building support for a renewed focus on human rights and democracy in Iran, shifting from the exclusive American focus on the security issues in U.S.-Iran relations.     


Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org

Primer on Dec. 6-7 talks between Iran and the world’s major powers

Ellen Laipson

  • Why are the upcoming talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers important?
The talks are the most important opportunity in more than one year for the international community to vet differences with Iran over its nuclear activities.  The mere resumption of talks--which include the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France) plus Germany--is significant.  The long diplomatic stand-off had created tensions and uncertainty. It had also strengthened the hand of parties who believe that only tough action, including the military option, will force Iran to curtail its nuclear program.  The stand-off was caused by Iran’s unwillingness to accept a package of incentives and limitations proposed by the international community in October 2009.  
  • What does Iran want to achieve? And what leverage does it have?
Iran wants to relieve the pressure from an array of new sanctions over the past year and demonstrate that it is willing to engage with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Its refusal to fully cooperate with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has produced new U.N., U.S., and European Union sanctions as well as international financial restrictions on doing business with Iran.
But the talks are unlikely to reveal much about Iran's nuclear weapons intentions and activities, and Iran will certainly deny that its nuclear work has a military purpose. Tehran will also take a narrower and more legalistic view of the scope of the talks than the major powers. Iran is already insisting that it will not discuss its uranium enrichment activities, which it claims as a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The talks could falter over this basic agenda item.  Iran’s leverage is its ability to walk away. 
The last package offered in October 2009 involved confidence-building measures centered around the Tehran research reactor, which produces radioisotopes for medical purposes.  The U.S.-backed plan called for Iran to ship a large quantity of enriched fuel from its Natanz facility out of the country to ensure it was not used for a weapons program. In turn, one or more international partners (most likely Russia) would provide the fuel needed for the separate research reactor—under strict international supervision.  This process was designed to build trust and to allow both sides to clarify what Iran will and will not do as it builds its nuclear energy program. 
Iran originally accepted the deal, then rejected it a few days later. In May 2010, Tehran accepted a variation of the package mediated by Turkey and Brazil. But the deal fell short of the major powers’ goals.
  • What do the United States and the European Union want to achieve? And what leverage do they have?
For the United States, the talks are part of a larger diplomatic strategy to engage Iran on a wider range of issues. The nuclear controversy is the most compelling from a security point of view, but terrorism, human rights, maritime security, and other regional topics are also important for U.S.-Iran relations over time.
The major powers generally want to see what is achievable with Iran. In varying degrees, they want to reduce tensions and gain more understanding about Iran’s nuclear activities. The long-term goal is to persuade Tehran to prove convincingly that its intentions are peaceful and to accept more robust international monitoring. 
The major powers’ leverage derives from financial and trade sanctions that are causing increasing economic and banking dislocations for Iran.  Also looming in the background of the talks will be the distinct possibility that pressure for military action will rise if they fail.


  • Will the Wikileaks cables affect the diplomacy? 
The release of the documents does not make the diplomats’ task any easier. They could cause some ill-will in relations between allies over the U.S. ability to protect sensitive information.  The impact of the leaks, in the short run, will help analysts track the debate over Iran in the Middle East. But in the long run, they are likely to have a chilling effect on information-sharing that will almost certainly hurt the U.S. ability to “read” Iran. 

Read Ellen Laipson's chapter on reading Iran in “The Iran Primer” 

Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.

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