Iran's Continuing Interests in Afghanistan

Sumithra Narayanan Kutty
Content Type
Journal Article
The Washington Quarterly
Issue Number
Publication Date
Summer 2014
Center for Strategic and International Studies
When it comes to Afghanistan's future, the United States ironically has more in common with Iran than it does with Pakistan. As Western troops draw down, a look inside Iran's enduring interests, means to secure them, unique assets, and goals that may or not conflict with other regional actors.
Government, War
Political Geography
Afghanistan, United States, Iran
As the year 2014 rolls on and the United States nears completion of its military drawdown in Afghanistan, its neighbors have no choice but to adjust to the quickly changing landscape. One of Afghanistan's most important—but largely understudied—neighbors is Iran. In the years that have passed since 9/11, it is often forgotten that Iran was an early supporter of the ensuing October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Tehran had long been wary of the Taliban and the raft of Sunni Islamist extremists it had aided and abetted. Tehran played an extremely constructive role during the Bonn Process, which produced Afghanistan's constitution including the emphasis upon democracy and support for the military invasion, Operation Enduring Freedom. As Iran came into increasing confrontation with the international community over the reprocessing and enrichment of fissile materials, the United States and other Iran-wary countries suspiciously eyed Tehran's various efforts to shape events in Afghanistan. The United States in particular viewed Iran's relations with Afghanistan in zero-sum terms: a gain for Iran is a loss for the United States. The United States generally has been ambivalent toward countries like India that have sought to engage Iran, even when that engagement has focused upon rebuilding and reconstructing Afghanistan—goals which the United States embraces. Indeed, U.S. apprehensions about Iran's influence in Afghanistan is ironic in some sense: Iran has more in common with the United States with respect to Afghanistan's future than does Pakistan, the United States' reluctant and increasingly frustrating partner in the war. Iran, like the United States, would prefer a future Afghanistan that will deny militant Sunni Islam any sanctuary. Iran, like the United States, would prefer an Afghanistan at peace with itself and unobtrusive to its neighbors. Iran, like the United States, worries about Afghanistan's endless supply of narcotics and associated criminality. Further, Iran has taken steps to invest in Afghanistan (especially in western Afghanistan), to engage in aggressive counter-narcotics, and facilitate the repatriation of Afghan refugees in Iran, among other important steps. Pakistan, in stark contrast, prefers an Afghanistan governed by Sunni Islamists that would deny India access to the country and that may again provide sanctuary and amenities to the Sunni terrorist groups that Pakistan has long instrumentalized in India. In this essay, I focus upon the Afghan–Iran relationship with an eye to Iran's key interests and goals in Afghanistan after 2014 and consider how Iran will prosecute those interests. Next, I describe the means (e.g. military, economic, diplomatic, etc.) that Iran has at its disposal to secure these objectives, as well as some reflection upon the constraints placed on Iran's resources. Third, I describe some of Iran's unique assets (e.g. ethnic groups, co-religionists, etc.) that it could deploy after 2014. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of Iran's goals that may conflict or converge with the interests of other regional and extra-regional actors as the drawdown approaches and completes. The Ties that Bind Iran to Afghanistan Afghanistan and Iran have long been tied by culture and geography, as various Persian empires annexed parts of Afghanistan over several centuries. The two states share a 582-mile border along a plain in western Afghanistan. Although they have not fought a war in the last two centuries, and territorial disputes over Afghanistan's western provinces of Herat, Nimroz, and Helmand were settled in 1872, they have had issue-based rivalries over conflicting economic interests, shared river waters, and treatment of ethnic and sectarian minorities in Afghanistan. Approximately one-fifth of Afghanistan's population is Shia—a focal point for contemporary Iran, which views itself as the guardian of the Shia. During the 1980s, Iran's Afghan policy was centered on the creation of an “ideological sphere of influence” by organizing and revitalizing Afghan Shias.1 With the Iran–Iraq War raging on its western front, Tehran provided basic military training for six months to members of Afghan Shia organizations, some of whom fought on the warfront. The Iranians returned the favor by deploying their own in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and export Khomeini's policies.2 Curiously, the Soviets did not dominate the Shia stronghold in Afghanistan's Hazarajat region, which permitted Iran to form a sophisticated network of Afghan Shia organizations,3 facilitating the 1987 formation of a pro-Iran alliance of eight Afghan Shia groups. The Tehran Eight formed a resistance to the Soviet-led Afghan government, along with an organization of seven Sunni groups supported by Pakistan (called the Peshawar Seven). When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the country became a battleground for a proxy war between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. According to scholar Mohsen Milani, “The Saudis wanted to use Afghanistan as a springboard to spread its version of Islam throughout Central Asia and to neutralize Iran's revolutionary message. Pakistan sought to install a [Pashtun]-dominated government and gain “strategic depth” against India, its nemesis. Iran, having ended its eight-year war with Iraq, sought to establish a friendly government in Kabul that reflected Afghanistan's rich ethnic diversity.”4 To do so, Iran encouraged non-Pashtun groups to form a united front (Afghan's Pashtuns were mostly Sunni and closely allied to Pakistan). This bore fruit in 1992, when a non-Pashtun group of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras installed Burhanuddin Rabbani as president of Afghanistan, a position he held until 1996 under a power-sharing arrangement (called the Peshawar Accords) between most Afghan anti-Soviet resistance parties. However, this arrangement suffered from continued infighting and essentially became a civil war, making it difficult for Iran to pursue coherent policies. During this time, up rose the Taliban, a Sunni Islamist movement among Afghan's Pashtuns that enjoyed Pakistani sponsorship from 1994 onward.5 In 1996, the Taliban seized Kabul and overthrew President Rabbani, inspiring the creation of the “Northern Alliance,” a military front comprised of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Pashtuns that sought to counter the Taliban. Iran— working with India, Russia, Tajikistan, and the United States—supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, which also emerged as Iran's strategic competitor in the country. Over the next couple of years, various events occurred—murdered Iranian diplomats and troop skirmishes at the border—which heightened tensions and pushed Iran and Afghanistan to the brink of war. When al-Qaeda, operating from a Taliban-sponsored safe haven in Afghanistan, attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the United States began intelligence cooperation with the Northern Alliance.6 The U.S. State Department even held a dialogue with Iran within the UN-convened “Six plus Two” group (1999–2001), which included Afghanistan's neighbors and both the United States and Russia.7 After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, the United States collaborated with Iran, India, Russia, and the Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) and establish a new Afghan government. The Bonn Conference in December 2001 sought to establish a permanent government in Afghanistan. The Iranian delegation to the conference noted that the first draft of the Bonn declaration, which would serve as Afghanistan's interim constitution, failed to mention democratic elections and proposed that the document also ensure that the Afghans would cooperate in the fight against terrorism and drugs.8 Iran, under the leadership of moderate president Mohammad Khatami, played a neutral role in the first Afghan presidential election in October 2004 and fostered a mostly low-key, cooperative relationship with newly elected Hamid Karzai. With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency in 2005, Iran's Afghan policy, however, became more aggressive,9 and relations with the United States deteriorated after President George W. Bush's early 2002 declaration that Iran was part of an “Axis of Evil” and amidst U.S. objections to Iran's nuclear program. Karzai has been in the precarious position of maintaining relations with both the United States and Iran, each of whom oppose his support of the other. In early 2007, the media reported that Iranian-made weapons were flowing into the hands of Taliban fighters in western Afghanistan. While Iran had no interest in buttressing the Taliban regime, it did seek to increase the cost of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan.10 Concerned that U.S. troops could remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Iranians more recently have reportedly mounted aggressive campaigns to fuel anti-U.S. sentiment in Afghanistan and convince Afghan leadership that a long-term security partnership with the United States would be detrimental to Afghan domestic interests.11 In late 2012, several media reports suggested that Iran and Afghanistan would sign a strategic partnership agreement.12 The so-called Afghanistan–Iran Strategic Cooperation Agreement was formalized in August 2013, after Iran's newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani, assumed office. Iranian officials played down the controversial agreement, calling it merely a “[Memorandum of Understanding] on security and law enforcement cooperation.”13 Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the United States and Afghanistan have yet to come to an agreement about the status of forces following 2014. On his part, U.S. President Barack Obama plans to reduce the number of American troops to 9,800 by next year (from the current figure of 32,900) and end U.S. presence in Afghanistan by 2016.14 Iran traditionally opposes a bilateral security agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul. It views residual foreign troops as a major cause for the continuing insurgency in Afghanistan.15 The Iranians found a loyalist in this regard in Afghan president Hamid Karzai. However, this may change soon, given that the candidates in the Afghan presidential elections endorsed the BSA. The new Afghan government that emerges will deal with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani, a moderate centrist, has tempered down the anti-U.S. rhetoric. With the Supreme Leader's consent, he has adopted more conciliatory policies in his foreign policy agenda, cautiously steering Iran away from Ahmadinejad's hallmark aggressive posturing and toward greater moderation.16 Iran's Key Interests in Afghanistan Iran has long sought a stable, friendly Afghanistan and it has worked assiduously to protect its key interests, prior to and since 2001. It has several non-negotiable strategic objectives. First, it desires a pro-Iranian government in Kabul. While Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, is “no fan of liberal democracy,”17 the formation of a conservative democratic government in 2014 that abides by Iran's core preferences would satisfy him.18 Necessarily, a pro-Iranian Afghan government would not only distance itself from Washington but also refuse to be dominated by Pakistan and its Taliban proxies. Second, with the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, Iran seeks to minimize the physical threats to its financial investments in western Afghanistan and to its varied personnel engaged in commerce and industry throughout the country. The Taliban's brutal 1998 slaughter of Iranians in Mazar-e Sharif provides ample reminder of what the Taliban are capable of doing should they regain strength in the north after the U.S. exit. Iran came close to waging war on Taliban-controlled Afghanistan when the Taliban murdered eight Iranian diplomats (who were suspected intelligence operatives) and a journalist in the Shiite bastion of Mazar-e-Sharif, 400 kilometers northwest of Kabul.19 This is the only moment in Iran's modern history when the country came close to war with its eastern neighbor. Iran also understands full-well that Pakistan's own preference is the return to power of some resurrected variant of the Taliban in the parts of Afghanistan that are most worrisome to Pakistan (e.g. the southern, eastern, and northern provinces that abut Pakistan). Iran's third non-negotiable objective is its ability to leverage particular ethnic and religious communities as vectors of Iranian influence in Afghanistan. The protection of the interests of traditional Iranian allies such as the Hazara Shias, the Farsiwan Heratis, and the Tajiks against elements of the Taliban, and at times even the Afghan government, remains a core strategic objective of Tehran.20 Should the security situation deteriorate after 2014, Iran will likely deepen its involvement to protect these client communities. In recent years, the Iranian government sought to cultivate relations with a diverse portfolio of Afghan political factions which span Afghanistan's political spectrum, even while it sought to solidify its relations with President Karzai and his supporter networks.21 Fourth, Iran wants to maintain economic influence by emerging as a favored transit route to Central Asia and Europe. In doing so, Iran aims to be an essential partner in regional integration, particularly economic integration. Iran has long touted guaranteed land and sea access to Central Asia and beyond as a trade route essential for its landlocked neighbor. This vision includes preserving both trade with and investment within Afghanistan, particularly in Herat, as well as transit trade through its southeastern port of Chabahar and possible future gas pipelines.22 In 2011, the introduction of a U.S.-backed competing regional economic framework—the New Silk Road initiative—threatened to undermine Iran's ambitions. Consonant with its own economic interests, Iran resists development initiatives in Afghanistan that proceed outside the context of Afghan–Iranian relations, such as the Tajikistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (TAPI) transit infrastructure and any network of roadways and railways linking Central Asia to the Indian Ocean that circumvents Iran.23 Iran would prefer all of this to happen with no U.S. troops present in the country after 2014. Above and beyond these non-negotiable interests, Iran is eager to maintain the best possible position it can toward its neighbors. Tehran hopes for Afghan cooperation in fighting the Jundullah, a Sunni, ethnically Baluchi insurgent group that undertakes terror operations in Iran. The Iranian government believes that the United States is aiding the Jundullah, a group that has been responsible for killing several senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps officers. The persistence of the Baluchi insurgency may fuel Iranian actions which could undermine U.S. goals in Afghanistan after its withdrawal. Iran also claims that Jundallah is closely tied to narcotics trafficking. A leading country in combating narcotics smuggling (more than 89 percent of the world's total opium seizures occur in Iran), Iran has already contributed more than $50 million annually to Afghan anti-narcotics efforts in the last 8 years,24 and hundreds of Iranian security agents have been killed in clashes with traffickers. Iran has been very careful to not blame Karzai for failing to curb the production of opium in Afghanistan; instead, it places the opprobrium on Washington.25 Iran would also like to see the repatriation of Afghan refugees in Iran as soon as possible. At present, Iran has some 2.4 million Afghan refugees, of whom only one million have valid visas. During Ahmadinejad's tenure, the unresolved situation of these refugees constantly strained bilateral relations, although Ahmadinejad also used them as a political tool to protect Iranian interests (Iran threatened to expel them if Kabul ever signed a strategic security pact with the United States).26 Sanctions have only further exacerbated Iranian discontent and discrimination against the Afghan refugees within Iran.27 Similarly, Iran hopes that Afghanistan will abandon its policy of using the Hirmand or Helmand River as a political tool.28 This river is the main water supply for the Hamun Lake in Iran's eastern Sistan region and a key economic resource for the desolate province. In 1973, Iran and Afghanistan signed a treaty in which Afghanistan agreed to allow 26 cubic meters of water flow per second into Iran. During Taliban rule, the water flow halted and the lake dried up. Water sharing resumed after 2002, but the river continues to provide a source of tension.29 Recent lack of rainfall and upcoming projects on the Afghan side of the river, such as the Kamal Khan Dam in Nimroz province, have affected the amount of water which flows into Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Locals claim this has also caused massive sand storms. In addition, the Iranians have accused the Afghans of diverting water to irrigate poppy crops.30 To ensure its interests are met, Iran has cultivated and maintained several potent sources of arbitrage. This was evident during Ahmadinejad's tenure as president, when Iran threatened to expel more than one million Afghan refugees from its territory. Iran also evinced willingness to engage with the Taliban at tactical and operational levels in order to put pressure on the United States, its allies, and the Afghan government. With extensive experience in organizing and exploiting proxy groups to attain their policy objectives, Tehran has provided “measured support” to the Taliban to antagonize the United States in Afghanistan, given its enmity and tensions over the nuclear program.31 Iran has reportedly allowed the opening of a Taliban office in its eastern city of Zahedan, though Tehran vehemently denied such reports.32 A Taliban delegation also visited Tehran “on the invitation of Iranian officials” in June 2013, indicating that the Iranians have kept all options open.33 Apart from the Taliban, Iran likely has detained some senior al-Qaeda leaders, presumably to ensure its relevance to the United States even after 2014.34 Iran's Means in Afghanistan Iran has expanded its influence in Afghanistan through the use of several military, economic, and diplomatic instruments. Among these, Iran relies most heavily upon soft power levers—trade, economic aid, investment in businesses and infrastructure, cultural diplomacy, and information-gathering— rather than strictly military instruments. Military Instruments About ten percent of Iran's conscript army is present along the Afghan border (Iran's eastern front). In the last decade, its focus has remained counter-narcotics operations rather than ramping up conventional military presence at the border. Over 50,000 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), army personnel, and border security forces have been deployed to fight Iran's war against drugs.35 Presently, the most substantive engagement in security cooperation occurs under the UN-sponsored Triangular Initiative, which has coordinated counter-narcotics operations among Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan since 2009. In recent years, both Afghanistan and Iran have episodically flirted with strengthening bilateral security cooperation in anticipation of 2014.36 At long last, in August 2013, Tehran and Kabul inked a strategic cooperation agreement, one that reflects Iran's proclivities to initiate security measures in order to balance U.S. influence after the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces.37 The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Strategic Cooperation includes cooperation and exchanges in the fields of military training, counterterrorism, and organized crime, as well as joint military exercises (including counter-narcotics) and sharing intelligence on “developments in the field of threats for national security …including in Central, West and South Asia.”38 In addition, Tehran has preserved its relationships with the militias it helped train during the Soviet invasion—men who belonged to the Herat region and Afghan refugees in Iran.39 For Iran, the possibility of extending cooperation with the Afghans after the U.S. drawdown in 2014 (particularly under Rouhani's watch) potentially outweighs the benefits of engaging in a dangerous dalliance with the Taliban. Economic Instruments As noted, Iranian economic interests in Afghanistan are highly prized. The previously noted Afghan–Iranian strategic cooperation agreement facilitates the expansion of trade, commerce, transit, scientific and education exchanges, and tourism—all soft power levers. Iran has long identified the expansion of cross-border trade as one of the pillars of Afghanistan's own economic growth strategy, helping to promote greater bilateral and regional trade. At present, annual trade between Iran and Afghanistan totals nearly $2 billion, with Iran accounting for about 35–40 percent of exports to Afghanistan.40 By 2012, Afghanistan was Iran's fourth-largest destination for the country's non-oil exports, amounting to nearly $2.874 billion, tripling in value from 2009.41 In an effort to undercut Kabul's traditional economic dependency on Pakistan, Iran granted a 90 percent discount on Iranian tariffs for Afghan trade with the creation of the Chabahar Free Zone Authority in 2004. The port also allocated 20 percent of warehouse space for goods en route to Afghanistan. Yet, given the sanctions against Iran and U.S. pressure on Kabul, it was only eight years later that Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Akbar Salehi, signed an agreement guaranteeing Afghan access to the Iranian port.42 This year, the Afghans reiterated their willingness to negotiate an agreement to increase trade transactions with Iran—as well as India, Central Asia, and Europe—via Chabahar.43 However, due to the reduced chances of having sanctions against Iran reversed, Afghan traders have been very concerned about the delay in completion of the port project.44 Iran is also a major player in Afghanistan's energy sector. According to then-Afghan Commerce Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, Iran provided about 50 percent of the country's oil imports.45 With the United States denying Iran waivers, the sanctions against Iranian oil exports pose a rising challenge to Afghanistan given its dependency. However, one sector of Iran's energy industry is scaling up: electricity exports, which stood at five billion dollars in November 2012.46 Among its clients are neighboring states including Armenia, Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, and Afghanistan.47 In January 2013, Iran and Afghanistan signed an energy cooperation agreement to strengthen their links in the electricity and water sectors. Under this deal, Iran will export more electricity to Afghanistan's western provinces of Herat, Nimroz, and Farah.48 Afghan officials have received monetary support from Tehran—both official and unofficial—for several years. A “bags of cash” controversy in 2010 saw Karzai admitting to having received direct cash payments in suitcases amounting to two million dollars per year, from perhaps as early as 2003.49 Between 2002 and 2007, a period considered by some Iranian officials to be the golden era of its financial support, Iran committed $560 million to Afghanistan.50 Based on the Afghanistan Donor Assistance Database data, the country has pledged a total of $900 million in aid for the reconstruction of Afghanistan in a series of donor conferences and supplemental pledges for 2002–13.51 About $500 million has been disbursed to date.52 The funds have mostly gone to infrastructure projects including roads and bridges in western Afghanistan that feed into Iran's regional integration strategy. Iran is working to improve the “Golden Transit Route,” a 125-kilometer road running from Iran's Dogharoun region to Herat at a cost of $43 million; it is building a 176-kilometer railroad from Iran to Herat; and it has announced plans to invest $75 million in the construction of the Afghan part of the Khaf-Herat railway line, aimed to connect the country to eastern Iran.53 It also plans to upgrade the transit bridges over the Helmand and Parian rivers,54 and to construct a tax-free trade route originating from Chabahar to the southwestern border post of Malik in Afghanistan and the cities of Kandahar and Kabul.55 The western Afghan province of Herat, bordering Iran, lends itself as a case study to assess Iran's strategic depth and the reach of its economic and information instruments. Herat lies at the heart of Iran's “economic sphere of influence” in Afghanistan and plays the role of a convenient “buffer zone.”56 Reflecting the importance of Herat, Iran has concentrated the bulk of its investments here since 2001 including infrastructure projects, road and bridge construction, education, agriculture, power generation, and telecommunication projects.57 The Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry also established a joint Iran–Afghan chamber of commerce in Herat in 2009.58 Iran's largest (global) charity organization, the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC), is very active in Herat. The group has over 45 offices, about 30,000 employees in Afghanistan, and reportedly “promotes Iran's ideological and political goals and incites anti-U.S. sentiments in Afghanistan.”59 U.S. analysts report that Iran channels some portion of its official funds for Afghanistan through the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.60 Unlike the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which disburses its aid through private contractors, the IKRC works directly with Afghan applicants. The organization provides everything from payments to newlyweds; help to orphans; loans to build houses; monthly stipends of oil, sugar, tea, and medicine; and vocational courses.61 It has been successful in combining economic help with seeding efforts to gather intelligence. According to news reports from Herat, those recipients who failed to promote Iranian programs or interests, including the commemoration of the death anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, were threatened with the loss of funds altogether.62 Such coercive measures have sparked anti-Iranian sentiments among Afghans in the province. Senior Afghan officials in Herat often accuse Iran of meddling and supporting anti-government militancy in the region; Iran flatly denies such allegations. Nevertheless, anti-Iran protests targeting the Iranian consulate in Herat have become more frequent in recent years, and even Herat's new governor, Said Fazilullah Wahidi, has not shied away from opining about the “unfriendliness of Iran.”63 Beyond local resistance like in Herat, two other key factors have constrained Iran's successful use of these economic instruments. First and foremost, the various international sanctions against Iran have limited Iran's efficacy in using its soft power. Afghanistan still relies heavily upon remittances from millions of migrants living in Iran who are feeling the pangs of the declining Iranian currency and retrenching economy. Iranian authorities have stepped up deportations of Afghan workers while Afghan businessmen in western Afghanistan find that cheaply sold Iranian goods are undercutting them. A second constraint is Iran's own suspicions about Western motives in Afghanistan and its petulant and impetuous responses to these suspicions. For example, in January 2011, relations soured after Afghan trade associations halted trade with Iran to protest against a fuel blockade; Iranian officials claimed the tankers were delayed because the fuel was destined for U.S. and NATO forces.64 Ethnic Assets Iran has traditionally supported Persian-speaking or Shia groups in Afghanistan, a sizeable minority that has historically faced oppression by the Pashtuns. For example, it has provided scholarships and funding for technical institutes to support Hazara Shiites in Kabul and inhabitants of the Hazara heartland.65 It has also financially supported the construction of mosques in Herat and pro-Iranian seminaries in Kabul. Afghanistan's leading Shia cleric and leader of the Harakat-e Islam-i Afghanistan (Islamic Movement of Afghanistan), Ayatollah Mohammad Asef Mohseni, has maintained very close ties with Iran since the Soviet invasion—Mohseni received Iranian support in the late 1970s to establish his Shia movement, which was founded in Qom, Iran, in 1978. Undoubtedly, Iran has also built and maintained close ties with key players in the Afghan political landscape, particularly since 2001. Ismail Khan, former governor of Herat and minister of water and energy, is an old Iranian hand with a power base in Herat province. A Northern Alliance commander, who was positioned as a compromise candidate within Karzai's cabinet, he courted controversy and impeachment in late 2012 when he announced plans at a rally in Herat to revive old anti-Taliban militias, allegedly with Karzai's endorsement.66 Khan most recently contested and lost in the presidential polls. He was the vice-presidential candidate of former warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. Another prominent figure in Afghan politics with a history of Iranian backing is the leading opposition figure, Abdullah Abdullah, who at the time of writing was the frontrunner in the Afghan presidential elections.67 He previously served as Karzai's foreign minister from 2001 to 2005 and fought against him in the chaotic 2009 presidential elections. A former aide to Ahmad Shah Massoud, Abdullah commands support among minority Tajiks. Sections of the Afghan public and its media have accused the Iranian government of funding Afghan provincial council members.68 This list includes parliamentary candidates such as the ethnically Tajik Mohammad Yunus Qanooni; the former lower house speaker and political and military heir of Ahmad Shah Masood; the head of the People's Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan and the ethnically Hazara politician, Mohammad Mohaqiq; and the Governor of Balkh Province, Atta Mohammad Noor, who is of Tajik descent. It is likely that Iran's political clout in Kabul will prove beneficial to Tehran after 2014. However, given the open pushback against Iran's rising influence by sections of the Afghan populace, Tehran may opt to keep a low profile and conduct its politics with restraint. From the view of former Iranian diplomat and spokesperson for Iran's nuclear negotiating team, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, the regime should be expected to continue its policy of supporting the Afghan presidency. Iran will neither resist a Pashtun president nor emphasize candidates from the minority communities, something it has repeatedly demonstrated in the 2001 Bonn negotiations and the 2004 as well as 2009 elections. The Iranians take no issue in supporting the will of the Pashtun majority, as long as the Tajik and Hazara minorities are satisfactorily represented in the Afghan cabinet.69 Regional Clashes of Interest Ahead In the near term, under President Rouhani, expect continuity in Iran's policies toward Afghanistan. As noted, Iran's interests in Afghanistan have been enduring and are tied to key interests of the Iranian regime. However, some exogenous factors may motivate Tehran to consider alternative courses of action. First and foremost, it is entirely possible that Iran's confrontation may intensify with the United States, Israel, and other countries that remain dubious about the Iranian government's nuclear aspirations, despite the cautious optimism in some quarters about the interim deal with Tehran. The U.S. Congress, for example, may well pursue additional sanctions that could undermine recent diplomatic successes. The UNSC has thus far issued four rounds of sanctions against Iran, and the United States has adopted its own even tighter economic sanctions. Other countries that are economically tied to the United States have followed suit, fearing repercussions from Washington. These actions constrict Iran's ability to flex its diminishing soft power in Afghanistan. In addition, the standoff drains international enthusiasm to include Iran in any post-NATO drawdown regional dialogue. This only spurs Iran to expand alternative political coordination with Central Asian states and other regional partners, in particular India, who share its concerns about Pakistani or Taliban encroachment and support Iranian participation.70 Iran's interests in Afghanistan also run afoul of Pakistan's own preferences. Pakistan has long preferred an Islamist regime in Kabul for several reasons. First, Afghanistan and Pakistan have a long, contested border in the Durand Line. Afghanistan was the only country to vote against admitting Pakistan into the United Nations, and it did so arguing that the Durand Line, negotiated in the nineteenth century by an Afghan potentate and the British Raj, was no longer valid with the demise of the British Empire. It also argued that key territories in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and even parts of Balochistan should be a part of Afghanistan. Pakistan believes an Islamist government in Kabul may be the best way to keep ethnic, irredentist claims at bay, and might prove more inclined to accept the Durand Line. The resurgence of attacks against Iranian border guards by Jaish-e Adl, an Iranian Sunni rebel group (and Jundullah successor) with alleged ties to Pakistan, is yet another development that has impeded cooperation. Furthermore, since India has also prioritized investment in Afghanistan, Pakistan hopes that Islamists (perhaps some resurrected version of the Taliban) could restrict Indian scope for action in Afghanistan. Part of the reason for strained Pakistani–Iranian ties is because of Indian– Iranian partnership in Central Asia. Reflecting their shared interests, Iran and India have tried to work closely together in Afghanistan.71 Iran is important to India because it is India's gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond. However, India has been forced to walk a careful tightrope with respect to Iran: since 2005, India and the United States have deepened their strategic ties. With the U.S.–India civilian nuclear deal, India can now become an increasingly proactive member of the “nuclear club” and is increasingly embracing the responsibilities thereof. For example, India has supported the various UN sanctions against Iran since 2005. Iran is important to India as a trade corridor and a supplier of hydrocarbons, but India's other energy and defense partners from the Middle East (such as Saudi Arabia and Israel) are also critical. The security environment in Afghanistan and the declining Iranian economy have further restrained Indo–Iranian work in Afghanistan. While Iran and India continued to openly discuss their important strategic relations, in practice a chill did occur in the last decade. Nonetheless, there are now indications that relations may gradually thaw given the exit of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1.72 Given the various conflicting interests between Iran and India on one hand and Pakistan on the other, Afghanistan could well become the site of evermore-intense proxy wars, if the gains made since 2001 unravel due to the Taliban's resurgence or renewed political infighting in Kabul. However, on the latter issue, Afghanistan's elite have demonstrated great political consensus in the 2014 presidential elections. Iran's interests in Afghanistan are unlikely to change. Absent some durable rapprochement with the West, with the various Arab Gulf States, and possibly even with Israel, Iran's ability to prosecute its economic and development interests will remain constrained. Iran, in turn, is likely to continue supporting the various militias and ethnic groups it has long sustained. A policy of continuity, focusing on the preservation of Iran's interests, should be expected in Afghanistan. Notes 1. Mohsen M. Milani, “Iran's policy towards Afghanistan,” Middle East Journal 60: 2 (2006), p. 235–256. 2. Emadi, Hafizullah, “Exporting Iran's Revolution: the Radicalization of the Shiite Movement in Afghanistan,” Middle Eastern Studies 31, no.1 (1995), p.8. 3. Mohsen M. Milani, “Iran's policy towards Afghanistan,” Middle East Journal 60, no.2 (2006), p. 238. 4. Mohsen Milani, “Iran and Afghanistan,” United States Institute of Peace, The Iran Primer, 5. Mohsen M. Milani, “Iran's policy towards Afghanistan,”Middle East Journal 60, no. 2 (2006), p. 240. 6. Barnett R. Rubin and Sara Batmanglich, “The U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan: Policy Gone Awry,”MIT Center for International Studies 3 (2008), p. 2. 7. The “Six plus Two” talks marked the highest diplomatic contact between the United States and Iran since the hostage crisis of 1979. Barnett Rubin and Sara Batmanglich, “The U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan: Policy Gone Awry,” MIT Centre for International Studies (October 2008), p. 2, 8. James Dobbins, Negotiating with Iran, No. CT-293, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2007), pp.1–2, 9. Marvin G. Weinbaum, “Afghanistan and its Neighbors: An Ever Dangerous Neighborhood,” United States Institute of Peace, June 1, 2006, p. 13, 10. Declan Walsh, “US accuses Iran of supplying arms to Taliban insurgents,” The Guardian, April 18, 2007. 11. Ernesto Londono, “Iran Looks to Foil U.S. Deal with Afghans,” The Washington Post, January 5, 2012. 12. “Afghanistan to Sign Strategic Pact with Iran `Soon',” Tolo News, July 17, 2012, http://www. 13. “Iran, Afghanistan Ink Security Pact,” Fars News Agency, August 13, 2013, http:// 14. Steve Holland, “Obama plans to end U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by 2016,” Reuters, May 27, 2014, 15. Sumitha Narayanan Kutty, “Iran and Afghanistan: The Urgent Need for Inclusive Regional Diplomacy,”Asia Policy17, January 2014, p. 40, 16. S. H. Mousavian, “The Rise of the Iranian Moderates,” Al-Monitor, July 5, 2013, 17. Akbar Ganji, “Who Is Ali Khamenei?” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 5 (September/October 2013): pp. 24–48, 18. Bahram Moradi and Mohammad Abolfathi, “New Changes in Afghanistan and Its Impact on National Security of Iran (After September 11, 2001),” Journal of U.S. Science 8:9 (2012), pp.1091. 19. “Taleban leader warns Iran of `serious steps',” Afghanistan News Center, October 5, 1998,; “Khamenei orders armed forces to be on the ready for Afghanistan,” Afghanistan News Center, September 15, 1998, 20. James Dobbins and James Shinn, “Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. 58, 21. Emile Hokayem, “Chapter Eight: Iran,” in Toby Dodge and Nicholas Redman, eds., Afghanistan: to 2015 and Beyond, Adelphi Series, no. 425–26, (Oxford, UK: Routledge, 2011). 22. James Dobbins and James Shinn, “Afghan Peace Talks: A Primer.” Op. cit. 23. “Iran Official Calls U.S. New Silk Road Plan `suspicious',” Iranian Students News Agency, November 16, 2011, 24. Ali Omidi, “Iran and the Security of Afghanistan after NATO's Pullout,” Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs 3, no. 2 (Summer 2012); Fars News Agency, “Iranian, Afghan Deputy FMs Discuss Bilateral Ties,” July 20, 2013 25. Mohsen Milani, “Iran and Afghanistan.” Op. cit. 26. Sharafuddin Sharfyar, “Afghanistan Says Nine Migrants Killed by Iranian Border Guards,” Reuters, May 11, 2013, 27. Taher Shir Mohammadi, “Afghan Refugees Pin their Hopes on Rouhani,” Deutsche Welle, July 31, 2013–refugees-pin-their-hopes-on-rouhani/a-16989349. 28. Bahram Moradi and Mohammad Abolfathi, “New Changes in Afghanistan and Its Impact on National Security of Iran (After September 11, 2001),” Journal of American Science 8, no. 9 (2012): pp. 1091. 29. “Iran Seeks its Share of Hirmand Water,” Press TV, April 15, 2011 30. Fatemeh Aman, “Afghan Water Infrastructure Threatens Iran, Regional Stability,” Al-Monitor, January 7, 2013, 31. Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, “Iran's Balancing Act in Afghanistan,” (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011), p. ix, 32. “Iran Denies Reports Taliban Opens Office in Zahedan,” Press TV, August 3, 2012, http:// 33. See “Taliban Confirms FNA Report on Recent Visit to Tehran,” Fars News Agency, June 3, 2013,; Emma Graham-Harrison, “Afghan Taliban Send Delegation to Iran,” The Guardian, June 3, 2013,–taliban-send-delegation-iran; “Taliban Hails Iran Visit as Major Political Achievement,” Press TV, June 14, 2013, 34. Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U. S. Policy, by Kenneth Katzman, CRS Report RL30588, March 4, 2014, p. 14, 35. Bernd Kaussler, “The Iranian Army: Tasks and Capabilities,” Middle East Institute, November 2011, 36. Andrew Houk, “Iran-Afghan Security Cooperation,” Stimson Center, November 17, 2011,–security-cooperation. 37. Bruce Koepke, Iran's Policy on Afghanistan: The Evolution of Strategic Pragmatism, (SIPRI, September 2013), pp. 20. 38. Thomas Ruttig, “Can Kabul Carry Two Melons in One Hand? Afghanistan and Iran Sign Strategic Cooperation Document,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, August 6, 2013, -iran-sign-strategic-cooperation-document. 39. These groups consist of Hazaras, Qizilbash and Farsiwans Shi'ites who were transformed into a “disciplined and cohesive force” in the 1980s. Mohsen M. Milani, “Iran's Policy Towards Afghanistan,” pp. 235–256. Op. cit. 40. F. Milad, “Official: Tehran-Kabul Trade to Hit $3 Billion,” The Daily Trend, September 8, 2012, 41. “5 Countries Receive 66 Percent of Iran's Non-oil Exports,” Iranian Students' News Agency, April 17, 2013,; “Iran, Afghanistan Stress Increase in Border Exchanges,” Fars News Agency, July 22, 2009, 42. “Afghanistan Inks Deal With Iran for Access to Seaport,” Outlook India, September 5, 2012, 43. “Official: Iran, Afghanistan, India to Ink Transit Agreement,” Fars News Agency, March 25, 2014, 44. Zabihullah Jhanmal, “Economic Sanctions on Iran Won't Affect Trade Ties: ACCI,” Tolo News, August 12, 2013, 45. Viola Gienger, “Afghanistan Needs Leeway on Iran Sanctions, Minister Says,” Bloomberg News, April 3, 2012, 46. “Iran's Electricity Exports Hits $5B,” Islamic Republic News Agency, November 27, 2013, 47. John Daly, “Iran's Untouchable Energy Exports,”, November 4, 2012, 48. “Iran, Afghanistan Sign Energy Cooperation Agreement,” Press TV, January 29, 2013, 49. Dexter Filkins, “Iran Is Said to Give Top Karzai Aide Cash by the Bagful,” The New York Times, October 23, 2010, html?pagewanted=all; Dexter Filkins and Alissa J. Rubin, “Afghan Leader Admits His Office Gets Cash from Iran,” The New York Times, October 25, 2010,; Emile Hokayem, “Chapter Eight: Iran.” Op. cit. 50. Bruce Koepke, Iran's Policy on Afghanistan: The Influence of Strategic Pragmatism, (Solna, Sweden: SIPRI, September 2013), pp. 11. 51. Lydia Poole, “Afghanistan: Tracking Major Resource Flows 2002–2010,” Global Humanitarian Assistance, Briefing Paper, January 2011, pp. 4, http://www.globalhum 52. Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U. S. Policy, pg. 51. Op. cit. 53. “Iran to Invest in Afghan Railways,” Tehran Times, August 27, 2012,–railways. 54. C. Raja Mohan et al., “Toward Convergence: An Agenda for U.S.-India Cooperation in Afghanistan,” Center for American Progress, May 2013, pp. 27-28, 55. Mohsen M. Milani, “Iran's Policy Towards Afghanistan.” Op. cit. 56. Ibid.; Scott Peterson, “How Much Influence Will Iran Have in Post-U.S. Afghanistan?” The Christian Science Monitor, August 5, 2013, 57. Mohsen M. Milani, “Iran's Policy Towards Afghanistan.” Op. cit. 58. Text of report by state-run Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran External Service from Mashhad on 17 May 17, 2009. “Joint Iran-Afghan Chamber of Commerce Established in Western Afghan Province,” BBC Monitoring South Asia – Political, via BBC Worldwide Monitoring, May 18, 2009 (accessed via LexisNexis). 59. Frederick W. Kagan, Ahmad K. Majidyar, Danielle Pletka, and Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan (American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War, May 2012) pp. 81–82, 60. Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U. S. Policy, pg. 51. Op. cit. 61. Scott Peterson, “How Much Influence Will Iran Have in Post-U.S. Afghanistan?” Op. cit. 62. Maria Abi-Habibi, “Iranians Build Up Afghan Clout,” Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2012, 63. Scott Peterson, “How Much Influence Will Iran Have in Post-U.S. Afghanistan?” Op. cit. 64. Hamid Shalizi, “Afghan Traders Halt Deals with Iran over Fuel Ban,” Reuters, January 28, 2011, 65. Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U. S. Policy, pg. 51. Op. cit. 66. Hafizullah Gardesh, “Afghans Scared by Talk of Militia Revival,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting, November 12, 2012, 67. Alissa J. Rubin, “Front-Runner in Afghan Election Secures a Key Ally,” The New York Times, May 11, 2014, 68. “Afghan Lawmakers Condemn Anti-Iran Demo in Kabul,” Press TV, June 1, 2013,–mps-slam-antiiran-protest-rally/; Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, pg. 51. Op. cit. 69. Author interview in September 2013 with Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, research scholar at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School and a former spokesman for Iran's nuclear negotiators. 70. Emile Hokayem, “Chapter Eight: Iran.” Op. cit. 71. C. Christine Fair, “Under the Shrinking U.S. Security Umbrella: India's End Game in Afghanistan?” The Washington Quarterly 34, no. 2 (Spring 2011). 72. Sumitha Narayanan Kutty, “Iran-India ties poised for take-off,” Al-Monitor, April 22, 2014,