Iran And Afghanistan: Hedging Bets

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 2

As with all of its foreign policy issues, Iran is hedging its bets in Afghanistan. Driving Tehran’s policy is its obsession with the United States and anxieties about how Washington’s actions will impinge on Iran’s national interests. This is all the more crucial for Iran since the United States entered Iraq earlier this year. If Washington succeeds in Afghanistan, Tehran believes this will be a major foreign policy reversal. At the same time, however, Iran wants to be able to tout its cooperation with the United States in the areas of reconstruction and drug eradication, and in its support for the Karzai government. It hopes by so doing to reap whatever political benefits it can. Among the likely gains would be a more positive direction in relations and possibly more regular diplomatic relations, as well as increased Iranian influence. If, on the other hand, Afghanistan continues to unravel, or efforts to bring stability to the country remain stalemated, Tehran wants to capitalize on the chaos and extent its influence in western portions of the country and with the Afghan Shia population.


Unfortunately, two years after 9/11, Afghanistan is again on the verge of chaos. The Karzai government is barely able to hold on to power and its writ does not extend beyond Kabul. Even there, its control is tenuous. Much of the country faces turmoil anew and local leaders or warlords are again controlling events. Violence against Afghan officials, personnel from non-governmental organizations, United Nations officials and U.S. military forces is on the rise. The Taliban and al Qaeda forces appear to be regrouping, or at least are improving their ability to conduct violence. They are gaining power at an alarming rate, due largely to the fact that the U.S.-led coalition has been unwilling to put in place the security apparatus throughout the countryside that is essential to stem this tide and provide the Karzai regime with the necessary ingredients to become a viable governing entity. While espousing friendship for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, Foreign Minister Abdullah is conscious of Iran’s efforts to create proxies in the country and the destabilizing effect this will have on the ability of Kabul to extend its control.

From one point of view, Tehran looks at the Afghan situation with great satisfaction. The United States is bogged down and is finding it increasingly difficult to neutralize the Taliban and al Qaeda and bring stability to the country. Washington’s policy in Afghanistan seems to be to do only enough to keep the situation from getting worse–not to resolve problems, provide adequate reconstruction assistance and create a viable Afghanistan. Even Washington’s promised one billion dollar aid package for next year will do little to stem this situation without a more forceful effort to extend the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul. The inability of Tehran and Washington to conduct responsible dialogue does little to help the situation, and the Bush Administration has been unable to translate its initial military success into a political one. At the same time, Iran is trying to cement its ties with Ismail Khan, the dominant warlord in Herat, and is also supporting elements creating unrest elsewhere in the country. Efforts to destabilize the Karzai regime are going on simultaneously as Tehran claims that it supports Karzai and stability in the country.

From another angle, Tehran is distressed with the continuing turmoil in Afghanistan, and continuously espouses the need for a secure country. Refugees and drug trafficking, however, have become lightening rods for Tehran. In the first months of the Karzai government, Tehran cooperated fully with international agencies in facilitating the flow of Afghans eager to return home. However, as the situation in Afghanistan became more dicey and Afghans sensed the difficulties associated with their return, Tehran has in recent months changed its tactics from being a welcome haven for Afghans and has begun forcible repatriation, even among those who had taken Iranian citizenship. Afghan drug production has soared this past year and the flow through Iran is creating new strains along the border. Tehran had worked assiduously to stem the flow in the past and had hoped the Afghans would keep production under control.

Iran’s policy toward Afghanistan is essentially multi-faceted, carefully orchestrated and highly nuanced. One aspect, controlled by President Khatami and Foreign Minister Kharazzi, presents a responsible, cooperative face, which favors a stable Afghanistan and offers Iran’s cooperation with the Karzai government. Part of this image was Tehran’s initial offer of US$500 million in assistance over the course of five years; this is among the largest foreign donations to Afghanistan. A second prong is dominated and controlled by the hardliners in the clerical regime, operationalized by the Revolutionary Guard and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. This grouping is responsible for the segments of Iran’s policy that so anger the United States. These include the provision of arms and funding for Ismail Khan, efforts to destabilize the Kabul regime, and maintenance of relationships or connections with elements of al Qaeda and the Taliban. A third element is the protection of perceived Iranian national interests in Afghanistan, regardless of the means used. The final goal of Tehran’s policy is to parry U.S. efforts, cooperating where necessary, but also being willing to act to deter American goals. Eventual U.S. success in Afghanistan, and possibly in Iraq, represents the worst fears of the Tehran regime. Thus, the leadership hopes to position Iran most advantageously to protect its national interests, regardless of how Afghanistan eventually evolves.


From Washington’s perspective, the Iran-Afghanistan equation is highly disturbing, but has been totally eclipsed by Iraq and can only be expected to receive attention if a major event demands it. A key personnel transition is underway at the National Security Council. Special Presidential Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad, who also had responsibility for Iran, is being nominated to become U.S. Ambassador in Kabul. He has been replaced by the former U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, who has assumed duties for Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. Current junior staffers will be replaced as Blackwill is expected to bring in his own people. Moreover, it is anticipated there will be a major policy battle between Blackwill and Elliott Abrams, senior director for the Middle East, as there has not been a clear delineation of duties between the two. The overlap on Iran and Iraq will occasion the most immediate policy battles.

Blackwill is considered a powerful replacement for Khalilzad, bringing a strong personality, impressive policy acumen, and management skills to the job. He is expected to pull together the diffuse U.S. government agencies and personalities for a more coherent policy on Afghanistan. Many consider him a refreshing change from Khalilzad, who lacked management skills and was unwilling to do the necessary coordination–“knock heads”–within the administration to conduct effective policy. As one senior NSC official recently said privately, “By sending Zal as Ambassador to Afghanistan, he will be in the spot where he will do the least damage.”

So long as Iraq dominates the Bush Administration’s focus, Iran will work quietly to consolidate its influence in Afghanistan while paying lip service to cooperation with Washington. The Kabul government is in no position to counter Tehran’s activities and will need to rely on whatever attention Washington is willing to pay it in order to offset Iran. Thus, there is unlikely to be an appreciable change in the current situation, which will likely deteriorate absent greater U.S. political will. The infusion of more military and reconstruction assistance will not change this equation without dramatic improvement in the security situation in the countryside. This is not on the immediate horizon.