The Afghan media has published an increasing number of critical reports about Iran’s secret contacts with insurgent groups in Afghanistan, specifically those groups fighting against the U.S. presence in the country. On September 5, for instance, the Pashto-language newspaper Weesa referred to unidentified local officials in Nimruz province who claimed that Tehran was financing and providing weaponry to Afghanistan’s militant groups. In March 2006, the Afghan official news agency Bakhtar reported on the secret activities of Iranians, including officers belonging to the armed forces, in border towns inside Afghanistan. Bakhtar quoted a high-ranking Afghan border policeman in Herat province, General Mohammad Ayub Safi, saying that “in only the first quarter of this year , more than 10 Iranian officials have been arrested in Herat who were allegedly involved in illegal activities.” These developments show that Iran has been increasing its operations in Afghanistan in an effort to gain influence with the contending insurgent factions and to hasten the departure of U.S. troops from the country.
Tehran has a long history of close contact with militant groups in the region, especially with Shiite groups in central Afghanistan. According to Kabul-based analyst Ustad Faizullah Amini, who spoke to The Jamestown Foundation in December, Iran has been against the Talibanization of Afghanistan, but the presence of U.S. troops at its doorsteps has changed the direction of its foreign policy. Now, Tehran is willing to cooperate with different groups to reach the shared goal of defeating the United States in Afghanistan. After the September 11 attacks, an unidentified official source in Tehran said that Iran’s new policy in Afghanistan would be to play all available cards in its hand to defeat U.S. efforts there (Asia Times, February 14, 2002). According to Amini, this fear has led Iran to act fast, and cooperate with all anti-American forces in the region regardless of their religion and language. In addition to Amini, many other regional experts argue that the current escalation of violence in some parts of Afghanistan is a direct result of Tehran’s new strategy.
Background of Iranian Involvement in Afghanistan
More than a decade ago, while mujahideen leaders were toppling the Moscow-backed Afghan leader Mohammad Najibullah, it was predicted that a strong Sunni fundamentalist regime in Kabul could come into conflict with Shiite Iran. This fear led Tehran to support groups such as the Shiite Hazara parties and the influential Tajik commander Ismail Khan in Herat province. When the Taliban finally gained control of Afghanistan, Iran referred to the development as a Sunni and U.S. plot to isolate Iran. The relationship between Kabul and Tehran took a more serious hit when Taliban forces killed seven Iranian diplomats who were serving in Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998. This Taliban action led Tehran to announce its open support for all forces that would resist the Taliban and to increase its activities to bring anti-Taliban factions together. The most notable act by Tehran was to allow the influential Pashtun leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to be stationed in Iran.
Tehran gave thousands of Hazara leaders refuge, training and financial support to fight against the Taliban. Yet the involvement of the al-Qaeda network in the September 11 attacks and the impending U.S. invasion of Afghanistan led Iran to again re-shape its strategy in the region since it considered the U.S. presence in the region a much greater threat than the unorganized Taliban.
9/11 Changes Iranian Policy toward Afghanistan
Shortly before the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran made some swift policy changes in the region, which were evidenced by comments said by the top political and religious leader in Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei. In his televised speech on September 26, Khamenei said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will not offer any assistance to America and its alliance in their attacks [on Afghanistan].” He also accused the United States of seeking to establish itself in Central Asia—Afghanistan, Pakistan and the subcontinent—under the pretext of “establishing security.”
Many regional experts argue that Tehran does not believe that a stable Afghanistan with a large, long-term U.S. troop presence is in its interests. Tehran worries that if both its neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, are stabilized, Iran will be sandwiched between two pro-U.S. governments. In such a situation, “If Iran has not been attacked, it will definitely be troubled by internal pressures, such as minorities, inspired by the developments in the neighborhood,” said Dr. Mehmet Seyfettin, a regional analyst with the Ankara-based think-tank Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, who was interviewed in December.
The difference between new and past Iranian policies is that now Iran is ready to cooperate and support any group, regardless of their religion and language, who can fight the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, according to Bahmen Karimi’s column published recently in the local Afghan paper Arman-e-Milli. The columnist also argues that the escalation in fighting in the bordering provinces with Iran and in the Shiite populated central Afghan provinces is the direct result of the Iranian strategy. For instance, on October 2, 2006, The Guardian published an article stating that “military and diplomatic sources said they had received numerous reports of Iranians meeting tribal elders in Taliban-influenced areas, bringing offers of military or more often financial support for the fight against foreign forces.” In addition, Afghan analyst Amini proposes that the armed groups who have been sidelined by the current central regime in Afghanistan create potential forces for any outsider such as Iran to harness and influence. He specifically points out some of the commanders of the former Northern Alliance, as well as Shiite forces in central Afghanistan, who feel ignored by the new administration. One of these is Abdul Rashid Dostum who, according to Aina TV on November 25, 2006, met with Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan Reza Bahrami on November 24, 2006. The influence of Iran on the charismatic Tajik leader Ismail Khan is already widely known.
Multi-Layered Iranian Policy on Afghanistan
According to reports published in local Afghan newspapers, including Weesa, Iranian involvement is not limited to unofficial cooperation with militant forces, but in fact includes official efforts to influence the Afghan administration. Some regional experts argue that Iran is using the political tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan in its favor, leveraging the fact that Iran is the only route by which Afghanistan can maintain foreign trade. Afghanistan is becoming increasingly dependent on Iran for its transit trade route as a result of the tense Afghan-Pakistan relationship. Through this route, Afghanistan receives key imports such as electronic equipment, cars and spare parts—much of which originates in Japan. Food, clothing and other essential products are also supplied through Iran. This reality limits Washington’s options to pressure Tehran since if Iran blocks its border, the Afghan economy could collapse.
In the meantime, the Iranian government is active in the financial sector as well. According to the Iranian official news agency IRNA, the chambers of commerce of the two countries have recently signed a number of documents, which are expected to make Iran a major player in the Afghan economy. Iran has become one of the largest donors in the reconstruction process in Afghanistan. An Iranian Foreign Ministry official puts the total amount of aid to Afghanistan since 2001 at about $600 million.
The Iranian media is also publishing provocative reports against the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, blaming Washington for not delivering what it promised to the Afghan people. The well-known Iranian newspaper Jamhur-e-Islami published an article on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks questioning the legacy and intentions of the United States in Afghanistan: “The Afghan people do not see any improvement in their lives and welfare as it was promised to them. Moreover, they are forced to bow to the presence of foreigners on their land and suffer the shame of occupation. Now the Afghan people know that America’s goal in attacking Afghanistan and occupying it was part of the global plan America pursues for domination of the Middle East.”
Iran encourages students who have graduated in Iran to be more active in establishing religious schools in Afghanistan and to strengthen Afghan-Iran ties. The education attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Kabul was quoted by Weesa on November 6 saying that “Shiite students who have graduated from Iranian universities are the messengers of Iran in Afghanistan and they should play a more important role.” The Iranian official called on the Afghan government to permit Iran to launch cable network offices that operate Iranian educational programs in order to curb U.S. cultural influence in Afghanistan. Iran has recently inaugurated its huge cultural center in Kabul, which works to promote Iranian culture and to spread official propaganda by organizing workshops and literary exchange programs. In opposition to these Iranian efforts, Western countries have done little in Afghanistan, which is a result of the extensive cultural, religious and linguistic differences. Iran has used this void to change the situation in Afghanistan in its own favor.
If the increasing violence—not only on the Afghan-Pak border, but also in the areas bordering Iran and in the central Shiite populated provinces—is taken into account, the view of the aforementioned Afghan analysts seems to carry value. Experts on the region believe that the insurgency in Afghanistan has many directions, one of which is leaning toward Tehran. Insurgent fighters in Afghanistan traditionally opposed to working with Iran may have also changed their policy in light of the mutual short-term interest of removing U.S. and Western influence from the country. Due to the strategic location of Iran and its importance to the Afghan economy, however, the Kabul administration has avoided speaking publicly about Iranian influence in Afghanistan, as they believe, as a result of political tension with Pakistan, Iran is Kabul’s last significant open door to the world.