Iranian Objectives in Afghanistan: Any Basis for Collaboration with the United States?
Strategic Studies, The CNA Corporation,
November 29, 2006
Michael Connell and Alireza Nader
2006, Project Iran convened a
workshop that assessed the potential for the U.S. to collaborate with Iran over the issue of Afghanistan. The
discussion had two objectives: first, to reach a better understanding of the
role Afghanistan plays in
Iran's strategic calculus;
second, to assess U.S.
objectives in Afghanistan and
examine where those interests intersect or diverge from those of
panel included Ambassador James Dobbins, U.S.
Representative to the Afghan Opposition in 2001-2002; Ambassador Robert Finn,
who served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in more than 20 years
from March 2002 to August 2003; and Dr. Bill Samii, an Iranian foreign policy
specialist who is a member of CNA's Project Iran team.
The War in Iraq, the July War between Hezbollah and
Israel, Iran's nuclear
program, and its support for terrorists groups are only some of the issues that
concern Washington and its allies about the Iranian regime. Some argue that
Iran represents a dangerous
threat that needs to be contained, while others call for a policy of engagement
with the Islamic Republic, as did the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group Report,
which advocated that the U.S.
talk directly with Iran about
the situation in Iraq.
Many would argue that if the
U.S. were to engage with
Afghanistan would be a suitable issue
on which to initiate a dialogue. Two of the panelists pointed out that
Iran has tended to play a
constructive role in Afghanistan since the start of Operation Enduring
Freedom and that Iran's
interests are more likely to converge with those of the U.S. in this area than they would in
Historical and Cultural Links
between Iran and
generally regard Afghanistan, or at least the western
portions of that country, as falling within their traditional sphere of
influence because of geographic proximity and deep-seated historical and
historical relationship began thousands of years ago, when Afghanistan was considered an integral part of
the Persian Empire. Until modern times, the
boundary between the two countries remained ill defined. At various points in
history, portions of what we now know as Afghanistan were incorporated into Iran
and vice-versa, with border cities such as Herat changing hands several times
over the course of a single century. It was not until the middle of the
19th century, when Britain forced Iran to abandon
its Afghan possessions, that the border was finally delineated according to the
Treaty of Paris (1857).
Iran and Afghanistan also
share a common language: Persian. The Afghan dialect of Persian, known as Dari,
is one of that country's two official languages, and it is the primary language
of groups such as the Tajiks and the Hazaras, and was the language of the Afghan
court. As the traditional language of Afghanistan's governing classes and
intellectual elite, Dari is also widely understood in the national and
provincial capitals of that country.
Afghans and Iranians share many of the same literary and cultural icons.
The verses of famous Persian poets, such as Rumi and Sa'di, resonate as strongly
with Afghans as they do with Iranians.
also plays a role in fostering Iranian interest in its neighbor to the East.
Iran, as a Shia country, has
always regarded itself as a protector of Afghanistan's Shia minorities, including the
Hazara of central Afghanistan and the Qizilbash of
Iran and Afghanistan
after the Islamic Revolution
two events took place which radically altered the relationship between the two
countries: the first was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the second was
the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The revolutionary regime
that came to power in Iran
opposed the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan and
came to the assistance of the Afghan mujahideen, especially those groups
which were dominated by Afghan Shiites or ethnic Tajiks. The Iraqi invasion of
Iran in 1980, however, forced
Iran to devote most of its resources
to combating the Iraqis and limited the ability of the nascent Islamic Republic
to help the Afghan resistance.
end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Iran increased its involvement in
Afghan politics and expanded its base of influence in that country. The
withdrawal of the Soviets in the following year, coupled with gradual
U.S. disengagement from Afghan
affairs, resulted in a power vacuum. As the various mujahid groups fell
upon themselves in a violent civil war, Iran and Pakistan cultivated ties with proxy militias to
further their own interests in Afghanistan.
distinct sides coalesced in this internal Afghan conflict: the Northern
Alliance, composed primarily of groups which were backed, at least in part, by
Iran; and the Taliban, a
radical Sunni fundamentalist movement which received most of its support from
Arabia. The Taliban traced their ideological
and spiritual lineage to radical Sunni movements in South Asia (the Deobandis)
and Arabia (the Wahhabis).
their extreme ideological underpinnings, the Taliban persecuted the Afghan Shia
as a matter of policy. As the area under their control expanded from their
original bastion in southeastern Afghanistan, they also came into conflict with
the Iranian-backed Northern Alliance. Herat fell to the Taliban in 1995 and Kabul fell a year later.
successes on the battlefield aroused alarm and consternation in Tehran. In 1997, the
Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, denounced the Taliban and ordered
the Afghan embassy in Tehran closed. Matters came to a head when, in
1998, Taliban forces murdered nine Iranian diplomats at the Iranian consulate at
Mazar-i-Sharif and sparked Iranian threats to invade Afghanistan.
Although the Iranians later backed down, relations between the two regimes
remained tense until the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.
Engagement on Afghanistan
Following 9-11: A Missed Opportunity?
Over the course of the coming year,
Project Iran plans to host a variety of
conferences and roundtables. It kicked off this effort on Wednesday, November
29, with the roundtable on Afghanistan.
Center for Strategic
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