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Iranian Objectives in Afghanistan: Any Basis for Collaboration with the United States?

A Project Iran Workshop 
Center for Strategic Studies, The CNA Corporation, November 29, 2006
Rapporteurs: Michael Connell and Alireza Nader


In November 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 Iran.


The 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 Iran directly, 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 Iraq.


Historical and Cultural Links between Iran and Afghanistan


Iranians 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 cultural ties.


The 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).


Both 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.


Religion 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 Kabul.


Iran and Afghanistan after the Islamic Revolution


In 1979, 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.


With the 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.


Two 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 Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Taliban traced their ideological and spiritual lineage to radical Sunni movements in South Asia (the Deobandis) and Arabia (the Wahhabis).


Given 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.


Taliban 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.


U.S.-Iranian Engagement on Afghanistan Following 9-11: A Missed Opportunity?


Following the events of 9-11, U.S. and Iranian goals in Afghanistan converged, at least temporarily. Both Washington and Tehran coordinated their efforts when it came to removing the Taliban from power and establishing a post-Taliban government of unity. Already in September 2001, Iran was serving as a key interlocutor between the U.S. and the Northern Alliance. As Ambassador Dobbins pointed out, the U.S. did not create the anti-Taliban coalition. Rather, it "joined a coalition that already included Iran, Russia, and India."


According to Ambassador Dobbins, in the weeks following the overthrow of the Taliban regime, Iran played a major role in the formation of the new, democratic Afghan government. This was evident at the Bonn Conference, where the various groups opposed to the Taliban gathered in December 2001, along with representatives from the U.S., Russia, India, and Iran.


Dobbins, who worked with the Iranian delegation at the conference in an official capacity, stated that the Iranian role was positive in two respects. First, the original version of the agreement hammered out by the various delegations at Bonn neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. The Iranian delegation headed by the former Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif (now the Iranian Perm Rep at the UN) pointed out these omissions and collaborated with the U.S. delegation to ensure that they were included in the final agreement. Secondly, when the talks threatened to break down over the composition of the new government, the Iranians were instrumental in convincing the Northern Alliance to drop its demands for additional Afghan ministries.


Dobbins stated that the Iranians later offered to train, house, and equip up to 20,000 members of the new Afghan army. According to Dobbins, he relayed this offer to senior American officials, but he never received a reply from the US administration. Apparently, former Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill received a similar offer of collaboration at the Tokyo Donors Conference in 2002. However, a short time later, President Bush, in his State of the Union speech, cited Iran as a member of the "axis of evil." Dobbins claimed that this effectively brought a halt to further US and Iran dialogue and cooperation.


Pro's and Cons of Engaging Iran regarding Afghanistan


While the panelists generally agreed that Iran and the U.S. shared the same goals at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, they disagreed about the nature of Iranian influence in Afghanistan and the merits of engaging with the Iranians at the present time.


Positive aspects of Iranian involvement in Afghanistan


The Iranian government has consistently portrayed its activities in Afghanistan as enhancing Afghan stability and security. According to the Iranians, it is in their interest to see a strong government in Kabul, because that will prevent a repeat of the 1980's and 1990's, when millions of Afghan refugees streamed over the border into Iran.


Iran has backed up these assertions by providing significant funds for Afghan reconstruction. During the Tokyo Donor Conference in 2002, the Iranians pledged $560 million in aid and loans for the Afghan government. The Iranians have also focused their efforts on rebuilding Afghanistan's transportation and communication infrastructures. One major project, undertaken by the Iranians in conjunction with the Indians, has involved upgrading road and rail links between the Afghan interior and the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman.


According to Ambassador Finn, one area where U.S. and Iranian interests converge regarding Afghanistan is in stemming the trade in narcotics. Afghanistan is one of the world's largest producers of illegal drugs, including over 90% of the world's opium, 80% of which will flow either through Iran or Pakistan.


According to the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs 2006 Strategy Report, "There is overwhelming evidence of Iran's strong commitment to keep drugs leaving Afghanistan from reaching its citizens." Reportedly, thousands of Iran's law enforcement personnel have been killed policing the Afghan border in an attempt to stem the flow of narcotics from that country. According to Dr. Samii, Iran's counter-narcotics strategy resembles a counter-insurgency strategy, with local villagers armed to defend against Afghan drug runners. Although Iran and the U.S. do not currently work directly with each other to combat the trade in narcotics, Finn stated that the two countries could potentially work together on the issue in the future.


Negative aspects of Iranian involvement in Afghanistan:


Iran, one of the panelists stated, is running a sophisticated information operations campaign against US forces in Afghanistan. Iranian radio stations are beaming anti-U.S. propaganda to the Afghan public from border towns such as Mashhad. Iranian NGOs are funneling money to radical Shia madrassahs, while the Iranian military continues to supply weapons and funds to warlords that it regards as clients.


Prospects for Engagement


Whether one believes that it is possible to have constructive engagement with Iran over the issue of Afghanistan largely depends on how one reads Iran's long-term intentions towards its neighbor to the east. Divining Iran's ultimate intentions in this regard is difficult. The roundtable participants generally agreed that Iran seeks to maintain, if not expand, its traditional sphere of influence within Afghanistan. They also agreed that Iran would like to see a reduction in the number of U.S. troops in the region. Where they differed was in their assessment of Iranian actions on the ground in Afghanistan and the implications of those actions for U.S. policy in the region.


Arguments for engagement:


         Iran's influence in Afghanistan is considerable, at least in the non-Pashtun areas of the country. This influence is based on deep-seated historical, cultural, and linguistic ties, and is unlikely to diminish in the near future. The U.S. should recognize that Iran has played a significant role in Afghan affairs in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.


         While not all aspects of Iranian involvement in Afghanistan are positive, in general, Iran has exerted a stabilizing influence on its neighbor, providing millions of dollars for Afghan reconstruction and fostering trade between the two countries.


         When it comes to Afghanistan, U.S. interests largely overlap with those of Iran. Both countries share a common enemy in the Taliban and a common ally in the Karzai government. Both countries would like to combat the flow of illegal narcotics from Afghanistan. In talking with the Iranians about issues such as these, the U.S. might be able to elicit the cooperation of the Iranians.


         Initial talks might set the stage for a future dialogue over the thornier issues that plague U.S.-Iranian relations, such as Iraq, the nuclear issue, and Iran's support for terrorist groups.


Arguments against:


         While the Iranians would not want to see Afghanistan collapse into chaos, at the same time, they are unlikely to see any advantage to helping Washington escape from its regional "quagmires," either in Afghanistan or Iraq. As long as the U.S. remains bogged down in these countries, it remains incapable of engaging in mischief against the Islamic Republic. If U.S. troops were to redeploy from Afghanistan, Iran would rather see them leave as a result of a humiliating defeat than flushed with success. In order to further its interests in this regard, Iran has engaged in a robust information operations campaign against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. There are also some indications that it has provided support to insurgents.


         Given the current circumstances, Iran, as well as America's allies in the region, would see any attempt to initiate a dialogue with Iran as an admission of failure and a sign of weakness.


         There is no guarantee that the Iranians would even talk to U.S. officials at the current time. The July War in Lebanon and the problems of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the Iranians feeling confident. Various figures in the regime have indicated that they see no need to enter into discussions with the U.S., at least until the U.S. changes its policies towards the Islamic republic. Furthermore, those elements in the regime that are most likely to support a dialogue with the U.S. are weak and demoralized. At the same time, radical elements in Tehran are capable of derailing any serious attempts at dialogue, humiliating not only their opponents within the regime, but the U.S. as well.


Final Observations


Panel participants did not reach a consensus on the topic of engagement. The speakers generally believed that the prospects for engagement with Iran were much greater in 2002 than they are now, with two of the panelists arguing that 2002 represented a "missed opportunity" for Iran-U.S. dialogue.


 If engagement were to take place now or in the near future, the speakers also agreed that Afghanistan would be among the least contentious issues with which to begin discussions.


From the point of view of the conveners, if engagement with Iran over the issue of Afghanistan could lead to a reduction of the influence of the Taliban and decrease the effectiveness of Taliban forces in killing US and NATO soldiers, then it should be pursed.  A failure to seize this opportunity may undermine our ability to prevent Afghanistan backsliding into a state where a host of anti-US factions--some with state sponsors--target US and coalition forces on the ground.



About Project Iran: Project Iran is a new initiative launched by the Center for Strategic Studies at the CNA Corporation. It aims to deepen the prevailing scholarship and enrich the public dialogue on a country of growing strategic concern to the U.S. and its allies.


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 Studies

The CNA Corporation

4825 Mark Center Drive

Alexandria, VA  22311-1850


... Payvand News - 1/31/07 ... --

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