December 18, 2011

Af Pak – The Iran Factor

It is not only Iran, it is all our neighbours and the West as well. Everyone wants to use Afghanistan to further their own aims.

-Naziar Ahmed Haidai

Head of Herat’s Provincial Council, November 2010

Opening Narrative

The US Iran standoff often relegates the role Iran can play in reconciliation and reconstruction of Afghanistan. There are however great chances that Iran can either play a very positive role in resolving the Afghan crisis or provide the dangerous mix of anti US proxy war even if it has to support the Taliban. Iran’s role in Afghanistan thus needs to be seen purely through the prism of US policies with respect to fighting many wars in Afghanistan – with Taliban, with Iran and of course with Pakistan. Iran has a role to play in all the three depending on which angle one looks at it from. As things stand today, Afghanistan is being used as a proxy battleground by all the players. Will this situation change for the better and whether there ever would be reconciliation between US and Iran is a matter of intense debate.

The sad state of U.S.-Iran relations over Iraq, Israel, terrorism, and the nuclear weapons program makes it easy to overlook Iran’s contribution to Afghan state building.

Iran’s Compulsions

Iran’s foreign policy under President Ahmedinejad has basically hovered around National Security concerns. Its reactions to the world politics are thus largely dictated by the paradigm of regime survival under mounting US pressure and the three regional parameters of refugee influx, drugs and water which it considers paramount to its national security.

Thus torn between these conflicting mandates of national security, Ahmedinejad bolstered the Revolutionary Guard Corps in 2005 which came in handy in 2009 in his re election. Its relations with Afghanistan are construed by the West as those of a “double game” in which it is supporting the Karzai regime while supporting insurgents fighting US forces. This game has its roots in minimising long term engagement of US in the region – something which it sees as counter to its national security. Iran thereforehas to play a game of deterrence, counter containment and competition with the regional players as per a DISS report.

As per Christensen,Tehran’s primary objectives are to secure its eastern flank by stabilising Afghanistan, which sends a steady flow of illicit weapons, narcotics, refugees and migrants into its territory. Shia Iran strongly opposes the return of the Sunni Taliban to power in Kabul. To this end, Iran’s national interests in Afghanistan often coincide with US objectives. Iran’s predominant interest is in having a stable Afghanistan as its neighbour, but since Afghanistan is neither safe nor stable, Iran will continue to play a “double game”.

It is this policy which guides its hand in Afghanistan from a range of options between choosing soft and hard power.

Iran’s Game in Af Pak

Iran and Afghanistan share a 582-mile (936-km) border along a plain in western Afghanistan. They share several religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups that create cultural overlaps between the two countries. Apart from shared beliefs, languages and cultures the two have a history of varying degree of cooperation except during the Taliban regime. Iran wants a stable Afghanistan free of the West to meet its security concerns.

Today Iran provides the Chabahar port facilities to Afghanistan at great discounts and has built roads and a dental college. Its aid to Afghanistan has been a regular flow. As per reports it had pledged $ 560 million after the Tokyo conference in 2002, $ 100 million in 2006 after the London Conference and $ 50 million in aid and $ 300 million in loans after the Paris conference in 2008. In addition Iran has built the 122 KM Herat – Iran highway, Khwaf – Herat railway line and linked Herat to Iran’s electricity grid. It has also proposed to build the Chabahar – Bamiyan road rail link to connect Afghanistan to the sea .More here.

At the outset Iran wants a multi ethnic government in Afghanistan which is strong enough to act independent of Rawalpindi, Riyadh and Washington. Its threats from Afghanistan are four fold: US presence, drug trafficking, influx of refugees and water sharing. To this end it has tried ts best to use its soft power to influence anti Taliban rather than pro Shia policies.

US intervention in Afghanistan created a new security challenge for Iran since the overthrow of the Taliban regime.

Iran’s game in Af Pak is based on US policies in the region – it wants to hold its own against US pressures. While Iran wants a stable Afghanistan, it plays a double game to counter US interests in the region. To this end it is forced to use Afghanistan as a bargaining chip in its strained relations with US.

The US Iran Relationship Matrix

Apparently the US policy towards Iran is stuck in a time wrap. President Obama wanted to change this equation on assuming office. He had articulated that pressurising was not a policy and he wanted to talk to Iran. But three years down the line he seems to be more in sync with the Bush policy.

Is Iran all that bad and is its nuclear ambition the bane of better US Iran relations?

The truth may lie somewhere else. Maybe in the American middle east policy as President Ahmedinejad remains dogmatic about Iran’s vilified stand against the Zionist Israeli regime. The Israelis influence the American foreign policy a great deal. A rearward link to supporting Shias in Iraq against the US, an unflinching support to Syria and Lebanon and its engagement with the erstwhile Northern Alliance and Taliban in Afghanistan have a lot to do with it.

The hawks in US aver that pressure through sanctions would bring Iran to its knees and result in a favourable dispensation in the region. If potential nuclearisation of Iran was the key issue, US has been an ally with Pakistan, a known nuclear state with a dubious proliferation record which supports Taliban and harbours al Qaeda. Pakistan’s actual nuclear proliferation activities are considered less threatening than Iran’s potential ones. While Iran supported the Northern Alliance and worked with CIA post 9/11, Bush’s statements of calling Iran a “terrorist state” forming part of an “axis of evils” worsened the already strained relation. Bush, basking in his Iraqi victory after Desert Storm wanted to impose regime change in Iran which hardened Iranian stance.

As per the 2006 National Security Strategy, US feels that there is “no greater challenge from a single country than Iran”. In 2008 the US State Department claimed Iran to be the “most active state sponsor of terrorism” relegating Pakistan.

Obama is again applying more pressure – but how is this pressure working?

As per Farid Zakaria this is having a counter effect where the civil society in Iran is getting weakened and the state is getting stronger – the opposite of what US desires. By some estimates, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard – the hard-line element of the armed forces, supported by the supreme leader – now controls 40% of the economy.

The antagonistic relations between US and Iran prevents Afghanistan from forming a strategic alliance with Iran. During Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent visit to Afghanistan, President Karzai made it clear that US should not use its territory for operations against its enemies in the region after the draw down in 2014.

As per a CFR opinion,

It’s high time for the United States to engage Iran over Afghanistan in a way that is public, decisive, and comprehensive. Strategic cooperation is possible because the United States and Iran have converging interests and common aversions in Afghanistan. Both want a stable, central government in Kabul capable of putting down insurgents and narco-traffickers and wish to avoid the wholesale collapse of the Afghan state. An Af-Ir Strategythat formally recognizes these common interests may expand Tehran’s contribution to Afghanistan’s security and development. It may also trigger a much-needed thaw in Tehran-Washington relations.

The difficult US-Iran relationship is said to have contributed to the instability in Afghanistan in the last decade. US officials have long maintained that Iran has been a source of destabilisation in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have accused Tehran of extending its anti-US position to aid the insurgency.

Role of Pakistan

As per Harsh V Pant, relations between Iran and Pakistan have been called ‘Dysfunctional’ and although they have improved recently, they are still ingrained with years of rivalry and mistrust. Historically they have stood on either side of the fence in regional conflicts. Uppermost has been the Shia Sunni standoff since the revolution in Iran. Pakistan attributes sectarian violence in its country to Iran. At the same time Pakistan depends on Iran’s oil and gas and despite the Baloch trouble both face the same problems of refugees influx and drugs emanating from the region.

Iran’s sanctions have forced Iran to look at regional equations where Pakistan and India play a crucial role. The agreement on Iran Pakistan pipeline via Balochistan is one such arrangement made by disregarding the UN sanctions.

At the same time, Balochistan remains a major sticking point between the two with Iran blaming Pakistan of hosting Jundallah and hence occasionally sealed the borders with Pakistan.

Despite various attempts made to reconcile their differences, Ahmed Rashid avers that the two are “extreme rivals”. Commenting on whether Pakistan has shifted strategy to make cooperation with Iran an arm of its anti India policy in Afghanistan he feels this is highly unlikely as India is very, very close to Iran for the last nine years and having cooperated on building relations thus far, they (Iran) are not going to dump India now.

Indo Iran Relations

Indo Iran relations have been put to test in the backdrop of US policy on Iran’s nuclear programme. India had to vote against the Iran’s enrichment programme in 2006 and 2009 and refer it to the UN Security Council. India’s energy needs have been at the back of improving trade and defence ties but India, as per Pant, feels it may get marginalised in Iran courtesy Pakistan and China. China today is Iran’s largest trading partner. While China is taking up the space vacated by western firms India is loosing this space based on US pressure.

Indo Iran relations, though described by many as nourishing are subject to what is happening in Afghanistan. Oil may be a small component of Indian import (8% of Indian imports), the crux lies in Iran’s role in disturbing the global nuclear order while insisting on India and Pakstan signing the NPT.

Iran also plays an important role in the proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan as it is the only state that is capable of playing a large geopolitical role between the two. To this end Iran can play a stabilising role in Afghanistan – against Pakistan’s game plan.

Indian infrastructure development at Chabahar and Zaranj – Delaram road have connected Afghanistan to the sea without depending on Karachi. This has altered the regional power equation in favour of India. The proposed Chabahar – Bamiyan rail line would further heighten tensions in Pakistan while they bring India, Afghanistan and Iran closer.

Notwithstanding this, considering India’s role in Middle East and Israel, India’s attempts to improve relations with Iran remain a much smaller part of the larger strategic puzzle, as per Harsh V Pant.


Iran today sits in the middle of the crossroad to the world with its regional and global pressures pulling it in different directions. Its policies with respect to Afghanistan are based on its own security needs.

These needs for deterrence, anti containment and competition with the regional players would thus remain paramount on which way it sits in solving the Afghan imbroglio.

Despite Western world view of Iran being a terrorist state, Iran today holds a large number of pieces of the zig saw puzzle that may help solve Afghanistan provided the West and Pakistan don’t use it as a punching bag to meet their ends. US would have to envision a common platform with Iran to stabilise the region beyond 2014. This calls for US to heed to suggestion by Farid Zakaria and re engage Iran constructively.


Strained Alliances: Iran’s troubled relations to Afghanistan and Pakistan by Janne Bjerre Christensen

India’s Relations with Iran: Much Ado about nothing by Harsh V Pant

Time to Re engage Iran by Farid Zakaria

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