Iran’s Afghanistan Policy

Iran’s Afghanistan Policy 

Post Taliban Evaluation


Mirwais Balkhi


The events of 9/11/2001 resulted in a dramatic change in the Iranian policy towards Afghanistan. The post Taliban government in Kabul has totally aligned itself with Western powers especially the United States of America. Tehran has had a long history of hostility with the US. The presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan forced Iran to play a double standard policy towards its eastern neighbour. This, although Iran is also trying to take the advantages of the potentialities that it has in Afghanistan. This is to support its strategic assets in Afghanistan, both for its national interests and that of the Shia minority within Afghanistan. Tehran also supports Taliban in terms of military and finance in its war against United States in the region.

Keywords: Afghanistan, Iran, Irano-Afghan Relations, Regional Rivalry, Pakistan, Hazaras.


    The financial assistance of Iranian authorities to the president of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai in October 2010, once again has sparked the discussion on Iranian policy towards Afghanistan. The fable of “money envelopes” which was delivered by Islamic Republic of Iran by non-diplomatic means has still remained a hot topic inside and outside Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai confirmed in a press conference that his chief of office receives cash between 500 to 700 thousands Euro twice each year from Iran. Although the president of Afghanistan announced that this controversial so called financial aid has been part of the international financial support in which Iran has involved in post Taliban reconstruction of Afghanistan. But the answer given by the president of Afghanistan could not convince the analysts who are expert on Iran and Afghanistan policies. The main reason that issue went in to a vast controversy has been the media propaganda parallel to this issue in which Iran is accused of supporting military aid and finance support to Taliban in Afghanistan. The seizure of two thousands oil tankers by Iranian government which resulted in large anti-Iranian demonstration in Kabul against the Iran embassy accelerated the issue.  Few months before, in March 2010, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad in a visit to Kabul once again emphasized on Iran’s disagreement over the presence of NATO in the Afghanistan and said: “the deployment of international forces in Afghanistan is not conducive to regional peace[1] .”

       This meeting was held between the two leaders two days after when Robert Gates- the US secretary of defence visited Kabul. Both the presidents met each other after their respective and controversial re-election in 2009 in which both congratulated the other’s victory warmly. The exchanges of the two counterparts and the visit of Ahmadinezhad to Kabul have been in focus with the media and analysts. The two leaders discussed several regional issues, including the expansion of bilateral and economic relations between Iran and Afghanistan.[2] President Ahmadinezhad also announced Iran’s intention to build a new railroad between Pakistan and Iran via Afghanistan.[3] 

A glance at the background of the two nations shows that since ancient times, throughout recorded history, Iran and Afghanistan have been two sides of one mainland whereas before Nadir Shah’s rule both the countries were not independent with present geographical status.  Afghanistan has been the main part of greater Khurasan in which half of present Iran was also with it. Even before the advent of western imperialism in the 17th century, boundaries between Iran and Afghanistan were not demarcated as they are now. Cultural, social, traditional and religious bonds connected the people of these two countries. But Iran’s relations with Afghanistan have not been cordial in spite of the geographical contiguity, common religion, and shared cultural and economic interests. This is because of several issues from which both neighbours are suffering. Ups and downs are there in the relations of both which is outside the scope of this article. Post 2001, events in the region have forced Tehran to bring an introspective change in its foreign policy towards the neighbouring states and especially Afghanistan.

        Afghanistan in the east of Iran faced a dramatic change in 2001. The assassination of the charismatic leader of the United National Front, Ahmad Shah Massoud followed by events of 9/11 marked a turning point in the history and politics of Afghanistan and the region.  The scenario in Afghanistan took a dramatic turn after the US declared war against Al Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan which resulted in the annihilation of Taliban rule in Kabul. The two most wanted leaders in United States, respectively Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omer, succeeded in retreating from Afghanistan safely and took shelter in the northern frontiers of Pakistan. As a result, the Government of Northern Alliance shifted from northern Afghanistan to Kabul once again. The fall of Taliban removed a major irritant in Afghanistan-Iran relations but the new trends in the regional strategic dynamics were also not stable.

The presence of American troops on the eastern borders of Iran was very disturbing for Tehran. This long term enemy had already had a base on the western side of the country in Persian Gulf. This disturbance motivated Iranian leadership to move in the region and meet other regional powers. Soon after the fall of Taliban in Afghanistan, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharazi, paid a two days visit to Islamabad, during which he confirmed that both the countries had come close to each other’s point of view on the Afghan issue. Both agreed to help each other in the establishment of a broad based multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan under the auspices of the United Nations. Such an understanding suits both the nations and helps greatly to ensure a complete stability in Afghanistan as well. They also retreated to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and their full support for Hamid Karzai’s interim government and Bonn Peace Process.[4]

      This was because the historical and geopolitical realities have given a fixed aspect and context to the link between Iran and Afghanistan. Therefore Afghanistan has a privileged position for Iran. Tehran knows well that Afghanistan’s lack of access to open sea, adjacent to Iran along with its energy production and transit in warm waters, Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea would naturally attract Afghans towards their western neighbour. Meanwhile Tehran also knows that to maintain its stability and security along with the solution to the issue of the scarcity of water resources in eastern Iran provinces of Sistan Baluchistan and Khurasan, it is dependent on Afghanistan. Also similarities in cultural and civilizational ties, especially in aspects of language and religion have doubled the effectiveness and interactions of both countries.

        Iran has played an important role in reconstruction of Afghanistan in addition that Iran accepted the responsibility of the allocation of $ 560 million within five years. Annually two thousands Afghan students continue their education in Iranian universities, besides that tens of thousands of other Afghans are able to pursue their graduation in different schools of Iran. Iran also gives funds to Afghanistan autonomous schools which exist all over the country and are run by Afghan immigrants. But despite all this, in Afghanistan this policy of Iran is defined as double standard by Afghan analysts. Razaq Ma’mun- the famous Afghan journalist has written the book “In the Path of the Pharaoh” which even relates the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud to Iranian strategy in Afghanistan.  

       Meanwhile Iran’s role in Afghanistan in the field of reconstruction is facing challenges as well as limitations.  On the one hand, the reconstruction of Afghanistan is severely under the influence of major powers who are present in the country; Factors such as; over all United States presence and its influence in Kabul, Iran- Pakistan rivalry for passing energy pipeline from central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan limit Iran’s position and role. Although on the other hand, economic problems in the field of advance technology, insufficiency of foreign investment, lack of marketing and regulation, lack of an organized and coordinated business in Afghanistan have always compelled Afghans to go to Iran for jobs which gives an opportunity for Iranian strategists to draw their policies on the basis of these potentialities in Afghanistan. Since the fall of Taliban and formation of the new Afghan government, the overall Iranian policies towards Afghanistan can be studied under certain subtitles which would be discussed in the following.

Principles of Iran’s Policy in Afghanistan

Afghanistan as a Market

     For Iran, Afghanistan has been an important market for its products since 2001. Since that time Iran has invested several hundred million dollars for the construction of Afghanistan but at the same time Iran has also emphasized on broadening its export market into various major parts of the country. According to the Fars News Agency, Iran’s non-oil exports to Afghanistan in 2008 amounted to over half a billion dollars.[5] For Tehran a long-term market in Afghanistan can benefit the extension of its regional influence also. For now, western parts of Afghanistan are economically influenced by Iranian products. This is especially visible in Herat province which is one of the four major cities in Afghanistan. Iranian firms and investors have taken part in road construction between the cities of Mashhad and Herat. [6] Iran has provided electricity for the people of Herat, while in contrast Kabul as the capital of the country is still suffering a shortage of electricity and many parts of the city do not have it.

       Iranian firms have also invested in building business operations in Afghanistan during the past year. Iran’s largest automobile maker, Iran Khodro, announced in March 2009 that it planned to invest twenty million dollars in a manufacturing plant in Herat.[7]This commercial interest in building physical infrastructure indicates a long-term perspective of Iranian economic presence in Afghanistan. Iran has been vying with China, Pakistan, India and Turkey in a competition to monopolise Afghanistan’s markets.[8]

          The economic policy of Iran in Afghanistan is not limited only to the western part of the country, but is also interested in expanding its commercial links further towards northern side of Afghanistan to Mazar-e-Sharif province. Iran’s strategy is to link Tajikistan and Iran via Afghanistan by developing a railway line. This was indicated by the Vice President of Iran, Prevez Dawoodi in February 2009.[9] The initial stage of the project has begun between Iran and Herat province in western Afghanistan which will take five years and will cost five billion dollars.[10] Iran is also trying to connect itself with China via Afghanistan. This was again discussed between Iran and Afghanistan in July of 2009 in which Iran proposed to construct a railway line through the central parts of the country.[11] In Afghanistan many analysts have taken Iran’s proposal as an advantage for Afghanistan in re-opening of Silk Road where Afghanistan can take its ancient position as a centre for exchange.[12]


To Oppose Western Domination

      Most of the analysts believe that Iran’s double standard policy in Afghanistan is due to the presence of U.S troops in this country. In fact it is argued that in case these forces were not there in Afghanistan, the policy of Iran would also change towards its eastern neighbour. Today Iran’s Afghanistan policy is overshadowed by the American presence in that country. Saeedi believes that the aim of Iran is not to suppress or defeat the people of Afghanistan but their intention is to defeat America and American troops who are present in the land. No doubt that U.S is an old enemy of the present regime in Iran therefore the goal for Iranian regime is to make the American troops bankrupt which will make them leave the country in shame. This is the main aspiration for Iran in Afghanistan which inspires its foreign policy. This anti western strain in Iran’s foreign policy does not stop it from availing any opportunity to fight American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. Wikileaks recently published a series of documents related to the years 2004 to 2009 in which the commander of ISAF talks about the presence of eight Taliban top leaders in Iran and their further operations in Afghanistan against American and other western troops. The reports add that these Taliban leaders enter Afghanistan for recruiting Taliban and for killing NGO activists and government officials. The reports also state that the Iranian government pays one lakh Afghani for each person who murders an Afghan soldier while the rate is two lakhs for the person who is able to kill an Afghan government official.

        Iran has blamed ongoing narcotics trafficking on NATO forces operating in Afghanistan, however, saying that the alliance has failed to acceptably combat production and smuggling of opium. In an August 2009 speech, Iranian Ambassador to Afghanistan Fada Hoseyn Maleki claimed that the United States and United Kingdom have been disgraced by their failure to “achieve any satisfactory results from their operations and strategies in Afghanistan.” The ambassador went on to state that if NATO forces continue to “shirk their responsibilities,” Iran will be forced to “review [its] decisions.” In the same speech, Maleki called plans for the deployment of additional NATO forces to Afghanistan a mistake and implied that the West was “trying to postpone the election… [By] pretend [in] that Afghanistan is insecure”.[13]

      The regime in Kabul has announced on each occasion that Afghanistan will remain neutral in the hostility between Iran and the west and as President Hamid Karzai stated in July 2008 that Afghanistan will not allow its territory to be used in any outside conflicts and has reiterated that Kabul has friendly relations with both the United States and Iran.[14] Karzai reiterated that "Afghanistan does not want its soil to be used against any country and Afghanistan wants to be a friend of Iran as a neighbour who shares the same language and religion."[15]

     After the fall of the Taliban, the Iranian government immediately started making a scene, using soft power to compete with other regional and international powers. Mr. Hassan Kazemi Qomi, commander of the IRGC and the Quds Force was appointed the Iranian general consul in Herat to coordinate Iranian aid to Afghanistan. Imam Khomeini Relief Committee offices opened in Kabul in 2002 with its branches in Herat, Nimruz, Balkh and other parts of Afghanistan where inhabitants are Persian or Shiite. In 2003, Iranian media reported that only in Herat there are forty-four major infrastructure projects under construction with support of Iran.[16] 

        This institution in Afghanistan, led by Mr. Massoud Ashkan[17], has focused their activities on helping orphans, the disabled and the elderly, beside it they also offer facilities to distribute food, blankets, fuel, and have set up computer classes, provide no-interest loans, and give grants to the needy young married couples.[18] The other activities of the organization are like the celebration of the anniversary of Islamic Revolution, the death anniversary of Imam Khomeini and free Ramadan Services to the public.[19]Currently, more than seven thousand Afghan households, including approximately thirty-two thousand people are on the list and grant recipients are getting training under the name of social and cultural development program. They also receive aid via this committee in different parts of the country.

        But charities do not only target Relief Committee. The committee also does propaganda against common enemies such as America and Israel in Afghanistan as in Lebanon and 
Palestinian Territories it does. For example, The Committee on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution held a competition for a thousand people about the divine letter of Imam Khomeini in the Iranian embassy in Kabul.[20] The Relief Committee also annually organizes the Quds Day for commemorating and showing solidarity with Al-Quds Day of the Palestinian people. [21]


To Support Shia Minority

The other policy of Iran towards Afghanistan is supporting the Shia minority. This has been a priority in Iran’s foreign policy since Islamic Revolution in 1979. Without assuring ideology and the method of regime in Afghanistan, Iran sent a high mission to Kabul in 1990 to convince Shia leaders for supporting communist regime.

As the epicentre of Shia Islam and its only Shia neighbour, Iran's religious influence among the Hazara is naturally robust. Historically, the Hazara often fought in Iran's armies and visited the shrines of Shia Imams in Iran and Iraq. The first assembly of Afghan Shia was formed with full support of Iranian authority in Iran. In the meeting of the assembly a resolution was passed which was under the direct influence of the Walayat-e-Faqih in Afghanistan. As the article 14th of the resolution stated:

“According to the accepted principle of Walayat-e-Faqih in Islam, the assembly sincerely would follow the guidelines of supreme leader of Islamic jurisprudence- Ayatollah Khomeini. “

The project of supporting Shia in Iranian policy towards Afghanistan emerged after the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and fall of Saddam in Iraq which paved the way for the Iranians to breathe openly. Taking the opportunity of the lack of a strong central government in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, the expansion of Shiaism and Shiite ideology was given priority in Iran’s foreign policy and millions of dollars have been channelled into these countries under the name of financial aids by different religious and constructive institutions.

Today, Iran funds mosques, universities, and charities in Afghanistan. Many prominent Hazara political leaders spent time in Iran for education, political refuge, or military support. The Hazara Ayatollah Asif Mohseni runs a seminary and television studio to broadcast Shia Islam in Kabul.[22] The conservative Shia leaders in Afghanistan claim that Tehran sponsors the religious Shia madrasas in Afghanistan. The leaders also claim that Iran gives financial support even to those Jihadi leaders who had relation with Iranian intelligence agency once. Qari Ahmad Ali- an Iranian backed Shia commander once said: “Iran supports Schools and madrasas in Herat province. In these madrasas the photo of Khomeini, Khomeini along with Hezbollah flag can easily show the influence of Iran in Afghanistan.

Currently, there are one million refugees in Iran, 43 percent of who are Hazaras. A third of these refugees have spent more than half their life in Iran and face increasing pressure to repatriate.


To strengthen its Position in the region

Afghanistan has always played a key role in maintaining the balance of power in Iran regional policies. Iran during Pahlavi dynasty, having the privilege to be called the gendarme of Persian Gulf by the United State had also an eye to prove its strengths in South Asia. During this time Shah increased its influence on Afghanistan by providing $ 2-billion as economic aid to Afghanistan. An atmosphere was created in which the normalization of Pak-Afghan relations became imminent however this deteriorated after the ascendancy of Mohammad Daud Khan. Referring to Shah’s initiatives in this respect S.R Chauri says that  the Shah of Iran pushed Pakistani and Afghani leaders to the negotiating table to search for peaceful ways to end their 30-years old hostility.[23] With the end to the communist regime in Afghanistan in 1992, in a balance of power game, Iran became successful in marginalizing its regional rivals like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Turkey and had cordial and friendly relations with Afghan mujahidin in Kabul. But Iran’s victory over other influential surrounding states in the region could not be tolerated which later on resulted in the formation of Taliban which marginalized Iran’s role in Afghanistan. By all still Iran was busy in a regional rivalry in Afghanistan till 2001 and the presence of U.S troops inside Afghanistan. This has been an area of tension in Iran’s Afghanistan policy. It is the issue of security and survival for Iran now. American influence from Turkey to Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Persian Gulf, Pakistan and Afghanistan enclosed and limited more than 60% of Iranian borders.

Iran is geopolitically important to the peace and stability in Afghanistan, this factor is being recognized not only by the people and government of Afghanistan but also by the extra-regional players. Thus, Iran in the context of a new set up in Afghanistan, under Hamid Karzai can work together to be the real guarantors of Afghanistan’s reconstruction and security, which itself is very important for peace and prosperity for both countries.

To fight drug trafficking

As stated in an article published by Washington in 2005, Iran has the highest numbers who are addicted to opium which is said to be a disaster for the Iranian society.[24] The estimation was given that more than two millions of Iranians suffer from such an addiction, which encompasses 2.8% of the total population. It was also reported that majority of the addicts were among youths who have just crossed age of 15.  According to UNODC estimation, 450 metric tons of opium is consumed in Iran each year.Kabul Press published a report that even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei is to be addicted to opium.[25]

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Iran and Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, recently began conducting cooperative counter-narcotic operations, including interdiction measures.[26]

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