Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 08/2014

Iran's Foreign Policy in Post-Taliban Afghanistan

The Washington Quarterly

A publication of:
Center for Strategic and International Studies

Volume: 37, Issue: 2 (Summer 2014)

Kayhan Barzegar


Since 2001, this Iranian scholar argues, Iran has sought to establish security and stability, while advancing regional cooperation in Afghanistan. The only way to manage conflict in the post-exit era is for the West to accept the legitimacy of increased regional cooperation, including Iran’s involvement.

Full Text

Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, Iran has followed a two-pronged policy in Afghanistan: first, preserve stability and support the Afghan central government, and second, oppose the presence of foreign forces in the country. For Iran, Afghanistan is the focus point of its “Look to the East” grand strategy—which primarily seeks increased energy and economic relations between Iran and eastern countries in the Asia region, especially India, China, and Japan,1 and is the axis of its goal to establish stability in Southern and Central Asia. That is why, for the past 13 years, Iran has supported so many state-building efforts in post-Taliban Afghanistan. At the same time, Iran opposes the presence of foreign forces—especially U.S. forces—in Afghanistan, asserting that it is a pretext for spreading extremism in the country and the region at large. Moreover, Iran perceives the presence of U.S. forces as part of Washington’s strategy to strengthen its own strategic position in Central and South Asia, as well as the Persian Gulf, at the expense of Iran’s national and security interests. Iran also believes that U.S. policies in Afghanistan will undermine Iran’s legitimate demands, including re-establishing close political and economic ties between the Iranian and Afghan governments. Therefore, Iran criticizes the 2012 U.S.–Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA),2 which provides the framework for U.S.-Afghan relations after the 20163 drawdown, maintaining that such an agreement is against the traditional neutrality of Afghanistan in South and Central Asia, consequently sowing distrust in regional states’ relations. The environment under such an agreement would minimize Iran’s role in its political-security backyard. An active and strong political-security presence across its immediate borders in order to preempt future security challenges has become a constant in Iran’s national security strategy. One of the main objectives of Iran’s foreign policy in Afghanistan is to increase its relative security in the broader region. Iran views security as an interconnected network that runs all throughout Asia—insecurity in one area is equivalent to insecurity of the whole region, and so instability in Afghanistan could easily metastasize to other countries. As such, Iran’s foreign policy in Afghanistan in the post-U.S. exit era will revolve around the two themes of “cooperation” and “rivalry” with other regional and trans-regional players, such as Pakistan and the United States. This trend is likely to persist during the reign of the pragmatic government of Hassan Rouhani, unless nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 could yield a comprehensive agreement that would subsequently improve U.S.–Iran relations. Iran’s Interests in Afghanistan Geographically, Afghanistan is located in a region called the “Greater Ariana,” a wide area running north-south from Tajikistan to the Maldives and east-west from Burma to Iran. Afghanistan serves as an important gateway to this region, and thus plays an important role in Iran’s grand strategy of “Look to the East.” Iran uses a developmental approach to foreign policy here, through energy security and economic integration. Due to Western sanctions during the last few years, the orientation of Iran’s energy exports and economic integration has shifted toward Asia, subsequently increasing the volume of economic exchanges with Asian countries, especially India and China. Today, increased economic activities with these countries are vital for Iran’s economic development.4 The way toward achieving this goal is to seek political stability in the South Asia region.5 In this context, establishing security and stability in Afghanistan is of great importance for Iran’s geopolitical interests. In this context, three different issues are important to Iran in Afghanistan. The first is cultural: the two nations share a rich history that saw the spread of classical empires, Islamic conquest, and the rise and fall of many dynasties. Eventually, the third Anglo-Afghan War started in May 1919 and ended in August that same year (the first and second Anglo-Afghan wars took place between 1839–1842 and 1878–1880, respectively), and Afghanistan declared itself a sovereign and independent state; Iran, meanwhile, continued under various dynastic rulers, called Shahs, until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Today’s Afghanistan was part of Iran’s greater Khorasan Province, which historically was called Greater Khorasan and referred to a much larger area of the Persian empire. It contained Iranian-origin sects and ethnicities, thereby making it part of the historical and cultural territory of Iran. Khorasan Province in modern-day Iran was the country’s largest until September 2004, when it divided into three smaller provinces that are geographic neighbors to a variety of Afghan ethnic groups (i.e. the Tajiks to Khorasan-e Razavi Province, the Pashtuns to Southern Khorasan Province, and the Baluchis to Sistan and Baluchestan Province). Today, the cultural-identity characteristics of the ethnic groups in these regions are somehow combined. Another point of cultural commonality is the shared Persian language of the two countries. There are two major languages spoken in Afghanistan: Persian, which is also called Dari, is prevalent in the central, northern, and southern parts of Afghanistan as well as in its capital city, Kabul. The other language is Pashtun, which is one of the Eastern Iranian or Arian-originated languages, a group that includes most major current languages of Europe, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. It is spoken by Pashtun ethnicities living in east and southeast Afghanistan. This language commonality, despite differences between the governments of the two countries, is a strong link.6 Nevertheless, wider interactions between the two are needed. For instance, the presence of Afghan refugees in Iran necessitates a cooperative environment.7 Currently, there are 5,000 Afghan university students and 300,000 Afghan primary school students in Iran, and more than 600 Afghan university students have received Iranian scholarships.8 Furthermore, more than 160,000 Afghans have so far received legal residence permits in Iran through their Afghan passports, enjoying legal rights just like other Iranian citizens.9 Iran’s second interest in Afghanistan lies in the economic realm. Energy export and Afghanistan’s role as the transit route across Asia, from the Persian Gulf region to China, for transportation and communications have been key themes of Iran’s developmental and economic strategy. Iran is one of the main energy suppliers of Afghanistan. Based on the agreement signed on December 26, 2011, between Iran’s Oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi and Afghanistan’s Commerce and Industries Minister Anwar al-Haq Ahadi, Iran will export one million tons of various oil products—including 600,000 to 700,000 tons of diesel; 250,000 to 300,000 tons of gasoline; and 100,000 tons of jet fuel—to Afghanistan annually. The volume of trade transactions between Iran and Afghanistan (as the fourth major trade partner of Iran) in the first 7 months of the Iranian year 1391 (or March-October 2012) has reached $2 billion. Through this, Iran’s exports share was $1.6 million.10 Additionally, Iran’s future energy pipelines could pass through Afghanistan, transferring even more of Iran’s energy to Southern and Central Asia. Several plans have so far analyzed how to transfer Iranian energy to other countries using Afghanistan as a conduit. Another proposed pipeline involves transferring Iran’s gas to China through Pakistan, which is mostly dependent on stability in Afghanistan.11 Some experts, however, maintain that the close proximity of the borders between Iran and Afghanistan to the borders between China and Afghanistan will make an Afghan route better than a Pakistani one, in terms of cost and benefit. Therefore, because of pipeline geopolitics and regional integration, Afghanistan could serve as the main economic and developmental link between Southern and Central Asia. This will, in turn, have numerous advantages for Iran, Afghanistan, and other countries in the region. Third and finally, from a political-security perspective, Afghanistan is of great significance to Iran’s national security. The September 11 terror attacks have connected the security of Afghanistan to the region and to that of the world, making the fight against the al-Qaeda terrorist group a priority of U.S. foreign policy in the region. This development has led to the direct presence of U.S. forces throughout Iran’s eastern borders. Although President Obama’s administration is committed to withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, the signing of the U.S.–Afghanistan SPA still brings about political-security concerns for Iran for several reasons. First, Iran believes that due to decades of war, instability, and political-ethnic rivalries in Afghanistan, the Afghan state is weak and therefore dependent on U.S. financial and security assistance. This state of affairs will make the country unable to resist U.S. demands in dealing with various issues, such as improving relations between Iran and Afghanistan. In this respect, the presence of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan will turn into a pressure point on Iran. In other words, the SPA will lead to the indirect political-security presence of the United States in the immediate borders of Iran, thus minimizing Iran’s political role in its security backyard. Meanwhile, with such agreements between Afghanistan and the United States, Afghanistan loses its traditional neutrality in the politics of Central and South Asia. This will provide the ground for the formation of unfriendly activities against Iran within Afghanistan’s domestic politics and among political factions (like between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns regarding the way they would like to cooperate with the United States in the future), prompting further regional rivalry between different states (like between Iran and Pakistan in how to deal with the political-security presence of the United States in regional issues). Some experts even believe that by granting military bases to U.S. forces, Kabul no longer has the right and/or the capability to make strategic decisions in relations with its neighboring countries, including Iran and Pakistan.12 In this context, in the second Bonn Conference on December 5, 2011, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, reiterated Iran’s opposition to the signing of U.S.–Afghani agreements and underscored the necessity for foreign forces to completely withdraw from Afghanistan.13 Iran’s Foreign Policy in Afghanistan Ever since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, Iran’s foreign policy in Afghanistan has been based on two aims: upholding stability and opposing the presence of foreign forces. Upholding Stability Upholding stability and supporting the Afghan central government has always been a constant in Iran’s foreign policy. In this respect, Iran has followed a “developmental” approach in Afghanistan’s state-building process after the collapse of the Taliban. From Iran’s perspective, poverty and poor development have been the main bases for the revival of the Taliban and extremism in the country. For this reason, Iran has always committed itself to reconstruction and development efforts in such fields as financial aid, transportation and energy, trade, social structure, and refugee matters.14 Meanwhile, Afghanistan plays an important role in preserving stability in Iran’s eastern borders. Instability in Afghanistan (in spreading terrorism, extremism, and drug trafficking) would pose political-security threats to Iran. Indeed, the failed-state situation in Afghanistan during the past decades has been the main reason behind spreading extremism in the region. This in turn has had precarious consequences for Iran’s national security and interests. An example is the killing of the Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif by the Taliban in 1998.15 At present, various groups such as al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and extremist Islamist factions, as well as some local small factions, are fighting the Afghan government and foreign forces deployed in the country. Instability also provides the grounds for these groups to organize terrorist operations against Iran. Based on the available evidence, as well as remarks by Iranian authorities, violent groups operate from their bases inside Afghanistan and Pakistan’s borders, the Jundallah terrorist group providing just one example.16 Recently, another terrorist Salafi group named Jaish al-Adl abducted five Iranian border guards, later releasing all but one, whose fate is still unknown.17 Further, due to the ethnic and tribal connectivity within the borders of Iran and Afghanistan, any instability in Afghanistan may lead to the creation and continuation of ethnic conflicts, thus increasing migration to the Iranian borders and exacerbating the refugee situation. Another consequence of instability in Afghanistan is the production of drugs and their transit through Iran. Iran lies at the heart of the transit corridor between opium producers in Afghanistan and opium users in Europe. It is, thus, an important challenge for Iran to preserve security in its rugged borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran has suffered heavy financial costs and human losses as a result of drug trafficking. Based on the latest statistics, some 15,000 Iranians have so far been killed or injured in fights against drugs,18 and 89 percent of the world’s opium as well as 41 percent of its heroin and morphine are found in Iran, which are the highest figures in the world.19 Additionally, 60 percent of the Afghan narcotics in 2007 passed through Iranian borders, although this figure has dropped to 30 percent in 2010.20 The growing link between terrorism and drug issues highlights the significance of this challenge for Iran. The Taliban has always produced and smuggled opium as a financial resource, and other terrorist groups similarly use drugs to fund their activities. Iranian authorities have always emphasized this link.21 From Iran’s perspective, the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan and the fact that they refuse to fight against drugs under the pretext of fighting terrorism is one of the major reasons for the increased drug production in Afghanistan.22 Opposing Foreign Forces Iran is against the presence of foreign forces, especially U.S. forces, in Afghanistan: it sees them as direct threats to Iranian national security. Although it is beneficial to Iran’s national security and interests if the Taliban are eliminated from the central government of Afghanistan, the military operations and the continued presence of foreign forces has led to new challenges such as ethnic geopolitical rivalry, spreading Sunni and Salafi extremism, civil and religious wars, and further general instability and insecurity throughout the region. Iran opposes the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan for three main reasons. First is the spread of extremism. Iran believes that the presence of foreign forces, especially U.S. forces, in Afghanistan fosters extremism; past experiences show a direct relationship between the two. For example, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden came into existence in the 1980s while fighting against the former Soviet Union. The “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan reached its pinnacle during George W. Bush’s administration, continued during President Barak Obama’s in a new form, and has offered extremist and local belligerent forces, including the Taliban, the needed opportunity to justify their resistance within the framework of a holy war against the presence of foreigners who endanger their ideology and beliefs. This pretext enabled them to mobilize local forces which traditionally oppose the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan. In the Afghan war, the victory of Western countries over opposing forces— including terrorists and hostile groups, local warlords, as well as adversary governments in the region—was considered a victory for the international community and a step in upholding so-called global security. This has raised the expectations of the international community for victory in the Afghan War in such a way that the West is anticipating the full-scale defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the eradication of the roots of al-Qaeda terrorism. In fact, the main challenge of the continuation of the war in Afghanistan is the illusion of this idea of victory against extremist groups such as the Taliban. Such conditions give shallow hope to the Afghan public and raise the expectations of the international community that the Taliban can be eliminated from the Afghan political scene, which is a far cry from the political-security realities on the ground. This could bring negative consequences for the country’s state-building and development process. But various signs at present indicate that this strategy is gradually failing, especially now that U.S. forces and other Western powers are on the verge of leaving Afghanistan, and especially because of the potential necessity for engaging in dialogue with the Taliban in order to preserve stability in the post-troop withdrawal era. The second reason why Iran opposes foreign troops in Afghanistan is to contain the U.S. threat. From Iran’s perspective, the presence of U.S. troops in the region is in line with U.S. policy to strengthen its strategic position in broader Central and South Asia as well as the Persian Gulf at the expense of Iran’s national and security interests. With pragmatic-centrist President Rouhani in office and the possibility of a thaw in Iran–U.S. relations, the traditional sense of threat from the presence of U.S. forces may diminish. But then again, the sense of indirect U.S. political-security influence in Afghanistan may lead Iran to follow its own way of dealing with conventional threats in the country. This would involve establishing close relations with the central government, primarily at the bilateral level, focusing more on construction and development projects in the regions (such as Herat province) that are closer to Iran’s borders and thus more significant from a security perspective. The risk would be that Iran’s political capacity to build multilateral cooperation in a post-exit era will go ignored. This is why President Rouhani clearly stressed that Iran “is opposed to the presence of any foreign force in the region, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and particularly the Islamic country of Afghanistan… They should all leave and leave the security of Afghanistan to its own people.”23 One should note that Iran has an active presence on its eastern borders, and has plans to implement a containment policy against rival foreign forces to preempt future threats in Afghanistan. From Iran’s perspective, any power vacuum in the country will lead rival regional and trans-regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and the United States to expand their role—at the expense of Iran’s national security and interests. The recently improved Pakistani-Saudi Arabia relationship is considered to come at the expense of Iran. Some analysts maintain that Saudi Arabia might have persuaded Islamabad to cancel the Iran– Pakistan (IP) pipeline project.24 Or Iran sees political-security cooperation between the United States and Afghanistan as a potential threat, and therefore opposes it under existing circumstances. This is especially true given that the history of cooperation between Iran and the United States in toppling the Taliban placed Iran in the “Axis of Evil” in 2001 and encouraged the policy of regime change. Third, Iran opposes foreign presence in Afghanistan in order to ensure the country’s neutrality. Iran is traditionally against the presence of foreign forces across its own borders in order to preclude neighbors forming political-security agreements with trans-regional actors. It believes that such a state of affairs will bring about distrust among regional states, consequently weakening regional political-security and economic cooperation. Iran similarly opposed such an agreement between Iraq and the United States after the withdrawal of U.S. forces there. Iran also strongly opposed the installation of NATO’s missile defense shield in Turkish territory in 2011, despite the close relations between Iran and Turkey at that time. Thus, supporting Afghanistan’s neutrality in the regional equations of South and Central Asia represents a logical and important component of Iran’s regional policy. In this context, Iran perceives the activities of foreign forces in Afghanistan and some of the policies of the Afghan government as a violation of that neutrality. The U.S.–Afghanistan SPA is meant to last for eight years, starting when foreign forces leave (so likely 2016 through 2024).25 Negotiations for the conclusion of this security agreement began on November 2012 and continued to October 2013 with the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. On May 27, 2016, President Obama said that U.S. troops would be reduced to 9,800 by 2016. However, deployment numbers still hinge on signing the SPA, which has not yet occurred. If the two sides reach a final agreement, the number of military bases and foreign troops deployed in the country will be determined, and the way will be paved to establish permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Iran opposed the conclusion of the strategic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan,26 and expressed its concern over the ambiguities in the future of U.S. military bases in Afghanistan and the lack of transparency in the security responsibilities of the United States.27 To highlight one problem, U.S. drones crossing Afghan borders violates Afghan neutrality. (Following the concerns expressed by regional countries, especially Iran, Afghan authorities emphasized that no country is allowed to use Afghan territory against any other country.)28 The conclusion of this agreement would also weaken ties between Iran and Afghanistan economically, culturally, and politically. Since the beginning of the Afghan crisis, the U.S. government has defined any expansion of Iran’s activities in Afghanistan within the framework of mutual political-security concerns. Such a policy—considering the realities that Iran and Afghanistan share long common borders and cultural-societal commonalities—will negatively impact the nations’ natural relations, bringing distrust and consequently instability in the region. Iran and the Post-Withdrawal Scenarios After the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in 2016, Iran’s foreign policy will involve the concepts of “rivalry” and “cooperation” with local players, like the Taliban, as well as regional and trans-regional players, like Pakistan and the United States. Iran and the Taliban Iran has always considered the Taliban and their extremist line of thinking to be a threat to Iran’s ideology and national interests. For this reason, Tehran never recognized the Taliban during this group’s reign from 1996 to its collapse in 2001. The Taliban invaded the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 and killed eight Iranian diplomats as well as a journalist. It was a grave mistake for the Taliban, one which deeply tarnished its relations with Iran in such a way that, despite the rivalry and conflict of interests between Iran and the United States in the region, Iran helped the United States topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001. Now, after 13 years since the beginning of the Afghan War, the Taliban are somehow returning to the political-security scene of Afghanistan. The central government of Afghanistan and foreign forces believe that, in order to establish stability, they need to achieve reconciliation with the Taliban. This is why the Taliban were invited to take part in international conferences held on the future of peace and stability in Afghanistan, including those held in Paris in June and December 2012.29 In these circumstances, what should Iran’s policy toward the Taliban involve? Generally, Iran perceives the Taliban as a threat in two ways: first, from an ideological perspective (the Taliban is anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite), and second from a security and national interests perspective (the Taliban is exclusivist, spreads religious extremism, is against the existence of the state system, and doesn’t recognize political borders). The Taliban’s identity is based on the Pashtun ethnicity and Sunni Salafi mentality, which is contradictory to Persian culture and the Shiite mentality. For this reason, al-Qaeda, as an anti-Iranian movement, grew under the auspices of the Taliban regime. Due to their ideological and exclusivist nature, the Taliban are not truly willing to negotiate, compromise, and form a coalitional government with the participation of opposing forces. Since they want to hold all power, it is rather unlikely that a coalitional government involving the Taliban could last in Kabul. Even if it were established, this development could trigger a new civil war, this time from the south of Afghanistan to the north between the Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Uzbeks. The previous civil war in the 1990’s, led by the Northern Alliance, was launched from the north to the south of Afghanistan. In this context, it seems that the change in U.S. strategy in handling the Afghan crisis through negotiation with the “good Taliban” will also be fruitless.30 Yet, although the Taliban are anti-Iranian and anti-Shiite, it seems that for the sake of preserving stability in Afghanistan, Iran would have no problem with a contained Taliban that has a minimalist role in the Afghan central government and poses no threat to Iran’s national and security interests. It is rather unlikely that Iran could hold direct negotiations with the Taliban, due to their bitter history in Iranian society. Iran primarily perceives the Taliban as a Salafist violent faction, against human and women’s rights, and paying no respect to international norms and human heritage (for example, Iran saw the destruction of the Buddha Statues in Bamiyan by the Taliban as an outrage). This makes any direct dealing with the Taliban by Iranian government rather tricky before the nation. However, Iran might welcome indirect talks through other regional and trans-regional players such as Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or even the United States or EU countries. Nevertheless, Iran does not favor an Afghan government in which the Taliban might play a key role—such a situation will lead to a conflict of interests and consistent tension between Iran and the Afghan government, while also giving a dominant role to other rival regional players—Pakistan and to some extent Saudi Arabia—in Afghanistan’s political-security scene. This development would, in turn, undermine Iran’s regional role. Iran therefore maintains that political stability in Afghanistan depends on the advancement of ethnic and identity plurality in the central government’s power-sharing system. This will in turn hinder extremist trends in the Afghan government, as various groups are likely to equate their own interests with the interest of neighboring states in cultural, identity, political, and economic relations. Meanwhile, Iran favors the presence of a stable and friendly government in Kabul. Iran, like other players involved in Afghanistan, has reached the conclusion that upholding stability in contemporary Afghanistan without the participation of the Taliban in power would be infeasible, but what Iran wants is a minimalist participation of this group in Afghanistan’s power. Some Western analysts tend to believe that Iran wants the Taliban to be strong enough to remain a thorn for the United States, but not strong enough to become a challenge for Karzai’s or his successor’s government, or to turn into a dominant power in Afghanistan.31 But this is an inaccurate understanding, mainly because the foundations of the relations between Iran and the Taliban are based more on the identity-ideological differences rather than power politics. Iran and Pakistan In the context of cooperation and rivalry, after the exit of foreign troops, Iran–Pakistan relations in Afghanistan will center on the two dimensions of advancing influence on the Afghan central government, and on the scale of the Taliban’s role. In the first dimension, Pakistan has serious disputes with the Afghan government. For one, the two countries have disputes over water-sharing: Pakistan is dependent on the several river basins that flow out of Afghanistan to irrigate its territories, which the Afghans claim.32 Furthermore, the “Durand Line”—a porous Afghan–Pakistani border drawn by the British in 1893 that divides the Pashtuns in half—was never recognized by the Afghan government. The Afghans’ claim on the Pashtun part of Pakistan has always challenged the national interests of Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan usually favors establishing stability in Afghanistan only if the Afghan government is aligned with the policies of Pakistan.33 For this reason, Pakistan is also against establishing U.S. military bases in Afghanistan as they might weaken Pakistan’s traditional influence in Kabul. For the same reason, some groups in the Pakistani government, such as the Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan (ISI), are believed to support the Taliban extremist trend and ethnic-religious violence in Afghanistan, hoping to achieve their own objectives.34 Meanwhile, Pakistan attempts to penetrate into Afghanistan in order to hedge against India, against whom it has relatively little strategic depth.35 This could help Pakistan, but only if the Afghan government is under the influence of the Pakistani government. As the most important non-government player in the Afghan political-security scene, the Taliban currently enjoys utmost importance in some of Pakistan’s regional policy. It can play a major role in forming a friendly government for Pakistan in Kabul, shifting the regional balance of power, or disturbing stability and security in Pakistan’s favor. Therefore, Pakistan exploiting the Taliban as an instrument of power has implications for Iran’s national security and interests. Traditionally, Iran and Pakistan have had close political-security and economic relations, based on peaceful coexistence and mutual respect in preserving their geopolitical interests and establishing stability in South and Central Asia. For instance, Iran has kept good relations with Pakistan’s government despite its anger from the activities of terrorist elements believed to be crossing the Pakistani border into southeast Iran. Yet, relations between Pakistan and the Taliban, or any other group acting against Iran’s interests, will adversely affect Pakistani–Iranian relations. The Pakistani government’s close relations with the Taliban during their rise to power in Afghanistan and after their regime’s collapse are testament enough. During the Taliban era, Pakistan had the best relations with Afghanistan. However, when Hamid Karzai was elected to be Afghan president, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan experienced serious tensions. Karzai’s government has always accused Pakistan of interfering in Afghanistan’s domestic affairs, as well as supporting the Taliban.36 Some political-security objectives of the Taliban and other groups within the Pakistani government, such as the ISI, are similar and complementary to one another. In order to reach these objectives, both seek replacement of the current political system in Afghanistan with a system that is more dependent on Pakistan. This objective would be fulfilled in two ways: through ousting the current political system and then advancing the legitimacy and power of the Taliban in domestic, regional, and international arenas. Since the Taliban were overthrown, Pakistan has always attempted to prove to trans-regional players that the war in Afghanistan is mostly a domestic and ethnic concern. Indeed, Pakistan’s real policy in Afghanistan is rather complicated. On one hand, Pakistan announces that it no longer supports the Taliban and provides logistic facilities to the United States and coalition forces in Afghanistan, introducing itself as an advocate of the objectives of the international community and the United States. On the other, powerful elements in Pakistan’s political and security apparatus support extremist and violent groups such as the Haqqani Network, Islamic Party, Afghan Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which generally seek instability in Afghanistan.37 Such a situation will negatively affect the stability and security of Afghanistan as well as the region. Some analysts maintain that Pakistan should not play a role that contradicts the interests of Afghanistan’s central government. Rather, for preserving its stability after the withdrawal of foreign forces in 2016, Pakistan should concentrate on the tribal regions across the borders, which are the hotspots for conflicts.38 Overall, in terms of preserving Iran’s interests, it will be better if Pakistan focuses more on economic development and stability in South Asia, rather than strengthening ideological ties with the Taliban or other extremist and violent groups around the region. Iran and the United States Iran and the United States are two major players in Afghanistan with ample common geopolitical interests in establishing stability in the country. Since the very beginning of the U.S. invasion in Afghanistan in 2001, Iran has pursued a policy of cooperation and rivalry with the United States in Afghanistan. On one hand, cooperation with the United States for overthrowing the Taliban was beneficial to both countries; on the other, the presence of U.S. forces across Iran’s eastern borders has become a national security challenge for Iran. Constructive cooperation between Iran and the United States continued through the constructive role played by Tehran in the first Bonn Conference.39 However, the policies of George W. Bush’s administration in opposing Iran—such as branding it as part of the “Axis of Evil”—stymied the continuation of this cooperation. Of course in the following years, U.S. policy has focused on minimizing Iran’s political-security and economic role in Afghanistan, a trend that continues to this date. As a result, the two countries have followed differing strategies in achieving their common interests of establishing stability and battling terrorism, drug smuggling, as well as other mutual threats.40 Another common ground for the mutual interests of Iran and the United States in Afghanistan is their cooperation for a minimalist participation of the Taliban in the central government. As discussed, Iran would have no problem with an involved Taliban under the control of the Afghan government. Now, after 13 years of war in Afghanistan, the United States and NATO member-states have somehow decided that the solution to the Afghan crisis lies in possible reconciliation with the Taliban. Considerable efforts have been made in this regard by the Afghan central government and Western players, especially the United States, for paving the way for negotiations with the Taliban. Some experts believe that not only is cooperation between Iran and the United States in Afghanistan the best way to demoralize the Taliban, by involving all major regional players in this process, but it can also play an important role in building trust between Iran and the United States in their nuclear talks.41 Indeed, in past suggested packages, Iran has proposed its close cooperation with the West in solving Afghanistan’s crisis. In contrast, other experts believe that Iran and the United States have potential short-term cooperation only on the tribal regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan,42 since these regions are still a safe haven for Taliban rebels and thus remain a strategic threat.43 In Obama’s strategy, this tribal belt has been rated as the most dangerous border place in the world.44 A Window of U.S.-Iran Opportunity in Afghanistan? Establishing security and stability and advancing regional cooperation to settle the Afghanistan crisis have been two main goals of Iran’s foreign policy in the country. Iran has a strategic interest in a stable Afghanistan—one ruled by a competent central government that is not under the continued threat of extremist Salfi groups such as the Taliban, groups that could spark another civil war and continued instability. The current instability in Afghanistan gives a pretext to foreign forces to prolong their stay in the country; this is the real motivation for extremist groups to continue in Afghanistan’s political-societal scene. Such a situation will weaken Iran’s endeavors to establish close and comprehensive political and economic relations with the Afghan government. It will also increase the flow of drugs and refugees across its borders, the result of which would bring further economic pressures on the country. Looking at the larger picture, then, Iran’s goals in Afghanistan are very similar to those of the Western countries, especially the United States. But despite these convergences, the fact of the matter is that the role of regional actors directly correlates to how each actor would like to preserve their interests, as well as the degree of their presence in Afghanistan’s issues in the future. In this context, the only way to sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan is when the West accepts the legitimacy of increased regional cooperation, especially Iran’s involvement. This is vital to manage the conflict in post-exit era. In this regard, given the past conflicting relations between Iran and the United States, especially on the nuclear standoff, Iran has followed its own containment strategy in dealing with the challenges stemming from the Afghanistan crisis. Therefore, expecting close cooperation between the two countries in Afghanistan in the near future would prove rather unrealistic. Although the election of pragmatic Hassan Rouhani has raised the hope for increased regional cooperation between the two nations, as long as U.S. strategy introduces Iran as the main source of threat for the region’s security, Iran is unlikely to offer its full cooperation or capacity in solving U.S. problems in Afghanistan and in the region at large. This situation will, however, change a bit after the withdrawal of forces. Withdrawal will remove Iran’s direct sense of threat from the United States, providing the grounds for backing the normal equations of power and politics in Afghanistan in which Iran can play its appropriate role. In this respect, Hossein Sheikholeslam—advisor of the Speaker of Iran’s Parliament in International Affairs and former Deputy Foreign Minister— notes that “[i]f foreign security forces completely withdraw from Afghanistan, Iran will be ready to talk with the United States on Afghanistan’s developments in the presence of Afghan authorities.” He also added, “Iran is ready to give assurance to the Americans that it will not replace the United States in Afghanistan after their exit in 2014. The same assurance that Iran gave the United States in the direct talks over the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Iraq.”45 Indeed, the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 somehow removed the sense of U.S. threat from Iraq’s scene. In turn, Iran has become more relaxed and secure, thereby developing increased conventional state-to-state relations. Some other experts of regional issues tend to believe that cooperation between Iran and the United States in resolving the Afghan crisis can occur in the context of a “grand bargain” between the two countries. Yet again, it is rather unlikely that a grand deal between Iran and the United States will evolve around a regional issue such as Afghanistan’s crisis. The aims and expectations of the two sides in entering into such issues are mainly based on increasing their respective roles, thus in conflict with one another. Regional issues can only realistically act as a trigger to initiate strategic talks.46 As discussed, the nature of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and in the region is such that it aims to maximize its interests and win in any negotiations. Three rounds between Iran and the United States in Iraq during 2006–2007 serve as a vivid example. In the course of the negotiations, the United States wanted Iran’s role mostly for solving daily matters such as establishing stability, battling terrorists and violent groups, blocking these groups’ movement across the Iran–Iraq borders, etc. It did not want Iran negotiating on the future political-security trends in the Iraq government in the post-exit era. Iran fears the same story is occurring in Afghanistan. In such circumstances, the benefits Iran seeks will be less than it gives. For this reason, one may argue that only a national and strategic issue such as Iran’s nuclear program, which puts Iran on an equal footing with the United States, has the potential to direct the two sides towards a grand deal.47 Notes 1. See Naser Saghafi-Ameri and Afsaneh Ahadi, Iran and Look to the East Policy [in Farsi], Center for Strategic Research Publication (Spring 2008), pp. 65–72. 2. See “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement between the United States of America and The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” 3. Mark Landler, “U.S. Troops to Leave Afghanistan by End of 2016,” The New York Times, May 27, 2014, 4. See Abbas Maleki, “Rouhani Stresses Regionalism in Iranian Foreign Policy,” Al-Monitor, July 13, 2013, 5. See Kayhan Barzegar, “Regionalism in Iran’s Foreign Policy,” Iran Review, February 7, 2010 6. Interview of the Cultural Attaché of Afghan Embassy in Iran [in Farsi], Asadollah Amiri, Jaame Jam Daily, December 30, 2011, 7. Nasser Saghafi Ameri and Afsaneh Ahadi, “Iran and `Look to the East Policy’,” Center for Strategic Research, 2008, 8. Remarks by Iran’s Parliament Speaker, Ali Larijani, “The Research Center of the Iranian Parliament is Ready to Cooperate with the Afghan Parliament” [in Farsi], Mehr News Agency, July 27, 2011, 9. Remarks by Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, “The Fourth Joint Cooperation Commission held between Iran and Afghanistan” [in Farsi], Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), September 7, 2012, 10. Head of Iran’s Customs, Abbas Memarzadeh, “The Volume of Trade between Iran and Other Countries” [in Farsi], Khabar Online, October 27, 2012, http://www. 11. “China to import Iran gas via Pakistan,” PressTV, October 14, 2011, 12. Pir Mohammad Mollazahi, “Is the Afghan neutrality considered in the security agreement?” [in Farsi], Khabar Online, October 30, 2011, 13. Remarks by Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, “Salehi in Bonn, `Iran welcomes the departure of the foreign forces from Afghanistan’” [in Farsi], Mehr News Agency, December 5, 2011, 14. See Katerina Oskarsson, “The Role of Iran in Afghanistan’s Reconstruction & Development,” Civil-Military Fusion Center, August 2013, 15. Douglas Jehl, “Iran Holds Taliban Responsible for 9 Diplomats’ Deaths,” The New York Times, September 11, 1998, 16. Remarks by former Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, “Mottaki underscored the significance of fighting extremism in the region” [in Farsi], Government News Agency, August 26, 2009, 17. “Commander: 5th Iranian border guard still alive in Pakistan,” The Iran Project, May 14, 2014, 18. Remarks by Iran’s Interior Minister General Mustafa Mohammad Najjar, “Addiction Treatment Camps Launched in 5 Provinces” [in Farsi], Kayhan Daily, June 6, 2011, 83%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%A7% D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D9%82%D8%A7%D9%84-%D9%85%D8% B9%D8%AA%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%A7 %D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%88%DA%AF%D8%A7%D9%87-%D9%87%D8%A7% D9%8A. 19. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “World Drug Report 2011,” United Nations, May 5, 2011, 20. Remarks by Commander of Iran’s Police Force, General Ahmadi Moghaddam, “Reduction in the Drug Transit to Iran,” Farda News Agency, June 17, 2011, D8%AF%D9%87-%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%AC%D8%A7-%DA%A9%D8%A7%D9 %87%D8%B4-%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AF-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7% D8%AF%D9%85%D8%AE%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8% A7%D9%86. 21. Remarks by Iran’s Interior Minister, General Mustafa Mohammad Najjar, “Fighting terrorism requires fighting drug traffickers” [in Farsi], Government News Agency, March 8, 2012, 22. Remarks by the Commander of Iran’s Police Force, General Ahmadi Moghaddam, “Terrorism and Drugs are Two Faces of a Coin” [in Farsi], Kayhan Daily, July 19, 2011, 23. “Rouhani Meets Karzai, Urges Withdrawal of All Foreign Forces from Afghanistan,” Naharnet, December 8, 2013, 24. See Syed Fazl-e-Haider “Saudi grant kills Iran-Pakistan pipeline,” The Asia Times, March 21, 2014, 25. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Fact Sheet: The U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement,” May 1, 2012, Also see Mark Landler, “Obama Signs Pact in Kabul, Turning Page in Afghan War,” New York Times, May 1, 2012, 26. Remarks by Iran’s Defense Minister, General Ahmad Vahidi, “Afghan Members of Parliament Expressed Objection to Remarks of the Iranian Defense Minister” [in Farsi], Iranian Diplomacy, June 22, 2011, 27. Remarks by former Foreign Ministry Spokesman of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ramin Mehmanparast, “Iran Expresses Concern over Conclusion of a Strategic Cooperation Agreement between Afghanistan and the U.S.” [in Farsi], Mehr News Agency, May 6, 2012, 28. See “Jirga Decleration,” Consultive Loya Jirga, November 16–19, 2011, af/en/page/2956/2720. 29. Omar Samad, “Afghanistan’s Track II Rally,” Foreign Policy, AfPak Channel, June 28, 2012, Also see “Taliban say they will attend the meeting in France on Afghanistan, but won’t talk about peace,” Fox News, December 10, 2012, 30. “Interview with the Director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, Davood Moradian” [in Farsi], Fars News Agency, January 15, 2012, 31. Mohsen Milani, “Iran’s Ties to the Taliban,” United States Institute of Peace, The Iran Primer, August 10, 2011,’s-ties-taliban. 32. Mujib Mashal, “What Iran and Pakistan Want from the Afghans: Water,” Time, December 2, 2012,; See Sharing Water Resources with Afghanistan, Dawn, November 13, 2011, 33. Frédéric Grare, “Pakistan,” in Ashley J. Tellis and Aroop Mukharji, eds., Is a Regional Strategy Viable in Afghanistan? (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010), p. 17, web_tx1_35 34. Zachary Laub, “Pakistan’s New Generation of Terrorists,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 9, 2011, 35. Ibid. 36. David Zucchino, “Suicide bombing planned in Pakistan, Afghan leader says,” Los Angeles Times, December 08, 2012, 37. Elizabeth Flock, “Secret NATO report alleging Pakistan helps Afghan Taliban is another in culture of leaks,” The Washington Post, February 1, 2012, http://www. 38. Syed Farooq Hasnat, “Pakistan & Afghanistan: Domestic Pressures and Regional Threats: Pakistan’s Strategic Interests, Afghanistan and the Fluctuating U.S. Strategy,” Journal of International Affairs 63, no. 1, (Fall/Winter 2009), pp.141–155, http://jia.sipa. 39. Mohammad Javad Zarif, “Tackling the Iran – U.S. Crisis: The Need for a Paradigm Shift,” Journal of International Affairs, Spring / Summer 2007, Vol. 60, No. 2, P. 75. 40. Ashley J. Tellis and Aroop Mukharji, eds., Is a Regional Strategy Viable in Afghanistan? (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010), p. 103, http://carnegieen 41. David Ignatius, “The U.S. should test Iran’s resolve to stabilize Afghanistan,” The Washington Post, September 17, 2010, 42. Majid Behestani-Mahdi Hedayati Shahidani, “Taliban’s Factor in U.S.-Iran Relations: 2001–2009,” Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs 2, no. 2 (Summer 2011), p. 175. 43. Syed Farooq Hasnat, “Pakistan & Afghanistan.” Op. cit. See also Gretchen Peters, How Opium Profits the Taliban (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, August 2009), 44. The Press Office, The White House, “What’s New in the Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” March 27, 2009, 45. Hossein, “We Showed No Desire to Negotiate with the U.S. in the Herat Conference” [in Farsi], Fars News Agency, October 23, 2012, nn=13910802000734. Also see Bahram Amirahmadian, “International Conference: Regional Role; Transformation Decade” [in Farsi], Khabar Online, November 8, 2012, 46. Kayhan Barzegar, “US, Iran Need to Address Nuclear Question Directly,” Al-Monitor, Iran Pulse, April 2013, 47. See Kayhan Barzegar, “The Paradox of Iran’s Nuclear Consensus,” The World Policy Journal (Fall 2009).