Iranian Influence in Afghanistan: Recent Developments
Iran has actively increased its influence in Afghanistan over the past several years. Iranian firms continue to contribute to Afghanistan’s economic construction, tapping into Kabul’s demand for investment and infrastructure development. Iran’s cultural and religious presence also permeates western Afghanistan where Iranians have historically held sway. Iran and Afghanistan have also appeared more politically aligned of late, especially in the days after the disputed June 2009 elections in Iran when Afghan President Hamid Karzai unequivocally supported Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tehran increasingly attempts to undermine Afghanistan’s relationship with the U.S. and fracture Kabul and Washington’s joint commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan, lobbying publicly for a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Its leaders have exploited periodic fractures in the relationship between Afghanistan and the U.S. in order to undermine the American position in Afghanistan as well as offer President Karzai a public outlet to voice his dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s administration.
Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan has also rewarded it with other political benefits, including an opportunity to broaden its reach in the region. Afghanistan has welcomed the proactive approach from its western neighbor, inviting much-needed economic resources from Iran and simultaneously preserving a public relationship with Iran that allows President Karzai to “balance” the U.S. when political circumstances warrant such demonstrations.
Iranian-Afghan relations have not been exclusively beneficial, however. Indeed, Iran and Afghanistan’s contentious six hundred-mile border fuels ongoing tensions over Afghan refugees, border insecurity, and illicit narcotics trafficking. Iranian entities continue to lend material support to insurgent activity in Afghanistan. Tehran, nonetheless, has been able to maintain close relations with Kabul, firmly ingraining itself and its interests in the country. Kabul, for its part, has gone out of its way to avoid complicating the political relationship by restraining its responses to Iranian policies regarding sensitive border issues.
Iran has invested several hundred million dollars in Afghanistan’s construction while broadening its export market into the country. Iran’s non-oil exports to Afghanistan in 2008 amounted to over half a billion dollars. The scope of Iran’s ambitious economic proposals in Afghanistan, many of which will require stable conditions in the future, reveals a long-term focus within the borders of its neighbor that would extend Iran’s regional influence.
Iran’s economic influence in Afghanistan is most visible in western Afghanistan, namely in Herat province. Much of the city’s infrastructure, including a major road connecting the Islam Qala border post to the province’s center and a proposed railroad link between Iran and Afghanistan, owes its funding and construction to Iranian firms and investors. Herat city’s electricity, partly supplied by Iran, runs non-stop for its residents. The Afghan capital of Kabul, by contrast, only recently achieved that feat after years of a limited electricity supply and still experiences power shortages in some areas.
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 towards a manufacturing plant in Herat. This commercial interest in building physical infrastructure indicates a long-term perspective of Iranian economic presence in Afghanistan. Iran recently demonstrated a commitment to this presence in Herat province in May 2009 by opening a chamber of commerce in order to facilitate continued trade ties within the province.
Iran has also proposed further expanding commercial links beyond Herat and into Afghanistan’s northern provinces over the past year. Iranian vice president Pervez Davoudi indicated in February 2009 that Iran and Afghanistan planned to develop a railway connecting Iran with Tajikistan through Afghanistan’s northern provinces. Construction on the five-year, $2 billion railway has started with an initial link between Iran and Herat. Another proposed railway, discussed between the two countries in July 2009, would connect Iran with China through central and northern Afghanistan. Iran likely views these proposals as incremental steps towards the regeneration of the Silk Road hub that will link the region’s economies—a driver behind the current efforts of the regional Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) led by Iran.
Iran’s increasing economic efforts also allow it to engage directly with Afghanistan’s population, developing channels to provide educational resources to Afghans and develop close ties with religious and ethnic minorities. Iran has complemented its economic interests in Afghanistan with efforts aimed at expanding Iran’s educational, religious, and cultural influence in the country in recent months. Iran has fostered ties with Shi’ia minorities and sought to further its presence in Afghanistan’s developing educational institutions. Iranian development projects in the Afghan capital of Kabul include a one hundred million-dollar university. Additionally, existing Iranian educational institutions are building their presence in Afghanistan. Iranian officials announced in February 2009 that Iran’s Payame Noor University will open a campus in Afghanistan and Ferdowsi University of Mashhad will open a campus in Herat named after a Persian poet who resided in Herat during the eleventh century.
Iran’s influence in the field of education also fuses religious outreach, especially in western Afghanistan. Currently, Iran funds significant educational and religious outreach programs in Herat. The Iranian consulate in Herat, for example, funds several publications produced by the Iranian-funded Shi’i Sadiqiya mosque in Herat. Iranian-made texts disseminated in Afghanistan have also generated controversy in recent months. Herat’s Shi’i Scientific School of Sadiqiyah instructs students using Iranian textbooks that “openly praise Iranian-backed militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.” On “Qods Day,” an Iranian charitable organization – Khomeini’s Emdad Committee – organized one hundred children to stage a peaceful march in Kabul to show solidarity with Palestinians. The students chanted slogans against the killing of children in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Iranian textbooks sent to Afghanistan have aroused local suspicion and sparked debates over Iran’s religious influence and intentions. In February 2009, customs officials in western Afghanistan’s Nimroz province seized books imported from Iran which, according to Nimroz province Governor Gholam Dastagir Azad, “seriously insult a number of companions of the Prophet Muhammad and the Sunni faith, including the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, Bibi Aisha.” After consultation with religious scholars and local officials, Nimroz officials ordered authorities to dispose of several hundred copies of the book. Azad said elsewhere, “the books were provoking, defamatory and would create religious conflict.” He added that the books were considered “more dangerous than Taliban bullets.”
Iran also maintains ties to Afghanistan’s major Shi’i cleric: the leader of the Harakat-e Islam-i Afghanistan, Ayatollah Mohammad Asif Mohseni, who directs a radio station, Tamadon, and a religious seminary in Kabul, Khatem al-Nabyeen. One commentator recently concluded that these institutions are “part of [a] larger Iranian-sponsored agenda to spread Shi’ism in the region.” Ayatollah Mohseni had previously received Iranian support in the late 1970s to establish a Shi’i movement to resist the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which was founded in Qom, Iran in 1978.
Iranian leaders have also reached out to Afghanistan’s Sunni leaders. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and current head of the Assembly of Experts, invited a senior delegation of Afghan Sunni leaders to Iran in June 2009. Rafsanjani stressed the importance of Shi’i and Sunni unity and opined that the “Occupation of Afghanistan by western forces coupled with the civil war in that country, are among the major problems in Afghanistan which can be resolved through the unity of Afghan people and Ulema.”
Senior Iranian and Afghan officials have held several publicized meetings in recent months aimed at reinforcing political and economic ties in bilateral, trilateral, and international settings. President Karzai traveled to Tehran in March for an Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) conference to promote broader ties among regional countries. Iran’s deputy foreign minister attended an international conference on Afghanistan in the Netherlands, also in March, where he stated that “Iran is fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and the plans in line with developing and reconstructing Afghanistan.” Iranian leaders have emphasized the desire to develop “regional solutions” to shared concerns with Afghanistan in several meetings. President Karzai traveled to Tehran for a tripartite summit with Iran and Pakistan in May to discuss extremism and illicit narcotics in the region. At the meeting, President Ahmadinejad said that “Although the presence of foreign forces in our region was under the pretext of establishing security…it has not been much of a help to the establishment of permanent security and political and economic growth,” and also criticized “...others who are alien to the nations [of our region] and cultures of our nations.” Ahmadinejad, hosting the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Tehran, demonstrated Iran’s growing regional influence. He also used Iran’s political alignment with Afghanistan in a not-so-subtle attempt to undercut his intended target: the U.S. and coalition countries.
Iran increasingly uses its political relations with Afghanistan to undermine U.S. interests in the region and delegitimize American efforts at stabilizing Afghanistan. Iranian leaders’ hostile rhetoric towards the U.S., specifically, remains a consistent theme in their relations with Afghan leaders. Pro-Tehran newspaper Siyasat-e-Ruz summed up Iran’s five primary interests in Afghanistan after Iran was invited to the March 2009 international conference on Afghanistan at the Hague: the flow of drugs from Afghanistan into Iran; shared cultural, historical, and linguistic backgrounds; security for Iranian investment in Afghanistan; border security; and the “withdrawal of occupying forces from Afghanistan.” Iran’s representative at the Hague conference reinforced the last point—Iran’s desire for the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan—in no uncertain terms while speaking at the conference, saying: “The presence of foreign forces [in Afghanistan] has not improved things in the country, and it seems that an increase in the number of foreign forces will prove ineffective, too.” President Ahmadinejad told Afghanistan’s parliament speaker Muhammad Yunis Qanooni in April that extremism in Afghanistan resulted from “foreigners’ presence” and claimed there were “heavy colonial plans” for Afghanistan. Iran’s Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki, in a July 2009 with his Afghan counterpart Rangin Dadfar Spanta, reportedly “pointed out that those who have come from long distances are not familiar with [Afghanistan] and the region…solving Afghanistan [sic] problems needs regional tactics and lending people's affairs to themselves [sic].”
Iranian efforts to fracture the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan in 2009 are also aided by tensions between the U.S. and Afghanistan. Shortly after the Obama administration took office in January, senior U.S. administration officials reportedly indicated that the president intended to “adopt a tougher line toward Karzai.” Senior U.S. government officials indicated in May 2009 that the U.S. intended to maintain “an arm’s-length relationship” with Karzai’s government and, moreover, would “seek to bypass” Karzai by developing relationships with cabinet members and channeling aid directly to local officials. Iran is keen to provide Afghanistan with an outlet for expressing dissatisfaction with the U.S., following from the recognition that relations between President Karzai and President Obama are, indeed, fragile.
President Karzai’s reaction to Iran’s disputed presidential elections in June was hardly surprising, given the inherent Washington-Kabul tension of late and increasingly close Tehran-Kabul ties. Karzai congratulated Ahmadinejad on winning the election just two days after Iran’s June 12 vote, when reports of election fraud were followed by demonstrations and protests in Iran. Karzai reportedly conveyed his sense that “the large turnout in the election signaled the interest of Iranians in defining their destiny” during a phone call with Ahmadinejad.
Iran exercised its influence to blunt the impact of outrage in Afghanistan over the Iranian government’s violent post-election crackdown. The Iranian consulate, for example, filed complaints with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Information and Culture after a university newspaper in Herat criticized the Iranian security force’s assault on protestors. The complaints led university officials to close the newspaper for nearly two weeks and fire the journalists who wrote the stories; the university eventually reopened the publication without any mention of the protests. The Afghan government also prevented Iranians from staging a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in Kabul to demonstrate against the election results.
The Afghan media’s lack of coverage on Iran’s post-election unrest received criticism from some media outlets. Afghanistan’s Hasht-e-Sobh publication lambasted Afghan media in a June 26 editorial, likening it to Iran’s state-owned news outlets for its pro-Tehran reporting. The editorial went on to say that, irrespective of political considerations, “When the media in Afghanistan are expressing concern about conflicts in Palestine, poverty in Africa and displacement of people during conflicts with insurgents in Pakistan, there is no reason to ignore post-election tensions in Iran which have turned into a crisis.”
Iran continues to support insurgent activities within Afghanistan, while maintaining its long-term economic and political strategy in Afghanistan. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair told a U.S. Senate committee in 2009 that:
American intelligence sources claimed in March 2009 that Iranians were supplying militants with SA-14 Gremlin missiles that could be used to strike helicopters. The recovery of Iranian-sourced weapons has been reported in Afghanistan in recent months. The commander of Afghanistan’s 205 Army Corps, General Sher Mohammad Zazai, stated that security forces seized Iranian-made weapons during operations in Helmand province’s Marja district in May 2009.
Afghan authorities have recently traced individuals suspected of engaging in insurgent activity back to Iran. The governor of Afghanistan’s western Nimroz province Ghulam Dastagir Azad announced in July that police forces had arrested five persons suspected of planning suicide bombing attacks; the detained men were Afghans who had come from Iran according to governor Azad. Another report from a pro-Kabul newspaper in January indicated that militant groups active in western Afghanistan maintained training camps in Iran’s Khorasan and Kerman provinces. The report, citing unnamed sources, claimed that the armed group of Mullah Mahmood Baluch had training camps in Kerman and Bagh-e Shams of Khorasan. A previous investigation by Afghan parliamentarians in 2007 discovered that Iran was training insurgent fighters in several cities in Iran’s Khorasan province, including Torbat Jam, Birjand, and Taibat.
The head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, noted in March 2009 that there was “increased activity between Iran and the Haqqani network” of insurgents based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan and operating primarily in Afghanistan’s eastern Paktika, Paktia, and Khowst provinces. One anonymous U.S. military intelligence source in Khowst province stated that the Haqqani network maintained operatives close to the Iranian border with Afghanistan and, further, that intelligence indicated the network had discussed the idea of building training camps close to the Iranian border.
Local officials in Afghanistan’s Farah province have raised the issue of insurgent passage to Iran this year. Farah police chief Abdul Ghafar Watandar stated in January 2009: “The issue of free travel of the insurgents to Iran has turned into a questionable issue for our detection services. Though the Islamic Republic of Iran is well aware that these insurgents are fighting the Afghan government, their families live in Iran and they travel to Iran freely and that the [sic] issue is questionable for us. I cannot say that to what extent the Islamic Republic of Iran is interfering in Afghanistan.”
Nimroz province, south of Farah on the Iran-Afghanistan border, has recently been an entry point for insurgents originating from Iranian soil. Nimroz’s Police Chief Brig. Gen. Abdul Jabbar Pordali reported on July 29, 2009 that authorities arrested seven suspected militants, including five foreigners crossing the border from Iran. He stated that the detainees also carried inflammatory letters and cameras. The arrest took place after a clash between local policemen and Taliban fighters in the Khashrud district of Nimroz; further details regarding the detainees have yet to be released.
Concerns about insurgents originating from Iran were recently heightened when, on July 3, Afghan security officials arrested the first Iranian potential suicide bomber in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. Gen. Mohammad Naim Khan, a Helmand security official, said the would-be suicide attacker was a resident of the eastern Iranian border town of Teftan. The suspect told the investigators that he had been trained by Mawlawi Khoda-e Nazar at the Hefaz Qazi madrassa in the Alband area of Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. The trainers then sent him through Dishu district in southern Helmand to Helmand’s capital city of Lashkar Gah. The potential bomber, according to security officials’ accounts, carried a suicide vest that contained thirty kilograms of explosives. The nineteen-year-old suspect, who speaks Persian, Pashto, and Urdu, introduced himself as Ali and confessed to having intended to carry out a suicide attack on domestic or foreign forces.
Iran’s forced, and often untimely, expulsion and mistreatment of Afghan refugees remain a point of friction between Tehran and Kabul. Nimroz governor Azad, in January, claimed that Iran expelled almost eight hundred Afghan refugees every day into Afghanistan’s Nimroz province. A spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugee Affairs stated early in January 2009 that more than 9,000 Afghan refugees had been expelled from Iran. The United Nations Children’s Fund reported that Iran deported over one thousand child refugees to Herat in 2008, many of whom were extremely impoverished and vulnerable to abuse. The expulsions in early 2009 occurred despite a verbal agreement between Afghan and Iranian officials in December 2008 that signaled Iran would suspend its expulsion of Afghan refugees until March 2009.
Roughly 900,000 Afghan refugees are legally living in Iran. An unknown number of illegal refugees also reside in Iran, many of them migrant workers who have been deported multiple times after reentering the country. Iran’s interior ministry claims that over one million Afghan refugees in Iran are considered illegal immigrants.
The Iranian government has deported illegal Afghan refugees in one million cases over the past three years. Iranian authorities often frame the expulsion of Afghan refugees in the context of legal issues, justifying the measures based on the illegal status of many Afghan refugees in Iran. The legal justifications, in certain cases, are debatable and Afghan officials publicly question the discretion taken by Iranian authorities in expelling refugees on the basis of their legal status. Nimroz province governor Azad, following a November 2008 expulsion of Afghan refugees, stated that most of the refugees “…possess legal resident permits to live in Iran. But, Iran expelled them by force. These Afghans are in a very bad condition in the capital of Nimroz.” The Iranian government has also heightened restrictions on legal Afghan refugees in Iran. Iranian security forces arrested thirty Afghans in June for their alleged involvement in recent violence in Zahedan city; the arrests prompted Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry to order a probe into the incident. Iran’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, in May 2009, imposed an employment ban on Afghan women in a move that was condemned by Afghan parliamentarians.
Iran continues to be a leading consumer of opium emanating from Afghanistan. Iran, moreover, serves as transshipment point for illicit narcotics trafficking through Asia and Europe. Regional and international efforts in 2009 aimed at curbing Afghanistan’s opium trade have enlisted Iran’s support. 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. Iran reportedly seized one thousand tons of illicit narcotics moving through its territory in 2008, according to Iran’s top counter-narcotic police official, General Hamid Reza Hossein Abadi, and spent over half a billion dollars to combat drug trafficking.
Iran is taking steps to seal its eastern border with Afghanistan partly to address its concerns regarding the migration of Afghan refugees and drug flows. Iran spent nearly a billion dollars since 2006 constructing a ninety-mile long border wall, over one hundred and fifty border watchtowers, and several hundred miles of trenches in addition to training Afghan customs officials and constructing a customs checkpoint at Islam Qala. The entire border with Afghanistan will be sealed with concrete walls by 2010, according to an official at Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters; one Afghan foreign ministry official reacted to this announcment by pointing out that the two countries had yet to resolve several outstanding border disputes under a bilateral agreement that could conflict with a potential border wall. Iranian Police Chief Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi Moqaddam stated in July 2009 that Iranian police forces had “tightened surveillance and control operations along the country's borders.” Iranian and Afghan border police, in the meantime, have begun to conduct coordinated patrols along the shared border.
The Iranian border police’s law enforcement approach to the drug trade, however, stands in stark contrast to the role of some Iranian intelligence agents, according to journalist Gretchen Peters. According to Peters’ interviews with Afghanistan’s former anti-narcotic police chief Kamal Sadat:
Certain organs of the Iranian government have a vested interest in curbing the drug trade in Iran. Institutional efforts undertaken by law enforcement officials are indicative of that interest and commitment. The role of other elements of Iranian security forces in the drug trade, including the intelligence apparatus, remains a less transparent issue.
President Karzai’s likely re-election in Afghanistan could bring about shifting circumstances for Iranian political influence in Afghanistan in the short-term. Karzai may choose to recalibrate the Afghan government’s relationship with the Obama administration, thus closing the gap that the Iranian government has recently exploited. The Iranian regime is potentially facing increased pressure after having dismissed U.S. and international efforts aimed at addressing its illicit nuclear program. It will thus have greater incentive to continue to exploit its influence in Afghanistan—whether through political or military related means—for the sake of undermining American and allied efforts there in the immediate future.
There are issues that threaten Iranian influence in Afghanistan, including refugee expulsion, controversial religious outreach, and Iran’s support for insurgent activities inside Afghanistan. Senior Afghan officials, perhaps wary of compromising political and economic ties with Iran, have for the most part refrained from publicly denouncing such policies with any consistency, however. Local officials have shown less restraint in voicing their concerns regarding threatening Iranian behavior, but the sum of these aired differences are unlikely to significantly constrain Iran-Afghanistan relations.
Iran’s influence in Afghanistan—through economic, political, religious, military, and socio-cultural conduits—is part of a concerted, long-term effort to establish clout with its eastern neighbor and is likely to persevere. Iran’s influence and relations with Afghanistan, at times contentious due to border issues, have been solidified by a close alignment of political interests over the past year. Iranian leaders have deftly exploited fragile Kabul-Washington relations to their political advantage by providing Karzai a public alternative to U.S. cooperation. The Afghan government under Karzai, eager to balance U.S. influence, has drawn itself closer into the Iranian sphere of regional influence and provided Iran’s leadership with unflinching political support.
The outcome of the Afghan elections may affect Kabul’s independence from Tehran at the margins, depending on the makeup of the new government and its relationship with Washington over the next few months. A drastic shift away from growing Iranian influence in Afghanistan, however, remains unlikely.