Will Iran Help or Hinder Obama in Afghanistan?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ali Shayegan / AFP / Getty

Iranian soldiers stand near a S-200 surface-to-air missile during military exercises on Nov. 26, 2009

President Obama referred to Pakistan no fewer than 25 times during his West Point speech, stressing that his Afghanistan strategy cannot work without the help of its southeastern neighbor. But he made no mention of another neighbor, whose support was crucial in defeating the Taliban in 2001: Iran.

Can Obama's Afghanistan plan succeed without cooperation from Tehran? The question may seem moot, since Iran is hardly in a cooperative mood at the moment. After a vaguely conciliatory flutter in the fall, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to have returned to its intransigent position on uranium enrichment. Tehran's suspicion of and hostility toward the U.S. has deepened since the course of the turmoil that followed Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in June.

Still, the Iranian government has in the past been able to put aside its anti-Americanism to cooperate with the U.S. on Afghanistan. After the 9/11 attacks, Washington and Tehran worked quietly together: Iran had helped train, arm and finance many of the fighters and commanders of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which worked with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban and drive out al-Qaeda. James Dobbins, the Bush Administration's first envoy to Afghanistan after 9/11, worked with Iranian officials to set up the post-Taliban government. But relations soured when President George W. Bush balked at a broader relationship with Iran and included Tehran in his rhetorical "Axis of Evil."

Despite its discord with Washington, Tehran has built progressively stronger economic and political ties with Afghanistan, not only with its historical allies among the country's ethnic minorities — the fellow-Shi'ite Hazaras and the Uzbeks and Tajiks — but also with the government of President Hamid Karzai. Still, some U.S. officials charge that the Iranians are hedging their bets and also building bridges to some elements of the Taliban despite their longtime enmity toward the movement. (Iran came close to war with the Taliban in 1998, when the movement murdered nine Iranian diplomats after capturing the northern city of Mazar e-Sharif.)

Iran experts say Tehran's broad interests in Afghanistan are the same as Washington's. The Islamic Republic doesn't want to see a return to chaos on its eastern flank, which would probably lead to a massive refugee influx. As a Shi'ite state, it would see the return to power of militant Sunni hard-liners as a setback. And Iran, which faces a drug-addiction problem of alarming proportions, shares the U.S. desire to curtail Afghanistan's opium trade. If anything, "Tehran stands to lose much more than Washington if Afghanistan reverts back to an al-Qaeda-infested, Taliban-controlled narco state," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But shared interests may no longer be enough to get Ahmadinejad to go along with Obama's plans in Afghanistan. "Many of the hard-liners who are today running Iran define their foreign policy priorities as that which is opposed to the United States," says Sadjadpour. "They may hate the Taliban, but they just might hate the United States more." Says Dobbins, who now heads the Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center: "The best we can probably hope for is that Iran continues to do no harm."

Tehran certainly has the tools to make trouble. The Quds Force, an élite unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, was able to stir up sectarian tension in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein by helping arm and finance the Shi'ite militias that first fought against the U.S.-led coalition and then conducting a campaign of violence against Sunni Iraqis. The commander of the Quds Force, Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, is also credited with reining in the Shi'ite militias in 2007 — a key factor in helping the U.S. surge strategy succeed.

Suleimani has been active in Afghanistan as well, having visited Kabul several times. Mark Fowler of Persia House says the Quds Force has probably "been putting into place covert infrastructure and developing clandestine relationships aimed both at securing Iranian interests in Afghanistan as well as providing Iran with a capability to strike U.S. forces in the event it is [deemed] necessary."

Iran can also use political levers against U.S. interests in Kabul. Dobbins points out that the Northern Alliance constituencies with which Tehran has strong connections — the Hazaras, Tajiks and Uzbeks — are also key support bases of Abdullah Abdullah, whom Karzai beat in this year's fraud-ridden election. "The most damaging thing that Iran could do would be to encourage these elements ... to cease supporting the [Karzai] government and essentially open a third front in the current civil war," he says.

Dobbins says he doesn't think it will go that far. "This is not in Iran's long-term interest, and they will not do it unless their competition with the U.S. comes to dominate their policy toward Afghanistan, which it has not to date," he says. Sadjadpour is not so sanguine, warning, "It [wouldn't] be the first time Iran has cut off its nose to spite its face."