US Foreign Policy
Commentary

Iran-Afghan Security Cooperation

in Program

By Andrew Houk – At the
regional meeting of Afghanistan’s
neighbors in Istanbul in November 2011, Iranian
Foreign Minister Salehi reiterated his opposition to a strategic agreement
between the US and Afghanistan,
calling instead for increased security assistance from neighboring
countries.  Iran’s
security interests in Afghanistan
suggest a complicated web of considerations that could lead to some modest
cooperation or convergence of goals between Iran
and the United States.  

Iran has genuine strategic interests in
assisting Afghanistan to become
a functioning and responsible state, and is perhaps Afghanistan’s
second most important neighbor, after Pakistan. 

The 582-mile
border is one key manifestation of how Afghanistan affects stability in
Iran.   Since 1979, waves of refugees
have fled to Iran, currently estimated at more than 3 million.[1]   In 2009, Iran intercepted 41 percent of
global opiates, yet 145 metric tons of heroin still crossed the border for
consumption and trafficking.[2]  The bulk of the drugs enter through the
porous and unmanned southeast border with Nimroz Province,
where Iranian and Afghan border police have reportedly engaged in several
skirmishes in recent months.  Securing
its border has also been costly. Iran has spent more than $1 billion in land
barriers, 3,700 border agents have been killed, and 12,000 have been wounded
since 1979. Domestically, intravenous drug abuse causes 70 percent of Iran’s
HIV cases, estimated to have doubled since 2001 according to UNAID estimates

Iran’s restive eastern provinces also
gain economic opportunities with stabilization. Though a small percentage of
Iranian trade, exports to Afghanistan have reportedly grown by more than 40
percent in 2011 according to Iran’s ambassador to Kabul, and are estimated to
reach $2 billion by the end of the year. 
In November 2011, Iran announced that it has spent more than $600
million on Afghan infrastructure. Arid
and impoverished, Iran’s
eastern provinces also depend heavily on water from Afghanistan’s seasonal rivers to
sustain settlements and fragile ecosystems.  

Western
Afghanistan, once part of Iran,
provides it with strategic depth, but its ethnic, lingual, and religious ties
connect Iran
to broader Afghan demographics. Linguistically, nearly half of Afghans speak
Dari (a dialect similar to Iranian Persian), creating cultural bonds amplified
by Afghanistan’s
burgeoning media and education sectors. Iran reports that more than 300,000
Afghan students study in Iranian schools and 7,000 continue higher education in
Iran.[3] Iran also
shares ethnic ties with Tajiks (27 percent) and Aimaks (4 percent).  Religiously, Iran
shares a connection with Shia minorities (20 percent) living in Afghanistan’s
central Hazara region and in larger cities.

The most
substantive existing security cooperation between and Iran and Afghanistan
exists through the UN sponsored Triangular Initiative, which coordinates
counter-narcotic operations between Afghanistan,
Pakistan, and Iran. Since
late 2009, the members have conducted 11 joint operations and established
Border Liaison Offices to facilitate communication and the exchange of
intelligence.[4] In July
2011, the Executive Director of the UNODC observed: “Iran has put in place one of the world’s
strongest counter-narcotics responses… These joint operations demonstrate the
Triangular Initiative’s success in building mutual trust and confidence among
its partners.”

Iran and
Afghanistan are working to expand bilateral security cooperation in
anticipation of the withdrawal of NATO forces by 2014.  In December 2010, while hosting Afghan
President Karzai in Tehran, the Iranian Defense Minister told of Iran’s
willingness to help strengthen the Afghan army, describing Tehran-Kabul
relations as “strategic”.  In
March 2011, the Iranian Interior Minister promised to “spare no expense” in
providing facilities and training to help Afghanistan develop
counternarcotics capabilities.

In June
2011, both countries hosted high level meetings, inked agreements, and
announced plans to expand security cooperation. Marking an historic visit by an
Iranian Defense Minister in Kabul
on June 18, plans were announced to conduct joint operations against smuggling
and to prepare security arrangements for the withdrawal of NATO forces. Only
days later, Iran’s Deputy
Interior Minister and his Afghan counterpart met in Tehran to reveal plans to expand intelligence
sharing, joint counter operations, police training, and annual security
cooperation meetings.

Iran is also attempting to coordinate
the efforts of other players in Afghanistan.
On the sidelines of Tehran’s terrorism
conference in June 2011, the Iranian Press reported that the Presidents of Afghanistan, Pakistan,
and Iraq
met with President Ahmadinejad to discuss the security implications of the
withdrawal of NATO forces.  Additionally,
Ahmadinejad met with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents to announce plans for
increased political, security, economic and cultural cooperation, including
joint efforts against militants and narcotics trafficking; they agreed to hold a
third trilateral meeting in November 2011.

At the
Islamic Awakening conference in Tehran in
September 2011, the Washington Post reports
that Iran
tried to encourage dialogue between the Afghan delegation and several known
Taliban affiliates in attendance. However, there is also growing
evidence that Iran
is providing limited support to armed militias, including elements of the
Taliban, to attack NATO forces or discourage construction of water management
infrastructure.

Iran is participating in international
meetings on Afghanistan.
On November 2, 2011, Iranian Foreign Minister Salehi decided to attend the
“Security and Cooperation in the Heart of Asia” conference in Istanbul.  Though US and Iranian officials did not
engage one another, a US Department of State official described Iran’s decision
to attend and to sign the meeting’s declared confidence-building measures as
“evidence of a good step forward.”  Iran is expected to attend the much larger international
conference in Germany
in December 2011.

Iranian
cooperation is only one element of establishing stability in Afghanistan,
but a prerequisite nonetheless.  Iran’s tough rhetoric against the US role in Afghanistan, even its covert
operations with armed Afghan elements, clearly works at cross purposes to US
policy efforts. Nonetheless, a measured assessment of Iran’s actions
and interests reveals areas of shared strategic interests and space to work in
tandem, if not together.


[1] http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=4eaa8ad99&query=iran

[2] http://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/WDR2011/World_Drug_Report_2011_ebook.pdf

[3] http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9007273167

[4] http://www.unodc.org/islamicrepublicofiran/en/triangular-initiative.html


Photo Credit: ISAF photo by U.S. Air Force TSgt Laura K. Smith, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/3140725372/

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