US Foreign Policy

Engaging Iran on Afghanistan

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – As conditions deteriorate for western forces in Afghanistan,
and as prospects for talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the
UN Security Council plus Germany appear brighter than before, it’s time to
refocus on engaging Iran as one of Afghanistan’s most important neighbors.  Iran can affect the drawdown of international
forces for good or ill; finding ways to cooperate with Iran during the
transition could improve prospects for Iran playing a productive role in Afghan
stability over the long run.

At first glance, there’s no problem here.  Iran is invited and attends the international
meetings organized by the Afghan government and key partners such as Germany
(the Bonn International Afghanistan Meeting in December 2011) and Turkey (the “Istanbul
Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable
Afghanistan” November 2011).  But Foreign
Minister Salehi’s comments at those meetings reveal a conceptual gap between
Iran and the west.  For Iran, the
regional approach of transferring at least some responsibility for aid and
security to Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors is the right strategy, but for
Iran, it is an alternative to the
international strategy favored by Washington and other key donors.  For those countries, the regional approach is
a component of the international
approach, not an alternative to it. 
Here, as in other post-conflict regions, the neighbors of the weak state
are often seen as having undue influence over parts of the territory and people
and therefore their involvement has to be managed by more neutral parties and

Iran sees the presence of any foreign forces as the source
of instability in Afghanistan, and opposes the current plan for a “strategic
partnership” between Washington and Kabul that would permit some form of US
military presence in Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of the international
force under UN auspices.  For Iran, such
a presence signals US intentions to have the capability to invade or attack
Iran to achieve the goal of regime change. 
Public rhetoric to the contrary, this appears to be a deeply held
assessment of Iranian leaders responsible for their country’s national
security.  It has led to Iran’s inability
to respond to US overtures to share information and begin to coordinate efforts
on practical matters such as borders, foreign assistance and reconstruction,
and strategies to reduce the production and illicit trade in narcotics. 

Iran and the United States share some basic and long-term
interests in Afghanistan. Both hope to see a stable, representative government
in Kabul that is not dominated or controlled by the Taliban, the Pashtu forces,
or Pakistan, and that does not provide safe haven to terrorists.  They wish to see a government that is capable
of providing basic services of security, health and education across the
country, and to steer a steady course on the fundamental and pressing economic
development needs of the country. 

Iran has already contributed to Afghan reconstruction in
important ways, through infrastructure projects, energy, construction of
schools and mosques, and investment in businesses in Herat in particular.  Its deepest interest is in the northern and
western provinces, but it has a presence in Kabul and ranks as a major
donor.  Of course Iran engages with other
political groups, including the Taliban, and has supported, allegedly with
lethal means, attacks on foreign forces. 
While its support to Afghan insurgents is not on the scale of its activities
in Iraq, engaging Iran in Afghanistan entails risks for US policymakers and
requires them to overcome deep mistrust, in the interest of the strategic goal
of Afghan stability.

US and ISAF officials have their hands full in Afghanistan
these days, and are under pressure to accelerate the withdrawal and to
reconfigure their footprint in the country. 
The neighbors could well be asked by President Karzai to step in support
local or provincial level Afghan forces beyond current discrete arrangements in
border provinces.  The west will need to
be agile to ensure that such activities do not undermine important work already
done, and bolstering these emerging regional security partnerships with smart
coordination of civilian reconstruction efforts would be wise.  Given a slight lessening of tensions in
US-Iran relations, there seems to be a window for resuming US efforts to engage
Iran on this front as well.

Laipson recently
released “Engaging Iran on Afghanistan,” a Stimson report that examines the
US-Afghanistan-Iran triangle from the perspective of two distinct policy
priorities: how to engage Afghanistan’s neighbors constructively to maximize
the chances for stability in that country after foreign troops withdraw, and
how to create possibilities for US-Iran interaction on issues where there is at
least some common or shared interest.
Click here to read the full report.

Photo Credit: Pete Souza,,

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