The US, Iran, and Stability in Afghanistan
Dr. Mohsen Milani joined us for a discussion on the current status of Iran-Afghanistan relations and the implications for US interests in the region. Dr. Milani is a Professor of Politics and Chair of the Department of Government and International Affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He has written extensively about the Persian Gulf, the Iranian Revolution, and Iran's foreign and security policies.
Dr. Milani began the conversation by highlighting the complexities and nuances of Iran-Afghanistan relations. He explained how deep ties between the two nations originate from the Iranian strategic interests in the Herat region of Afghanistan. This region has strategic value to Iran as it serves as a buffer zone in the event of an internal collapse within Afghanistan. Milani added that although Afghanistan may not be the most important regional issue for Iran, it is important for what it can become-a quagmire for US operations.
The second point Milani addressed was the competition between Iran and the US for influence in Afghanistan. He believes competition between the US and Iran is based on several dimensions. The first is an Iranian desire to prevent the establishment of permanent US bases in Afghanistan, eliminating the threat of a US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Second, he believes heavy Iranian involvement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan is an exercise of Iranian soft power designed to assert its influence while also limiting US leverage. Other Iranian objectives include preventing the rise of a Taliban government, which promotes an ideology contrary to that of Tehran; limiting the cross-border drug-trafficking, including the smuggling of opium through the Iranian border; and ensuring the establishment of a government friendly to Tehran. In order to achieve such goals, Tehran has supported various groups within Afghanistan including the Taliban, non-Pashtun groups, and Shiites.
To emphasize the extent of Iranian aid, Milani offered several key statistics. According to reports, Iran pledged $1.1 billion to Afghanistan, more than any other regional actor. Additionally, 2009 statistics show Iran exported $1.5 billion in non-oil exports to Afghanistan including food, machinery, and construction materials. Iran also makes considerable contributions to the education system of Afghanistan, with three of the thirteen major academic institutions receiving funding and supplies from Iran in the form of school books and scholarships.
Dr. Milani then addressed the potential link between Iran and the Taliban. He mentioned the troubling aspects of the relationship given the reports of Iranian logistical support for the Taliban in the form of weapons and technological expertise. He then commented on why Iran would be interested in assisting an organization with an ideology it does not agree with. The principal reason, as he explained, is to complicate US operations in Afghanistan. Milani added that as the US begins to pull out of Afghanistan, he believes Iran will direct aid towards traditional allies who are friendly to Tehran.
Following his remarks, Dr. Milani addressed several questions including the effect of tensions between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Khamenei on Iranian policy, the effectiveness of sanctions, and the potential for dialogue and cooperation between Iran and the US.