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Research Questions

  1. What are the extent and limits of Iranian influence in Afghanistan, including Tehran's relations with key Afghan groups and constituencies?
  2. What are Iran's cultural, political, economic, and ideological ties to Afghanistan?
  3. How can we understand Iran's relations with regional powers, such as India, Russia, and Pakistan, in light of the U.S. drawdown?
  4. What are the implications of Iranian influence for the United States as it withdraws most of its combat forces from Afghanistan?
  5. Will the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's president provide a new opportunity for greater U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan?

This study explores Iranian influence in Afghanistan and the implications for the United States after the departure of most American forces from Afghanistan. Iran has substantial economic, political, cultural, and religious leverage in Afghanistan. Kabul faces an obdurate insurgency that is likely to exploit the U.S. and international drawdown. The Afghan government will also face many economic difficulties in future years, and Afghanistan is highly dependent on international economic aid. Additionally, the biggest problem facing Afghanistan may be political corruption. Iranian influence in Afghanistan following the drawdown of international forces need not necessarily be a cause of concern for the United States though. Although Tehran will use its cultural, political, and economic sway in an attempt to shape a post-2016 Afghanistan, Iran and the United States share core interests there: to prevent the country from again becoming dominated by the Taliban and a safe haven for al Qaeda.

This study examines Iran's historic interests in Afghanistan and its current policies in that country, and explores the potential implications for U.S. policy. The research is based on field interviews in Afghanistan, the use of primary sources in Dari and Persian, and scholarly research in English.

Key Findings

Iranian Influence in Afghanistan Should Not Be a Great Concern for the United States

  • Iran and the United States both want to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming dominated by the Taliban and a safe haven for al Qaeda.
  • A peaceful resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis and the continued strengthening of relative pragmatists in the Tehran government could lead to cooperation between Iran and the United States in Afghanistan.

Tensions Between Iran and the United States May Ease

  • The departure of most American forces may assuage Iranian anxiety.
  • A peaceful resolution to the nuclear issue and reduced tensions between Iran and the United States are likely to reduce Iranian incentives for aiding Taliban elements.
  • Moderate leaders in Iran are likely to oppose arming of insurgents and instead advocate a more diplomatic approach.

Recommendations

  • The United States should engage the Iranian government in bilateral discussions regarding Afghanistan and pursue joint activities that would serve their mutual interests and build much-needed trust.
  • The United States should attempt to cooperate with Iran in countering narcotics in Afghanistan.
  • The United States should encourage efforts to bring Tehran and Kabul to an agreement over water sharing.
  • The United States should lend logistical or financial support to the UN-facilitated Triangular Initiative.
  • Washington should encourage joint Iranian-Pakistani projects if a final nuclear deal with Iran is reached; U.S. attempts to disrupt energy cooperation between the two could be counterproductive.
  • Include Iran in regional and international discussions on Afghan security, especially if Iran comes to accept any residual international force in Afghanistan.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Iran and Afghanistan: A Complicated Relationship

  • Chapter Three

    Iran and Other Powers in Afghanistan

  • Chapter Four

    Conclusion and Implications for the United States

This research was sponsored by a private foundation and was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD). NSRD conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

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