Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Iran's Policy towards Afghanistan

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Iran's Policy towards Afghanistan

Article excerpt

Since 1979, Iran's objectives in Afghanistan have changed as Afghanistan's domestic landscape changed. Still, Iran has consistently sought to see a stable and independent Afghanistan, with Herat as a buffer zone and with a Tehran-friendly government in Kabul, a government that reflects the rich ethnic diversity of the country. Toward those and other goals, Iran has created "spheres of influence" inside Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation (1979-88), Iran created an "ideological sphere of influence" by empowering the Shi'ites. Iran then created a "political sphere of influence" by unifying the Dari/Persian-speaking minorities, who ascended to power. Iranian policies added fuel to the ferocious civil war in the 1990s. Astonishingly slow to recognize the threat posed by the Taliban, Iran helped create a "sphere of resistance" to counter the "Kabul-Islamabad-Riyadh" axis by supporting the Northern Alliance. Since the liberation of Afghanistan, Iran has also established an "economic sphere of influence" by engaging in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Today, Iran's goals are to pressure the Afghan government to distance itself from Washington, and for Iran to become the hub for the transit of goods and services between the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, and China. While Iran has been guilty of extremism and adventurism in some critical aspects of its foreign policy, its overall Afghan policy has contributed more to moderation and stability than to extremism and instability.

A here is considerable consensus among experts that Iran has played an important role in the tumultuous events in Afghanistan since the brutal occupation of that country by the Soviet Army in 1979. What is being debated is the exact impact, and consequences, of that role. What follows is a contribution to this lingering debate.

Since its founding, the Islamic Republic of Iran has developed a security-centered, two-layered foreign policy to expand and protect its interests as well as to neutralize the perceived threat posed by the United States, a threat Tehran has consistently regarded as existential. The foundation of this foreign policy is based on the pragmatic recognition of the existence of a colossal power differential, particularly in the military arena, between Iran and the US. Iran has persistently sought not to allow hostile bilateral relations to descend into a military confrontation between the two countries. Additionally, in an effort to build an effective deterrent against the US, Iran has developed unconventional and asymmetric strategies in both its military and foreign policy arenas. One such strategy is to create "spheres of influence," buffer zones, as well as a web of both informal and formal, underground and open organizations around Iran's troubled neighborhood, and beyond its borders. This strategy allows Iran to project its power and enhance its interests, support Islamic movements, create a defensive and sometimes invisible wall outside its borders, and position its friendly forces and proxies beyond its borders against those who threaten its own survival. In its policy toward Afghanistan since 1979, Iran has employed the most important elements of this strategy and has created different kinds of "spheres of influence" in that country.

CREATING AN IDEOLOGICAL SPHERE OF INFLUENCE, 1979-88

In July of 1973, Afghan King Zaher Shah (1933-73) was overthrown in a coup staged by Muhammad Daud Khan, who then demolished the monarchy, established a republic, and began flirting with Moscow.1 For Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran (1941-79), the coup was as an ominous sign of Soviet machinations to dominate Afghanistan. At first, he contemplated organizing a rebellion from Western Afghanistan to restore the monarchy.2 He quickly abandoned the plan, however, largely because he viewed Zaher Shah to be disgustingly timid and inept, even though he reportedly provided limited financial support for the exiled king in Italy. …

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