TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan: Finance Trumps Culture
As of early June 2012, the connection between Farsi-speaking Shi’a Afghans and Iran — long a concern of U.S. policymakers — may not be as strong as previously assumed. This is highlighted by an increasing number of protests, most recently one that occurred during the ceremony in Kabul held last week on the anniversary of Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini’s death.
Khomeini, who died on June 3,1989, was the religious and political leader behind the 1979 Iranian Revolution that saw the overthrow of the American-supported Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini subsequently became Iran’s first Supreme Leader — a post now held by Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei — in a reign that encompassed the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of American hostages for 444 days.
Far from enthusiastic participation on the part of Afghanistan’s Farsi-speaking Shi’a community, the commemoration event was greeted with a street protest and signs carrying the message,”Kabul is not Tehran, not Qom.” Those taking part in the demonstrations were almost exclusively young Shi’a students and professionals who speak Farsi and who have lived some portion of their lives in Iran as refugees. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, events like these are a far more meaningful barometer of Iran’s influence than cultural proximity alone.
Iran’s Influence Overestimated
Owing to its significant religious, linguistic and ethno-cultural commonality with Afghanistan, Iran has a long and complex history of involvement in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. These enduring cultural ties and the track record of influence-peddling in Afghanistan have been a consistent worry for NATO, and especially the United States, for some time, but specific concerns over Iran’s potential role in Afghanistan post-2014 — when all NATO combat troops will be out of the country — are only increasing as withdrawal plans begin in earnest.
And while the United States is directly engaged with Pakistan over issues of mutual interest regarding Afghanistan, it has no formal or direct contact with the Iranian leadership, which it has accused of providing support to the insurgency in Afghanistan, manipulating the Afghan media, and using its influence over Afghanistan’s Shi’a population to America’s detriment.
The strategic blind spot that comes with the absence of direct engagement with Iran is likely to get worse as the U.S. withdraws its forces and Afghanistan assumes responsibility for its own security and stability. But the U.S. need not look beyond the Afghan main street to gauge how much influence Iran really exercises in Afghanistan. There have been more anti-Iran protests in Afghanistan over the past decade than perhaps at any other point in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s history. This is due at least in part to the fact that Afghans enjoy greater political freedom now, thanks to the civic space afforded to them as a result of the NATO intervention.
Although in a very concrete sense this is a strategic advantage for the U.S., it must be understood that the deepening Afghan misgivings toward Iran is organic, not a product of American policies or action. The demonstrations have even transcended the Shi’a-Sunni lines and have involved active participation from all sides of the Afghan religious spectrum. The focus of such protests against Iran has included the execution of Afghan prisoners, forced deportation of Afghan refugees, and the general treatment of migrant workers inside Iran.
Some of these protests have had to do with the geopolitics of ethnic identity: there is a growing number of politically active young Shi’a Hazaras (one of Afghanistan’s three main ethnic groups) who seek to counter the popular perception that Afghanistan’s Shi’as are too close to the Islamic Republic. Many of them are former refugees who speak Farsi and have lived in Iran; instead of support for Iran, however, they carry abiding memories of mistreatment at the hand of their former host country.
Iranian Domestic Policies Undercut Image in Afghanistan
Afghans also have a negative perception of their other next-door neighbor, Pakistan. The takeaway is that common linguistic, cultural and religious ties with Afghanistan do not automatically translate into influence for Iran any more than they have for Pakistan, a Sunni-majority country that shares linguistic and ethno-cultural ties with the Sunni-majority Afghanistan. As with Pakistan, Iran has serious public image problems among Afghans, and policymakers around the globe with an interest in Afghanistan are likely overestimating the depth and breadth of Iran’s influence there.
It can be argued that many of Iran’s current public diplomacy woes in Afghanistan are a direct result of its contradictory policy practices. On the one hand, it is building mosques in Afghanistan and financing media channels, while on the other, it is deporting Afghan refugees en masse, publicly executing Afghan prisoners and, most recently, banning Afghans from living in 12 provinces and many major metropolitan and religious centers, including the important cities of Isfahan and Qom. Beyond national policy, Afghans also complain of broad mistreatment and harassment on the streets in Iran by law enforcement officials. At least one million Afghan refugees live in Iran, so the experience with the Islamic Republic is very personal for these Afghans and, by extension, their relatives back home. That has a negative strategic effect that no amount of media messaging or reframing can counter.
Like Pakistan, which prioritizes supporting extremist militant groups over the soft-power approach, Iran realizes that its most effective option is the material support it can provide to Shi’a factions to abet an array of contingencies that might unfold after 2014. Unlike Pakistan, Iran has not established training camps inside its soil, but it has a history of providing money and arms to militant Shia groups.
While concern for Iran’s influence in Afghan affairs is well founded, the rationale for that concern is often misplaced. Iran’s trump card in the context of the American legacy in Afghanistan is not its historical ties based on culture or its efforts to cultivate those ties, but rather its future logistical ties to potential Shi’a insurgent groups. Ultimately, this should be the primary concern for the U.S. as Iranian influence in that realm carries the greatest potential to impact the legacy that America has spent a decade building.
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