Iran took advantage of Afghanistan’s fragility to settle scores with the U.S., but it is now paying the price for its own success.
Many Iranian officials celebrated the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan as a momentous strategic victory. One year after the last U.S. soldiers departed from Afghanistan , however, it is increasingly clear that the victory was a bittersweet one for the Islamic Republic. The US invasion of Afghanistan had sidelined many outstanding issues between Iran and Afghanistan that have resurfaced with the American withdrawal. The two countries have a history of conflict given their extreme differences in political systems and, by extension, foreign policy. Disagreements over water security and the drug smuggling further fuel tensions between Kabul and Tehran. These geostrategic disputes are compounded by cultural and religious concerns, particularly the persecution of Afghan Shias.
An Old Menace, Revived
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan during the 1990s disturbed Iran’s geopolitical status quo. With the Taliban in control, Iran was effectively sandwiched between a jihadist political movement on its eastern frontier and a hostile Baathist Iraq in the west. Iranian hostilities with Kabul’s new potentate’s reached new highs in 1998, nine Iranian diplomats were killed as the Taliban swept through Mazar-i-Sharif. Tehran blamed the Taliban for the killings and readied 70,000 troops on the border. The regime even deployed its then newly-minted Quds Force commander, Qassem Suleimani, to the frontier. Tehran eventually cancelled the decision to invade Afghanistan.
It was not surprising, therefore, that Iran supported the American effort to unseat the Taliban in 2001. Tehran gave U.S. generals maps of Taliban positions across the country and offered to train 20,000 Afghans to rebuild a new army in its wake; as the invasion progressed it also arrested several figures from al-Qaeda that escaped to Iran.
But this support quickly dissipated after President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of the “axis of evil,” and the Taliban scattered and U.S. personnel became bogged down trying to rebuild Afghan society. For example, Iranian-made military equipment was found in the hands of Taliban fighters, despite public Iranian support for the Afghan government. It was in this light that former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, accused Iran of playing a “double game” in Afghanistan by supporting both the government and insurgents.
The consequences of this seemingly contradictory policy became apparent once the U.S. failed. While Iran was pleased with the U.S. withdrawal, it now has to contend with the reemergence of the Taliban. Throughout April, Taliban fighters clashed with Iranian border patrols. Iran deployed more troops to the area after the Taliban seized an Iranian military vehicle. Adding to Tehran’s concerns is the fact that the Taliban fighters they face are better organized and equipped than their predecessors. Some radical elements within the Taliban movement also view Iran with extreme hostility.
Increased Drug Flows, Decreased Water Flows
Iranian fears about diminished cross-border water flows have exacerbated these intense animosities. Iran and Afghanistan share the Helmand River, which snakes for 1,300 km from its origin in the Hindu Kush Mountains in the west of Kabul to Lake Hamoun in Iran. Tehran fears the construction of Afghanistan’s Kamal Khan Dam, launched in 1996 but delayed because of instability in the country, and have been recently completed will significantly disrupt water . As a result, “Iran has accused Afghanistan of violating its water rights, claiming that it gets less water than the amount agreed upon in the 1973 treaty.” This accusation was rejected by the Afghan government even before the U.S. withdrawal in 2021. The decreased water flow sparked protests in Sistan-Baluchistan and attacks against trucks belonging to Afghan drivers. The water decreases also led to clashes between Iranian forces and the Taliban in March, in which 4 Iranian personnel were killed.
Rampant smuggling, long condoned and exploited by the Taliban, is another headache Tehran is struggling to suppress. Only a few months after the U.S. withdrawal, nine Iranian security personnel were killed on the border with Afghanistan while preventing fuel smuggling. Afghanistan, by some estimates, is the source of 92% of heroin in the world. Drug-smugglers use several border crossings with Iran to export their shipments globally. In August, Iran seized more than 100 kg of drugs coming from Afghanistan. Only a month after the U.S. withdrawal, India, for instance, seized three tones of heroin coming from Afghanistan through Iran. Increased drug availability and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions have also worsened drug abuse in the Islamic Republic. It is estimated that there are close to 6 million addicts in Iran, and opium is the most popular drug in the country. Yet, Iran is not the final destination for drug coming from Afghanistan.
The Minority Factor
Another important aspect of Iran’s relationship with Afghanistan is the Afghan Hazara minority. Iran’s relationship with the Hazaras stretches back centuries, only becoming more intimate after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. For instance, Iran cultivated the Fatemiyoun division, an Afghan Shia paramilitary group, deploying it to fight the Soviet Union and defend the Assad regime in Syria. The Taliban, meanwhile, have long viewed the Hazara with disdain, often persecuting them ruthlessly for, in their eyes, being religiously deviant. While Iran tries to improve its relations with the new rulers of Afghanistan, it also aims to maintain the quasi-protected status of the Hazara. This balance is becoming increasingly difficult because of periodic attacks against the Hazara community. In April, targeted explosions killed Hazaras.
Afghans residing within Iran have also been a source of tension between the two countries. Some estimates indicate that there are five million Afghans living in Iran, and the vast majority of them are not registered. Out of this number, one million arrived in Iran in the four months after the Taliban takeover; 4,000 to 5,000 Afghans reportedly crossed the border on a daily basis. Afghans are routinely subjected to mistreatment in Iran, sparking angry reactions in Afghanistan. A video showing the cruel beating of Afghans by Iranian security forces is but one example of the appalling conditions Afghans encounter in Iran. As a reaction to the inhumane treatment of the Afghans, mobs attacked Iranian diplomatic buildings across Afghanistan in April. The maltreatment of Afghans has also inflamed ethnic tensions within Iran. An Afghan refugee killed a cleric and wounded two others in Mashhad, Iran in what was described by Iran’s Interior Minister as a terrorist attack with the aim of sowing sectarian divisions.
Iran took advantage of Afghanistan’s fragility to settle scores with the U.S., but it is now paying the price for its own success. The U.S. withdrawal was a prelude to the resurfacing of many intricacies for Iran’s Afghan policy. Iran must now navigate previously subdued ideological and policy differences and worsening socioeconomic conditions in both countries. These compounding adverse factors will prove that it was easier for Iran to deal with a superpower next door than a failed state.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.