Iran views the presence of American forces in Afghanistan as detrimental and a threat to its interests. Iran’s strategy towards Afghanistan is greatly influenced by this threat perception. The question that arises then is why is the American presence in Afghanistan seen as a national security threat by Iran? What is Iran doing to counter this perceived threat?
The US troops and military bases and American access to military facilities in several countries in the region such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey in addition to Afghanistan, is seen by Tehran as a deliberate strategy to encircle and contain Iran. It fears that such a strategic positioning could enhance the American ability to monitor the Iranian nuclear programme and launch attacks against Iran.
President Obama’s Afghanistan ‘surge’, which was announced in 2009 and which involved deployment of more troops along the Afghanistan-Iran border raised Iran’s insecurity and fear of an impending American attack. The US efforts to construct a 300-hectare airbase in the desert area of Holand, in the Ghorian district of Herat province, just 45 kilometres from the Iranian border, which would completely dominate the Iranian air space, further heightened the Iranian concerns (The Daily Times, 29 April 2011). Iran also alleges that the US is using its bases in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to extend covert support to the Sunni or Balochi insurgents in Iran, such as the Jundullah.
Such a threat perception has been reinforced by certain recent events. In December 2011, Iran captured an American RQ-170 Sentinel drone which was one of a fleet of stealth aircrafts that have been used to spy on Iran for years from the Shindad airbase in Afghanistan (The Associated Press, 7 December 2011). This intelligence collection programme was used to look for tunnels, underground facilities and other places where Iran could be producing centrifuge parts or enrichment facilities (The New York Times, 7 December 2011). US officials have admitted that the Shindad base was renovated and expanded to enhance the American capacity to keep an eye on the Iranian nuclear programme and also launch special operations against Iran. Similarly, in 2010, the captured Jundullah leader, Abdolmalek Rigi claimed that his group had received support from the US. Although, it is possible that such statements were made under duress, in 2007 reports had surfaced in the American media claiming that the US Congress had agreed to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran.
Besides the security threat, Tehran is also concerned that the prolonged presence of the US in Afghanistan could be detrimental to its influence in the country, particularly in Western Afghanistan. This is particularly the case with Herat, which Iran considers as its traditional sphere of influence due to historical, cultural and ideological ties. It is no surprise then that the construction of an American consulate and the Shindad military base in Herat- the second largest in Afghanistan- are viewed by Tehran as a direct challenge to their influence in the region.
Iran has responded to this perceived American threat by engaging with Afghanistan on many prongs. It has played an active role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan post-2001, being one of the leading donor countries. In Herat, particularly, Iran has heavily invested in the rebuilding of infrastructure including mosques, roads and even houses. It has directly funded the development of Herat’s electric grid and promoted trade and economic activities in the province. Such a positive approach is considered important by Iran to enhance and maintain its sway in its sphere of influence, especially at the expense of the Americans. Many US officials have admitted that Iran’s “soft power”-aid, diplomacy and business- has contributed to its growing clout in the country (Fox News, 2 July 2011). In fact, the US is already viewing Iran’s growing influence in the region as a major threat.
On the other hand, not all of Iran’s attempts at thwarting the American presence in the region have been constructive. It has been alleged that Iran is using its clout within the Afghan political setup and bribes to foment anti-American sentiments and convince parliamentarians to denounce long-term strategic agreement between Afghanistan and the US. But, it is Iran’s measured support to the Taliban, which is the more intriguing development. Although, the Taliban and Iran were arch enemies during the 1990s, Tehran considers it far more important to prop up the Taliban to keep the Americans tied down in Afghanistan and divert their attention away from Iran. It is this rationale that has led Iran to provide training and weapons to the Taliban.
Iran would most certainly not favour a Taliban-led or dominated government in Afghanistan in the future. However, if the American troops are allowed to stay on in Afghanistan post-2014, Iran is likely to continue fuelling the insurgency in its neighbourhood.