Iran in Afghanistan: Running with the Hare and Hunting with the Hounds

Iran has strong religious and cultural ties and a long shared border with Afghanistan, Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian, is one of Afghanistan’s two official languages and is used by intellectuals and the elite. Until 1857, Herat was part of Iran and only after Iran and Britain signed the Paris Treaty of 1857[1] did Iran abandon its claim, although it reserved the right to send forces to Afghanistan “if its frontier is violated.” From Afghan independence in 1919 until 1979, Iran’s relations with Afghanistan were friendly. After the 1979 revolution, Iranian policy on Afghanistan went through crests and troughs while supporting some groups and at times working at cross purposes with the dispensation in Kabul. In 1992, an alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Shiites, under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, overthrew the caretaker government left behind by the Soviets[2]. This was the first time non-Pushtuns had dominated the government; a victory for Iran. Iran’s role in the putsch is unclear, but Massoud’s victory without Iran’s support would have been difficult. The victory was short-lived, as Afghanistan descended into a devastating civil war and Tehran had neither the diplomatic skills nor the resources to bring peace to Afghanistan. During the civil war, Iran supported the Kabul government, but also covered its bets by supporting Shiites who worked both for and against the regime. As Taliban, rose to power with their ideology which was a strange combination of Wahhabism and Deobandism steeped in Anti-shia rhetoric. Iran’s strategic investment was the Northern Alliance. India and Russia supported the alliance, but Iran was its principle source of military assistance. Iranian support for the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s most formidable rival, created serious animosity between Tehran and Kabul. They severed diplomatic relations in 1997. Since the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance ended Taliban rule, Iran has developed friendly relations with National Unity government. It has engaged in reconstruction of Afghanistan, continued supporting its traditional allies and pressed for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the country.

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