Iran denounced the recently signed Strategic Partnership Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States. It sees the basing of American forces in the country and across the Persian Gulf as a security threat and has even reached out to the Sunni Taliban to balance this perceived threat.
The Iranians have long voiced discomfort with the prospect of a long-term American presence on its eastern border. They have attempted to use their clout within the political system of Afghanistan and the means of bribery to influence Afghan parliamentarians to vote against any security pact with the United States.
The American forces in Afghanistan, far from being a solution to the problems of the region, are seen by Tehran as likely to intensify the regional insecurity and instability. Yet Iran’s own threat perception is in part fueling insecurity in Afghanistan and instability throughout the region.
The pact appears to have already strained relations between Afghanistan and Iran with Afghan diplomats in Tehran claiming that they are being intimidated and their movements have been severely curtailed. This may be a sign of worse things to come in the future.
Iran believes that the presence of American military bases and troops and access to military facilities in several other countries in the region such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Turkey and Qatar, is part of a deliberate strategy of encircling and containing Iran. Tehran fears that such a strategic position would enable the United States to monitor its nuclear program and launch attacks against it.
The capture of an American unmanned drone aircraft in December of last year, which was used by the United States to look for tunnels, underground facilities and other places where Iran could be producing centrifuge parts or enrichment facilities, confirm Iranian suspicions.
It has also been alleged that the United States are using their bases in Afghanistan to extend covert support to Sunni and Balochi insurgents, such as the Jundullah group, in Iran’s southeastern most Sistan and Baluchestan Province.
It is no surprise then that the Strategic Partnership Agreement is bound to enhance Iranian anxieties about the American troops in its neighborhood, even if the pact explicitly states that America cannot use Afghanistan to launch attacks on a third country.
The mere presence of the United States in Afghanistan will pose an obstacle to the expansion of Iran’s influence in the country, particularly in its traditional sphere of influence — western Afghanistan, where Iran has spent millions of dollars over the past decade.
Iran has resorted to several means to undermine the American mission in Afghanistan, many of which are far from being positive in nature.
Iran has been accused of sending shiploads of text books into western Afghanistan with the aim of promoting the Shia culture, the contents of which have been found offensive by the Sunni population. Such attempts at fueling sectarian tensions in Afghanistan make the task of managing the country much tougher for the Americans.
Similarly, it has been alleged that Iran exerts its influence over Afghanistan’s education curriculum through institutions like the Khatam-al Nabyeen Islamic University in Kabul, with the aim of promoting Iranian culture, win over the Afghan Shia community and spread anti-Americanism.
Iran has also, in the past, cut off its fuel supplies to Afghanistan, which caused massive outcry in Kabul, as it believed that petrol and diesel, which was meant to be used by Afghans, was siphoned off to NATO.
However, the most intriguing development has been Iran’s measured support of the Taliban. The foreign forces in Afghanistan have often intercepted weapons, rockets and missiles that originated in Iran and were similar to the ones that were used to undermine the international counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. There have also been suspicions of Taliban fighters being trained in Iran.
The alliance with the Taliban is one of necessity as the group posed a significant security and ideological threat to Iran when it was in power in the 1990s. The two nearly went to war in 1998 following
the massacre of Iranian diplomats in Mazār-e Sharīf in northern Afghanistan. Even today, Iran would not favor a government in Kabul that is led or dominated by the Taliban.
The support for the Taliban was envisioned as a short-term measure to make the Americans bleed and keep them preoccupied in Afghanistan, thereby diverting their attention from Iran.
However, as the United States look set to stay on in Afghanistan beyond 2014, albeit in reduced numbers, Iran is likely to maintain its support for the Taliban and indulge in other covert destabilizing activities, thereby prolonging the insurgency and the instability in the country.