Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation and the lead co-author of Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran. Prior to joining RAND, he served as a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, where he conducted extensive research on Iran’s internal political dynamics and its foreign policy. Below is a brief Q&A with Alireza on Iran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Q: Recently there has been a lot of international media attention on Iran, but more specifically in the context of a potentially nuclear Iran. Yet Iran is also a key actor in the quest for peace in Afghanistan. How does Iran view Afghanistan?
Alireza Nader (AN): Iran arguably is one of the most influential regional actors, along with Pakistan. It is also primarily concerned with the U.S. presence in the region. And given the state of tensions between the United States and Iran, Iran fears that Afghanistan could be used as a base for attacks against its territory, such as in [Sistan-e-Baluchistan], Iran’s East.
So Iran doesn’t necessarily want an unstable Afghanistan, but rather, it is doing things to destabilize the country and undermine the U.S. troop presence there.
Q: You have mentioned that Iran is engaging in a ‘balancing act’ in Afghanistan. In other words, in the region it does things that are indirectly in the interests of the United States, and at times it does things that are destabilizing. Can you provide examples of some of these activities?
AN: Iran was instrumental in helping the United States establish the Karzai government in 2002. It has also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. At the same time, Iran has provided measured support to Afghan insurgents, including the Taliban, who are fighting coalition forces.
While Iran has played a positive role in stabilizing Afghanistan at times, its rivalry with the United States has also led it to provide support to the Taliban, a group religiously, ideologically, and politically opposed to the Islamic Republic.
Q: So, if the United States were to leave the region, do you think that Iran would still maintain certain linkages to Afghan insurgent groups, like the Taliban?
AN: It’s hard to tell. Iran might go back to its traditional policy of giving support to the Tajik and Hazara groups, if there is a situation of civil war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan shows support to the Taliban and the Pashtuns.
At the same time, Iranian policy is not that black and white, so it’s difficult to say what policy Iran will choose in the future. In particular, Iran does have a stake in the future of Western Afghanistan; any developments in this part of Afghanistan, to an extent, will affect Iran too.
Q: There has been quite a bit of international attention on a the possibility for a nuclear Iran. As tensions increase between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program, how do you think this will affect the prospects for a stable Afghanistan?
AN: Sanctions seriously impede Iran’s ability to stabilize Afghanistan. Iran is such a key player in the region. Obviously, the two countries have converging interests in Afghanistan, but because of the rut between the two countries, in some ways Afghanistan will continue to be a country subjected to Iranian manipulation.
Q: What do you think it will take for Iran to actually implement policies in the region, namely Afghanistan, that are in the interests of Afghanistan, and not just in its own strategic interests?
AN: Iran has always been the bigger country.Unfortunately in comparison to Iran, Afghanistan has a relatively weak government, which Iran has for the most part encouraged for reasons of self-interest and advantage.
If there is government transition in Afghanistan and a new government in Iran that is different in character from the current regime, Iran and Afghanistan will have better relations. Nevertheless, Iran will continue to have the relative advantage with far greater economic resources and a bigger military, so in the future it will most likely be the major power in the region and in Afghanistan, and it will have to plan for that.
* Due to the inaudibility of specific segments of the interview, Alireza Nader’s responses have been abridged. For more in-depth insights on the role of Iran in Afghanistan’s peace process, click here to see Alireza’s remarks at a recent panel held at the United States Institute of Peace.