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Iran’s American ‘Problem’ In Afghanistan – Analysis


By Aryaman Bhatnagar

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 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.

Iran - Afghanistan Relations
Iran - Afghanistan Relations

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.

The Response

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.


Aryaman Bhatnagar
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

3 thoughts on “Iran’s American ‘Problem’ In Afghanistan – Analysis

  • February 15, 2012 at 3:40 am

    A bigger problems for the US, which always sort Iran as a counter balance to the ISI, at least some in the Administration. Is that if the Indians are correct and the terror attacks was carried out by local terrorists on behalf of Iran. No attack occur inside India by the ISI network without the permission of Pindi, so if Iran did want to use locals such as Indian Mujahdeen, they would have to speak to the ISI first. That would point to the ISI network being used inside India to attack Israeli targets.

    What does this all means for Afghanistan, it means increased Iran and Pakistan cooperation and where does that leave the US.

    Using the ISI network allows India to be used as a battlefield after a strike on Iran, it also allows Iran some deniability if the terror attack is from a local and traced to IM and ISI controlled network into continued Indian economic and political support.

    But Pakistan while supporting Iran also have their own interests. It is not the first time that Pakistani controlled terrorist have attacked Israel targets in India.

    After being caught using LeT, the ISI has been using the local IM to launch attacks albeit of a smaller scale to 2008. LeT and IM share the same training camps, IM provide logistical support for LeT inside India and thus share the same command structure for operations, IM operatives can be either in LeT or IM so they share the recruitment pool of trainees and operatives.

    So as with 2008 Pakistan used LeT terror attack to create a confrontation between India and Pakistan, so they could get a nuclear warhead out of secure storage and having stolen and given to al-Qaida to attack the US. India almost came close to going to war with Pakistan in 2008, it was Dr Rice that stopped it.

    So when the US outed Israel in relations to killings inside Iran, as prior too that Iran did not know if it was the US, UK or Israel. The US was trying to distance itself from Israel and wants the covert actions to stop. They knew it would result in dead Jews via terror. But they did not foresee that it would be the ISI network used on Iran’s behalf.

    So instead of distancing themselves from an Israel strike, they have created a situation in which a strike on Iran could lead to the two nuclear powers on the subcontinent going to war and whats ever worse that once again the ISI have the opportunity to revive their 2008 operation to steal a nuclear warhead and give it to al-Qaida for an operation against the US.

    Obama seeks to distance himself from Israel but he digs the US in deeper, which means it has to be more committed to stopping Israel from defending itself. Which means Iran will get the bomb.

    1.Wikileaks outing the Arabs on Iran, result placing the Saudi and other Arab fields at risk.
    2. Outing the Israelis using merchant ships, this would allow them to limpet mine Iranian vessels to limited the response to closing the Straits of Hormuz. The result is now the US will be in direct conflict if Israel strikes Iran due to Hormuz. Instead of Israel having dealt with it.
    3. He has moved the conflict to the subcontinent, and Israel strike can lead to India and Pakistan confrontation.
    4. After years of trying after 2008 to remove a catalyst for confrontation between India and Pakistan (better relations). A situation has been created in which the 2009 operation for al-Qaida to acquire a nuclear warhead and use it on the US is back on.

  • February 15, 2012 at 4:11 am

    I forgot to add Syria while the Russians get the blame the situation is a UN construct, the US has gone slow and done nothing and wasted 11 months. Because if Assad falls they believe it makes an Israel strike more likely. Because it weakens Iran and Hizbullah, it opens up the Lebanon/Syria border which means a quick defeat of Hizbullah. The US cuts funding for missile defense for Israel, while others are increasing the size of their arsenals. The US refuses the use of Aegis THAAD to Israel.

    But the US tactic has led to the rebirth of al-Qaida.So the war on terror and two wars will have achieved nothing. The Arab Spring will achieve nothing in isolating al-Qaida from the Arab Street as it has done till now. When al-Qaida operatives are willing to come to help people who are being slaughtered, willing to die for people they do not know, it tends to gain support from people and people are grateful. So once again the prior 9/11 situation is up and running rich Arabs providing funding and arms, Mujaheddin come to fight for al-Qaida from the Muslim word.

  • February 15, 2012 at 4:49 am

    That is why I retired because when the conversations turn to certain topics, you need to develop counters to situations. It is time to leave the stage and the day I felt America had become an enemy I quit, because I am not comfortable offering advice on how to deal with my own country as an enemy. Which means you just have to sit there and cop it.

    I will say this Gates said people deal with us because they have to, I live for the day when people no longer have to and that is what retirement means. That is a common view among those that have to deal with us.


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