Iranian influence in Afghanistan has deep-seated roots reaching back to the 15th century when the Afghan city of Herat was the capital of the Persian Empire. Iran also shares ties with various groups of Afghanistan, particularly the Persian-speaking Tajiks and the Shi’a Hazara. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Iran supported Shi’a resistance efforts and opened its borders to Afghan refugees. With the rise of the radical Sunni Taliban, Iran advocated strong support for the rival Shi’a-dominated group called the Northern Alliance.
While ideologically at odds with the Taliban, Iran has been heavily involved in Afghanistan through support of the Taliban in an effort to repel U.S. influence following the U.S. invasion in 2001. Beginning in 2006, the IRGC-Quds Force began “training the Taliban in Afghanistan on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons” in addition to providing armaments “including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives.” Although Iran often supports Tajik and Shi’a groups that are opposed to the Taliban, “[Iran’s] enmity with the United States and tensions over the nuclear program have led it to provide measured support to the Taliban” in order to maximize its ability to disrupt the U.S.’s Afghan strategy. Iran, for instance, has been permitted the free movement of foreign fighters through Iranian territory to the Taliban in Afghanistan to support its insurgency.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Treasury added three Iranian IRGC Quds Force operatives and one “associate” to its list of global terrorists for their efforts to “plan and execute attacks in Afghanistan” including providing “logistical support” in order to advance Iran’s interests in the region. The Treasury Department has stated that these designations “[underscore] Tehran’s use of terrorism and intelligence operations as tools of influence against the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”
Iran has dramatically expanded its economic ties with Afghanistan to buy influence in the country. Iran increased its exports from $800 million in 2008 to over $2 billion in 2011 and accounted for 27.6% of Afghanistan’s $5 billion annual imports. However, this bilateral trade is not equally reciprocated, with “75% of the exchanged goods originating in Iran.” While foreign investment supports Afghanistan’s development, Iranian investment seeks to undermine NATO and the Afghan regime’s efforts to stabilize the country. In 2010, Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted that Iran was paying his government $2 million annually,but U.S. officials believe that this is just the “tip of the iceberg” in a multitude of Iranian cash inflows to Afghan groups and officials.
Iran’s economic influence in Afghanistan is best illustrated by its development of the western city of Herat, where Iran has developed the electrical grid, invested heavily in the mining industry, and invested over $150 million to build a school, mosque, residential apartments, a seven-mile road, and even stocked store shelves with Iranian goods. According to the head of Herat’s provincial council, Nazir Ahmad Haidar, “Iran has influence in every sphere: economic, social, political and daily life. When someone gives so much money, people fall into their way of thinking. It’s not just a matter of being neighborly.”
Furthermore, Iranian influence in Afghanistan extends past its economy and to into Afghan culture and religion. Coordinated by an official under the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran has funded the development of a “range of Shi’a groups, religious schools, and media outlets” in order to “promote Iran’s ideological, cultural, and political objectives.” Mohammad Omar Daudzai, Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Iran, has stated that “thousands of Afghan religious leaders are on the Iranian payroll.”
Recently, Iran has bridged its international regional influence by creating the IRGC-backed Fatemiyoun Brigade, a group of Afghan Shi’a fighting in support of the al-Assad regime of Syria. Often recruiting Shi’a refugees, the IRGC offers a $500/month stipend and Iranian residency in return for joining pro-Assad militias.