Over the past few months, with increasing frequency, US policymakers have issued statements indicating that Iran provides material support to the resurgent Taliban or to al-Qaeda. Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2011, General David Petraeus testified that Iran, through the Qods Force, had provided support for Taliban insurgents in "measured amounts" -- enough "to make life difficult for us, but not enough to actually succeed." On 28 July, David S. Cohen, the Treasury Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, announced that Iran had entered into a "secret deal" with an al-Qaeda offshoot that provides money and recruits for attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Such considerations certainly have bearing on US strategy in Afghanistan; however, it is also important to situate them within the broader tapestry of Iran's diplomacy in Afghanistan and Central Asia and to remember that they do not necessarily preclude the possibility of US-Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan.
In Iranian foreign policy, it is possible to discern a recurring pattern: while Tehran deals with neighboring governments using official diplomatic channels, it also pursues a shadow diplomacy, sponsoring non-state proxies and seeking to expand its influence at the sub-governmental level. This two-pronged approach is visible in Iranian dealings in the Gulf, in the Levant -- Hezbollah in Lebanon spring immediately to mind -- and in Central Asia.
The American presence in its Iraqi and Afghan neighbors places immense pressure on Iran -- pressure which it seeks to offset by competing with the United States for influence in these countries. At the official level, Tehran's primary objectives are to secure its eastern flank by stabilizing the country, and to prevent the flow of illicit weapons, narcotics, and migrants across its borders. To this end, Iran has been active in Afghan reconstruction efforts, particularly in the western portion of the country in the provinces of Herat, Farah, and Nimruz. The Iranian government has funded several transportation and energy infrastructure projects, including building roads and railway links, setting up schools, constructing Herat's electricity grid. Politically, the Islamic Republic maintains close relationships with Afghanistan's Hazara and Tajik Shias and focuses on supporting Shia political parties, mobilizing Shia mullahs, and influencing the Afghan media.
Not all of Iran's actions have endeared it to the Afghan government and people. In early 2011, worried that Iranian fuel shipments were being diverted for use by US military forces inside the country, Iran blocked the shipments, a move that caused significant shortages and price spikes inside Afghanistan. Iran has also taken an unforgiving approach to the issues of Afghan migrants, expelling thousands of Afghans and ignoring requests by the Afghan foreign ministry that cited Afghanistan's lack of absorptive capacity for the deluge of returnees. Despite this, some analysts, including the authors of a study conducted by RAND, conclude that the net effect of Iranian influence in western Afghanistan has been positive.
Even if official Iranian-Afghan relations have been uneven, what most concerns US policymakers are the shadow level initiatives. These take a variety of forms, although all aim to expand Iranian influence in post-American Afghanistan beyond the Shiite belt. At one end of the spectrum, Iranian officials are reported to have made cash payments to senior Afghan officials, including senior advisors to President Karzai. At the other end come the accusations that Tehran is supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite its historical antipathy to Afghanistan's former rulers and to Sunni extremism, Iran views having leverage over influential players in a post-American Afghanistan as an issue of crucial importance -- especially given that Washington seeks to place 25,000 American troops on five bases around the country even after it withdraws. The recent announcement of Iran's "secret deal" with al-Qaeda is just the latest indication of Tehran's shadow diplomacy at work.
However much Washington may balk at Iran's shadow diplomacy, it is in the United States' interest to bring Iran onside where it can. Iranian efforts in Afghanistan have done more to stabilize the western provinces than to jeopardize US interests, and Iran shares the United States' interest in securing the country, stemming the flow of narcotics, and even stamping out Sunni extremism. As the 2014 withdrawal deadline draws closer, the country's political landscape is still unsteady and it is increasingly uncertain that the force levels and capabilities the US will leave behind will help stabilize the region. For this reason, the United States needs to be able to engage and work with regional stakeholders, including Iran. Indeed, showing willingness to engage may help convince Tehran that its shadow-level diplomacy is unnecessary.
Moreover, given recent tensions with Pakistan, the United States is in need of regional allies -- another reason to draw Iran into the equation. There has been some movement in this direction: on October 18, Iran was invited for the first time to join international talks on Afghanistan held in Rome. The US State Department publicly recognized its role, stating that Iran has "an interest in seeing a stable, prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan emerge."
To engage successfully with Iran on Afghanistan, it is crucial that US policymakers understand the parallel tracks of Tehran's foreign policy. They must recognize that it is possible to work with Tehran where their interests cohere, even as they seek to counter it at other points. The United States should not let Iran's shadow diplomacy eclipse the possibility of constructive engagement.