US and Iranian strategic competition in Afghanistan

Implications for US Policy

The US has done its best to improve relations with Pakistan and make it a strategic partner, but
the differences in US and Pakistani views of their relative strategic interests may be impossible
to overcome. This may give Iran a window of opportunity, and as in Afghanistan, result in
common interests becoming overshadowed by broader US-Iranian strategic competition.
However Iran has many of its own tensions with Pakistan, and the US remain Pakistan‘s most
generous beneficiary (by far) in material terms. Its support, while sometimes resented, is crucial
for Pakistani stability and not easily dispensed with. Relations between Tehran and Islamabad

too are recovering from a long period of hostility, and a shared dislike of US influence in the
region is only one of several issues that will guide their future relations. Other issues not directly
linked to the US will continue to limit the extent of Pakistani-Iranian strategic cooperation.

Afghanistan is a complicating factor in relations between Iran, Pakistan and the US, and makes
for unlikely bedfellows. By default, the Iranian position on Afghanistan is closer to the US than
Pakistan. Despite the relationship having since soured, various common interests persist,
including a desire to combat Sunni extremists, and establish some form of order that prevents
prevent cross-border flows of narcotics, weapons and refugees. The net result of Iranian
influence in western Afghanistan has also largely been positive, with Iranian cultural, economic
and political investments that have constrained violence and helped transition control to Afghan
security forces. In contrast, the US and Pakistan have radically different interpretations of what
the post-war regional structure should look like, and there remains considerable suspicion among
US officials and analysts of active covert Pakistani support for Afghan Taliban insurgent forces.
Tehran and Islamabad do, however, share a mutual dislike of the US presence in South Asia, and
to hedge its interests, Tehran has already shown a willingness to engage with the Taliban in a
limited fashion.

Tehran is also likely to favor an Afghan settlement that is more on Afghan,
than US, terms, and will likely require expanded accommodation with Pakistan to secure its

However, strategic cooperation between Tehran and Islamabad that goes beyond joint efforts on
counter-narcotics and border security is prone to many difficulties. Pakistan‘s close relations
with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh‘s large investments in Pakistan‘s religious sector continue to
complicate relations. In fact when assessing Pakistan, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry may be just as, if
not more, important to Tehran than US-Iranian competition. Expanded Iranian influence in
Pakistan is not necessarily a bad thing, providing another tool to coerce the government and
security forces to take a more hardline stance against Sunni fundamentalists active in sectarian

Growing Iranian influence can have other positive benefits, particularly in economic terms, and
it appears that it is in this sphere that Tehran wishes to most improve relations. Iranian energy
exports for example, could provide a crucial means to resolve Pakistan‘s chronic energy
shortfalls that cripple economic productivity and could trigger for large-scale social unrest.

The manner of the US drawdown from the region in 2014 will affect the extent of US influence
in Pakistan over the longer-term, but it appears likely that such influence will diminish with
reduced US attention as it has done historically. The US is likely to continue to view stability in
Pakistan as an important national interest given the potential for nuclear proliferation and
regional wars, and as such Iranian influence that assists in this goal should not necessarily be
discouraged. The US must, however, also prepare for the possibility that worsening relations
with Islamabad increase the possibility for negative Iranian-Pakistani cooperation predicated
more on emotion than rational interest.
My bold, despite malicious meddling as in Iraq it's is in Iran's interest for the new regime in Kabul to survive. Pindi conspires to make the project fail and is taking an increasingly open anti-US stance.
Haven't the Taliban and Tribes in the far East of Iran been on the wrong end of shoeing a couple of times by Tehran, pre US involvement in Afghan? They're usuful at the moment by irritating the US and Pakistan, but would become liability when the US leaves?

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