Iran-Pakistan Relations and their Effect on Afghanistan and the U.S.

October 25, 2011 | By Isaac Kfir

Iran-Pakistan relations are complicated. They began when Iran was the first country to officially recognize the establishment of Pakistan. In May 1950, the Shah visited Pakistan leading to a Treaty of Friendship. For many years, the two countries cooperated and worked together as they have much in common. What also brings the two together is their perception that their existence is constantly threatened or challenged, making them nervous allies, i.e. Islamabad is apprehensive of strengthening Indian-Iranian ties, while Tehran is concerned with Pakistan-Saudi relations.[1] The two also share a 900km somewhat turbulent border.[2] Other issues affecting Iran and Pakistan are the narcotic trade, transnational crime, terrorism, undocumented workers and commerce. However, it is in Afghanistan, with whom both Pakistan and Iran share a border that many of the two countries’ interests coalesce and diverge.

Although Pakistan and Iran would benefit from a stable Afghanistan – and politicians from both sides have sought to aid in the process – powerful stakeholders within Iran and Pakistan want a weak, unstable and violent Afghanistan. These actors – the Pakistani ISI and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, designated in 2007 by President Bush as “specially designated global terrorists,” – see an unstable Afghanistan as the way to undermine U.S. South Asian foreign policy goals, making Afghanistan a proxy for those actors that see the United States as the enemy. For these individuals Afghanistan can bleed the United States and undermine its prestige in the world.[3] Afghanistan is also a key reason as to why Pakistan-U.S. relations are at a nadir, with Washington claiming that the Pakistanis through the ISI are destabilizing Afghanistan, while the Pakistanis claim that Washington does not do enough to stem Afghan-based terrorism that affects Pakistan.

It is clear that the ongoing tension between Washington and Islamabad is encouraging the Iranians and the Pakistanis to improve their relations, as Pakistan searches for allies and friends.[4] Pakistani policymakers feel that they may need to have contingency plans should the U.S. turn from ally to foe, especially in lieu of some of the more belligerent rhetoric emanating from Washington over the last few months. Iran in many ways is a natural ally of Pakistan – Islam plays a dominant role in both societies and both have large ethnic and religious minorities, as well as concerns over their neighbors. This is why historically the two have had good relations, with the zenith of Iran-Pakistan relations being the 1970s and 1980s, as the Shah revised some of his views about Iran-U.S. relations following the British withdrawal from the Gulf region.[5] Concomitantly, Pakistan reeling from two major military defeats inflicted by India (1965 and 1971) was searching for allies in the Muslim World just as Iran was also looking for friends. After Bhutto’s demise and with the fall of the Shah, relations between the two countries remained strong: Zia-ul-Haq, the new military leader of Pakistan was one of the first foreign leaders to travel to Tehran to support the first revolution, while Khurshid Ahmed, a member of the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami and a confident of Zia-ul-Haq met Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris in December 1978 and January 1979. Strong Iran-Pakistan relations continued into the 1980s, (during the Iran-Iraq War Pakistan opted not to side with Iraq despite strong pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia). The conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s brought the two closer as each had an interest in the conflict,[6] each supported a number of mujahedeen groups and both were inundated with Afghan refugees.

By the 1990s however, Afghanistan played a part in undermining relations between the two, as the Taliban with their radical Sunni ideology – sponsored very much by the Pakistani ISI – massacred thousands from the Afghan Hazara community,[7] encouraging the Iranians – particularly the Revolutionary Guards – to remain involved in Afghanistan[8] as a way to protect the Hazara community and stem the tide of radical Sunni Islam.

As things stand, Pakistani policymakers know that an intimate Iran-Pakistan relationship is a major concern for Washington, as better relations may lead Pakistan to share its nuclear technology with Iran.[9] From a realpolitik perspective, playing the Iranian card may encourage Congress to think twice before it cuts US aid to Pakistan, as doing so may simply compel Pakistan to search for alternate means of raising money.[10] In the context of Afghanistan, both Pakistan and Iran have vested interest in the country:[11] the three have strong cultural and linguistic interaction (Persian for example has a strong influence on Urdu) not to mention Arabic, the language of Islam. In addition, millions of Afghans reside in Iran and Pakistan affecting policies and politics in the two countries.[12]

In December 2011, on the ten-year anniversary of the Bonn meeting (the agreement that laid down the foundations for Afghan reconstruction), a second international gathering will occur. It is unclear if Iran will participate in the meeting that is rumored to have representatives from 90 different countries including a senior Taliban official.[13] Clearly, the organizers and the key participants are trying to reduce expectations emphasizing that the meeting is not marked as Bonn 2.0, but rather as a meeting for taking stock of what went right and what has gone wrong as well as determining how to move forward. Although it is highly unpalatable to have Iran in the mix, finding a solution to the crisis in Afghanistan necessitates Iranian involvement, as otherwise only part of the problem is dealt with. Ultimately, U.S. policymakers need to make the tough decision, limited interaction with Iran over Afghanistan or continue with a rudderless, clueless policy that extracts much money and manpower and offers so little in return.


[1] For a good review of Iranian-Pakistani relations see Shah Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations: Political and Strategic Dimensions,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 28, No. 4 (2004), pp. 526-545.

[2] Syed Saleem Shahzad, “Iran Gets its Man,” Asia Times Online, February 25, 2010. []

[3] This may explain why there are calls in India for example, for Delhi to pursue an independent policy in Afghanistan. Satish Chandra, India’s “Options in Afghanistan,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2010), pp. 125-127.

[4] A good example of this was a suggestion by President Zardari in 2011, following a two day conference on combating terrorism in Teheran to establish an Integrated Border Management Regime, coupled with a trilateral mechanism involving Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to combat the narcotic trade. M K Bhadrakumar, “Pakistan, Iran become ‘natural allies’,” Asia Times Online, July 19 2011. []

[5] It appeared that as the British were being replaced by the United States, which pursued an aggressive penetration policy to ensure that the new small states of the Gulf have strong relations with Washington. Shah Alam, “Iran-Pakistan Relations: Political and Strategic Dimensions,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 28, No. 4 (2004), pp. 529-530.

[6] The conflict against the Soviet presence in the 1980s led to over 4 million Afghans to seek refuge in Iran and Pakistan, which have continued to have large Afghan refuge communities. Khomeini had after all declared “Islam has no borders” explaining why many Afghans were welcomed by the Iranians in the 1980s. Fariba Adelkhah and Zuzanna Olszewska, “The Iranian Afghans,” Iranian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2007), pp. 137-165.

[7] Security Council Resolution 1214 (December 8, 1998) saw the Council condemning the “capture by the Taliban of the Consulate-General of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the murder of the Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-e-Sharif.” The resolution found that the actions of the Taliban amounted to a breach of international law and sought Taliban cooperation in bringing those responsible for the murder to justice.

[8] Mir H. Sadat, James P. Hughes claim, “In a generation or two, there is a strong probability that the leading Afghan intellectuals and technocrats will be Hazara, at which point Iran would have a strong ally in Afghanistan.” Mir H. Sadat, James P. Hughes, “U.S.-Iran Engagement through Afghanistan,” Middle East Policy Vol. 17, No. 1 (2010), p. 32.

[9] Arguably, one of the reasons why A.Q Khan sought to work with the Iranians was money. David Albright, Paul Brannan, and Andrea Scheel Stricker, “Detecting and Disrupting Illicit Nuclear Trade after A.Q. Khan,” The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2010), pp. 85-106; Wyn Q. Bowen and Joanna Kidd, “The Iranian Nuclear Challenge,” International Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 2 (2004), pp. 257-276.

[10] Graham Allison, “Nuclear Disorder: Surveying Atomic Threats,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 89, No. 1 (2010), pp. 74-85; Wyn Q. Bowen and Jonathan Brewer, “Iran’s Nuclear Challenge: Nine Years and Counting,” International Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 4 (2011), pp. 923-943; S. Samuel C. Rajiv, “India and Iran Nuclear Issue: The Three Policy Determinants,” Strategic Analysis, Vol. 35, No. 1 (2011), pp. 819-835.

[11] Writing in 1963, the great American anthropologist Louis Dupree noted “For centuries Afghanistan was a crossroads: economic (the silk route between China and the West); political (conquerors on the way to and from the riches of India passed through here); and cultural (Buddhism spread to the Far East from Afghanistan). The position of Afghanistan still makes it a bridge between the Persian and Indian worlds, transmitting elements of each to the other.” Louis Dupree,” A Suggested Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Federation,” Middle East Journal, Vol. 17, No. 4 (1963), p. 386.

[12] Fariba Adelkhah and Zuzanna Olszewska, “The Iranian Afghans,” Iranian Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2007), pp. 137-165; Marvin G. Weinbaum, “Pakistan and Afghanistan: The Strategic Relationship,” Asian Survey, Vol. 31, No. 6 (1991), pp. 496-511.

[13] Reportedly, it is Tayeb Agha, a close personal assistant to Mullah Omar. Carlotta Gall and Ruhullah Khapalwak, “U.S. Has Held Meetings with Aide to Taliban Leader, Officials Say,” The New York Times, May 27, 2011.

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