Afghanistan–Iran relations were established in 1935 during King Zahir Shah's reign and the Pahlavi dynasty of Persia. Afghanistan and Iran share similar language, ethnicity, culture, religion, and history (Afghanistan and Iran became separate countries only in the late 1700s.) However, relations between the two countries have been negatively affected by issues related to the 1978–present war (i.e. Mujahideen, Afghan refugees, Taliban and the occasional border skirmishes), including water, the growing influence of the United States in Afghanistan, smuggling, and the execution of thousands of Afghan prisoners in Iran.
Afghanistan shares a long and intertwined history with Iran. The historical area of Ariana and Bactria (present-day Afghanistan), had been several times annexed by the Persian Empire in antiquity, medieval and in modern times, specifically under the Achaemenid, Parthian, Sassanian, Safavid and the Afsharid dynasty.
When the Safavid dynasty was founded in Persia (present-day Iran), part of Afghanistan was ruled by the Khanate of Bukhara in the north and Babur from Kabulistan. Wars began between the Shi'a Safavids and the larger Sunnis, particularly in Kandahar which was a constant battleground. The Safavids were oppressing the Afghan tribals by attempting to forcefully convert them from Sunni Islam to Shi'a Islam. It remained this way until the rise of Mir Wais Hotak, a well-respected Sunni Ghilzai Pashtun tribal chief. While the Shi'a Safavids were already in decline in the early 18th due to foreign interests (Dutch, British and Russians respectively), bad governmental policy, and various raids on its frontiers by Baloch tribes and peninsula Arabs, Mir Weis Hotak succeeded in defeating the Safavids in a succession of battles and declared southern Afghanistan a completely independent country. His son Mahmud conquered Persia in 1722 and soon after the Safavid dynasty ended.
Despite these event of the past, there are close ties between the two countries in language, its people and culture. As an eastern dialect of Persian, Dari is the second official language of Afghanistan. It is the most widely used language, especially in terms of education and business. Afghanistan's relations with Iran have fluctuated in recent decades, namely due to the control of the country by the oppressing Taliban government in the 1990s and with periodic disputes over the water rights of the Helmand River as the main issue of contention.
Afghanistan signed a treaty of friendship with Iran in 1921, when the country was ruled by King Amanullah Khan and Iran was still under the Qajar dynasty. In September 1961 ties between two countries were broken off and resumed in May 1963.
Prior to 1979, the year in which both Iran underwent the Iranian Revolution and Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviet Union, the issue of water rights of the Helmand River were an issue of great importance between the two nations. Disputes over the Helmand water are noted in the 1870s, flaring again after the river changed course in 1896. In 1939, the kings of the two countries signed an accord to share water rights, which was signed but never ratified; this was repeated in 1973 with a treaty between the prime ministers of both nations, and again not ratified.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union sent around 100,000 troops to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan to overthrow Hafizullah Amin, coming into conflict with the nationwide mujahideen insurgency. The mujahideen were made up of various groups that were trained by Pakistan and Iran. Relations between Afghanistan and Iran quickly deteriorated. During the same year, President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed in neighboring Pakistan and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the Iranian Revolution. The Iranian consulate in Herat closed, as did the Afghan consulate in Mashad. In 1985, Iran urged Afghan Shi'a groups to unite and oppose the Government of Afghanistan. Iran supported the cause of the mujahideen rebels and provided various types of assistances to them who pledged loyalty to the Iranian Revolution.
In the meantime, over a million Afghan refugees were allowed to enter Iran. Some of these Afghans living in Iran began to be discriminated, persecuted, tortured and executed by hanging. Following the emergence of the Taliban government and their harsh treatment of Afghanistan's minorities, Iran stepped up assistance to the Northern Alliance. Relations with the Taliban deteriorated further in 1998 after Taliban forces seized the Iranian consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif and executed Iranian diplomats.
Since late 2001, the new Afghan government under Hamid Karzai has engaged in cordial relations with both Iran and the United States, even as relations between the United States and Iran have grown strained due to American objections to Iran's nuclear program. Iran was a key factor in the overthrow of the Taliban and has since helped revive Afghanistan's economy and infrastructure. It re-opened the Iranian Embassy in Kabul and its associated consulates in other Afghan cities. In the meantime, Iran joined the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Most of its contributions are aimed at developing the Afghan Shi'a communities, especially the ethnic Hazaras and Qizilbash. Iran also has influence on political parties represented by ethnic Tajiks, which includes Abdullah Abdullah's Coalition for Change and Hope and others. On the contrary, many Afghan politicians and experts claim that both Iran and Pakistan are working to weaken Afghanistan. In 2006, Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned that "Iran and Pakistan and others are not fooling anyone" when it comes to interfering in his country.
"If they don't stop, the consequences will be … that the region will suffer with us equally. In the past we have suffered alone; this time everybody will suffer with us.… Any effort to divide Afghanistan ethnically or weaken it will create the same thing in the neighboring countries. All the countries in the neighborhood have the same ethnic groups that we have, so they should know that it is a different ball game this time."
Besides Afghan law makers, leaders in the United States and many NATO officials also believe that Iran is meddling in Afghanistan by playing a double game. Iran usually denies these accusations. For a number of years many senior ISAF officials and others have been accusing Iran of supplying and training the Taliban insurgents.
"We did interdict a shipment, without question the Revolutionary Guard's core Quds Force, through a known Taliban facilitator. Three of the individuals were killed... Iranians certainly view as making life more difficult for us if Afghanistan is unstable. We don't have that kind of relationship with the Iranians. That's why I am particularly troubled by the interception of weapons coming from Iran. But we know that it's more than weapons; it's money; it's also according to some reports, training at Iranian camps as well."
The government of Iran is strongly against the American military presence in Afghanistan. Iranian officials often criticize specifically the American military in Afghanistan despite that there are also around 50,000 European and other peace keeping troops.
"The Americans will have the same success in Afghanistan as in Vietnam. Years ago the Soviet Union made exactly the same mistake. Many people were killed and it finally pulled out. History repeats itself. We know Afghanistan. We know that Afghanistan will never submit to foreign armies."—Ali Larijani, July 2010
Ties between Afghanistan and Iran became further strained in recent years due to Iran's toughened immigration policy, hastening the repatriation of many Afghan asylum seekers. A number of Afghans were executed by hanging in the streets of Iran, which sparked angry demonstrations in Afghanistan. Between 2010 and 2011, Afghan and Iranian security forces were involved in border skirmish in Nimroz Province of Afghanistan. In July 2011, Iran decided to cut off electricity exports to Afghanistan's Nimroz Province. In March 2012, Najibullah Kabuli, leader of the National Participation Front (NPF) of Afghanistan, accused three senior leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards of plotting to assassinate him. Some members of the Afghan Parliament accuses Iran of setting up Taliban bases in several Iranian cities, and that "Iran is directly involved in fanning ethnic, linguistic and sectarian tensions in Afghanistan." There are constant reports about Iran's Revolutionary Guards training Afghans inside Iran to carry out terrorist attacks in Afghanistan.
—Syed Kamal, a self-confessed agent for Iran's Revolutionary Guards and member of Sipah-i-Mohmmad
Afghanistan has an embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashad. As of 2007, Iran charges Afghans over $100 US dollars for a one month regular visa and a business visa costs them over $3,000 US dollars. Before 2007, the visa was issued with only $35 fee.
Trade between the two nations has increased dramatically since the overthrow of the Taliban government in late 2001. Iran and Afghanistan plan on building a new rail line connecting Mashhad to Herat. In 2009, Iran was one of the largest investor in Afghanistan, which is mainly in the construction of roads and bridges as well as agriculture and health care.
According to the chairman of Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, Iran's exports to Afghanistan in 2008 stood at $800 million. IRNA quoted Mohammad Qorban Haqju as saying that Iran imported $4 million worth of products like fresh and dried fruits, minerals, precious stones, and spices from the neighboring country. He said that Iran exported oil products, cement, construction material, carpets, home appliances, and detergents. Iran imported nuts, carpets, agricultural products as well as handicrafts from Afghanistan. Afghanistan imports 90 percent of its needs, except agricultural products.
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