Foreign and Defense Policy, Middle East and North Africa

Iran wields soft power in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, has written an informative piece on the BBC Pashto website, explaining Iran’s soft power and hard power activities aimed at expanding the country’s influence in Afghanistan and undermining U.S. interests there. He notes that three principal Iranian entities are tasked with furthering this agenda: the clerical establishment in Qom, the Ministry of Intelligence, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), especially its secretive Quds Force.

  • Clerical establishment in Qom: Saleh says the clergy in Iran’s holy city of Qom is responsible for “expanding Iran’s soft power and political influence through support for Shia minorities – not just in Afghanistan but in the entire region.” He adds, “The establishment funds Shia mosques; provides higher education for Shia clerics; holds public ceremonies for Ashura; and helps to foster harmony and religious unity between influential Shia figures. They [clergy in Qom] are said to possess a list of Afghan Shia clerics and maintain contact with each of them in one way or another. Religious leaders who do not agree with Qom…are deprived of Iranian assistance.”
  • Ministry of Intelligence:  According to Saleh, Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence has assigned its external branch to collect intelligence in Afghanistan by cultivating close ties with Afghan officials, particularly in the ministries of foreign affairs, interior, defense and water and energy, as well as in western Afghan provinces bordering Iran.
  • Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC): Saleh alleges that the IRGC has assigned two branches of its secretive Quds Force – the Ansar Headquarters based in Mashhad and the 23rd Headquarters in Birjand – to carry out “sabotage” and other subversive activities in Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Iran have a reciprocal visa waiver program for diplomats, and Saleh believes this allows IRGC officers to enter Afghanistan as diplomats without any scrutiny and supervision by Afghan authorities. He adds that Iranian spies also disguise as businessmen, aid workers, journalists and civilians.

As Washington is set to end its combat mission in Afghanistan this spring and withdraw most of the remaining 68,000 troops by next year’s end, Iran appears to have intensified its soft power and hard power activities to fill in the vacuum and undermine U.S. interests in the region. Iran uses its political and economic clout to pressure Kabul to cut ties with Washington, and provides material and financial support to insurgent groups in Afghanistan to expedite the U.S. withdrawal. (Read AEI’s reports and articles on Iran’s influence in Afghanistan here, here, here, and here.)

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