U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan

  • Mar 12, 2012

    US and Iranian efforts to bolster their strategic ties to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia are another significant aspect of their confrontation.  This aspect of the competition between them is analyzed in detail in U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan. It is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/120312_Iran_Chapter_X_AfPakCentAsia_AHC.pdf

    The Analysis shows US-Iranian strategic competition is limited in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, although all are of interest for both Washington and Tehran. The segmented nature of the region means that neither country has a holistic strategy for the region, and instead pursue an independent foreign policy to account for their specific interests within each country.

    Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia do offer complex challenges for both the US and Iran, with many ethnic divisions, historical tensions, and a shared pattern of economic underdevelopment with the potential for large-scale unrest. The expected withdrawal of US forces in 2014 will have a major impact on regional policies. It is expected that Iran will attempt to expand its influence, while the US deliberates on what extent of material commitment is appropriate for its post-Afghan regional interests.

    The US has many hard decisions to make, which will be driven by various issues including the war in Afghanistan, the growing instability in Pakistan, and whether the US should actively pursue strategic interest in Central Asia in the face of Russian and Chinese pressures and advantages.

    Iran is a player in the equation. Many countries in the region are on its direct periphery, and the forces of instability, violence and criminality transcend regional borders. So far, in net terms, Iranian influence in the region has been positive, but growing US-Iranian competition can lead to negative competition predicated on emotion, rather than rational strategic interest.

    In Afghanistan, Iran has contributed to stabilization efforts in Western Afghanistan, but has also supported some attacks against US forces, and controls the main logistics route for the UN food effort. Iran is expanding its role in Afghanistan and will seek enhanced protection for Shiite minorities inside Afghanistan, and increased economic and political influence inside the country, not just in Western Afghanistan, but also with the government in Kabul.

    Iran is pursuing a warmer relationship with Pakistan to augment efforts to tighten border security and prevent instability along its eastern flank. Such a thaw in relations faces many problems, including the Sunni-Shia schism between the two countries, the impact of Iranian-Saudi regional competition, trans-border criminal syndicates and suspected Pakistani sanctuaries for Baloch separatist groups complicit in terrorist violence inside Iran. Both countries, however, have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the US military presence in the region, and neither is keen on a long-term US presence in the region, opening a window for potential cooperation.

    As for Central Asia, it is not clear that Iran is capable of being a dominant player in a region when China, Russia, and Turkey are major actors and each Central Asian state is playing as many outside and local powers off against each other as possible. A declining US need for the region as a logistical hub for military supplies to Afghanistan is likely to impact on the US relationship with each country, and will likely result in reduced US attention and commitment. However, extensive hydrocarbon deposits in some countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, are important considerations, and will likely be areas of increased competition. 

    In total, strategic competition is not the primary consideration for US and Iranian policy in this region. Both countries have evolving interests that are likely to change in terms of hierarchy in each country’s grand strategic objectives in the post-Afghan era. The manner of US withdrawal from the region, and the nature of broader US-Iranian competition will likely affect the manner and scale of engagement, and determine whether the region becomes central or peripheral to broader trends of competition.

    This report is a working draft, part of a comprehensive survey of US and Iranian competition made possible through the funding of the Smith Richardson Foundation, and which is to be published as an electronic book in early March.  Comments and suggestions would be most helpful. They should be sent to Anthony H. Cordesman at acordesman@gmail.com.

    Other draft chapters and reports in this series include:

    1. Introduction
    2. Types and Levels of Competition - This chapter looks at the various arenas in which Iran and the U.S. compete for influence.
    3. Iran and the Gulf Military Balance - This chapter looks at Iran’s Military forces in detail, and the balance of forces in the Gulf Region.
    4. Iran and the Gulf Military Balance II – This chapter looks at Iran’s Missile and Nuclear forces.
    5. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change - This chapter examines the impact of sanctions on the Iranian regime, Iran’s energy sector, and the prospects for regime change in Tehran.
    6. US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen - This chapter examines the competition between the US, and Iran and how it affects Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman and Qatar.
    7. The Outcome of Invasion: US and Iranian Strategic Competition in Iraq - This chapter examines in detail the role Iran has played in Iraq since 2003, and how the US has tried to counter it.
    8. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Proxy Cold War in the Levant, Egypt and Jordan - This chapter examines US and Iranian interests in the Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Syria.  The military balance is also analyzed.
    9. The United States and Iran: Competition involving Turkey and the South Caucasus - This chapter analyzes the US and Iranian competition over influence in Armenia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia.
    10. Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan - This chapter examines the important role Iran plays in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, and how the US and Iranian rivalry affects Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
    11. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Impact of China and Russia - This chapter examines the complex and evolving relationships between China, Russia, Iran and the US.
    12. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Competition Involving the EU, EU3, and non-EU European States - This chapter looks at the role the EU, and in particular the EU3, have played as the U.S.’s closest allies in its competition with Iran.
    13. U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: Peripheral Competition Involving Latin America and Africa - This chapter examines the extent and importance of the competition between the US and Iran in the rest of the world.