Iran's role in Afghanistan in the modern era : leveraging influence for regional supremacy

  • Heather Macleod Robinson

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


This dissertation provides an in-depth historical analysis of the motivations and actions surrounding Iran’s foreign policy toward Afghanistan in the modern era. The need for this research stems from a significant gap in Western scholarship on the Iranian-Afghan relationship that accounts for any period of the countries’ interactions in detail. It is argued here that despite rhetoric to the contrary, successive Iranian governments consistently pursued policies of political, military, and economic interference in Afghanistan as an integral part of Iran’s desire to achieve a dominant position of leadership in its region. This persistent approach has been grounded in both the historical experience and the mythology surrounding Iran’s once-great status as an empire, which was destroyed by the Afghans and the great powers during the colonial period, and the resultant Iranian irredentism toward Afghanistan that followed. In analysing the course of Iran’s policy toward Afghanistan, a defining feature is that it has never been divorced from Iran’s competition against the great powers that have continuously been involved in Afghanistan and the region. This work first provides a long-view historical context of the Iranian-Afghan relationship, which demonstrates that since Afghanistan separated from the Persian Empire in 1747, Afghanistan held an important place of relevance in the perpetuation of myths that underpin the persistent ideology of Iranian nationalism, which manifest in an Iranian foreign policy of interventionism toward Afghanistan. This, combined with the continued strategic importance of Afghanistan to the great powers and their encroachment on Iran and Afghanistan, heavily influenced Iran’s foreign policy toward Afghanistan. During the Cold War, Iran used the power gained from aligning with the United States to develop political, economic, and military dominance over Afghanistan and leveraged that to successfully attain regional leadership separate from the United States and in competition with the Soviet Union. When the Islamic Republic was created in 1979, despite its ideological and structural differences from previous Iranian regimes, the policy toward Afghanistan and its importance to Iran’s wider foreign policy aims, were consistent with previous regimes’ motivations. This regime’s ‘export’ of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary influence to different Afghan polities during the Soviet occupation was a religious manifestation of the same Iranian nationalist ideology that was primarily concerned with advancing Iran’s regional position in competition with the Soviet Union and the United States.
Date of Award30 Jul 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorAli Massoud Ansari (Supervisor)

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