Iran Hedges its Bets in Afghanistan

Iran Hedges its Bets in Afghanistan


Back in 2001, as the United States worked with other world powers to reassemble the pieces in Afghanistan, Iran was a key ally. Despite its long-running conflict with the United States, Tehran pressured and cajoled its allies in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance to compromise in support of what is now the Hamid Karzai-led government in Kabul.

Since then, however, Iran has hedged its bets, providing overt support to Karzai’s government – including, at one time, literally bags of cash – while, at the same time, quietly giving covert backing to the various Afghan insurgent groups including the Taliban. Now there are new reports that Iran may be setting the stage for a more lethal form of aid to the Taliban, sending a not-so-subtle message to Washington that the remaining American and other NATO troops in Afghanistan would be targeted as part of Iran’s retaliation to either a U.S. or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.

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Lately, Iran has reportedly allowed the Taliban to open an office in Zahedan, a city in eastern Iran near the Afghan border. The new office, established by a member of the Taliban’s leadership body, the Quetta Shura, sits along a transit route that passes between Zahedan and Quetta, Pakistan. According to the Wall Street Journal, the location was chosen with an eye towards facilitating closer cooperation between Iran and the Taliban.

So far, in its low-level support to the Taliban, Iran has refused to provide more than token military aid. But the Journal, citing U.S. intelligence intercepts, reports that Iran’s Qods Forces are considering supplying Afghan insurgents with surface-to-air (SAM) missiles. There’s no indication, yet, that such weapons have been provided by Iran, though it’s a potent threat; in the 1980s, in the U.S.-backed Islamist insurgency against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, it was the supply of Stinger SAMs that is widely credited with hastening the USSR’s defeat. Ironically, at that time one of the Afghan insurgent leaders sold the Islamic Republic some of his U.S.-issued Stingers for Tehran to use against Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War as well as against the U.S. in the tanker war.

An official of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan told the Journal that its unlikely that Iran would introduce SAMs in Afghanistan unless a major development took place, such as a U.S. or Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Something significant would have to change, [such as] a strike against the home nation. Then, red lines will be crossed and things will probably change.”

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