Reporting and official reaction in Iran over the death of Osama bin Laden last week was in many ways surprisingly mixed. Some Iranian officials were openly sceptical about the veracity of US claims that bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Iranian Minister of Intelligence Heydar Moslehi was one of them, declaring soon after the news broke that the al-Qaeda leader had, in fact, ‘died of illness some time ago.’
Even some of those who accepted US claims that he had only just been killed were dismissive over the likely impact of bin Laden’s death, not least because of the still popular view amongst some Iranian politicians that bin Laden was actually a CIA agent. This view was reportedly voiced by Iran's ambassador to Indonesia, Mahmoud Farazandeh, and echoed by former Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who stated that the United States ‘could have killed Bin Laden 10 years ago, but didn't.’ According to Mottaki, the decision to kill him now was taken because he was an ‘egg that was about to become rotten.’
Such views weren’t confined to the political class—Iranian news agencies chimed in with similar sentiments, including Seratnews, which somewhat outrageously suggested that CNN filmed bin Laden's body being fed to sharks, with this footage then allegedly having been broadcast to US soldiers.
In a way, this is all a little puzzling. After all, Sunni bin Laden and his al-Qaeda outfit were enemies of Shiite Iran. Indeed, bin Laden’s affiliates in Kuwait even issued a fatwa against Iran in 2007. Bin Laden was fanatically anti-Shiite, and al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been responsible for the slaughter of thousands of Shiites, including in Iraq.
With this in mind, you’d think that Iranian officials and the media would be upbeat over bin Laden’s death. So what’s behind the gloom?
To Iran's leaders, the country's nuclear programme and its standing in the international community are more important than the safety of Iraq's Shiites. So it’s to Iran's dismay that bin Laden's death has boosted the standing of another one of its foes, a man who has proved himself capable of hurting Iran's nuclear efforts through sanctions and covert operations, while isolating it at the United Nations—Barack Obama.
Iran appears genuinely worried that the recent operation in Afghanistan could boost Obama's re-election chances (and judging by some of the post-operation polls, they could be right). In fact, it’s hard not to get the sense that if Iran's leaders could have chosen between anti-Shia bin Laden being killed or Obama losing the next presidential election, they’d have opted for the latter.
And there’s also the perceived military threat. Iran's generals must be asking themselves if US helicopters can evade Pakistani air defences, how long will it be before they use the same technology to cross the border from Afghanistan into Iran?
Another factor is Pakistan. With bin Laden having been found deep inside Pakistani territory, the government there is now under tremendous pressure from the United States, and Iran will be left wondering whether Islamabad will now move closer to Washington in order to stave off further US criticism.
Certainly, Islamabad is going to become much more careful over its dealings with Iran, and could decide to turn a blind eye toward the operations by the Jundallah terrorist organization, which operates from Balochistan, and which has been successful at launching deadly operations against targets inside Iran. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the United States using its new leverage to pressure Pakistan into cancelling a $7.5 billion gas pipeline deal under which Pakistan would start buying gas from Iran starting from 2015.
Under these current circumstances, therefore, Iran's leaders essentially have three options for responding.
The first but perhaps most unlikely choice is to improve relations with the United States. The death of bin Laden provides Iran's leaders with a golden opportunity to take advantage of Islamabad’s weakened position and enter into serious negotiations over Afghanistan. Both sides have for years competed for influence in Afghanistan, and Tehran could reap numerous benefits if it opened up a dialogue with the United States that included Afghanistan.
Of course, it remains doubtful Iran will use this opportunity, not least because of the compromises that it would have to make over its nuclear programme. But without such a move, it’s extremely unlikely that the United States would be interested in such talks.
The second option is to do nothing and watch Obama translate his recent accomplishments into votes at the ballot box next November.
The third option is renewed and increased cooperation with the Taliban in Afghanistan as a means of undermining the recent US gains in the area. More importantly from Iran’s point of view, a rapid deterioration in Afghanistan could hurt Obama's chances of re-election. Although the Taliban has also declared Iran an enemy, there’s very recent evidence that Iran has cooperated with the Taliban by supplying it with weapons.
Sadly, recent history and Iran’s stated priorities suggest Tehran is most likely to lean toward this last option, rather than seizing a rare opportunity to initiate a thaw with a long-time foe.
Whatever the elation felt in the United States over the death of bin Laden, it’s a troubling possibility that its policymakers must now plan for.