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.
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.”
It would, of course, be a high-stakes gamble for Iran. For many years, Iran has sought to extend its influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, particularly in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, taking advantage of the many Persian-speaking and Shiite sectarian groups in the region. Often, Iran’s efforts have been one side of a decades-long shadow war against Saudi Arabia, which, in turn, has funded and supported ultraconservative Sunni groups, such as anti-Shiite Wahhabi mosques and the Deobandi movement, the latter of which the Taliban ascribes too.
Indeed the Taliban and Iran have a murky history that goes beyond the Saudi government’s support to the Taliban. Most notably, when the Taliban conquered Afghanistan’s fourth largest city, Mazar-i-Sharif, from the Northern Alliance in 1998, Taliban-linked fighters stormed the Iranian embassy and massacred the nine Iranian diplomats and one journalist inside. This prompted Iran to amass 200,000 soldiers at its border with Afghanistan in preparation for a full-scale invasion. Although the two sides traded fire on at least one occasion, they stepped back from the brink of war partly as a result of U.N. mediation. Still, tensions remained high and Iran was all too willing to assist the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
But geopolitics, primarily Iran’s fear of an American attack – and its concern over American military forces in Afghanistan and, until recently, Iraq – may have led strategists in Tehran to apply the enemy-of-my-enemy doctrine to the Taliban
Such speculation isn’t new. In fact in a 2011 report commissioned by the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, the RAND Corporation concluded that, “Iran currently provides measured support to the Taliban, perhaps as a way to signal to the United States that it can increase its support in the event of hostilities. Potential U.S. or Israeli military actions against Iran’s nuclear facilities could result in more-significant Iranian aid to the Taliban, including the provision of advanced explosively formed projectiles and surface-to-air missiles.” According to the report, Tehran’s activities in Iran are directed by the IRGC’s Qods Force, an elite unit within the IRGC that handles covert operations abroad and which has evolved into a “less-ideological and more-professional elite unit spearheading Iran’s asymmetric military doctrine.”
For its own reasons, the United States has often accused Iran of working closely with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Though Iran may have engaged with some of those elements, despite their pronounced anti-Iran and anti-Shiite bias, many analysts in Washington believe that the United States is exaggerating Iran’s ties to these forces.
Since 1984, the United States has designated Iran as one of four “state sponsors of terrorism.” In the most recent report, released by the State Department last week for 2011, the State Department explicitly accused Iran of arming the Taliban:
“Qods Force provided training to the Taliban in Afghanistan on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons, such as mortars, artillery, and rockets. Since 2006, Iran has arranged arms shipments to select Taliban members, including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives. Iran has shipped a large number of weapons to Kandahar, Afghanistan, in particular, aiming to increase its influence in this key province.”
But the report, which covered events in 2011, made no mention of any Taliban office in Zahedan.
In his briefing for reporters about the report’s release, however, Dan Benjamin, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, shied away from emphasizing Iran’s role in Afghanistan. “Iran,” he said, “is and remains the preeminent state sponsor of terrorism in the world. We are deeply concerned about Iran’s activities on its own through the IRGC-Qods Force.” But, while he said that Iran’s Qods Force pursues “destabilizing activities around the globe,” he refused to be specific when asked to identify areas where Iran is involved. “As you know,” he said, “there are investigations going on in quite a number of different countries. I think that the appropriate thing is to allow those countries to speak for the status of those investigations, but quite a number of them bear the hallmarks of either Iranian or Hezbollah activities.” For the most part, Benjamin seemed to be focused on Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas and on recent speculation that Iran is behind a series of low-level terrorist attacks in Bulgaria, Thailand, and South Asia targeting Israelis and Israeli diplomats – not Afghanistan.
Without question, unrelated to its support (or lack thereof) for the Taliban, Iran wields great influence in Afghanistan. It has built close ties with anti-Taliban ethnic minorities, especially minority-Shiite Hazaras and the Tajiks, a Sunni but anti-Taliban (and anti-Pashtun) minority. It has invested vast sums in economic development projects in Afghanistan, funded media outlets, and, according to some reports, has as many as 44 of the 249 members of the Afghan parliament on its payroll.
Between 2003 and 2011, Iran and the United States fought a kind of proxy war in Iraq, with Iran providing support to militant Shiites such as Muqtada al-Sadr and to Iraqi groups such as the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which was founded in the 1980s as an arm of the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq war. Currently, the United States and Iran have mostly shelved their differences uniting – in different ways – behind the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who often tilts toward Tehran.
It’s possible that a more kinetic U.S.-Iran conflict could erupt, in similar fashion, in Afghanistan, too. But, barring a U.S. war against Iran over its nuclear program, it’s far more likely that Iran will await the 2014 drawdown of U.S. forces to its east, meanwhile building its soft-power ties to whatever forces emerge to put together the post-Karzai government. As both the United States and Iran realize, that’s likely to embody a rebalanced regime in Kabul that includes both the Taliban and its opponents.