Analysis: Teheran's stake in regional insecurity

The administration's assumption of a common Iranian-US interest in beating the Taliban is questionable.

Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh (photo credit: AP [file])
Mohammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh
(photo credit: AP [file])
A month ago, US President Barack Obama announced a new strategy to address the current crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama's plan to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaida and the Taliban in "Afpak" includes deployment of an additional 21,000 US troops in Afghanistan, and an increase in civilian officials to aid in developing the Afghan economy and governmental structures. The strategy also contains a diplomatic element. The president said he intended to bring together all those countries who "should have a stake in the security of the region." Among the countries he named as belonging to this group was Iran. Seeking Iranian cooperation in dealing with the grave and urgent situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan looks set to form a cornerstone in the US policy of engagement with Teheran. The first tentative moves in the diplomatic dance between the US and Iran on this issue have already begun. Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently had an "unscheduled" encounter with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Mehdi Akhondzadeh, at a conference on Afghanistan. The administration's approach rests on a crucial assumption: It is considered that since Iran and the Taliban are mortal enemies on the ideological and theological level, and since in the past, Iranians and Taliban have clashed, there ought to be a common Iranian-US interest in defeating or containing the Sunni extremists. This, however, is highly questionable. Closer observation would suggest that, theological and historical matters notwithstanding, Iran has a clear stake in maintaining the absence of security - in "Afpak" and beyond it. The issue is not simple. In certain, limited areas - on the issue of drug trafficking, for example - there is a genuine commonality of interest between Teheran and Washington with regard to Afghanistan. But in the larger, strategic arena, Iran operates according to the dictum that America's difficulty is Iran's opportunity. On this basis, in spite of the relations of mutual loathing that pertain between the Shi'ite regime in Teheran and the Sunni, Deobandi extremists of the Taliban, ample evidence points to Iranian covert assistance to the Afghan insurgents engaged in war against NATO forces in the country. In April 2007, NATO forces intercepted two convoys carrying Iranian arms to the Taliban. A recent French media report noted the existence of three training camps for Taliban fighters in Iran. British forces in Afghanistan last year reported evidence that Iran has been supplying Taliban fighters with similar sophisticated roadside-bomb-making equipment to that given by Teheran to Shi'ite insurgents in southern Iraq. Both Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus and NATO spokesman James Appathurai recently confirmed reports of Iranian assistance to the Taliban. The assistance to the Taliban follows the familiar broader pattern of encouragement of instability across the region. Iran is in the business of challenging the US-dominated order in the Middle East. Preventing an American achievement in Afghanistan, and keeping NATO forces bogged down in an endless, bloody slogging match in the country represents a natural expression of this. This strategy may be seen at work elsewhere. In Iraq, Iran is maintaining its support for Shi'ite insurgents in the Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) organization. These forces suffered severe disruption at the hands of US troops in 2007 and 2008, with many militants taking refuge in Iran. Evidence suggests that their operations are now once again on the increase in Iraq. The Iranians make little effort to conceal their links with the Shi'ite insurgents. Ahl al-Haq militants are armed with Iranian made Fajr-3 missiles and explosive formed projectiles (IEDs) used in roadside bomb attacks. So while the Iranians will be happy to talk if invited to, the talking will take place simultaneously with continued Iranian assistance to forces engaged in killing US troops in the two conflict zones in which they are currently deployed in the Middle East. Both the talking and the fighting are part of a unified strategy for building Teheran's influence and power. A recent report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy quoted a British official who recalled his experiences as a member of the EU's negotiating team on Teheran's nuclear program. The official, Sir John Sawers, noted that the negotiations were taking place at the same time that British soldiers in southern Iraq were under attack from Iranian made missiles and IEDs, in the hands of Iraqi Shi'ite insurgents. He recalled that "the Iranians wanted to be able to strike a deal whereby they stopped killing our forces in Iraq in return for them being allowed to carry on with their nuclear program." This approach to diplomacy reflects the confident self-assertion of a regime that regards itself as the "rising sun" striving toward ascendance across the region. The US administration thinks that Teheran "should" support regional security and stability. The problem is that the Iranian regime appears to have a different way of calibrating its interests. In the Iranian approach, support for violence and insurgency brings with it myriad advantages. The Western powers, prevented from attaining their objectives, appear weak and helpless. The enemy, bogged down in conflicts elsewhere, has less time and capital to spend on containing Iranian ambitions. And finally - as Sir John Sawers's recollections indicate - proxies can always be abandoned at an opportune moment, in order to buy time for projects of truly central importance. Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.