Backgrounder: Is Iran Abetting the Taliban?
By LIONEL BEEHNER: New York Times, June 11, 2007
(An updated version available on Council on Foreign Relations's website)
U.S. officials say they have found evidence that Iran has supplied weapons to Taliban rebels operating along the Afghan-Pakistani border. This has prompted questions about why majority Shiite Iran would support a Sunni-led force it has opposed for more than a decade. But some experts say there are a number of reasons why a strengthened Taliban would serve Iran’s interests, particularly in keeping U.S. forces off balance, as well as potentially deflecting pressure over its nuclear program. Historical tensions complicate relations between Iran and Afghanistan, but their commercial and cultural ties have developed since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. Reports of aid to the Taliban suggest that different elements within Iran’s government may be pursuing dual-track policies in Afghanistan.
What is Iran's alleged military involvement in Afghanistan?
Defense Secretary Robert Gates alleged on June 5 that Iranian-made weapons, including Tehran’s signature roadside bomb—the explosively formed penetrator (EFP)—as well as AK-47s, C-4 plastic explosives, and mortars have been found in Afghanistan and used by Taliban-led insurgents in recent months. Gates said deliveries of Iranian weapons to Taliban forces were made but he did not accuse the highest levels of the Iranian government of signing off on the shipments. U.S. officials are concerned because Taliban forces increasingly use more sophisticated weaponry and mimic the style of suicide attacks popular among insurgents in Iraq. Iran also stands accused of offering sanctuary to opponents of the Afghan government and violating Afghan airspace. Iranian officials deny the charges.
But experts disagree whether the Iranian government is directly involved. Some say the weapons could have been smuggled into Afghanistan via various third-party channels. Others suggest they are being supplied by hard-line components within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which has a separate agenda from the Iranian foreign ministry, which in turn has a separate agenda from Iran’s business community. “We’re talking about rogue elements,” says Col. Christopher Langton, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “maybe even cross-border organizational criminal groupings.” He adds that arms factories in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province make copies of those weapons made in Iran.
Why would Tehran help the Taliban?
Experts say a strengthened Taliban would benefit Tehran in a number of ways. Peter Tomsen, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, says a weakened Afghan state lessens the likelihood it can become a U.S. ally against Iran. By maintaining a certain level of instability, he says, “it keeps us tied down. After all, we have airbases in Afghanistan where we could mount attacks on Iran.” Some analysts call it “managed chaos,” a strategy they say is similar to the one Iran employs in Iraq. Abetting the Taliban also boosts Iran’s leverage at a time when it is under pressure to end its uranium-enrichment program. “It’s saying, ‘If you push us on the nuclear issue, we can make life hell for you not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan,’” says Amin Tarzi, an Afghan expert at Radio Free Liberty/Radio Liberty.
In Iraq, Iran has clearly thrown its support behind majority Shiites against Sunni forces but it has backed Sunni groups elsewhere. W. Abbas Samii, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, says Tehran has supplied funding and weaponry to Palestinian Sunni groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad. “For Iran, this is a strategic and military issue, not a theological debate,” says Samii. Ray Takeyh, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in his book, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic: “[F]or Tehran the issue in Afghanistan has not been ideological conformity but stability.” Iran has long supported Sunni Tajik and Pashtun opposition groups there. “If you look at the roulette table, Iran is putting money on a many different numbers in Afghanistan,” says Tarzi.
Does Iran favor a return of Taliban rule?
No. The mullahs in Iran and the Taliban leadership have never gotten along. “I’m quite sure Iran does not want a return of Taliban-style rule on its border, which would bring, in addition to Pakistan, another adversarial state,” says Col. Langton. Iran remains suspicious of the Taliban’s ties to Pakistan and, in response, has cultivated stronger ties to India, which includes building a road linking the two states and inking a number of energy deals with Indian firms. Yet Iran also has exploited the current rift between Kabul and Islamabad by enhancing trade links with Afghanistan. “This reality limits Washington’s option to pressure Tehran since if Iran blocks the border, the Afghan economy could collapse,” writes Mohammed Tahir in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.
What are Iran's ultimate interests in Afghanistan?
U.S., NATO, and UN officials have all noted Tehran’s support of the current government in Kabul. A number of experts stress that Iran wants stability and prosperity on its eastern doorstep for commercial and trade reasons. That explains why Iran has been such a large donor—giving about $600 million since 2001, according to its foreign ministry—for various reconstruction projects. Iran also wants its population of about 900,000 Afghan refugees, who have aggravated tensions among Iranians by competing for scarce jobs, to one day return to their homeland. Over 850,000 have been repatriated since 2002 but the pace of return has slowed in recent years. Finally, Tehran has sought to curb the flow of opium across the Afghan border, which has generated a drug abuse crisis in Iran; an estimated two million Iranians are drug addicts. “It’s a sensible decision on the part of Tehran if Afghanistan is rebuilt and becomes a normal autonomous state so that all the refugees can go home and the flow of narcotics ends,” says Samii.
How have recent Iranian-Afghan relations evolved?
Iran has close linguistic and cultural ties to Afghanistan, particularly with Dari-speaking Shiite groups in Herat province and central Afghanistan. Tehran opened its borders to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees during the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and later in the 1990s worked with various mujahideen groups, including the Northern Alliance, to undermine Soviet influence and later Taliban rule. After the Taliban took power in 1996, Iran’s Supreme Leader denounced the Taliban as an affront to Islam, and the killing of eleven Iranian diplomats and truck drivers in 1998 by what Langton calls “rogue” Taliban elements almost triggered a military conflict. Iran worked with Western countries as part of the Six-Plus-Two framework on Afghanistan and also at the Bonn Conference after 9/11 to cobble together a post-Taliban system of government. Tehran normalized relations with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, even while hard-line elements within the Iranian leadership have sought to destabilize Afghanistan, says the Center for Naval Analyses’ Samii.
But Iran’s influence has also bred resentment among some local Afghans. Takeyh writes: “The fiercely independent Afghan tribes have historically resisted Persian encroachment and have jealously guarded their rights.”