As the endgame in Afghanistan begins to take shape, Iran has undertaken a series of political manoeuvrings to promote its interests in the war-ravaged country. By increasing its influence, the Iranian regime hopes to strengthen its domestic security as well as showing its teeth.
On 5 August Teheran was hosting the fourth trilateral summit of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The three countries reached an agreement on the expansion of economic and cultural ties. During this summit, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed the use of a single currency by the three countries and the launching of a joint TV station.
Besides promoting regional extremist terrorist groups and stepping up its clandestine nuclear-weapons program, the Iranian government are actively pursuing old Persian interventionist schemes. The manipulation of the Persian language is one of the devices of this policy. The recent summit was given the deceptive title of ‘three Persian speaking countries’. By this title, the Iranian regime has humiliated almost half its own people and many more across the region. In Iran, a little more than half the population speaks Persian as a mother tongue and the rest speak Kurdish, Azeri, Arabic, Baluchi, Torkmani and other languages; about fifty percent speak Pashtu in Afghanistan; in Tajikistan fifteen percent are native Uzbeks and over 1 percent Russians, and hundreds of thousands speak Pamiri languages.
Calling for a regional alliance in opposition to Nato, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei said in his meeting with the presidents of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran that foreign military forces, “are today targeting and killing Afghan civilians, and their presence in Afghanistan has brought the Afghan people nothing but trouble, sedition, decay and corruption”. The regional alliance is a call for the resumption of the old alliance between Iran, India and Russia in order to protect their interests in Afghanistan once US troops leave the country. Iran is trying to restore the ancient Silk Road with a new project. This project will link Iran to the railroads of Tajikistan via Afghanistan and China with the Tajik railroads via Kazakhstan.
Iran has also announced that in the aim of stabilising Afghanistan, it will soon host an international conference following on from last month’s Kabul conference. The real motive, however, behind this conference is a growing anxiety in Tehran, New Delhi and Islamabad about a possible reconciliation with the Taliban and their return to political power in Kabul. Islamabad desires a mediation role between the Taliban and the US, but opposes any reconciliation in which Afghans themselves decide their own future with the help of the Western powers. Iran is trying to forge a regional alliance with Pakistan, Tajikistan, India, Russia and Afghanistan to potentially oppose US influence and interests in the region. Iran is concerned by the increasing likelihood of reconciliation with the Taliban as Nato powers reduce their demands: General David Petraeus the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan held out on 15 August the prospect of negotiation with the Taliban even with leaders with “blood on their hands”.
In Afghanistan, Iran, like Pakistan, also plays a double game. By supporting Shia factions in the Northern Alliance that was propelled to power after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul, Iran maintains a great influence over Kabul. In addition, Iran has sponsored a few political parties in Afghanistan to promote its agenda in the country. With the Iranian financial backing, these parties now have their own TV stations, expanding their influence across major Afghan cities.
Although the Shia majority Iran helped the US to oust the Taliban regime in 2001, in recent years it is hedging its bets by harbouring love to the Taliban. The litany of Wikileaks’ exposures confirmed what many analysts believed about Iran’s military and financial backing of the Taliban. In a recentWashington Post article, Jeff Stein cited Afghan intelligence reports that in addition to various arms and ammunitions, Iran has supplied new batteries for some three dozen shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles to counter the possible US attack on Kandahar. Iranian military and financial support to the Taliban is spearheaded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In the meantime, Iran enjoys close relations with Karzai, the regime’s another regional trophy. With the request by the Iranian embassy in Kabul, Karzai closed down a private TV channel Emroz (Today) on July 28 after accusing Iran of intervention in Afghanistan and accusing some Shia warlords of being Iranian agents.
Conventional wisdom and lessons learned from the Afghan war suggest that further US military entanglement in Afghanistan is futile. The current strategy has to be altered in a way that could prevent a shift of regional power balance to a point that will benefit only the Iranian regime and extremist militants, which certainly would pose a real obstacle to peace in the region.
Afghanistan can only be stabilised if the US and Nato bring about meaningful reconciliation in the country in order to prevent the war-ravaged country from becoming a playground for Iran, Pakistan and other regional players and a safe haven for al-Qaeda. For Afghanistan, despite its poverty and tribal social and political system, is, as the late Richard Nixon wrote in The Real War, “ a cockpit of great-power intrigue for the same reason that it used to be called ‘the turnstile of Asia’s fate’”.