Details of direct Iranian influence and clandestine military activity in the conflict zones of Afghanistan and Iraq were revealed in separate reports this weekend, including allegations that Tehran regularly funnels cash to top aides of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, and specific accounts of Iran’s support of Shiite militias in Iraq.
In an article published in Saturday’s New York Times and based on interviews with anonymous Afghan and Nato sources, Dexter Filkins describes an episode that occurred this past August in which Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan gave a large bag stuffed with euro bills to Umar Daudzai, President Karzai’s chief of staff, on Karzai’s personal plane. The exchange is portrayed as only a small glimpse of the huge cash payments that flow regularly from Tehran to the presidential palace in Kabul, in what appears to be a calculated and long-term programme by Iranian officials to purchase and extend influence in that country.
The payments, labeled a ‘presidential slush fund’ totaling well into the millions of dollars, are said to be used by Karzai and Daudzai, a former ambassador to Iran with ties to Hizb-i-Islami, a militant Islamist group, to buy the support of various tribal leaders, lawmakers, and various members of the Taliban. Few would argue that such a payment scheme is not possible, or even quite likely. Isobel Coleman, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains: ‘It’s not surprising at all…The US would be naïve to think Iran is not trying to exert itself in Afghanistan.’
Initial reports from the Afghan and Iranian parties involved claimed the reports were ‘rubbish’ and ‘devilish gossip by the West and foreign media,’ however President Karzai admitted on Monday morning that his office indeed receives payments from the Iranian government, used to ‘pay for presidential expenses.’ Karzai, who asserted that the Iranian cash is no different than payments made to him by the United States, claimed the payments totaled less than two million euros a year, with Iran asking for ‘good relations in return’. He then said: ‘They do give us bags of money. Yes, yes they do. It’s all the same. So let’s not make this an issue.’
Meanwhile, the release on Saturday by the independent ‘whistle-blowing’ group WikiLeaks of 391,832 classified documents chronicling the Iraq War, the largest leak US military history, provide a highly detailed narrative of Iran’s clandestine involvement in that country, especially during the bloody height of sectarian violence. The documents support longstanding claims by Nato officials and others that Iran has been supplying Shiite militias with covert training and support, including rockets, missiles, chemical weapons, rifles, highly advanced and deadly IEDs, and more. Newly revealed information includes reports of Iranian plans to attack US military convoys and kidnap American soldiers, and a report of a violent border incident between a US platoon and an Iranian soldier, in which the latter was killed, apparently the first mention of a firefight between American and Iranian troops in the entire war.
The openSecurity verdict: The Afghan accusations emerge at a particularly sensitive moment, as the race for influence in the region heats up in the midst of rumors of meetings between Taliban leaders and the Afghan government to arrive at a compromised end to the war. Iranian officials view with unease the presence of large numbers of US and Western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, countries which both share a border with Iran, and any cash payments are likely intended to counter Western military plans and ensure that Iranian interests are favoured in the halls of the presidential palace after American and Nato troops inevitably pull out of the country. As one analyst puts it, ‘Iran also will be Afghanistan's neighbor long after the American interlude is a memory. President Karzai is wise to accept Iranian support.’
Despite reports that the payments are being used to fund factions of the Taliban, Iranian leaders have no interest in seeing Afghanistan implode with violence. The more likely intention is to frustrate daily Nato military operations and prevent the formation of a strong Western-leaning central government; to sabotage and ‘wait-out’ Nato and swoop in with vigor when it leaves.
Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and China, have a similar mindset, in what Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, calls a ‘prolonged competition for influence’ in the country. From the 1990s to 2003 an Indian-Russian-Iranian-backed Northern Alliance resisted the attempts of the Pakistan-backed Taliban to extend their control across the entire country.
Iran’s influence also extended – and still extends – deep into the sectarian violence of war-torn Iraq, as well as its politics. One of the many intriguing revelations regarding Iranian involvement in Iraq that have emerged out of the WikiLeaks data dump is that the thousands of documents confirm the often controversial claims made all along by American military personnel and members of the administration of US President George W Bush that Iran was supporting Shiite militias and smuggling in the high-tech IEDs which were regularly killing and maiming coalition soldiers.
Such claims of Iranian involvement have been played down since President Obama took office, as his administration attempted to engage Iranian leaders in dialogue over Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, yet the reports suggest, perhaps to some unsurprisingly, that there is ‘no sign’ that Obama’s ‘more conciliatory tone led to any change in Tehran's support for the militias’.
Beijing beset by Tibetan student protests
Protests by Tibetan students over the intended promotion of Mandarin as the primary language of instruction in western Chinese schools have spread to the capital, Beijing. Thousands of students marched in the streets of Qinghai province earlier this week after the Communist Party leader there called for the introduction of Mandarin as the ‘common language’ in schools.
The protests in Qinghai, which was home to tense anti-Chinese riots roughly two years ago, quickly spread to other provinces, including Sinchuan, and reached Beijing on Friday. Wang Yubo, director of the education department in Qinghai, said many students believe the new policy would ‘marginalise’ the Tibetan language. ‘The government is trying to weaken Tibetans’ identity as an ethnic minority,’ she said.
As about 500 students staged the rare public protest at the Beijing campus of a university for ethnic minority students, Chinese officials attempted to calm tensions by urging that the elimination of the Tibetan language was not the goal of the policy. Though such protests are usually viewed by Chinese officials as direct ‘threat[s] to national sovereignty’, there have been no reported arrests or violence thus far.
Sectarian killings continue in Karachi after murder of lawmaker
Close to one hundred people have been killed in what many are calling some of the worst violence the Pakistani city of Karachi has seen in years. Violence followed the murder of a leading member of the Muttahida Quami Movement, whose Urdu-speaking supporters were ‘in the thick of the killing’ along with members of the Awami National Party, a primarily Pashtun party. Targeted killings and attempted suicide bombings have followed in the days since. A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan states that 260 people have been killed since January 2010 in violence caused by the ‘religious, political and ethnic divisions’ of Karachi.