U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has accused Iran of not only supplying money, weapons and training to Shia militias in Iraq, but also accuses Tehran of supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan. This would represent a reversal of Iran’s past relationship with the Taliban; Iran supported the Afghan Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the late 1990’s until the Taliban was ousted by the American invasion in 2001.
Why would Iran now support its former enemy? Simple. Iran’s former enemy is now the enemy of the United States. In other words, as they say in the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It’s the same reason the United States supported Iraq against Iran in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Our support to the regime of Saddam Hussein was not about helping Iraq or Saddam, it was about containing Iran.
When Tehran sends weapons to the Taliban, it is not about supporting the Taliban. It is about combating American troop presence and the American-backed government in Kabul.
Tightening the noose
Put yourself in Iran’s position. Look at a map of the region and consider the changes that have taken place since 2001. You might begin to feel isolated and surrounded.
To the east, Afghanistan is run by an American-backed government, not to mention the presence of tens of thousands of American, NATO and other pro-Western troops. To the southeast is Pakistan, an American ally in the war on terrorism. To the south across the Persian Gulf are the six pro-American Arab countries of the Gulf Cooperation council (Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait) that are concerned about your nuclear weapons and missile programs, military modernization and the desire to export your brand of the Islamic Revolution. On your western border is Iraq, currently hosting 150,000 American troops.
The northern tier does not look any more comforting. To the northwest is Turkey, a NATO member also concerned about your nuclear and missile programs. North of your border are the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Armenia – both pro-West. The only potential bright spot is northern neighbor Turkmenistan, which seemed to be leaning your way until the death of the former president. Now the new president is playing the Russia card, prompting Iranian prime minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to travel to the area in hopes of retaining at least one friend on the border. All three newly independent states are members of NATO’s Partners for Peace program.
From the Iranian perspective, the inescapable conclusion when looking at the borders –- America’s allies are beginning to tighten the noose. If it’s not American troops, it’s NATO (take a look at Afghanistan). If not NATO, it’s the NATO Partners for Peace program members. To make matters worse, America’s European allies have imposed sanctions, however ineffective, over the uranium enrichment issue.
Supporting America's enemies
Any decision for Iranian support to groups who are opposing the Americans comes directly from Tehran. Those orders are given to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, the elite special operations and covert action organization that has seen action in Lebanon, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and now apparently Afghanistan. The Iranians are feeling the pressure as economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation takes its toll. They believe they must respond to try to counteract what they perceive as growing American/Western influence in the region.
The obvious way to do this is to increase support the Iraqi Shia militias they have been supporting for years. These militias include the Badr Corps of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) under Abdul Aziz Hakim and probably—and of more concern—the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Jaysh al-Mahdi, commonly known as “the JAM.” The American command in Iraq claims that they have captured Iranian-made explosively formed projectiles, the deadly Iranian-made, armor-piercing munitions used in roadside bombs responsible for killing over 100 American troops. Additionally, Iranian training to these militia groups has resulted in much more accurate and effective mortar and rocket attacks against coalition targets.
It may be that the Iranians have determined that their best bet to break what they believe is the stranglehold on their country is to expand their relationships with other countries in Central and South Asia. In addition to supplying weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan, they are stepping up diplomatic contact with Turkmenistan. Both Iranian president Ahmadinejad and the president of Turkmenistan are attending the summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional organization consisting of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, possibly hoping to join the group. This would be a good move for Iran, since both SCO members Russia and China are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and have veto authority over potential resolutions that increase sanctions on Iran.
Iran continues to be a pariah nation and perceives itself to be surrounded by hostile, or at least pro-American regimes. We should not be surprised that they are supporting the Taliban. Will we next see an alliance between the Iranians and the ultimate anti-American group, al-Qaida? After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.