The admission by the Taliban on July 30 that its leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, had died was widely seen as good news for the Islamic State (ISIS) against its jihadist competitors. But while ISIS’s growing power in Afghanistan over the last year has garnered significant attention, the rise of Iran’s influence in the country has been less noted. Worse, in the light of the nuclear agreement with the U.S., Iran’s expanded influence is held by some observers to be a stability-promoting development. This is a dangerous fantasy that has already been falsified in the Fertile Crescent, where the synergetic growth of Iran and ISIS promotes chaos and radicalism — to the advantage of both and the disadvantage of the forces of moderation and order.
Several leaders of the Pakistani Taliban and the al-Qaeda–linked Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have defected to ISIS in the Afghanistan–Pakistan theater, but ISIS’s presence in the area remains small. This has not prevented an outrageous attempt by Tehran to sell its recent increase in support to the Taliban as an anti-ISIS measure. Tehran’s argument does not fit the timeline — which shows consistent Iranian support for anti-Western Sunni jihadist forces in Afghanistan from the beginning of the Western intervention in 2001.
While most people recognize the fallaciousness of the argument that Shiite Iran and the Sunni Taliban could not work together, there are still those who point to Iran’s nearly invading Afghanistan in 1998 after the Taliban murdered nine Iranian diplomats during a spree of anti-Shiite massacres. Moreover, it is often suggested that Iran did not mind the Taliban’s fall. Ryan Crocker — who was the senior State Department official charged with conducting secret meetings with Tehran during the invasion of Afghanistan — has even said that Iran provided intelligence to the U.S. to help overthrow the Taliban. But that is belied by what Iran has been actually doing.
Iranian financial support to the Taliban has been constant since 2001, and Iran’s military support began before the invasion, continued during the invasion, when Iran offered anti-aircraft weapons to the Taliban to “use against the United States and Coalition forces,” and has been increasing since at least early 2007. A congressional report from October 2014 noted that Iran’s “lethal assistance, including light weapons,” to the Taliban was ongoing.
Iran “formalized its alliance with the Taliban by allowing the group to open an office in Mashhad” at the beginning of 2014, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Iran has been “training Taliban fighters within its borders” at four terrorism camps.
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the leader of Hizb-i-Islami, one of the three main jihadist groups in Afghanistan (the others being the Taliban and the network led by Sirajuddin Haqqani). Hekmatyar has been an ally of Iran since at least the mid-1990s; he even moved to Iran after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 1996. Hekmatyar was “expelled” from Iran in early 2002, but he has since received consistent support from Tehran. Documents released by WikiLeaks from 2005–06 show that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps kept Hekmatyar afloat and provided direct assistance to him for “carrying out terrorist attacks against the [Afghan] governmental authorities and [Coalition Forces],” including supplying Hizb-i-Islami with hundreds of cars to use for car-bombings.
The 2005–06 documents reveal that Iran offered bounties for the murder of NATO soldiers and members of the elected Afghan government. Later reports indicated that this policy continued into 2009, when Iran was working in tandem with al-Qaeda to spread the Taliban’s reach in southern Afghanistan. This should hardly come as a surprise: The 9/11 Commission reported that Iran began training al-Qaeda jihadists through Hezbollah in 1992 and collaborated with al-Qaeda on the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. To this day Iran maintains an al-Qaeda network on its territory, which supplies weapons, money, and fighters to Jabhat an-Nusra in Syria.
Iran has spent considerable resources in the north and west of Afghanistan, among the Hazara Shiites and the significant Shia minority of Tajiks — populations that are mostly loyal to the Western-backed Afghan government — to try to win converts to their Khomeinist version of Shiism. Iran has also recruited Hazaras for its Shia jihad in defense of Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
But Afghanistan is an overwhelmingly Sunni country, so Iran’s “soft power” offensive cannot be strictly sectarian. Iran provided funds to former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who was quite brazen about the arrangement. Mohammed Fahim — a powerful Tajik warlord and, until his death in March 2014, Karzai’s vice president — was also on Iran’s payroll. Another well-known case is that of Mohammad Omar Daudzai, Karzai’s chief of staff, who came back from Iran literally with “a large bag of cash.”
While acknowledging much of this Iranian meddling, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman exemplified an increasingly influential school of thought when he argued last year that “the role Iran plays in Afghanistan is relatively constructive,” and that Iran and the U.S. have a common interest in stability.
This line of thought evidently has sway at the top of the U.S. government. In September 2014, the U.S. secured an Afghan unity government by the direct intervention of John Kerry after Ashraf Ghani (now the president) triumphed over Abdullah Abdullah (now in effect the prime minister). Ghani is a technocratic and relatively uncorrupt figure with some reformist credentials. Abdullah is more Islamist-inclined and is backed by Iran. So, rather than securing an American victory over Iran, Kerry accommodated Iran. This has become a defining theme of the Obama administration’s Greater Middle East policy.
The administration is currently trying to sell its nuclear agreement with Iran in the “narrowest possible terms, as a limited transaction in which Tehran gives up the bomb in return for sanction relief,” but this is a political strategy, the New York Times reports, aimed at concealing from our allies — and from the American people themselves — the administration’s “grander ambitions,” in which the deal could “open up relations with Tehran and be part of a transformation in the Middle East.” This transformation can already be seen in practice in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; basically, it means America is underwriting an Iranian Empire. The effects so far do not inspire confidence that extending this policy to Afghanistan will produce a positive outcome.
Iran’s and ISIS’s interests largely overlap, and they conflict with Western interests.
The theory is, as Obama wrote in a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, that the U.S. can partner with Iran to stabilize the region, specifically by fighting the Islamic State. This would allow the U.S. to pull back — maybe to “pivot” to Asia. Unfortunately, Iran’s and ISIS’s interests — heightened sectarian polarization, instability, and the removal of Western influence in the region — largely overlap, and they conflict with Western interests. Increasing Iran’s influence in Afghanistan produces a symbiotic increase in ISIS’s influence. In Iraq, the Obama administration’s withdrawing our personnel and allowing Iran to fill the void initiated a series of events that drew the West back in militarily, on less advantageous terms than if we had stayed and tried to contain both the Sunni jihadists and Iran. The same will happen in Afghanistan if Iran is trusted to stabilize the country after the West leaves.
— Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter @KyleWOrton.