No Comment — June 8, 2007, 9:30 am

Iran and the Taliban–Less Than Meets the Eye?

Brian Ross and Chris Isham over at ABC News – who have been on a streak lately with important breaks in the intelligence arena – offer a report today on evidence that the Iranians are involved supplying Taliban forces in Afghanistan:

NATO officials say they have caught Iran red-handed, shipping heavy arms, C4 explosives and advanced roadside bombs to the Taliban for use against NATO forces, in what the officials say is a dramatic escalation of Iran’s proxy war against the United States and Great Britain.

And they note that Defense Secretary Gates is extremely cautious about these claims:

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stopped short earlier this week of blaming Iran, saying the U.S. did not have evidence “of the involvement of the Iranian government in support of the Taliban.”

Easy as it is these days to impute all sorts of dastardly motives to the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the various Iranian rogue elements, this doesn’t quite make sense. Iran has no love lost for the United States, to be sure, but neither has it ever had decent relations with the Taliban, who made a point of persecuting Shiia Muslims in Afghanistan when they ran the country. If Iran has had objectives in Afghanistan, then, it’s been to hold the Taliban in check and to protect the Shiia minority. And for the moment at least that aligns pretty well with American policy. And I’d be very cautious about reading too much into the fact that the arms are Iranian sourced or Iranian made as evidence of Iranian intent to side with the recipients (that may be the case, but profit motive counts for much in this world of ours).

(This reminds me of a conference I sat through many years ago in Central Asia in which a Chinese scholar was meticulously establishing a claim to the territory of one of the Central Asian states on the basis of archaeological digs which turned up Chinese coins. “I love that analysis,” I responded, “because on the basis of it most of the known world would be American due to the global dispersion of American dollar bills.”)

I turned to NYU’s Barney Rubin, who may be America’s leading Afghanistan expert, and who is just back from Kabul, for some analysis of these issues. Among other endearing traits, Barney is prone to quote entire stanzas from Sheridan, especially when he’s enjoyed a bit too much wine.

He comments:

It’s a fact that there are Iranian weapons in Afghanistan being used by Taliban. It’s an unmentioned but far more obvious fact that there are weapons from Pakistan everywhere with the Taliban.

True, some intelligence states that Iranians may have supplied Taliban with low level small amount of training. On the other hand, the Taliban openly train, recruit, rest, and raise funds in Pakistan, our no. 1 non-NATO ally, and the media seems to be essentially oblivious to that.

Now the Iranians say not only that they do not support the Taliban but that this is a consensus view of all Iranian agencies (IRGC, Quds, Ministry for Foreign Affairs) and that they have warned Afghan President Karzai against bringing Taliban into the government as this is a “red line” for them. The Iranians admit giving aid to Northern Alliance political groups as they are their friends but deny that it is aimed against Karzai. The Iranians say you can buy any weapons in the Pakistani tribal territories, including theirs. They ask who benefits from these accusations? And the answer (unstated) is: Pakistan.

It is possible that they are trying to keep the U.S. off balance and sending a message about what they can do if attacked. But their diplomats say that stability in Afghanistan is a priority and that there are lots of other places from which the U.S. can attack them and where they can respond. It is also possible that they are hedging against future instability in order to keep channels open to all parties. In case the U.S. and NATO leave Afghanistan, an eventuality for which they must be prepared, they don’t want to leave Pakistan a monopoly on relations with the Taliban. Some U.S. diplomats say the Iranians are like U.S. corporations giving money to all parties. But, to follow that analogy, if Iran is giving anything to the Taliban, it is doing so even more grudgingly than corporations give to Democrats.

Summing up: these reports should be follow-up upon, of course, but they need to be treated very skeptically.

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