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May 10, 2010

Iran Interested in Stable Afghanistan…For Now


The Sunday Times has recently claimed that Iran has been involved in training insurgents in Afghanistan to kill NATO troops. This claim has in turn been repeated by various other news sources like FOX News, The Australian, Global Times, Taipei Times, etc.
But the source of this allegation is two Taliban commanders. How kind of the Taliban to go and willingly volunteer this information to the media:

“Taliban commanders have revealed that hundreds of insurgents have been trained in Iran to kill Nato forces in Afghanistan.
The commanders said they had learnt to mount complex ambushes and lay improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have been responsible for most of the deaths of British troops in Helmand province.
The accounts of two commanders, in interviews with The Sunday Times, are the first descriptions of training of the Taliban in Iran.
According to the commanders, Iranian officials paid them to attend three-month courses during the winter.”

I’m not saying that there is no possibility that Iran has provided some support for the Taliban in Afghanistan — it’s possible, and I’m not a CIA agent, so I don’t know for sure.  But I am saying that the Taliban isn’t exactly the most trustworthy source when it comes to Iran.
The Taliban and Iran have historically been enemies. In fact, after the Taliban came to power in 1996, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei denounced the group as an affront to Islam.
When in power, the Taliban backed Sunni Islamist militants who were launching attacks against the Iranian regime, which is based on Shi’a Islam. In addition to such attacks, the Taliban has also received strong backing from Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahhabi rulers, who are allies of the United States, and with whom Iran constantly competes for influence in the region.
It should also be noted that in 1998, the Taliban captured Mazare Sharif and massacred thousands of Hazara civilians, mainly Shi’a, as well as nine Iranian diplomats.  Following this attack, Afghanistan and Iran nearly went to war as both countries mobilized troops along their shared border.
Thus, not only is the Taliban an ideological threat to the Islamic Republic, but the Iranians also view them as a threat to Iranian security.
Which is why Iran has been heavily involved in rebuilding Afghanistan following the war to overthrow the Taliban in 2001 (which Iran assisted). Currently, Iran and Afghanistan’s engage in more than $1.3 billion in bilateral trade. Additionally, according to the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran, four percent of Iran’s total exports in 2006 went to Afghanistan, accounting for more than $503 million. Tehran’s aid also has certified joint investment companies, sponsored food fairs, opened cement factories, extended purchase credits to traders, and trained commercial pilots.
An additional concern of Iran is the large number of Afghan refugees that have been in Iran since the Soviet Invasion in 1979. While the Afghan refugee population in Iran has decreased since the fall of the Taliban, the UNHCR still reported approximately 933,500 registered Afghan refugees in Iran in June 2009.
General public opinion in Iran is that the Afghan refugees pose a significant burden and it is time they return to Afghanistan. This is reflective of both high levels of unemployment in Iran and the general concern over increasing drug smuggling and violence on the border.
Obviously, then, Iran recognizes that it is in its interest to promote a stable Afghanistan. This is a huge opportunity for mutual cooperation between the US and Iran, and one that deserves to be pursued further.
According to most experts, there is in fact one thing that could cause Iran to fully and enthusiastically throw its support behind its enemy, the Taliban: a US attack.

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