Sunday, August 7, 2016

Iran and the Taliban

A core principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to export the revolution, their system of Twelver Shi'a inspired Islamic governance. This is most prevalent in Lebanon, where Hezbollah acts as a proxy. Iran also spends money funding ideological enemies for strategic purposes, namely Sudan (less so now), Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and recently, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan and almost certainly in a limited sense in Iran as well.

Two major articles in the past year, one from Foreign Policy in May 2016, and another from the Wall Street Journal in June 2015, claim that Iran is actively funding and arming the Taliban in hopes of curtailing potential advances from ISIS. This "ISIS" is not the same group of terrorists as those in Syria and Iraq, though there is some affiliation. It is believed that many of these "ISIS" terrorists are in fact disaffected Taliban. The two have fought each other, and both still actively work to perpetrate terror attacks.

Iran has a vested interest in aligning with the Taliban for a number of reasons:

  1. The Taliban are fighting Western and Western-backed forces. Countering American attempts at stability helps Iran's anti-hegemonic, disruptive strategy. 
  2. The Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) are known to be heavily involved in the drug trafficking industry in Eastern Iran, Western Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. Establishing relationships could lead to greater efficiency in these smuggling routes, also potentially reducing the amount of violence involving non-Pasdaran security forces.
  3. ISIS is a threat to Iran's interests in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the last thing Iran wants is a second "front" in the East to deal with.

Iran's decision to not just tolerate, but also support the Taliban is perhaps best demonstrated by the previous leader of the Taliban visiting Iran hours before he was killed in an American drone strike. If Iran was serious about preventing this type of violent group they would take steps to make sure that such an important figure was not able to enter the country.

ISIS was able to conduct their first major terror attack in Afghanistan recently when they targeted the Shi'ite Hazara ethnic group killing dozens. This same ethnic group has been known to be used by the Iranian government to fight in Syria. Interestingly enough, it was claimed that the Sunni Taliban, no matter how radically xenophobic they are, agreed to protect the Hazara from ISIS last year. Here too, Iran has an interest in working with the Taliban.

Iran's actions in Afghanistan are not surprising, yet they do not seem to get much attention because of other ongoing conflicts. I expect this to change soon, especially if ISIS is able to conduct another serious attack. Unfortunately, I suspect that given the attention given the ISIS brand, more will be made of their involvement than Iran's.

The Obama administration has a duty to investigate the connections between Iran and this known terror group. Even if they are fighting our enemies, they are still terrorists, who have attacked, and will continue to attack Western and Afghan government targets. I realize that the success of the Iranian nuclear deal is important to the administration, but ignoring a state actively funding and directly supporting terrorists is not an acceptable position.

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