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A pawn in Iran's nuclear ambitions?
Published in Daily News Egypt on 15 - 08 - 2007

The guardians of the Islamic republican system in Iran are continuing their longstanding quest to ensure the existence of Iran s clerical regime. To eliminate potential existential threats, these guardians have gradually entered yet another arena in which to confront their adversaries: Afghanistan. While Iran has played a positive role in increasing Afghanistan s economic and political development, its underhanded and multidimensional meddling in Afghanistan s internal affairs is increasing. A brief look at key recent events provides insight into the motivations behind the Islamic Republic s current support, as well as the unspoken threat of further support, for the myriad insurgent groups - the neo-Taliban - opposing the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.
The appearance of traceable sophisticated weapons and Iranian-produced assault rifles, mortars and plastic explosives in Afghanistan provides evidence of Iran s direct support to the neo-Taliban. Until recently, the explosively-formed penetrators (EFPs) had primarily been seen in Iraq. These weapons, capable of piercing armor, are now being used against NATO forces in Afghanistan, compliments of Iran. If Iran did not want its involvement known it could have supplied untraceable weapons. The introduction of marked weapons into the Afghan theater was purposeful, sending a message of Iran s ability to destabilize western Afghanistan.
Reports of territorial violations also began surfacing earlier this year. Afghan officials accuse their western neighbor of repeatedly violating Afghan airspace as well as of conducting armed incursions into Afghan territory. Furthermore, a former Afghan provincial governor alleges that the Islamic Republic has been hosting a training camp, identified as Shamsabad, for opponents of the Afghan government. These infringements on Afghan sovereignty challenge the efficacy of the central authority in Kabul and its international backers.
These two examples provide insight into the hold Iran has over Afghanistan and why it has sought this position of influence. While most consider Pakistan to be Afghanistan s most troublesome neighbor, one would be remiss if Iran did not enter into the equation. Amid persistent claims of Pakistan s fingerprints all over the neo-Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai could hardly afford another blow to his central authority. Yet Iran, the exemplary neighbor, removed any subtlety in its message to both the Karzai administration and the international community by revealing its hand in arms shipments and territorial violations. Although Iran has publicly denied all allegations and lamented the unfortunate resurgence of the Taliban, it knows the value of its actions.
One must remember that Iran s hold on Afghanistan is much stronger than Pakistan s. Iran has infiltrated much of the current power structure. In the 1980s, Iran cultivated strong political and military alliances with several fronts inside Afghanistan as well as with Afghan resistance groups based in Iran and Pakistan. Some of Iran s key Afghan assets hold principal posts in Karzai s administration, Afghanistan s parliament and the intelligence community. Because of this, Iran is capable of exerting pressure when it suits its needs.
The expulsion of approximately 100,000 Afghan refugees from Iran is an example of Iran s ability to apply political pressure. Iran claimed that it had the legal right to expel what it considered illegal refugees. This triggered a humanitarian nightmare for Afghanistan and prompted the parliament to sack two of Karzai s loyal cabinet ministers. After Karzai requested leniency, the Iranian authorities agreed to slow down repatriation efforts.
The refugee expulsion gave Iran three advantages. First, Tehran was able to demonstrate to Kabul that it can wreak havoc within reasonably legal grounds if it so desires; second, Iran was able to portray the refugee crisis as reflecting the inadequacy of western-sponsored democracy in Afghanistan. And third and perhaps most dangerous in tactical calculations, Iran may have slipped any number of its own agents into the throngs of returning refugees. These refugees lacked identity papers because, as some Afghan refugees have claimed, the Iranian authorities ripped up their documents even though some had identity cards that allowed them to stay in Iran legally. The sea of refugees without identity cards constituted the perfect cover for Iranian agents to penetrate into Afghanistan.
Iran s actions in Afghanistan appear to be part of a calculated plan to give Tehran an advantage in its efforts to safeguard the regime and its aspirations. As international pressure has mounted against the regime s nuclear ambitions, Iran has ramped up its campaign in Afghanistan, selecting a strange bedfellow - the staunchly Sunni neo-Taliban. Yet Shi ite Iran has frequently established political alliances based on expediency. Consider its relationships with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Mas ud. These have proved useful in Iran s efforts to control its environment.
The airspace violations, dispatch of traceable light weapons and EPFs to the neo-Taliban and possible presence of covert agents inside Afghanistan are further reminders to NATO and other international forces stationed in Afghanistan of Iran s ability to create instability. If Iran s nuclear facilities are attacked or if the country is brought under severe economic and political pressure because of its nuclear activities or other misdeeds, Iran can and will make life difficult for the foreign forces in Afghanistan.
In Iran s calculation, the current regime s security rests in having a nuclear capability. Until that time, Tehran has created pressure points to dissuade western powers, especially the United States, and other perceived enemies from challenging the authority of the regime. Iran is using Afghanistan to showcase its might and its ability to create a scenario worse than Iraq for the US and others. If we are not careful, Afghanistan may once again find itself the pawn in a great game .- Published 9/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Amin Tarziis director, Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia. The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of either the Marine Corps University or any other governmental agency. References to this paper should include the foregoing statement. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org


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