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Jul 28, 2008 | 02:02 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Iran's Role in Afghanistan

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Iran has become the main thoroughfare for jihadist traffic leaving Iraq for Pakistan's tribal belt, a state-owned newspaper in Afghanistan said on Sunday. An editorial in the daily Anis described the Shiite Islamic republic as a "tunnel for terrorists" to Waziristan. "The people of Afghanistan can't remain silent against such Iranian behaviors since this country sends those individuals to Afghanistan who kill and murder Afghans," Anis said. The paper went on to say that "Iran under present conditions has become as the easiest entry for terrorists from the Middle East to Afghanistan and the [Afghan] government has to blockade this tunnel by whatever means." While most of the world's attention is on the Pakistani factor in the Afghan jihadist insurgency, there is not much focus on Iran's role in its eastern neighbor — even though the Iranians enjoy a considerable amount of influence (linguistic, ethnic, cultural, financial, etc.) in Afghanistan. It should not be forgotten that Tehran provided significant cooperation to Washington in the latter's move to overthrow the Taliban regime in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. But even though it was working with the United States to oust the Taliban from power, Iran reportedly allowed al-Qaeda members fleeing the U.S. air assault on Afghanistan to enter Iran and remain in safe-houses maintained by the country's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Many of those said to be protected in Iran were senior al Qaeda leaders such as former al Qaeda military chief Seif al-Adel, its ex-spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith and Osama bin Laden's son Saad bin Laden (all of whom are likely still in Iranian "custody"). The founder of the jihadist movement in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, also reportedly entered Iraq from Iran, where he sought refuge after fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Iran has no love for the Taliban or al-Qaeda. On the contrary, they are bitter sectarian and ideological rivals. This rivalry notwithstanding, Tehran maintains complex relationships with these jihadist actors in order to advance its national security interests. Tehran hopes to be able to use them as bargaining chips in any final settlement with the United States. But before it reaches that stage, Tehran is still routing and rerouting jihadist traffic to pressure the United States and become a player. In between the two regime changes of 2001 and 2003, it was in Iran's interest to facilitate jihadist relocation into Iraq to force Washington's hand. But circumstances have changed drastically since then. The Iranians know that with the situation in Iraq moving toward a settlement of sorts, U.S. attention is returning to Afghanistan. Tehran thus wants to be able to play a major role there as well, especially at a time when the principal U.S. ally in the Afghan theater, Pakistan, is becoming increasingly unreliable. Therefore, Iran is likely facilitating the flow of jihadists in the opposite direction. It should be noted that it was only a few days ago that Iranian Vice-President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh (also the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization), in reference to U.S.-Iranian talks on its controversial nuclear issue, said that if substantive negotiations start, "many important problems will be resolved: the problem of a stable Middle East, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq and the problem of the high oil price." Washington and its wealthy Arab allies have created a bulwark to contain Tehran's regional ambitions in the Middle East. But Iran takes comfort from the fact that it can still project power into its western and eastern neighbors. Iranian national security policy concerning Iraq is already in an advanced stage, which means the Persian state will be devoting more of its energies to enhance its standing in Afghanistan — at a time when very high-level back-channel meetings between the Bush administration and Iran's clerical regime are under way.
Geopolitical Diary: Iran's Role in Afghanistan

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