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Do Ideologues Balance?

April 30, 2010

A new post at Registan outlines something that some American military commanders have been worried about – Iranian support for the Haqqanis and al Qaeda. Of course, information is very sketchy, and I would not be surprised if this turns out completely wrong. After all, Iran and the Taliban nearly went to war in 1998,  and the Taliban’s brutal discrimination against and killings of Iran’s Shia co-religionists is still a matter of concern. However, it’s worth considering that Iran has not insignificant geopolitical incentives to make working in Afghanistan miserable for the US and its allies. As Iran has found out, the Iranians can invest in Herat and Western Afghanistan even in the midst of a major insurgency elsewhere in Afghanistan. Supporting that insurgency means that as long as the US is willing to fight it, Afghanistan will be a military liability and not complicit in a US strategy against Iran. Now, not everyone in Iran might necessarily believe in this strategy. But the interests of an officer within Mashhad’s 4th Corps, the CO of 4th Corps, the leaders of the Pasdaran, the Ayatollah, might be very different from the foreign ministry, regular military, or the President or any other of Iran’s myriad bureaucracies and defense apparatuses. Now, if this is just a case of minor weapons smuggling, this might be a localized, unofficial policy. If the Haqqanis and al Qaeda (!) are involved, then this seems like a higher level decision. The 9/11 Commission claimed that the Iranians reached out to al Qaeda after the USS Cole bombing, but AQ rebuffed them out of ideological differences or fear for their support among Sunni fundamentalists. So while the Haqqani-al Qaeda-Iran connection seems very sketchy, it’s not 100% out of the question.

If Iran really is involved in Afghanistan, we should not be wholly surprised. Iran demonstrated in Lebanon in Iraq that is willing to support insurgencies and irregular groups and provide them with technical support to further their aims, and if this story has repeated itself in Afghanistan, then perhaps the increasing complexity of some of the IEDs will make more sense. Were this the case, we can make all the statements we want about Iran but we should not try to use such evidence as a casus belli against Tehran, it would have been a bad idea in Iraq and it would be just as senseless in Afghanistan. Whether Iran is involved or not, the lesson American policymakers should keep in mind is that even in a war of religions and ideologies, geopolitics still matter. To assume based on ethno-religious or ideological grounds alone that nobody in Iran would ever contemplate supporting the Taliban, the Haqqanis, or even al Qaeda is willfully ignorant of basic power balancing considerations. Iran supported Kurdish insurgents in Iraq even as Iraq did the same in Iran. It ignores Richelieu, Haushofer, Ribbentrop and those who would put strategy before ideology – historical contingencies have forged crazier alliances. So while we should never assume all our enemies share the same interests, neither should we assume that they are so ideologically blinded as to lack the imagination for cooperation. Neither the Afghan insurgents nor Iranian leadership want the other to succeed – but either might help the other bloody a common foe.

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