Tehran’s use of non-state “instruments of power”

During an Iranian workshop held in the Iranian museum of peace, titled “simulating the UN security council session with a look to North Korea”, reported by Iran Front Page News, Iranian foreign minister Zarif commented that in today’s world, absolute military power no longer serves as a decisive factor due to the existence of non-state actors which influence events and with which national interests can be secured. He also admitted that Iran itself uses such non-state actors by stating “other instruments of power are available to us”.  He added that such instruments serve in breaking “Western monopoly over international affairs”.

He went on to enumerate examples of such “non-state players”, influencing world strategic developments, and mentioned ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. Of course, he did not mention Hezbollah and the Shiite militias, which are non-state players and 100% proxies of Tehran.

In defiance of international norms, which prohibit the use of terrorism or malign activity in achieving political or other goals, with Zarif the illegitimate becomes legitimate. Radicalism and terrorism are just additional “non-state instruments of power” in achieving Tehran’s objectives. This is a rare admittance of the Iranian mode of thought. Instead of condemnation, he validated and justified.

Yet, the judiciary chief of Iran, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, objects to the use of terrorism, and protested the West’s lack of determination to eliminate terrorism. Once again, the Iranian representative conveniently “forgets” to mention organizations like Hezbollah (deployed in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen), the Shiite militias (deployed in Syria and Iraq) and the numerous Shiite terror cells (deployed in the most of the Gulf states).

There is ample proof of Iran’s use of non-state and/or radical actors, in their attempts to influence events. Bahrain, which recently broke yet another Iranian-backed terror cell,  highlighted the Iranian operating of terror cells as an instrument of power. Tehran denies supporting such cells but then again, Tehran always denies. Tehran and Hezbollah meet and plot policy, thus underscoring the use of the Hezbollah as an instrument of influence. As reported in The Daily Mail, the recruiting and deployment of Iranian backed militias has served Iranian interests in Syria and now continue to serve in the creation of a safe Iranian corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, posing a threat to the global community.

To summarize – we should take Zarif’s words seriously. When he talks about the use of terrorist organizations and radical non-state instruments of power, like ISIS and Taliban, to influence the geo-strategic situation, it is not an academic debate. He is talking from experience. He just hypocritically emits the Iranian instruments of power like subversive terror cells, hired militias and other radical organizations.

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Tehran continues to meddle

Over the recent period, several reports have voiced public accusations against Iran for spy and sabotage activity. The lack of fear and unexpected openness is the big surprise.

It was recently released that the UAE convicted an Iranian national for spying for Iran and sentenced him to ten years imprisonment. Reza Mohammad Hussein Mozafar was found guilty of spying, aiding Tehran’s nuclear program and fraud to smuggle equipment and devices on behalf of Iran. The Abu Dhabi federal appeals court also found him guilty of harming the relations between the UAE and the USA, due to the fact that some of the devices were imported from the US for transfer to Iran, in violation of the UN sanctions.

The Gulf News documents additional cases. In April a person was found guilty of violating international sanctions against Iran, when attempting to smuggle devices which could be used in the Iranian nuclear program. In a separate case, two men were charged with espionage for the Iranian intelligence, and their hearing has been postponed to August 27. They were also charged with spreading false information. In an additional case, an Emirati was charged with espionage on behalf of Iranian intelligence, and his case was also postponed to August 27.

Only recently we wrote a separate piece on the Kuwait “Terror Row” titled Kuwait turns staunchly anti-Tehran, relating to the fact that Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats and closed Iranian offices due to an operative secret Iranian linked terror unit. It’s also been revealed that Iran has devised new clandestine routes and methods for smuggling arms and financial support to the Houthis in Yemen. According to the report, cash and drugs are used in order to fund the rebel activity.

On Tajik state television, officials of the government and former activists accused Iran of instigating civil war in the country, including political assassinations and sabotage activity. This would seem to be the first time that Tajikistan openly accuses Iran of financing and directing political killings in its jurisdiction. It is a known fact that such an accusation would not be aired on Tajik state television without the consent of the leadership to release this information.

In addition, a senior Afghan officials have accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for providing safe haven for Taliban leaders and militants, while the elite Quds Force, which conducts covert operations, meets with the Taliban often and advises them. The head of Farah’s provincial council, Jamila Amini, stated “Iran’s interference is direct, it is engaged in encouraging youth to join the insurgency”. Afghan officials in the western provinces bordering with Iran are increasingly vocal about Iran’s interference. The conclusion is that Iran’s support for the Taliban has mushroomed and Iran is now seen as a major backer of the Afghan Taliban.

The astounding fact of all these cases is the fact that countries and officials voice their condemnation of Iran openly. Even countries which have never done this before. With so many accusations, it’s time to accept the simple truth: Tehran is a serial meddler in the region.

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Tehran’s selective terrorism

Iran is an active partner in the fight against ISIS, and as a result boasts that it is a “champion against terrorism”. But, observing its record on the sponsoring of terrorism reveals that they do not have a problem with terrorists, they have a problem with terrorists who are not on their side.

The July 2017 state department country reports on terrorism 2016 defines Iran as “the foremost state sponsor of terrorism in 2016, as groups supported by Iran maintained their capability to threaten US interests and allies. The Iranian IRGC – Quds force – along with Iranian partners, allies and proxies, continued to play a destabilizing role in military conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen” (pg. 12 and pg. 304). The report names the terror agents on behalf of Iran, among them the Hezbollah, Iranian affiliated Shia militia forces, Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza, cyberterrorism and even extended support to al-Qaida operatives.

Tehran’s selective definition of terrorism is also evident in their own words, like the distinction they make between ISIS and the Taliban. As reported in Tasnim news agency, a senior advisor to Foreign Minister Zarif, Seyed Rasoul Mousavi, differentiated between ISIS and the Taliban, claiming that the Taliban is an “Afghan group totally different from Daesh”. His message was clear – while ISIS is a terrorist group, the Taliban are just militants fighting a cause. They may be different organizations with different ambitions, but for the victims of the Taliban, there is no difference.

Only recently Kuwait expelled Iranian diplomats over a terror cell, convicting 21 people of belonging to a terror cell that had been formed and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. The recent boycott of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and affiliates was due to Qatar’s support of terrorism and “deep ties with Iran”.

In the final analysis, Tehran isn’t hiding its support for terrorist organizations, it conveniently defines them as non-terroristic. Problem solved according to Tehran. Except that the problem isn’t solved: Many of these organizations are designated by the West as terrorist organizations and as proxies of Tehran. All these countries should therefore recognize Tehran for its support of terrorism. It should be that simple.

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Why Does Tehran Back Taliban?

talibalFear of ISIS has been a stepping stone for Tehran’s military involvement in Syria and in Iraq and it now seems to be a stepping stone into Afghanistan as well. In short, apart from signing security deals with the Afghan government, Tehran began supplying Taliban militia with weapons and money to fight ISIS in Afghanistan and on the Afghan-Iran border.

The fact that Tehran is supporting a fundamentalist Sunni, and once anti-Shiite, militia is not intuitive, to say the least and 3 questions remain unanswered for now:

  • Why is Tehran supporting the Taliban and not the official Afghan armed forces?
  • Does Tehran’s support of the Taliban have anything to do with Kabul backing the Saudi war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen?
  • Is funding the Taliban to fight ISIS the real reason for such a drastic move or does Tehran have an alterior motive?

Of course, truthful answers to these questions are overshadowed by the political spins and denials that are already out of control. But answering these questions might be the key to understanding the mindset of the leaders in Tehran.

 

Why Taliban and not the Afghan Military?

afghanistanThe Taliban seems to be the strangest group to partner with Tehran ever. The radical anti-Shiite stance expressed by the Taliban for decades frequently led Tehran and Taliban to outbreaks of violence which cost many lives on both sides. Meanwhile, the governments of Tehran and Kabul have been busy signing MoU’s and agreements over the last year. So why not fund the Afghan military instead of partisan militia?

Once again, there is no simple answer. Perhaps, Tehran is betting on the Taliban warriors, known for their ferocity, to deal with ISIS. Another reason might be that Tehran is covering its bases just in case the Taliban returns to power. What is certain is that Tehran understands that they can more easily sway a militia group such as the Taliban than the Afghan government which has allegiances with Tehran’s regional arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia.

And lastly, but more practically, Tehran has already mined Afghanistan for “volunteers” to fight for Assad in the civil war in Syria and most of these fighters were once Taliban militia.

 

What About the Houthis and Saudi Arabia?

yemenThe Afghan government gave the Saudis a passive “thumbs-up” in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are backed by Tehran. Needless to say, the Iranians were not happy. But surprisingly, many Afghans were not happy about supporting the Saudis either.

Tehran’s support for the Taliban may, in the future, be equated to its support of the Houthi rebels if the Taliban’s power increases and manages to overthrow the current government.

To make matters more complicated, the Taliban was traditionally supported by Saudi Arabia and funding the Taliban may be a way for Iran to weaken the militia’s ties with the Saudis.

And lastly, one must remember that although Afghanistan’s president visited Tehran, he has visited Riyadh many more times. Meanwhile, over the past two years, 3 Taliban delegations have been welcomed in Tehran where they met with politicians and IRGC officials.

 

Fighting ISIS or a Bigger Agenda?

regionSince NATO stepped out of Afghanistan, the situation there is becoming more volatile with many powers trying to fill in the vacuum. Iran is already a significant part of the Afghan economy, especially in regions bordering Iran: Tehran supplies Afghans with electricity and water as well money and infrastructure to support Shiite factions in Afghanistan.

Supporting the Taliban can also feature as a pressure point in the nuclear deal brewing between Iran and the US. Iran has expressed worries that the US could use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack if the nuclear deal goes bust. In fact, some believe that were a nuclear deal to be signed, Tehran would probably back down from supporting Taliban openly.

But much more importantly, Afghanistan could one day become another Iraq for Iran – a country which is dependent financially, politically and militarily to such an extent that opposing Tehran would be unthinkable. By surrounding itself geographically with allies, Iran can export its Islamic Revolution while at the same time, keep these countries free of any power which wants to attack Iran.

 

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