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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