Iran has increased its support for the Taliban by allowing the militants to open an office in the country while considering the supply of surface-to-air missiles, according to Afghan and Western officials.
By helping the Taliban, Iran aims to derail a decade-long “strategic partnership” signed between Afghanistan and America in April. Tehran would also have the option of stirring violence in Afghanistan in retaliation for any US strike on its nuclear facilities.
A member of the Taliban’s Shura, or ruling council, was allowed to set up an office in May in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan. Two months later, intercepted communications showed members of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps discussing plans to send surface-to-air missiles to Afghanistan, although there was no evidence of the weapons actually being dispatched.
If they were given to the Taliban, it would mark a significant escalation of Iranian support. Iran’s Shia regime was an enemy of the Sunni Taliban when the latter ruled most of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. When Taliban forces captured the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998, they murdered nine Iranian diplomats.
However, the US was now seen as “the bigger enemy”, a Western official in Kabul told the Wall Street Journal. “Iran is willing to put aside ideology and put aside deeply held religious values for their ultimate goal: accelerating the departure of US forces from Afghanistan,” he said.
Nato commanders say Iran has long provided small arms and training to the Taliban. William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, last year complained to Tehran after British SAS soldiers seized a convoy carrying Iranian-manufactured 122mm rockets destined for the Taliban. But the Taliban has received far greater quantities of aid and support from Pakistan.
Iran has also refrained from supplying more advanced weapons, notably the armour-piercing explosive charges that were widely used against American and British forces in Iraq.
Afghanistan’s decision to defy Iran and sign a strategic pact with America, paving the way for some US troops to stay beyond 2014, may have led Tehran to give more help to the insurgents.
Jamie Ingram, a Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, said he did not expect Iran to give the Taliban “game-changing” weapons such as surface-to-air missiles because of the risk of confrontation with America.
Accepting Iranian support could also damage the Taliban’s standing, he added. “It is worth noting that reports of links to Iran could hurt the Taliban as a lot of their financing comes from people in the Gulf who don’t like Iran or Shia Muslims,” saidIngram.
Iran tried its utmost to dissuade Afghanistan from signing the pact with America. Abu Fazel Zohrawand, the hawkish Iranian ambassador to Kabul, told members of Afghanistan’s parliament that hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees would be expelled from his country if the agreement was ratified. But his threats backfired when they were reported in the local media: the deal was passed in defiance of perceived Iranian meddling. Tehran briefly recalled Zohrawand from Kabul in protest.
An Afghan official said that some factions in Iran’s regime wanted a less confrontational policy. “Tehran is divided on its policy about Afghanistan,” he said. He added that diplomats in Kabul expected Zohrawand to be replaced, perhaps by a more “seasoned and reasonable” diplomat such as Gholamreza Ansari, a former Iranian ambassador to London.