Tehran has not been shy about the fact that it can make life difficult for the United States in Iraq, and elsewhere, when the occasion arises.
Iran seems to be playing a familiar game of creating quagmires and then offering its adversary a way out as a bargaining chip.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said recently that "Iran does not intend to provide circumstances whereby the occupiers can end their occupation gracefully, nor do we approve of what the Americans did in Iraq."
Tehran sounds as though it is trying to strengthen its hand -- and conversely weaken Washington's -- in the context of its discussions with the United States.
The Islamic republic has sought advantage in its dealings with the United States by demonstrating that it can destabilize Afghanistan with ease and on multiple fronts.
Until very recently, most Afghan government officials and the Afghan public would have pointed to Pakistan as the neighbor meddling in their country's affairs and supporting the insurgency. But early this year, reports began to surface of alleged Iranian intrusions into western Afghan airspace and of suspected camps inside Iran where opponents of Afghanistan's central government were allegedly being trained. Kabul, its hands full with Pakistan, initially tried to downplay suggestions of Iranian interference. The signs became harder to ignore when U.S. and NATO military sources claimed to have discovered weapons of Iranian origin inside Afghanistan. Questions about Iran's motives began circulating. Why would Tehran support Afghan clients with weapons that are traceable back to Iran? If it could easily send anonymous weapons, why wouldn't Iran do so?
The forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran also sent shock waves through western Afghanistan, and sparked a humanitarian crisis. Some 85,000 Afghans were forced to return to a land that could hardly absorb them. The expulsions also sent a message to Kabul. Without breaking international law, Iran flexed its muscles and demonstrated its influence over Kabul's ability to govern and the inadequacy of Western reconstruction efforts.
Stronger Hand Than In Iraq
Iran arguably holds a stronger hand in Afghanistan than in Iraq. In the 1980s, even as the Iran-Iraq War raged, Iran was playing host to more than 1 million Afghan refugees and cultivating strong political and military alliances with several fronts inside Afghanistan. Some of Iran's closest allies in the Afghan power structure are now in positions of considerable authority in Kabul. Unlike in Iraq, the Iranians also can infiltrate Afghanistan with relative ease, since inhabitants of eastern Iran share many common traits -- not limited to language -- with their western Afghan neighbors.
If Iran's past behavior is any indication, the actions in Afghanistan are not coincidental. Traceable weapons and airspace violations might serve as reminders that Iran is watching -- ready, able, and willing to engage if necessary. Should Washington and its NATO allies maintain their pressure on Iran -- on its nuclear program, for instance, support for terrorism, or human rights -- Iran might prompt some difficult moments for them. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta described Iran's refugee expulsions as part of Tehran's pressure on Kabul to resist attempts by NATO to formalize its military presence in Afghanistan, to align with Tehran over "Iran's nuclear issue," and to ensure Iran's access to water.
The refugee crisis has become a legal pressure point, and the political ramifications have been severe for President Hamid Karzai's administration. The impeachment of Foreign Minister Spanta, one of Karzai's principal supporters, has sparked a constitutional crisis. Iranian supporters within the Afghan parliament led the impeachment call on the grounds of Spanta's failure to prevent Iran from its intended course. While Spanta remains at his post pending a Constitutional Court decision, the legal and political battle between the Karzai administration and the Afghan parliament is far from over.
Iran clearly has no intention of holding back when it sits across the table from the United States in Baghdad. Instead, it appears to want to up the ante.
Afghanistan is an easy bet on Iran's part, but it is keeping its cards hidden. Tehran can point to its cooperation with Washington since the Taliban were ousted. But it has also shown that it can contribute to Afghanistan's difficulties. Which card will it play?
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