Washington’s newfound willingness to open talks with the Taliban for a political settlement in Afghanistan is like a red flag to a bull for Tehran.
US defense secretary Robert Gates made the argument on Oct. 9 during a NATO meeting: “There has to be ultimately – and I’ll underscore ultimately – reconciliation as part of a political outcome… That’s ultimately the exit strategy for all of us.”
Gates’ “ultimate” timeline was abruptly shortened this week.
In a sharp change of course, Patrick Moon, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, disclosed Thursday, Oct. 30, that the US had agreed to drop the name of Taliban leader Mullah Omer from the terror list “ahead of talks with the insurgents,” to provide “a suitable seedbed for holding contacts with the Taliban.”
Soon to visit Kabul, Moon said he would fully support the idea of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban to end the violence in the region.
US military commanders, who had hoped to talk from a position of strength, after a troop surge leading to a forceful military campaign next year, were overtaken by Washington decision-makers.
As for Tehran, a US accommodation with Taliban is the last thing it wants to see happening on the Afghan-Pakistan warfront, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian sources report.
Iran’s rulers had been planning to wield two weapons to stymie the talks. They will have to move faster than they planned.
One is the Iraqi Shiite card. As the time for talks drew near, Tehran planned to ratchet up the Iraqi Shiite-dominated government’s hostility to the US and escalate the level of Shiite militia terror.
The second is al Qaeda.
It would not be the first that Iran has used Osama bin Laden’s jihadists as a stick for clubbing the Americans.
US Iraq and Afghanistan exit strategies inter-tangled
In 2004, al Qaeda was allowed to set up a logistics base and staging post in Iran for planning and orchestrating attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia, some of them American. Then, in 2006, Tehran opened the door to fugitives escaping from their bludgeoning at the hands of US forces in Iraq and heading out to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight American forces there.
Some sources in Riyadh offered the opinion Tehran was behind Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maiki’s maneuvers to stall the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the US. Iran was making its first move to obstruct the US-Taliban negotiating process after the Saudis had prepared the ground for the talks.
One senior Saudi official put it this way: “The Iranians believe they can hold US troops in Iraq hostage by delaying the security treaty’s ratification until it can be renegotiated with a new US administration. But their essential concern remains the Afghan situation, and their fundamental demand is to prevent the Taliban’s return to Kabul.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources stress that, whoever wins the US presidential election, Barack Obama or John McCain, he will have to cope with the sort of serpentine bargaining processes that are rolling up US exit strategies from Iraq and Afghanistan into one intractable bundle. Waiting for him at the door of the White House will be Iran about to be nuclear armed and bent on preventing the Afghanistan War ending with the Sunni Taliban’s restoration to government in Kabul.
So the new president may find his talks with Taliban held up until he finishes talking to Iran and hammering out terms for expediting US exits from the two wars which Islamic rulers have caused to be hopelessly inter-tangled.
From Kabul, Taliban will carry Sunni dominance through the Muslim world
Iran’s leaders are bothered by three potential consequences of a US-Taliban accommodation:
1. That the return of Sunni zealot Taliban rule to Kabul will pave the way for its seizure of positions of influence in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, so turning itself into the strongest Sunni military power in the Muslim world and a major challenge to the strength of Shiite Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
2. That the Taliban, egged on by Saudi Arabia, will gain control of part of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and provide the Saudis and the Gulf Arab emirates with a nuclear umbrella to offset a nuclear-armed Iran.
3. Iran suspects Taliban of expansionist aspirations that will not be satisfied with Kabul and Islamabad. Iran’s clerical rulers see Mullah Omer and his team covetously eyeing regions outside their present orbit as far west as the Middle East.
They fear the Americans, again with Saudi encouragement, will try and forge a military pact between the Taliban and the 100,000-strong movement of Iraq’s Sunni tribal Awakening Councils. Together they might be able to push Iran off its power perches in Baghdad; Sunni strength would take over from the Shiite-dominated government in time to fill the gap left by the departing US army.
Iran would be hemmed in by Sunni forces.
The Syrians have evidently decided to opt out of Iran’s special Shiite interests in the region. They are pursuing a game of their own aimed at riding into a position of influence in Baghdad on the backs of their Sunni insurgent allies in Iraq.