When two foreign policy crises converge: Iran and Afghanistan

July 18, 2010

zahedanLast week’s suicide bombing of a mosque in Zahedan, capital of the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan, is another reminder of how far two of the United States’ main foreign policy challenges – its row with Iran over its nuclear programme, and its policies towards Afghanistan and Pakistan – are intertwined.

A senior commander in Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said on Saturday that the United States would face “fall out” from the bomb attack which it blamed on the Jundollah Sunni Muslim rebel group - a militant group which Iran says is backed by Washington and operates from Baluchistan province in neighbouring Pakistan.  Massoud Jazayeri, deputy head of the dominant ideological wing of Iran’s armed forces, did not specify what he meant by fall-out from the bombing, which killed 28 people and which the United States has condemned.

But his comments nonetheless raised tensions at a time when the United States is at loggerheads with Tehran over its nuclear programme, and when its top diplomats, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are visiting Pakistan and Afghanistan to try to press U.S. interests there.

The intertwining of these two foreign policy challenges runs far deeper than a coincidence of timing or geography.

As I wrote in this analysis after a suicide bombing last year in Sistan-Baluchestan – also blamed on Jundollah – the violence there exposed a deep sectarian faultline between Shi’ite Iran and Pakistan, allied with Tehran’s main rival, Sunni Saudi Arabia. (For a detailed study of Jundollah, and tensions between Iran’s dominant Shi’ites and its minority Sunnis, see this report (pdf) by the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment published last July).  

Analysts have also said that the use of suicide bombers suggested that Jundollah – which fights for the rights of ethnic Baluch in Iran – was becoming increasingly influenced by the tactics and sectarian agenda of groups like the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, blamed for a series of suicide bombings inside Pakistan.

Weaving the net more tightly is  Iran’s capacity to act as a spoiler in any U.S. attempt to reach a political settlement in Afghanistan, ratcheting up or down its alleged support for Taliban insurgents depending on the extent to which its distrust of the Sunni movement is outweighed by its anger with the United States.

Then add into the mix the fact that Baluchistan – whether on the Pakistan side of the border, or in Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan – has always performed the function of “the ghost at the feast” when it comes to Afghanistan because of the access of its ports to the sea and to Gulf oil supplies.

Back in 1979 at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. officials worried – wrongly according to some historians – that the Russians might try to push all the way through Pakistani Baluchistan to the Arabian Sea.

Baluchistan is a region which arguably is strategically more important than landlocked Afghanistan. It is also where you see a lot of the off-stage competition for resources and influence going on. China is building a port at Gwadar on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea to give it access to Gulf oil supplies, raising anxieties in India which is wary of Beijing’s close relationship with Pakistan and still tender long after its defeat in a 1962 border war.

India, meanwhile, has built a road from Nimroz province in Afghanistan to Chabahar Port on the coast of Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan, as part of efforts to reduce Afghan dependence on supply routes through Pakistan; and is looking to Tehran to develop the project further. Just to complete the circle, India is taking a more independent stance on U.S. efforts to step up sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme, driven in part by a desire in Delhi to work with Iran to counter Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan also accuses India of using its presence in Afghanistan to support Baluch separatists in its own Baluchistan province, an accusation India denies.

Pakistan in turn has been trying to improve its relations with Tehran, saying that it helped in the arrest of Jundollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi, who was hanged in Iran last month, and working towards trilateral cooperation between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

It is hard to predict how any of this will work out – there are too many unexpected events like the Zahedan bombing; too many shifting allegiances, either for ideological or opportunistic reasons; too much uncertainty about Iran’s own domestic political compulsions.  But one question that has been nagging at me for a while now watching all this unfold is this: Will the United States need to choose eventually between its policies towards Iran – and its determination to stop it from what it sees as a covert programme to develop a nuclear bomb (an accusation Tehran denies) – and its need for stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Does it even have that choice any more given the many competing interests in the region?

If history is any guide, the United States was willing to overlook Pakistan’s own drive to build a nuclear bomb in return for its support in driving the Soviets out of Afghanistan. But that was in the simple days of the Cold War, when you knew, roughly, on which side of the fence different countries belonged.

(Photo: Funeral ceremony in Zahedan)


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