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)

Comments

The CIA director Leon Panetta was in Islamabad in recent time and one of the demands was to let the US open a consulate in Quetta, Baluchistan which would act as a CIA post.
Back in 1953 CIA first overthrow of a foreign government, when Prime Minister Mossadeq of Iran was ousted and Shah of Iran was installed as a puppet on the Iranian people. What happened after that, Shah was manipulated his entire life, in the end he went into exile and died.
Again, CIA is playing a very dangerous game in Baluchistan, I don’t think CIA will succeed in destabilizing Iran this way.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive
 
 

@Myra
Very interesting article and analysis of the region. Let us also not forget the sight of the bigger picture in the region by relating to the USA interests.
. Iran most probably has an arsenal of nuclear weapons with the assistance of its neighbour Pakistan. The messages from the USA is nothing but the smoke screen which was previusly used against North Korea. This tactic is used to pressure iran to give up their weapons. This did not work with North Korea and is unlikely to work with Iran. Should Iran explode a test device to stop this rambling from the USA and then face further isolation and sanctions like North Korea. Certainly not. The weapons are there to defend and not for attacking a country.
With regard to violence against Iran from Baluchistan, Pakistan military suppression lost them the control over the Baluchistan territory. Pakistan new Govt. is struggling with the leaders to restore calm in the Province. The Iranian Govt. is aware of the non involvement of hostility from Baluchistan.

The presence of the USA has caused the instability in the region as well as provide lots of capital being spend to make infra structure in the country. This is also not knew, since in previous times the Russians paid for the roads in the North and the USA and its partners built the highway from jalalabad to Kabul. Once the Talibans participate in the Kabul Govt. the scenario is likely to change very rapidly and the birth of another Islamic State with sharia law would be in place. The competition between the influence of sunni Saudis and the shia Iran is then likely to come in the open. The USA is going to be the looser in any case and all the dollars invested would be down the drain.
Let us watch what the grand plan of mr Karzai’s are in the next week’s conference.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

PS should read– The Iranian Govt. is aware of the non-involvement of Pakistan Govt. in hostilities coming from Baluchistan.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

@Pakistan,

The last thing we need is another Iran and Iraq Shiite vs Sunni War. Countless thousands or even millions will die.

Both peoples in Iran and Pakistan need to keep their corrupt nut head leaders in check and focus on building their countries and educating and feeding their people, rather than focus on buying weapons.

@Myra, you said:

“But that was in the simple days of the Cold War, when you knew, roughly, on which side of the fence different countries belonged.”

–>Not true, we still do know who is where, Pakistan is creating terrorists and playing both sides, or at least that its the perception that Pakistan is being allowed to create.

With a more politically informed public than ever, it is virtually useless to analyze the symptoms and aftermaths of problems and deal with them head on by interviewing the actual foreign policy makers and get them to explain themselves more transparently and openly. To not do this, is merely to maintain and sustain perceptions, and never actually going to the heart of the discussion.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive
 

@GW
you have got a B cheek to call Iran and Pakistan leaders as corrupt. Your opinion is one matter but without evidence calling foreign govts as corrupt is unworthy; have you not been told to be discrete with the word ‘C’?
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

Rex Minor, what is your story? What nationality are you? why is your userid paksitan but your name is rex minor? what is your interest in south asia?

curious.

Posted by saif_1980 | Report as abusive
 

Rex Minor, what is your story? What nationality are you? why is your userid paksitan but your name is rexminor? what is your interest in south asia?

Posted by saif_1980 | Report as abusive
 

ha ha ha ha
The article makes very entertaining reading. Basically every one is caught in every one else’s web.

Here are couple of quotations that will go well with the article:

In every real man a child is hidden that wants to play. ~Friedrich Nietzsche

When I grow up I want to be a little boy. ~Joseph Heller, Something Happened, 1974

Posted by Seekeroftruth | Report as abusive
 

> Rex Minor, what is your story? What nationality are you? why is your userid paksitan but your name is rexminor? what is your interest in south asia?

Let me play Sherlock Holmes. Based on Rex Minor’s demonstrated knowledge of Latin (from his previous posts), I deduce that his actual name means ‘Rex Minor’ or ‘prince’. My money is on ‘Shahzad’ :-). Nationality, well, we’ll let the man speak for himself…

Regards,
Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive
 

http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?u uid=AACEE164-18FE-70B2-A8E30566E50DFB3A
A de facto partition for Afghanistan By: Robert D. Blackwill
Good article with ramifications for all.

Posted by nvrforgetmbai | Report as abusive
 

Quote: ” 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? “End Quote.

So far, the US has not shown an overt willingness to do anything to stop Iran’s nuclear program. But this unwillingness is primarily due to a fear of the Iranian response to an attack on its nuclear installations (closing Hormuz, attack on oil installations, flare-up in Iraq and Lebanon etc).

Instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan (as a consequence of an attack on Iran) is very possible. In the case of Afghanistan it may even be politically and militarily practical for the Iranians.

Ultimately however, an attack or Iran may not depend on what the US wants in the region. The Israelis already perceive the Iranian nuclear program as a threat to their national survival. If the Israelis have reason to believe that the Iranians have crossed (or are about to cross) the point of no return, then they WILL go ahead and attack Iran regardless of US concerns in the region and regardless of the consequences. The US president will not do anything about it, unless he has a political death wish. Once again the tail shall wag the dog and therefore the answer to your question is ‘No, the US does not have a choice in the matter’.

The Israeli’s seem to be finalizing the necessary groundwork for an attack. If they decide to go ahead, they will most likely not repeat the mistake of 2006. This time, they will strategically bypass Hezbollah and go after their primary target. The latest Israeli developments (missile defense, NBC drills etc etc) suggest that they’ve invested heavily in systems which will allow them to ride out Hezbollah’s reprisal in relative safety. Once they think they’ve effectively derailed or delayed Iran’s nuclear program, they will then turn their full attention to Hezbollah.

We live in interesting times.

Posted by Shuqaib.Bhutto | Report as abusive
 

This article is basically designed to draw lines and separate the people and the region, which is a total nonsense. The Baluchi people are pure Persian and Iranians. The Sasanied dynasty of the Persian empire was originated form these people and they are not only from this region of Iran but other parts as well. The Sunni and Shiite sect have not had any major issues for 1400 yeas and you will not find a major conflict between Iran and the Saudi Arabia during this time period.

So, stop this B.S. and smoke screen. You are not talking to bunch of some illiterates here. We are doing this to the Iranians and there is no denying it. So, you may want to hide behind these Mis-information and propaganda, but only for so long.

The Iranians caught the head Jundallah leader and his brother and they must have confessed to what and who is behind all this killing. Let just take some credit for it and show some back bone!

Posted by EstherHaman | Report as abusive
 

Gentlemen, I am not a mystery man! i have registered my self as “Rex Minor”, and somehow one day I found that the Reuters Blog keeps calling me “Pakistan”. Not only that, some of my messages were improved and this is a total surprise for me. As a matter of fact I am not unhappy with the revisions in my post and in the meantime I have got a new PC, but this blog refuses to remove the Word ‘Pakistan’ from my post. I have no intention to register with a new e mail address or new name. As a matter of fact I have got used to the word ‘Pakistan’, and it does not prevent me to criticise the country Pakistan as I do with other govts. of the world. My interest in this blog are obvious namely, the struggle of the Pashtoon people or Talibans(the students) as people are used to calling them.
These people are not super human, but have never been defeated in their history. Many brave and heroic armies of the world came on one or other excuse in their territory to overpower them, and lost their lives and vanished in the silent Afghan valleys, and those who survived went back to their homeland, proud to have fought the Pashtoons and survived. They told strange stories to their children and grand children about these folks. They narrated personal experiences and published them in books, Warburton was one of them. There are others. They wrote about the death of their comrades without any malice or hate or even disappointment. And yet inspite of their history, culture and the traditions even the tactics they use to defend themselves, being known to many in today’s world, they are completely ignored and fresh assaults are made to overpower them. Their treatment of women is not of modern times. they should have handed over thir arab guests who fought with them against the soviets, to George W the leader of the West. etc. etc. This conflicts makes me sad for the loss of life and yet fascinates me how in a very casual way the enemy is being confronted with a very limited number of snipers and IED’s. Simaltaneous receiving payments from the enemy for use of roads. Their kabul emissary on the diplomatic front is cashing on financing major projects for the benefit of common citizens.
Rex Minor
PS It is not the Talibans who made mistakes, but George W who misused his friendship with them(yes, they were regular visitors on his ranch), not understang their culture and traditions. This is the not the wild west, when people are handed over to the law officer or killed as soon as a bounty is announced. George W millions remain unclaimed and in the meantime billions have been spent by the successor.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

Dr. Minor:

@It is not the Talibans who made mistakes, but George W who misused his friendship with them(yes, they were regular visitors on his ranch”

–I am interested to know more about the visitors and the year it happened and if they were there why they were there. Expecting some clear answer.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive
 

@S Bhutto
Are you sure Iran does not have nukes? Iran is not the vassal of the USA to declare their weaponry systems, nor do they have the intention to carry out the atomic explosion to threaten some one. Israel has the nukes too, but now needs a new moses to save them out of their own knitted web. They are now even scared of the hand made rocketry of the amateur gaza people. They have been trying hard for a long time to divert the attention of the USA and Europe from their violent suppression of palestinians civilians by creating the Iranian bogey, but this has failed. The lebanese Hisbullah have damaged their reputation and their attack on the civilian turkish ship have isolated them further in Europe and cost them the loss of an ally with whom they had defence agreements. O’K, they have got now a new ally, India, who could provide them the space for military exercises and even the air space for refuelling in case there is a conflict with Iran. In my opinion the USA, however, is no longer prepared to accept further errosion of their foreign relations and to accept further casualties in support of the current Israeli Govt.
Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

@ Rex. Salaam. Sanga ye?

I apologize for the late reply but I did not see this question before. Are you suggesting that the Iranians already have nukes? If they did, then they would have tested one already. Such a test would have ended the constant threats and pressure on the Iranians. Moreover, such a test would alter the political situation in the Middle East as well as our own region in favour of Iran. What you are suggesting is possible, but not probable.

I don’t mean to sound rude but it would help if you could give me the logic behind what you are claiming.

I also think you have misunderstood some things in my post. I happen to have a great deal of respect for the Persians. I admire their tenacity in battle as well as their sense of independence. I also respect the Pakhtuns for the exact same reasons.

Khuday Pamaan

Posted by Shuqaib.Bhutto | Report as abusive
 

I’d say a nuclear armed Iran is easier to contain than terrorism emanating from the AfPak region.

I’ve always asked my colleagues on the Middle East file this, “So what if Iran gets the bomb?”

Are they likely to use it? Of course not. Any attack on Israel would be met with Iran being wiped off the face of the Earth. Even a threat to Saudi would see several US carrier groups being parked off their shores. And any attack on Saudi would see a US response similar to any attack on Israel. The Gulf States all have the benefit of the US nuclear umbrella. So what can Iran do?

Conversely, a failing Pakistan would be a massive headache for global peace and security. It does not have to become a Somalia to create problems. Prolonged economic turmoil may well see unemployed Pakistani scientists farming out their skills to terror groups for example. Increasing social unrest could lead to more radicalization and the creation of more terrorists. Not good for anybody.

Iran will be dealt with. Like now. Multi-laterally. It’s not just the US alone. The AfPak region is a different story. It is far more of a US problem and therefore requires US attention.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive
 

@keithz,

You know, there is so much smear against Iranians, it is uncalled for. While I have not love of the mullahs or the Revolutionary Guard Mafia, the people of Iran are a sublime, sophisticated, easy natured type, after all, their civilization is almost 6000 years old.

I wholeheartedly agree, I don’t ever think Iran would ever do a first strike of any kind, if they were nuclear.

But, Keithz, you have to ask your self, why is the United States constantly being poked and proded to attacking Iran? There are too many lobby organizations that are advocated for a first strike on Iran and their hope is that, once a conflict gets started, that the United States goes in to clean up the mess, while thousands of young soldiers die to keep a few happy.

It is not right and should not ever happen. I think Iran could play a constructive role in Afghanistan on some levels, as they have a very huge dislike for the opium trade and with regards to that, they may be able to share data on those that are proliferating opium to addicted kids in Europe and beyond.

Its true regime change must happen in Iran, but not by destroying their country and their beautiful culture by being pushed into a war that nobody wants and will be paid for by the U.S. taxpayers, that just bailed out the banking system.

Posted by G-W | Report as abusive
 

I do not know how but Iran needs to be taken into confidence on Afghanistan BY USA. Iran’s nuke program and the Afghanistan issue are separate issues.

USA had done this mistake in the past before 9/11 by not acting against Taliban and its guests because of 1. Pakistan 2. Russia which supported Northern Alliance. Again that cold war hang over was the issue there.

One cannot make everyone happy, but a due recognition to a key player plays a big role in easing the tensions.

Posted by RajeevK | Report as abusive
 

@ SBhotto
The logic is very simple for any one to conclude what I have concluded;I normally do not boast about the source or the clues of my findings.But let me make anexception;
. North Korea had the atomic weaponry, but the american administraion kept on saying publicly that the Nortk Korea has the program but not built a weapon,Eventually North Korea had to explode one to prove that they have one. The USA never dared to attack North Korea throughout their discussions with the bad regime.

. Iraq had none but the USA kept on saying publicly that they have one. They finally accepted the politician Baradai,s word and changed over to the chemical weaponry. Iraq came under attack.
. The americans know that AQ khan support was equally available to Iran, like to North Korea, Libya etc. etc. To imagine that Iran does not have the nukes would be an illusion. Neither Israel nor the USA has the courage to attack a nuclear armed state. The nukes do not need to be tested and the technology must be very simle for a nuclear scientest to manufacture one. The stories the USA puts out is for the birds at home and abroad.

Finally, India proved to be the only spoiler in the nuclear game testing the weapon. Pakistan was forced to follow suit.
One doest not need to test the bullets, the bombs or nukes. One does need to test the rocketry to ensure that the nukes do land accurately. This is being constantly undertaken by many countries including Iran.
We are all sitting in glass houses and nukes are slowly and steadily becoming of less advantage, unless of course one is ready to take a chance and be prepared for the suicicide.
Now tell me who are becoming the experts on suicide?
Rex Minor
PS not to forget the USA is the only country to have used two nukes on Japan and as of this date not apologised. Mr Castro appeal to the USA administration last zeek was not a fluke. Now this is my analysis and please do consider it as a speculation. Prove it otherwise if you can? Not by qutations from the USA which is still using the SPIN STRATEGY OF George W.

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive
 

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