Iran wants help from a friend
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
An unusual alliance has been unveiled after Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad revealed that the recent arrest of Abdulmalik Rigi, leader of the
Sunni terrorist group Jundallah, was made possible with intelligence
cooperation from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Using his one-day trip on Wednesday to Kabul to bolster Iran's relations with
Afghanistan and shore up regional support in the face of escalating United
States pressure for sanctions over its nuclear program, Ahmadinejad made it a
priority to highlight work between the three nations on the Rigi arrest as a
model for counter-terrorism. He also made the most of the opportunity to scold
the US over its military presence and hammer home a
message that the US is supporting terrorism in the name of the "war on terror".
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the
Afghan capital on Monday and accused Iran of playing a "double game" by
supporting Afghan insurgents.
Trading barbs with Gates, Ahmadinejad zeroed in on Rigi's Central Intelligence
Agency connections - and the fact that he had been at a US military base in
Afghanistan 24 hours prior to his arrest. He had also been given a fake
passport, a fake "student identification card" and was reportedly on his way to
meet a high-ranking US official in Central Asia.
Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said earlier that "the US and
Britain and their forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan are encouraging acts of
terror in the region".
Securing Kabul's support is important for Iran. Karzai assured his Iranian
visitor that Afghanistan would not allow its territory to be used against Iran,
reiterating that relations between the two countries over the past nine years
had been "solid" and based on "cooperation" and "mutual respect".
Iran has simultaneously called on the US and other North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) countries to do more to tackle Afghanistan's narcotics
problem which, to paraphrase Gail Kerlikowske, the director of US Office of
National Drug Control Policy, is an area of mutual cooperation and mutual
support between Iran and the West.
This points to the paradoxes of both US and Iranian strategies in Afghanistan
and the broader region. Contradictory interests are matched by a host of common
concerns, such as Wahhabi terrorism, regional instability and drug trafficking.
The latter exacts a heavy toll on Iran, a main consumer of Afghan opium and
heroin as well as a corridor for the shipment of the illicit drugs to Europe,
not to mention the deaths every year of hundreds of Iran's anti-drug forces at
the hands of well-armed smugglers.
Clearly, Iran wants to have it both ways, demanding an immediate withdrawal of
foreign forces from Afghanistan while asking the same forces to do more on the
narcotics front. The latter calls for closer Iran-NATO cooperation to secure
the porous Iran-Afghanistan border, which could involve the sharing of
If there was an implicit message in Ahmadinejad's brief visit to Kabul, it was
Iran's readiness to engage in a new level of multilateral intelligence
cooperation against the "evil scourge" of terrorism and drug trafficking. The
problem is how to overcome the huge barrier of conflicting interests erected
chiefly by the Iran nuclear crisis.
One possible answer is a layered, multi-pronged approach that operates
incrementally to improve and deepen "zones of agreement" such as narcotics,
with the long-term intention of telescoping improvements to the areas of
disagreement, basically as so many confidence-building steps that directly or
indirectly impinge on the "security dimension" in the nuclear talks with Iran.
For the most part that dimension is a "missing link" in the talks, yet by all
indications an essential prerequisite for any breakthrough in cooperation for
the sake of putting the genie of Iran's nuclear "ambitions" back in the bottle.
Learning from history, the West can do much in terms of confidence-building
with Iran, by focusing on areas of mutual interest and bracketing the hopeless
cause of "proxy war" with Iran that, in Jundallah's case, appears to have
backfired. Although the White House does not admit it, Rigi's arrest has
embarrassed the administration of President Barack Obama by reminding the
outside world that the rhetoric of foreign policy change is not matched by a
clean break from the addiction of Obama's predecessor to a covert war with
The Rigi scandal is reminiscent of the Iran-Contra affair, when in October 1984
a Contra supply plane was shot down in Nicaragua and the pilot, Eugene
Hasenfus, turned out to have the telephone number of the office of US vice
president George H. Bush's office in his pocket, thus bursting into the open
evidence of the illegal US "proxy war" in Central America. This culminated in a
subsequent ruling by the International Court of Justice condemning the
"unlawful use of force" against tiny Nicaragua.
Iran is planning a public trial of Rigi, whose group is responsible for the
death and injury of some 450 people, mostly civilians, and the victims' family
may be apt to bring lawsuits against the US in the near future, just as US
courts have repeatedly ruled on behalf of US victims of Middle East terrorism
attributed to pro-Iran forces. The legal dimension of US-Iran hostility can,
however, further complicate the issues and cloud the nature of common interests
dictating the substance and form of partial cooperation.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.