By Daniel Luban
At Tuesday’s Brookings Institution panel on Afghanistan, Brookings fellow Bruce Riedel discussed Iran’s capacity to destabilize Afghanistan in the event of a Washington-Tehran confrontation. Riedel, of course, is the former CIA analyst and NSC staffer who chaired the Obama administration’s strategic review on Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year, giving his comments particular weight:
If we see a situation in which the relationship between Iran and the United States is steadily deteriorating, and the Iranians — either correctly, or because of their own politics — come to the conclusion that the United States is trying to overthrow their regime, or subvert their regime, or prevent it from doing what it wants, one of the easiest ways for the Iranians to fight back is in Afghanistan. Iran has significant influence in the western part of the country and in the central Azeri region which is Shia. If it stirs up trouble in those parts of the country, which have been by and large relatively quiet for the last several years, that will introduce a new front. And as we’ve already discussed, we’ve got enough fronts in Afghanistan that we’re dealing with now; we don’t need another front.
This particularly matters for the transatlantic allies, because many of them have their forces deployed in the western part of the country. The Italians, for example, who are deployed in Herat right now, feel that they’re on the front line with Iran, and what they’ve done over the last several years is quietly make a deal that they will live and let live there. If that deal falls apart, then the Italians are going to be in a very serious and difficult situation.
While the nature and extent of Iran’s influence in Iraq has been much-discussed, its influence in Afghanistan has been comparatively neglected. Riedel’s comments are a reminder that Iran has the capability to cause headaches for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan as well as Iraq — something to keep in mind as the administration considers imposing harsher sanctions on Iran.
Riedel’s blunt warning that “we don’t need another front” in Afghanistan appears to reflect the thinking of many in the Pentagon. As Jim and I wrote in May, the Pentagon seems to have emerged as a counterweight to Iran hawks in Washington (who are based primarily in Congress and within the so-called “Israel lobby”). The U.S. military leadership, primarily focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, is understandably leery of the potentially destabilizing effects that confrontation with Iran would have throughout the “Greater Middle East”. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen have been vocal about the hazards of an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, with Mullen saying that such a strike would pose “exceptionally high risks” to U.S. interests in the region.
As President Obama comes under increased domestic and Israeli pressure to take a harder line against Iran, he finds himself in a difficult position. He must weigh the political pressure to “do more” against the ramifications that a U.S.-Iran showdown would have, not only for Iraq, but for Afghanistan and Pakistan, his avowed top foreign policy priorities.