Riedel: How A Clash with Iran Could Destabilize Afghanistan

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.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Your warnings about EMP’s from Iran being the new threat du jour was confirmed when Michael Medved had some idiot warning of the threat to the US from an Iranian nuke used as an EMP. Obama was guilty of safeguarding administration communications from EMP damage but not protecting America from the DANGERS. While an EMP might really screw up some infrastructure I don’t think this would be directly life threatening.

    The inane clincher was that Iran has medium range missiles which “can hit all their Mid East enemies” but was shockingly testing missiles from boats which proves they are plan to motor them through the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea to get in range of the US. Of course this would be as discrete as neo-cons at a hug in.

    You’re doing great reporting. It’s a shame that Iran gets so terribly villified for their actions in Iraq where they seem to have kept any heavy munitions from crossing their border into Iraq.

  2. If you examine my comments on this site, as well as my writings elsewhere, you’ll see that I’ve been saying that the U.S. military wants no part of a conflict with Iran. This was true during the Iraq war, and it will remain true at least so long as we are fighting in Afghanistan. The military has enough sense to understand that we indeed don’t need a new front in Afghanistan — or anywhere else, for that matter. There is every possibilty that a year from now we will have close to 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Given the unpredictability of the situation in the Korean peninsula (which has only increased with the recent election in Japan), the last thing the military needs is a further stretching of the force. Standing down in Iraq is only a first step in rebuilding the ground force capability that has been degraded by 8 years in Iraq.

    If a war against Iran occurs during this administration, I would be very surprised. If it nevertheless happens, it will cause a crisis of empire on a level with 1968. Moreover, such a crisis would be more fundamental in nature, and could lead to far-reaching changes in American foreign policy, and within America itself — changes no one considers even remotely possible today.

  3. Perhaps it is time for American decision-makers to ask themselves some very basic questions about American national security interests in the Mideast…before we dig ourselves an even deeper hole than the one we are already in.

    For example, I would assert (and would be glad to defend this proposition, if anyone actually has a problem with it) that the absence of nuclear war in the Mideast is in America’s national interest. Some American politicians and many who try hard to be influential have been behaving as though they believed the opposite. Just exactly what private agenda they may be pursuing is a question worth contemplating.

    Assuming we can accept that avoiding nuclear war is good, then, how do we achieve it?

    Should the U.S. pursue a Mideast nuclear-free zone? If so, what guarantees should we provide to those countries that are thus prevented from building their own terror weapons?

    Should the U.S. use force to achieve a nuclear-free Mideast?

    If the U.S. removed Israeli nuclear arms by force (in return for a guarantee of protection), what would the effect upon Iran be?

    Might the U.S., if it tried, find a method less crude than force for creating a non-nuclear regime for the Mideast?

    Today, South Asia is a very dangerous place because Pakistan and India have nuclear arms. The Mideast is rapidly moving in the same direction. But this time the country that has introduced those arms into the region could be disciplined by the U.S.

    Exactly what U.S. efforts might be worthwhile to avoid the risks of letting the Mideast continue down the road that South Asia has already taken?

  4. Jon, I don’t disagree with you, though that doesn’t preclude Israel from acting overly or covertly to inflame tensions or attack.

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