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.

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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. Bill, There is good reason to believe the Saudis have nukes as well. Further, I think it less clear that we have leverage over them. Despite the vilification they get in the press here the Saudis have proved themselves to be our truest friend in the region.

    They tell us hard truths. They pumped oil at our behest even when we were in a glut, even while our own financiers were lying on TV about shortages. They told us this repeatedly.

    They’ve offered the best model for fighting terrorism, Islam used to thoughtfully challenge these violent rogues. For Islam offers no license to fight those who are not fighting you.

    I’ve offered some strong defenses of Islam on these boards. As I understand it, and have yet to read a word that contradicts this, that there is no license to kill innocents, non-combatants or to sew disorder. Not that there aren’t some who are doing just this in the name of Islam.

    But the question of Israel is a tricky one. Israelis claim they are a democracy. The settlers are actively involved in taking the land of the Palestinians. The settlers seem to almost all have guns. As a democracy all Israelis bear the responsibility for Israeli policies no?

    Yet we bombed and killed many Iraqis who were victims of Saddam’s tyranny. They really had no control over their gov’t, yet by invading we held them collectively responsible. Israeli too certainly showed little restraint along these lines in Gaza.

    None of this excuses the Palestinian or Lebanese terrorist. Though, very often they seem to show more restraint than we do. Further, considering the relative hardships each party inflicts on the other, I think the violence from the Arabs is understandable and expected. I’d even argue that the violence is expected and desired by Israel, as they use these destructive acts of frustration as justification for oppressing, starving, humiliating and dominating an entire people–to quote the IDF refuseniks who’ve nobly stood up for the better angels of Israel and Judaism.

    So sad to see us sully our moralities, traditions and societies for such petty ends. We sully ourselves even more when we point the finger hypocritically at those we afflict for daring to fight back.

  2. It’s quite true that Israel could/might start a war over Iran’s nuke program. I’ve said that many times in the past. The problem for the administration is to restrain the Israelis. If it fails . . . then what? Anybody who reads me knows I don’t support the U.S.-Israel alliance, while I favor a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement regardless of whether Tehran develops a nuke or not. I certainly would try to persuade Tehran to give up the goal of nukes. Success on that front would be more likely if we and Iran were already on friendly terms. But in the last analysis, it (that is, an Iranian nuke) has nothing to do with U.S. security or vital interests.

    There is absolutely no prospect of the U.S. achieving a nuclear-free Mideast — it’s a pure pipe dream. “If the U.S. removed Israeli nuclear arms by force” — lessee, is there the slightest prospect of the U.S. undertaking to do that? No. Even if there was, how would it be accomplished? U.S. surgical strikes to destroy the Israeli arsenal? Can’t see that happening. Nor would I advocate it even if it was achievable. A nuclear-free Mideast would no doubt be a good thing in and of itself, but U.S. security and vital interests are hardly affected by the presence of nukes in the region.

    Let me say for the umpteenth time: The sole U.S. interest in the Middle East is the uninterrupted flow of oil. The United States is overstretched militarily, it’s running up unheard of deficits that could lead to national bankruptcy, and it has major social problems that are festering rather than being salved. It needs to focus on these matters, and not the problems of the Middle Eastern peoples. A hands-off policy towards the Mideast will keep the oil flowing. The U.S. has got to stop being an international social worker, wasting its human and material resources on world-improving schemes.

  3. “Anybody who reads me knows I don’t support the U.S.-Israel alliance”

    I know buddy, I know.

    As to a nuke free middle East, you missed one country, Saudi Arabia almost certainly has a nuclear arsenal. The Saudis don’t like to boast and beat their chests like the Jews–all that chosen people has made many of them believe they are superior to mere Goy.

    I don’t disagree with anything you write, though sometimes you might omit something I know you’d inject. Or, I might have some other or even a tangential point.

  4. Jon,

    You make an argument for a hands-off U.S. policy toward the Mideast. That is worth thinking about. It would of course by definition have to entail the end to US military support for Israel. If the U.S. really stopped interfering in the Mideast, I suspect all the oil producers would fall all over themselves trying to sell us their oil, and extremists from Netanyahu to bin Laden would find themselves suddenly hard up for work.

    I do think the U.S. is such a privileged society that it should for moral reasons try to be a force for good (and that in theory this would make the world safer), but in practice it seems unable actually to be much of a force for good. Given not only its record over the past decade but its record under the Obama Administration, like well-meaning doctors, America might indeed better “do no harm” than intervene and make things worse. That is the main justification for leaving Iraq (including removing the 150,000 mercenaries) and Afghanistan (again including the huge mercenary force – around 100,000?). It is also the main justification for leaving the Levant, where the disaster of an American presence is most obvious. Without the U.S., surely more reasonable men would take control in Israel and put together a more realistic policy of living with their neighbors.

    As for the “impossibility” of removing nukes, I totally disagree. Everything believed impossible is impossible, but nuclear-free zones exist (at least, I hope they do!) in Latin America and East Europe. Anyway, even trying would dampen tensions. The point is to demonstrate that incentives work against becoming a nuclear state. Perhaps the most irresponsibly lunatic policy the U.S. has pursued anywhere in the world in the last decade is the extraordinary effort it has made to demonstrate exactly the opposite: want attention from the last remaining superpower? Just start the rumor that you might be planning to produce plutonium.

    Well, enough for now. These are very complex issues. They deserve serious attention – but unfortunately there seems to be little willingness in the U.S. to think deeply about new approaches to foreign policy…except of course in a few good blogs like this one. Keep up the good work, ya’ll!

  5. Israel reputedly has some 200 nuclear weapons. When the messiah arrives and tells the Israelis to get rid of those weapons, perhaps they will. Until then no Israeli government of any political stripe will “de-nuclearize.”
    Doesn’t matter what the U.S. government may say or do.

    Perhaps the day will come when Arab and Jew discover a commonality that is sadly lacking today. That would mean a Palestine inhabited by citizens with equal rights, not an apartheid state as exists now. Perhaps that day will come, but I see no evidence of it.

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