June 29, 2011

Iran picks up the pieces - again

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted a meeting with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Tehran recently. The focus of the meeting was the future of the region after the upcoming withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan, Iran's neighbor to the east. Iran's concerns and plans coincide with its focus on the future of Iraq, its neighbor to the west, after the withdrawal of American forces from that country later this year.

Interestingly, all three nations represented are Islamic republics. The official titles of the three are: Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Despite the fact that Pakistan and Afghanistan are predominantly Sunni Muslim and Iran is over 90 percent Twelver Shi'a Islam, the leaders in Tehran believe that Islamic governments in all three countries can be a unifying factor. That includes unity against the West.

The truth is that both Iranian Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution (rahbare mo'azzame enghelab, literally "Leader of the Revolution") Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are positioning themselves to become the key power brokers in Afghanistan, much as they have done to the west in Iraq. Following the American invasion of Iraq and removal of the Saddam Husayn regime, the Iranians immediately began a campaign to solidify relations with the Shi'a majority in Iraq. As that Shi'a majority gained the prominent position in Iraqi politics by virtue of its sheer numbers, the Iranians were quick to offer all types of support.

The Iranians succeeded beyond their wildest expectations in Iraq. With the election of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Iranians got a virtual puppet in charge in Baghdad - al-Maliki is derisively known as al-irani, the Iranian. After his first term, he was able to retain the prime minister position despite not winning the most number of seats - it was Iranian influence that led to the formation of a new government with al-Maliki still in charge.

Although it was American military power that removed a ruthless dictator in Iraq - at great cost in terms of blood and treasure - it was ultimately the Iranians who benefited the most from that action. The brutality of the Saddam Husayn regime has been replaced by a new government allied with an equally brutal regime in Tehran.

With Iraq firmly in their sphere of influence, the Iranians are now turning their attention to the east. The Iranians have attempted to influence events in the Herat area of western Afghanistan for years, including dispatching elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to provide the same things the IRGC has done elsewhere in the region to destabilize situations - money, weapons and training to subversive elements.

Just as they have supported insurgencies and uprisings in Lebanon, Kurdish Iraq during the Saddam years, Croatia, Chechnya, Gaza and post-Saddam Iraq, the IRGC's al-Qods (Jerusalem) Force has provided material support to the Taliban. It is important to note that in the mid-1990's, the Taliban (Sunni Islamist) and the Iranians (Shi'a Islamist) were enemies. Mutual hatred of the United States transcends the differences between the two Islamist groups.

In Pakistan, relations between the United States and Islamabad are strained, especially in the wake of a U.S. special operations raid into Pakistan in which American troops killed al-Qa'idah leader Usamah bin Ladin under the noses of an either complicit or incompetent Pakistani intelligence service (I'm betting on complicit). Iran is attempting to exploit this ebb in the Pakistani-American relationship, with some success.

In the two years since Barack Obama took office and instituted his policy to engage the Iranians, Iranian influence in Iraq, the Persian Gulf and now South Asia has increased markedly. The Iranians are also pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon almost unchecked, yet there appears to be no change of strategy in Washington.

Mr. President, is that what you had in mind when you took office? Perhaps it's time to reassess this "engagement" policy - it's clearly not working.