The Wall Street Journal reports that the Iranian government is expanding its ties to the Taliban and even allowing Mullah Omar’s organization to set up an office in eastern Iran. The arrangement works as follows:
A member of the Taliban's leadership council, the Quetta Shura, set up an office in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan in late May, according to a senior Western diplomat in Kabul and a senior Afghan official. Zahedan sits near the borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan and on an easy transit route from the Pakistani city of Quetta, where the Taliban leadership is based.
Zahedan is an especially noteworthy location for this office. Not only does the Taliban now have an office there, but al Qaeda and affiliated terrorist groups have long operated there as well.
Yassin al Suri, a major al Qaeda facilitator based in Iran, is known to operate inside Zahedan. Members of an al Qaeda cell slated to take part in a Mumbai-style plot against European cities in 2010 transited through Zahedan. They utilized al Suri’s network. Members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) routinely do as well.
Here is how my colleague Benjamin Weinthal and I explained the Zahedan network in an article earlier this year:
Zahedan is a well-known hub of al Qaeda and IMU activity. The IMU has repeatedly used the city’s Makki mosque, the largest Sunni mosque in Iran, to shuttle fighters into Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda has an established presence there, too. For instance, before his May 2011 suicide at Guantánamo, an Afghan detainee named Inayatullah admitted to authorities that he was al Qaeda’s emir of Zahedan, from where he delivered recruits to senior al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. Even since Inayatullah’s capture, al Qaeda fighters have continued to travel through Zahedan…
Earlier this week, the State Department once again accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) of supplying the Taliban with arms and training, in addition to allowing al Qaeda operatives to transit Iranian soil. The Journal adds this piece of information:
In intercepted communications in early July, members of the Quds Force, a special unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, discussed plans to send surface-to-air missiles to insurgents in Afghanistan, according to the Western official. There is no information that Iran has delivered such missiles to the insurgents, Western officials said.
This is not the first time the Iranians have discussed supplying surface-to-air missiles. The topic was first broached in late 2001. A Guantanamo detainee named Khairullah Khairkhwa was the Taliban’s governor in the Herat province, which sits on the border with Iran, at the time. Khairkhwa attended meetings during which Iran agreed to support the Taliban in its war against American-led forces. One of the items Iran said it could supply the Taliban with was shoulder-fired missiles (SAM-7’s).
While the Iranians ended up providing other weapons to the Taliban, to my knowledge they never did provide the shoulder-fired missiles. One official cited by the Journal has concluded the same, saying that the Iranians provide “low-level lethal support” and training in Iran, but not “signature weapons” such as the shoulder-fired missiles or the explosively-formed penetrators (or EFPs) that Iranian-backed militias use in Iraq. This is also consistent with the State Department’s reporting.
The Iranians’ decision to allow the Taliban to open an office in Zahedan is just the latest example of “diplomatic” cooperation between the two former adversaries. Last year, the Washington Post reported that Iran hosted Taliban representatives in Tehran, suggesting that “Iran has cultivated deeper ties with the insurgent group than was previously known and is stepping up efforts to influence its eastern neighbor as the U.S. role recedes.”
Whether it is weapons or an office in Zahedan, that is ultimately what the relationship between Iran and the Taliban is all about: countering the influence of America and its allies in Afghanistan.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.