US Army Lieutenant Colonel Edward Sholtis announced on Monday that elements within Iran are training Taliban fighters on Iranian soil. The news that Tehran is supporting contingents of the Taliban is not new; US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has said several times before that the Iranians are providing material support to insurgents in the western provinces of Afghanistan.
What is unique about this current announcement is its claim that Taliban forces are receiving training on Iranian soil.
It is still unknown to what extent the Ahmadinejad regime is directly supporting or overseeing such training exercises. It could be the case that these special training forces are operating without the consent of the central government, because the IRGC and its shadow Qods Force are not under Ahmadinejad’s authority. Rather, the IRGC and the Qods Force report directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself; thus it can be inferred that either he or members of his staff are aware of the support for the Taliban and have granted approval.
However, these actions do not demonstrate that Iran is directly allying with the Taliban. If the US were to leave Afghanistan, Tehran would play both sides in order to keep the central government in Kabul weak. In international relations, especially in the Middle East, often times you win by not losing; the best way to exercise regional hegemony is for a state to ensure that its immediate neighbors remain weak. By tampering with the internal dynamics of Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran is attempting to secure its place as a major — if not the major — player in Persian Gulf politics.
The US government will also need to keep an eye on the Saudis and their Gulf allies. How will these states react to the rising Shia primacy? Can the United States and its allies preserve the balance of power in the Persian Gulf? Regardless of how Westerners answer these questions, they can be certain that Tehran has already thought long and hard about the power politics of the region.
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