Two of my reports shed light on Iran’s “two front” strategy against the US and Israel. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and met the Taliban. The goal is to remove the US from Iraq and Afghanistan and keep the pressure on Israel.
Globetrotting Taliban go to Iran to get US to leave Afghanistan
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The Taliban took a trip to Iran this month, Iranian media revealed, for the second time since US-Taliban talks broke down in September. The delegation was led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akund, the Taliban’s lead negotiator. Baradar has led negotiations with the US in Qatar and peace discussions in Moscow this year and has held discussions with Pakistan and other countries. The Iranian discussions included talks with Iranian Foreign Minister who held a call with Palestinian Islamic Jihad the same day, illustrating how Iran hopes it can leverage several fronts against the US and allies.
Tasnim news reported the Taliban talks in Tehran and said it was the second since US-Taliban peace negotiations had broken down in September. Iran told Mullah Baradar that US troops needed to leave Afghanistan and that the new government in Kabul should be inclusive. In the 1990s Iran had bad relations with the Taliban, which persecuted Shi’ites, but today Iran is willing to work with and even support the Taliban in order to remove the US from Iran’s eastern flank.
Taliban-Iran discussions have gone on secretly and in the open for years. In August there were concerns that Taliban contacts with Iran could sabotage the US desire to withdraw from Afghanistan with a deal with the Taliban. The Trump administration wants to end the war. Zarif said on September 8 that Iran was ready to work with Taliban. Afghanistan’s government has been outraged at these talks which tend to ignore Kabul. An Afghan official condemned Iran in January 2019. Trump’s initiative had seen US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad meet with the Taliban and talks seemed to be going well until September. But Trump pulled back at the last minute over concerns the US might be seen to be giving away too much. However he seems to be open to a new round. Khalilzad was in Pakistan for talks again in October. Then he went to Kabul in late October.
Mullah Baradar was born in 1968 and was a co-founder of the group. A fighter alongside Mullah Omar, he sought negotiations between 2004 and 2009 until he was captured in Pakistan in 2010. He was released in 2018 and went to Qatar to begin negotiations with the Americans. In Qatar in February and May 2019 he held discussions with the US. He sought to end the stalemate that had clouded discussions in June.
When talks collapsed Baradar and his team with the Moscow on September 13. There they met Zamir Kabulov, the Russian envoy and talked about “recent developments regarding the peace process.” On September 22 the Taliban team went to Beijing. There Baradar warned of bloodshed in Afghanistan fi talks did not continue with the US.
On October 3 the jet-set Talban went to Pakistan to meet Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. They had also been in Iran, according to reports, although it wasn’t clear which Taliban members had gone there. Pakistan, which once backed the Taliban and has preferred religious extremist groups was happy to meet their old friends. The overall picture is that the Taliban appear to be winning diplomatically. They have opened doors in Russia, China, Pakistan and Qatar. Iran is supporting them. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even blamed Iran for an attack in Afghanistan that happened on May 31.
Iran wants to have a say in Afghan politics and hopes to use the Taliban to evict the US, just as Iran wants to evict the US from Iraq as well. Towards that end it is working closely with the Taliiban and the meeting this week was evidence of that. Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman of the Taliban, said that these were detailed discussions in Tehran.
Iran’s FM Zarif encourages “resistance” to Israel in phone call to Islamic Jihad
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif phoned Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad Al-Nakhalah to express support for the group’s “valiant resistance in confronting the Zionist aggression against the Gaza Strip,” according to Palestinian and Iranian reports.
Zarif, who has been relatively inactive lately, meeting the new Hungarian envoy in Tehran on Sunday but doing little else, called the leader of Islamic Jihad this week to offer support. On November 12 Israel killed a senior PIJ commander in Gaza and the group fired over 400 missiles at Israel in response. According to Palestine Today TV the Iranian called the Palestinian group’s leader to praise “heroism and steadfastness of the Palestinian people against the Zionist enemy.” Islamic Jihad is the third or fourth largest Palestinian movement but it has obtained advanced rockets and cash through Iranian support over the years. This means even though it is a small movement it has been able to threaten Israel from Gaza over the last years, with the support or knowledge of Hamas, which runs Gaza.
PIJ has rockets that can travel more than 100km and it showcased a new rocket with a 300kg warhead recently. It has received increasing support since 2012 from Iran. Zarif also called Nakhalah on November 17 to express support. Islamic Jihad has been behind rocket fire last fall and also in August and November. It has threatened to fire thousands of rockets in a day and claimed it showed restraint in the recent battle. Zarif met Nakhalah in February in Beirut. They also met in Tehran in late December 2018.
In the phone call this week the Islamic Jihad leader thanked Iran for its support and said it would continue to struggle against the “Zionist project.” Tasnim news in Iran reported the phone call as well. The two calls appear to show how deeply invested in Islamic Jihad Iran has become. However Zarif appears to have been laying low lately. He held talks with the outgoing Omani ambassador but rarely tweets. At home Iran has had to deal with mass protests and Zarif has not tweeted since November 12, days before the protests broke out. Prior to that he was in Turkey where he spoke about how Iran’s neighbors, like Turkey, come first in Iran’s foreign policy. Iran is seeking a closer partnership with Turkey.