While it’s unlikely that Iran will directly attack the US over the killing of Qassem Soleimani, it could attempt to indirectly harm US interests in Afghanistan. If this happens, Pakistan could be drawn into the conflict.
The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, by the US on January 3 has created a sense of unease in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, which is already vulnerable to Islamist militancy.
Both the Afghan and Pakistani governments have urged restraint by Washington and Tehran, fearing that an all-out US-Iran war could unleash uncontrollable violence on their soil.
Iran has vowed retaliation for the US’ airstrike against Soleimani in Iraq, but experts say the hardline Shiite regime in Tehran is not in a position to directly confront Washington. Instead, it could attempt to harm US interests in the Middle East, as well as Afghanistan, they say.
Saudi Arabia — a longtime US ally in the Middle East — and Iran are already engaged in a proxy war in places across the region.
The Iranian regime has also expanded its influence in Afghanistan over the past decade, and more recently by directly engaging with the Taliban.
Taliban commanders have traditionally been allied to Riyadh due to the Sunni-Wahhabi ideology they share with Saudi monarchs.
But the influence of both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on the Islamist group has been substantially reduced in the past few years. Tehran has made inroads in the region, and security analysts say it could complicate matters for US President Donald Trump’s administration, which has been trying to finalize a peace deal with the Taliban for a respectable departure from the war-torn country.
The Taliban as Iran’s proxies?
The Afghan government said Friday it was concerned about an escalation of violence in the region after Soleimani’s death.
“We call on the Islamic Republic of Iran, our big neighbor, with whom we have a common language, religious, historic and cultural [values], and on the US, who is Afghanistan’s strategic and fundamental partner, to prevent conflict escalation, and we hope that both sides solve their differences through negotiations,” said a statement from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office.
The statement depicts Kabul’s dilemma, as it does not want to offend the US, nor does it need another violent conflict on Afghanistan’s long border with Iran. And yet, Soleimani’s killing is likely to sabotage the peace process with the Taliban.