Friday, June 26, 2009

The unholy trinity: Iran, Afghanistan and the United States

With all the coverage around events in Iran, I have yet to run across a serious analysis on the potential repercussions on Afghanistan and America's interests in the country. Caught between hyperbole idealism and starry-eyed liberalism, some have failed to understand the potential damage to U.S. and Afghan interests resulting from continued instability in Iran. Some voices have decried Obama's "week-kneed" response to the Iranian crisis. Allow me to explain why the President of the United States has carefully weighed his words on Iran.

Obama's 'timid' response to the crisis is highly influenced by his high-priority focus on Afghanistan and all the stakes that follow. It is not a secret that Obama trotted his way into the Oval Office with a desire to refocus American strategy from the unpopular Iraq war to the, less unpopular but just as tricky, Afghanistan conflict.

Reflecting his president's wishes for a change in direction, the military's new commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has ordered a 60-day review of America's fighting and nation-building strategy and operations. His priorities list includes: improving the American military's image amongst Afghan civilians; shifting from an emphasis on drug 'eradication' to drug 'interdiction'; and coordinating with regional security and military forces to work on a more comprehensive and inclusive regional approach. General McChristal took the role in an atmosphere of thawing relations between Washington and Tehran.

Less than a month ago, at an international conference on Afghanistan that took place in the Hague, many saw glimmers of a possible rapprochement in Iranian-American cooperation. The Americans agreed to have Iranian diplomats attend, and the Iranians reciprocated by declaring their country was "fully prepared to participate in the projects aimed at combating drug trafficking and the plans in line with developing and reconstructing Afghanistan." A NATO spokesperson hailed the conference as "unprecedented" and lauded Iran's presence and "positive noises" with respect to Iran's statements.

Understanding the conference's outcome requires us to be aware of the overlapping interests between the two nations. Both administrations have much to gain if they can overcome their mutual distrust of one another, and bypass the entrenched domestic obstacles in their respective political systems.

Both will have to seriously consider rapprochement if they hope to achieve serious and sustainable progress in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has a hard enough time with its neighbour to the east, never mind pondering what kind of position it would find itself in if Tehran suddenly decides to 'stir the pot' as well.

We are rarely reminded that Iran has nearly 2,000,000 Afghan refugees - legal and illegal - currently residing in its territory. It is also rarely mentioned how important a role Iran plays in the economic development of Afghanistan by utilizing its road networks to provide the Afghan economy with consumer goods and export outlets. We are also hard-pressed to here about the effective role that Iran plays in countering - as best as possible under the current situation - the narcotics trade that crosses its borders on a daily basis. A role that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has publicly praised on numerous occasions, and going as far as calling Iran's efforts a "massive sacrifice."

While popular media outlets such as Time magazine quotte misinformed American officials accusing Iran of supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan, other more judicious voices overlook the propaganda and bring forward constructive thinking. For example, while testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Karim Sadjadpour identified three overlapping security and strategic interests that could easily set the stage for engagement between Tehran and Washington. These include:
  1. Engaging Iran as a “responsible stakeholder” in Afghanistan. A strategy which has little cost and potentially enormous benefits.

  2. Considering the Afghan refugees presence, Iran does not stand to gain from continued instability in Afghanistan. And given its violent history with the inherently anti-Shia Taliban, Tehran has no interest in seeing their resurgence.

  3. With one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world, Iran has a strong interest in seeing narcotics production in Afghanistan eradicated. Iran’s agricultural expertise could be enlisted to help Afghan farmers plant alternatives to opium poppies.

Writing only three weeks ago, George Gavrillis calls for an Af-Ir strategy (I know, it sounds likes half-ear but overlook that please.) He makes the argument that while USD $8 billion are earmarked for Pakistan to help it essentially behave more like Iran towards Afghanistan, the money would be a much better investment if Iranian cooperation could be harnessed in the West. This would reinforce Kabul's position with regards to the militant threats from the south and east of the country by giving it a powerful rear-guard political backer to its west. Now this option may not bode well for American interests in terms of zero-sum calculations, but it is worth remembering that unless the United States plans to stay in the country for decades, it will eventually have to accept strong Iranian-Afghan relations as a prerequisite for developing a sustainable Afghan regime that can survive in the volatile region.

Of course, any hope of this happening is pinned on Washington and Tehran coming together at the meeting table and engaging in hard bargaining in order to strike a mutually acceptable bargain in the region. If the new military leadership in Afghanistan has any chance of making on-the-ground progress during the small window of opportunity available, it will need the diplomatic channels to lead the way.

Stuck in the molasse is the fragile Afghan government, nervously following events in Iran, and probably secretly praying for America to muzzle its approach towards the Iranian regime in order to not derail the possibility for such a regional framework. Pakistan is more than enough for Afghanistan to deal with at the moment and an 'uncooperative' Iran would surely further weaken Karzai's regime.

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