Will the U.S. have to turn to Iran for help on Afghanistan?

October 28, 2008

Will the United States have to turn to its old nemesis Iran for help in Afghanistan? A couple of articles out this month suggest it will.

In this article published by the MIT Center for International Studies, the authors argue that the hostility between Washington and Tehran has been bad for the United States, Iran and Afghanistan, and played into the hands of the Pakistan military, the Taliban and al Qaeda.

After 9/11, Iran cooperated with the United States to hep defeat the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan. (Shi’ite Iran has traditionally been opposed to the hardline brand of Sunni Islam espoused by the Taliban and al Qaeda.) So from Tehran’s point of view, the country felt badly betrayed when in return for its help, President George W. Bush labelled Iran as part of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea.

This was not helped, according to the article’s authors Barnett Rubin and Sara Batmanglich, by U.S. suggestions in 2007 that the United States might consider attacking Iran over its nuclear programme. This, they say, may have actually driven Tehran to support the Taliban to neutralise the threat of a U.S. attack from neighbouring Afghanistan. “Afghanistan is our friend,” it quotes an Iranian diplomat as saying. “But when your life is at stake you may have to sacrifice even your friends.”

They argue that to stabilise Afghanistan, Washington should recognise it shares a common interest with Iran in combating Sunni Islamist militancy there, while recalibrating its relationship with Pakistan.

Pakistan – which unlike Iran already has unclear weapons – traditionally supported the Taliban in Afghanistan as a way of giving it ”strategic depth” against its eastern neighbour, India. “Since the Iranian revolution, the U.S. has overreacted to the Iranian threat and engaged in systematic appeasement of Pakistan…” they say.  

“Using Afghanistan as a base for anti-Iran policies handicaps the U.S. in pressing for Pakistani cooperation, thus undermining one of the country’s most important strategic objectives. Of course, such recalibration will also require shifts in Iranian policy away from the path it has taken. Clearly abandoning any U.S. agenda of forcible regime change in Iran will make such a shift much more likely.”

An op-ed in the Boston Globe makes a similar point.  “Few countries were as helpful to the United States in its early involvement in Afghanistan as Iran,” write Lawrence Korb and Laura Conley from the Center for American Progress. “Yet after the fall of the Taliban, the US failed to capitalize on the possibilities of that strategic relationship. Now coalition and Afghan troops are losing ground against the same insurgents they confronted in 2001, in a war that the United States is unlikely to win unless it rethinks its relationship with Iran.”

“While US efforts in Afghanistan do require more troops, any success will not come without a renewed commitment to diplomacy and the engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbours. Iran is the indispensable player in this process,” they write.

U.S. policies towards Iran are up for review, and not just because of the presidential election. According to this op-ed in the New York Times, the United States needs “a game-changing diplomatic initiative” if it wants to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons (Tehran says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only, to generate electricity rather than produce bombs.) “Let us be clear, there are no good military options.”

At the same time, the situation in Afghanistan is so serious that the next U.S. president is going to have to move quickly on a broad new initiative for the region, as Reuters correspondent David Morgan writes in this analysis. As I wrote in an earlier post, that could require help from Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran.

A case of the Great Satan sups with the devil? Or will the United States and Iran be able to put the past behind them and find enough common ground to cooperate on Afghanistan, while backing away from confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear programme?

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