Obama, Iran and Afghanistan

Obama, Iran and Afghanistan
written by: 
Kaveh Afrasyabi

United States President Barack Obama has wasted little time making good on his promise of a fresh approach toward Iran based on “direct diplomacy”. In only his first week in office, Obama has sent important signals about his determination to pursue “smart power” diplomacy with a country that has mystified five of his presidential predecessors.

Obama’s envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, on Tuesday reiterated the president’s Iran approach by using her first press interview to promise “vigorous and direct diplomacy” toward Iran. Rice later qualified the pledge by saying that unless Iran accepted the UN Security Council’s demands to halt its uranium-enrichment program, international pressures on Tehran will intensify.

Rice, an Africa specialist with little experience on Iranian or Middle Eastern issues, gave the impression that any US talk with Iran hinged on compliance with the UN request. This may explain the White House’s rush to clarify that Rice was simply “reiterating” Obama’s position, and that there was nothing new in her statement.

An image grab from Al-Arabiya satellite TV of an interview with US President Barack Obama.

Nevertheless, an upcoming meeting of the “Iran Six” – the UN Security Council’s permanent five members, the US, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany – will focus on the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. The meeting will also coincide with Iran’s celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.

Regardless of the outcome of the Security Council talks, it is clear that Obama will continue the previous administration’s path of sanctions against Iran. Timothy Geithner, the US Treasury Secretary, has already gone on record about “ratcheting up sanctions on Iran”. Some consider his remarks reassurance for Israel-friendly lawmakers in the US Congress, some of whom are wary of any undue Obama overtures toward Iran.

In designing a “new way forward” toward Iran and the larger Middle East, as promised by Obama in his inaugural speech, the new administration has a formidable job ahead. The task may be made even more difficult by a US Congress which is likely to denounce any perceived appeasement of Tehran.

“It is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress,” Obama told the Arabic television network al-Arabiya. But the big question is how to actualize that potential dialogue. One answer may be to focus on shared interests such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The search for common ground
On Monday, Jassep de Hoop, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), emphasized the importance of “engaging Iran” to tackle Afghanistan’s growing instability.

There is really no time to waste: Obama has already authorized the transfer of more US troops from Iraq to Afghanistan; Iran is increasingly disquieted by the corruption and impotence of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai; and the Taliban’s sphere of influence is rapidly expanding across Afghanistan. By most accounts, the time for Tehran and Washington to begin earnest discussions on Afghanistan is now.

An Afghanistan-centered dialogue may prove a productive first step on the complex path of US-Iran relations. In a way, this would be a back-to-the-past approach, with shades of how the US and Iran cooperated in the aftermath of 9/11 tragedy on a common anti-Taliban strategy.

“The difference between then and now is that the US officials are now distinguishing between the ‘good Taliban’ versus the ‘bad Taliban’ and hoping to sow divisions between them and reach a compromise with the former, perhaps as part of an emerging post-Karzai scenario,” said a Tehran University political scientist. The scholar added that he believes Iran does not like this “new approach” and finds it “simplistic and defeatist”.

In addition to the traditional reasons Tehran is opposed to the Taliban’s resurgence is that the insurgents are involved in the opium business. The narcotics trade has skyrocketed in recent years, compared to the anti-drug stance during the era of Taliban rule. This is one of the key features of the “new Taliban” as far as Tehran is concerned, while partly blaming the rise on the British components of the coalition force put in charge of drug trafficking.

Tehran is pleased with Obama’s prioritization of the war in Afghanistan and may be willing to allow NATO to use the Iran corridor to transport its goods from Europe, particularly now that Russia is sending mixed signals about its permission for such a route. Still, this is a risky proposition for Tehran and could cause a backlash in the form of anti-Iran terrorism or require a NATO commitment to assist Iran with its porous borders with Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, while testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates laid out the challenges facing the Pentagon. Gates put it simply: “The greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan.” He also said there was “no purely military solution in Afghanistan” and that the highest priority should be increasing the size and effectiveness of the Afghan army.

Another reason why Tehran is alarmed about Afghanistan has to do with the negative security developments in neighboring Pakistan, where Sunni extremists have been making rapid progress. Tehran fears that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would only be a prelude for more ominous developments in Pakistan, where the government has relocated some of its forces from the Afghanistan border to the India border in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

The redeployment has raised questions in Iran about the true intentions of Pakistan’s government in Afghanistan. The concern is that Karzai will be toppled in order to restore the Taliban as an adjunct of Pakistani power that is perceived to be now eclipsed by Washington’s relations with India. There is no shortage of pundits in Tehran who think Islamabad is complicit in the reversal of the Taliban’s post-9/11 misfortunes.

Pakistan’s Taliban leverage has limitations, however, as well as dangers. That is why Tehran is not too worried about a sudden collapse of the Iran-backed regime in Kabul, especially now that the new president in the White House has overtly committed himself to the Afghanistan campaign.

Afghanistan and the nuclear standoff
Tehran is keenly aware of the protean aspects of America’s security constraints in Afghanistan and Iraq, and understands that such hindrances restrain the US’s options against Iran on the nuclear issue.

Should Obama decide to seriously ratchet up the pressure on Iran, Tehran will reciprocate where and when it can, possibly by pursuing in Afghanistan what Western pundits refer to as Iran’s strategy of “managed chaos”. That would be a last resort, however, since Afghanistan could easily get out of hand and become Iran’s quagmire as well. In this event, waves of Afghan refugees would once again stream into Iran.

The link between the nuclear issue and instability in Afghanistan factor into Iran’s national security calculus. And depending on developments in those two areas, the link between them could increase in the near future.

This goes for both Tehran and Washington. If both situations deteriorate simultaneously, and there is a decent chance for such a scenario, further adjustments will be made in the complex “games of strategy” played by the US and Iran. In other words, things in Afghanistan may need to get even worse during 2009 before the level of US-Iran cooperation on this matter improves.

“One of Iran’s worries right now is that some people do not feel the same commitment to the government of Hamid Karzai by the Obama administration as there was by the Bush administration,” said the Tehran professor. He added that Obama may be “playing with fire” if he pursued “regime change in Kabul” or tried to be “kingmaker” in Afghanistan.

What is undeniable is that the winds of change are sailing through Afghanistan and, indeed, the whole region. Given their shared worries about the future of Afghanistan, Tehran and Washington have no alternative but to pursue Afghanistan-oriented diplomacy.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . His latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.


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