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
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.
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
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
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
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.