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    Middle East
     Mar 13, 2009
Iran 'ready' to aid Afghanistan'
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Strategically placed between the two energy hubs of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea and enjoying relations with 15 nations in the Middle East, Caspian basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the larger Eurasian landmass, Iran is positioned to play a pivotal role in promoting regional cooperation. This week's landmark summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) [1] again highlighted the increasingly important regional dimension of Tehran's foreign policy.

The ECO is an inter-governmental regional bloc initially set up by Iran, Turkey and Pakistan in 1964 as the Regional Cooperation For Development. The ECO was renamed in 1985, after a temporary hiatus following the 1979 Iranian revolution, and in 1992 inducted seven new members: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and


Uzbekistan. The ECO's stated aim is to promote economic, technical, cultural and low-security cooperation among its member states.

The so-called "ECO region" is vast, encompassing some 8.5 million square kilometers. The area is also marked by the unequal development of its members, ranging from industrial Turkey to agricultural Tajikistan, from wealthy Kazakhstan to devastated Afghanistan and oil-producing state Iran. With a population of more than 400 million, the ECO region's share of the global economy stands at only 2.8%. Despite decades of ECO-based efforts, even inter-regional trade has been slow to develop.

But the present global economic crisis, which is by definition also a crisis of globalization, has spurred new energy from the ECO to offset the downturn's debilitating consequences. From Iran's vantage point, withstanding the crisis necessitates a certain degree of de-globalization because the present Western capitalist-centric pattern of globalization has had adverse results on developing nations.

"The more a country has been linked to the world economy, and its trade [linked] to exchange based on the dollar, the more its economy has been damaged," Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad stated in his opening remarks at the ECO summit. Ahmadinejad called for establishing proper mechanisms for an inter-ECO barter system, access to a single currency and the facilitation of trade and transportation.

In his concluding statement, Ahmadinejad waxed optimistic about "the sapling of the ECO" turning into a "strong tree" that could conceivably shield its members from the world financial meltdown. He also expressed satisfaction that the president of Iraq and the emir of Qatar attended the summit as "special guests".

Although lingering suspicion that certain members harbor "regional ambitions" is a limiting factor, the outlook for economic cooperation has improved. The group is now promoting the idea of an ECO free trade zone by 2015, a single ECO currency and integrated trade through the ECO Trade Agreement and Transit Transport Framework Agreement.

With Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai present, the summit was also an occasion to underscore the ECO's role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. A trilateral group of Farsi-speaking nations - Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan - was formed to promote cooperation, such as linking railways, importing Tajikistan's water and electricity into Iran via Afghanistan, and other issues.

Another reason for greater cooperation in the ECO is that terrorism, tensions over resources, drug trafficking and security threats are growing in the region. Combating these problems demands a collective effort as well as coordination and engagement with international organizations and outside powers.

Perhaps with these issues in mind, Iran has accepted an invitation from Italy to participate in the Group of Eight summit on Afghanistan, to be held in Trieste in June. This conference will discuss the "spillover" of conflict in Afghanistan and ways to secure the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan have already begun a trilateral initiative in this regard. (See US, Iran seek to end Afghan narco-traffic, March 10, 2009.)

In fact, this week's ECO summit was an important step towards narrowing the regional outlooks of Iran and Pakistan by providing a timely forum for an exchange of ideas between leaders.

An Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan axis
An important axis of cooperation between the Islamist states of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan is on the horizon. Barring unforeseen developments, closer cooperation between the three nations is imminent. This is particularly so if Iran and the United States - the main backer of Kabul and Islamabad - can patch up differences and reach a reasonable understanding on Afghanistan.
To this aim, visiting Turkish President Abdullah Gul apparently carried a "goodwill message" from the US government, perpetuating Ankara's important role as a bridge between Tehran and Washington. Although Iran and the US remain at odds over Iran's nuclear program, the two countries do have a convergence of interests on regional issues.

But resolving vexing regional issues is no easy task. As Iran's former ambassador to Pakistan Mahmoud Musavi puts it, the region has a "scrambled image that is nearly impossible to decode". In a recent interview with the Iranian press, Musavi said the Taliban "are a part of Afghan society" and that US efforts to uproot the Taliban have failed as the Taliban have "managed to maintain 80% of their forces in Afghanistan". According to Musavi, the Taliban control up to "95%" of Pakistan's Swat Valley.

As a result, Iran is not disquieted by reports of US President Barack Obama's recent overtures toward "certain elements within the Taliban", a move favored by Karzai. The big question is whether some kind of power-sharing scheme can be worked out between Kabul and the Taliban ahead of Afghanistan's elections scheduled for August.

This possibility is highly unlikely. Meanwhile, given the recent admission by a US commander that some important parts of the country are "out of control", what role can Iran play in stabilizing Afghanistan?

Increased Iranian assistance to Afghanistan
Iran should increase its economic assistance to Afghanistan and help train the Afghan army and national police. Tehran should also implement some of the recent bilateral agreements, such as a railway link from Khawaf to Herat city. At the same time, Iran must show greater flexibility in coordinating its Afghanistan's policy with international organizations and the European Union.

As a main victim of Afghanistan's burgeoning drug trade, Iran should bolster Kabul's capacity to thwart smugglers. For example, there are virtually no border police in Helmand province, where most of the drugs are being trafficked. Kabul's eradication efforts have been hampered by lack of security, poor planning and inadequate equipment and funding. A comprehensive anti-narcotics campaign requires support by Iran and the ECO. In light of growing reports that smugglers are opening now routes on the Arabian Peninsula, the problem also afflicts the Arab and Muslim worlds.

This is one reason why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have been invited by Italy to take part in the G-8 summit on Afghanistan. Any direct dialogue on Afghanistan will also deal with the expanding threat of Sunni radicalism from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. Such talks could be part of a broader dialogue between the GCC and ECO, particularly since Iraq has expressed interest in joining the ECO.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, at a pre-summit press conference, explicitly referred to Iraq's request to join the ECO. This is an important development because Iraq, an Arab country, has been shunned by the GCC and has virtually no prospect of membership due to its dominant Shi'ite government and alliance with Iran, Iraq's top trade partner.

The decision by Iraq's President Jalal Talabani to attend the ECO summit is an important signal. With the Persian Gulf's doors shut rather indefinitely, the post-Ba'athist order is now poised to forge a new identity as a part of the ECO region.

This process is now fully underway. A new regionalization of Iraq's foreign and economic policies - in line with Iran's regional aspirations - has been taking shape that would directly impact the politics of the Persian Gulf by expanding the ECO's reach in the vital oil region.

The decision by Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamed bin Kalif al-Thani to be a special guest of the ECO summit represents yet another milestone in ECO-GCC relationship. The ECO region is important for the GCC's trade purposes with Iran potentially acting as a corridor between the GCC states and the ECO's landlocked Central Asian states.

An important prerequisite for any meaningful progress is Iran's ability to deflect allegations that it harbors "hegemonic intentions" with respect to its neighbors. Tehran must also shed its inflammatory rhetoric, such as the recent outburst by an Iranian Tehran religious dignitary in Bahrain that has angered the Arab world and prompted Morocco to sever diplomatic ties.

Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used this week's ECO gathering to emphasize Islamic unity by highlighting the role of the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Conference "to resolve disputes". Iran is not keen on viewing its role in regional and multilateral organizations as a "zero-sum" game, regarding such groups as complementary to each other.

It is now entirely up to Saudi leaders to set aside their recent anti-Iran rhetoric in favor of constructive engagement. After all, Iran has a "strategic position in the ECO region", to paraphrase an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

"Iran is ready for cooperation to aid Afghanistan," the spokesperson said at the closing of the ECO meetings.

Note 1. For more background on ECO, see Afrasiabi and Pour Jalali, Regionalization in a competitive Context, The Case of ECO, Mediterranean Quarterly. Also, see the three-part article by Afrasiabi on ECO in Eurasianet: ECO strives to improve transportation and communication networks and the chapter by Abbas Maleki on regionalism in Iran's foreign policy, in Maleki and Afrasiabi, Iran's Foreign Policy After September 11 (Booksurge, 2008).

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 latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

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