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)  again
highlighted the increasingly important regional dimension of Tehran's foreign
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
"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
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
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
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
"Iran is ready for cooperation to aid Afghanistan," the spokesperson said at
the closing of the ECO meetings.
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.