Ahmadinejad hunkers down with Karzai
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
On Monday, Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was due to visit Afghanistan on
a short trip with a heavy agenda of issues concerning regional security and a
drug trafficking problem that is growing despite advances against Afghan
insurgents in Helmand province, the world's opium capital.
On the eve of his trip, Ahmadinejad once again captured headlines by describing
the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington as a "big lie" that was "intended
to serve as a pretext for fighting terrorism and setting the grounds for
sending troops to Afghanistan". His comment, directed at a regional audience,
was clearly geared to one of Iran's main foreign policy goals - the removal of
foreign forces in neighboring countries.
Thus, while relatively orderly parliamentary elections in Iraq favor
that goal by increasing the likelihood of the US's military departure in 2011,
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) offensive in Helmand is likely to
be replicated soon in Kandahar and other provinces. Given that
counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics are two sides of the same coin, the
offensive may make a major difference to Afghanistan's production of raw opium.
While some opium is converted to heroin inside Afghanistan, according to a UN
report, most "goes through Baramchin and Nimar to Iran." (See
'US, Iran seek to stop Afghan narco-traffic', March 10, 2009).
To some extent, the invigorated counter-narcotics campaign has benefited Iran
by increasing security, although a UN report of a 109% increase in opium
production in Herat province adjacent to Iran last year is a worrying sign.
Little wonder that in late January, Iran, as an observer to the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Central Asian security forum, didn't stand
in the way of an SCO statement that put a seal of approval on the International
Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in Afghanistan until it achieves its
central task of creating a self-sufficient Afghan army and police force.
More broadly, insofar as the NATO operation in Afghanistan has a geostrategic
dimension connoting NATO's "east-ward expansion", Ahmadinejad's strong
objection at the weekend to the foreign presence in Afghanistan serves the
SCO's geostrategic interest of erecting barriers to the organization.
Ahmadinejad's Kabul trip takes place at a time when trilateral
Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan talks have produced a tangible dividend, mainly
because Islamabad's recent cooperation with Iran in the arrest of Abdulmalik
Rigi, the notorious head of the Jundallah terrorist group, seems to show
Pakistan has shifted strategy to make cooperation with Iran an arm of its
anti-India policy in Afghanistan.
There is a consensus in Tehran that Rigi's arrest would not have been possible
without the cooperation of Pakistani intelligence, which has recently arrested
a number of high-ranking Taliban leaders. As indicated by recent terrorist
attacks on Indian citizens working in Kabul (attributed by India's media on
Pakistan-backed groups), Islamabad has combined a more aggressive anti-India
policy with a more compliant role with respect to Taliban and al-Qaeda.
A big question is: what does Islamabad expect to gain from Iran in the form of
regional reciprocity by appeasing Tehran on Jundallah? While a quid pro quo in
Afghanistan seems a corollary, Tehran has its own vested interests with India
and Pakistan's cooperation on Rigi may have been, in fact, a result of
Islamabad's fear of a pro-India tilt in Iran's regional behavior.
On the other hand, while Iran pursues a "win-win" scenario in relations with
neighbors - and "near-neighbors" such as India - this potentially dilutes its
power to play a spoiler role in Afghanistan, an important piece in the nuclear
chess game at a time Iran is being pressed into a corner by the US bid to
impose UN sanctions. The expression of support for Iran by a more confident
Karzai may increase Tehran's options for nuclear diplomacy.
Officially, however, Iran's foreign policy is geared toward "increasing
regional capacities'', and Ahmadinejad's Kabul visit has a trade-economic
dimension in light of Iran's heavy investment in Afghanistan and its nearly
US$1 billion in exports there in 2009. Ties between the two countries are set
to grow in the fields of transport, communication, energy, industry, and trade
Some Tehran experts have expressed concern about the prospects for new
sanctions against Iran and the success of US and its allies in pressuring
foreign energy and trading companies operating in the country. Tehran cannot
risk appearing as a pro-Pakistan player in Afghanistan because India is a major
source of gasoline imports. By the same token, however, if India commits to
playing a role in US-led sanctions against Iran, then New Delhi must expect
some backlash from the region.
Such risks are relatively contained at present, but the potential for a
worsening of the Iran nuclear crisis to create instability on multiple fronts
cannot be discounted. To quote Mohammad Reza Bahrami, Iran's former ambassador
to Kabul, Tehran considers 2010 a "decisive year for Afghanistan". By all
indications, this is also a decisive year for Iran, and as a result the two
historically connected neighbors' fates may be bound together like never
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.