Stimson: Engaging Iran on Afghanistan

March 15, 2012

Ellen Laipson

     The Stimson Center on March 15 published “Engaging Iran on Afghanistan” by Ellen Laipson. The following is the summary of the report. A link to the full report is provided at the bottom.

     Engaging Iran on issues of mutual interest has been an elusive goal for the Obama Administration, and in early 2012, prospects of meaningful engagement appear remote at best until after presidential elections in both countries. Nonetheless, the evolution of US policy in Afghanistan over the next three years provides a compelling opportunity for practical engagement. Engaging Iran as one of Afghanistan’s key neighbors as US and international forces withdraw would enhance prospects for a peaceful exit, and for productive Afghan-Iran relations once foreign forces are gone. Successful engagement with Iran – in multilateral or bilateral fora – would necessarily address Iran’s legitimate security interests on its eastern frontier, as well as its broader economic and political interests in Afghan stability.
     After Pakistan, Iran is the most important neighbor of Afghanistan and has the capacity to influence long-term stability there. The fact that Iran does not see itself as the major outside influence on Afghan politics, as it does in Iraq, could well facilitate prospects for finding areas of mutual interest. Its priorities are principally in the areas where its interests are most acute; on its border and in areas of northwest Afghanistan where the demographic ties of religion, language, and ethnicity are strongest. Iran also feels a gravitational pull to preventing dominance of Afghan national politics by the Pushtun plurality; its interests, therefore, do not align with Pakistan’s and may create incentives for Iran to pursue strategies that weaken the central government.
     The US and Iran have had, and will continue to have, some convergent interests in Afghanistan. Both have a stake in a stable country that is not under Taliban control. Afghanistan in chaos or a return of a draconian Taliban regime would be truly harmful to both Tehran and Washington. Both want to build capacity in Afghanistan that would prevent the flow of drugs and refugees across its borders; for Iran, that is a more acute concern than for the US. Both would like to see Afghanistan emerge from decades of conflict into a more reliable trading partner, transit route, and competent state that can prevent non-Afghan non-state actors from operating on its territory.
     But the convergence of US-Iran interests that was clear in 2001 has been overshadowed by more recent priorities and perceptions. The past decade has sharpened Iran’s thinking and fears about American engagement in the region. Iranian officials and independent experts characterize Iran’s strategic concerns about a long-term US role in Afghanistan as an “existential threat” to the Islamic Republic, based on worries that the United States plans to use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack Iran, and to work for regime change in Tehran.
     On a more practical level, the mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear activities and increasingly harsh sanctions related to those activities have made it hard for Tehran to agree to engage directly on ideas for short-term cooperation, out of concern that such cooperation could be construed as an Iranian concession in light of the larger impasse in relations. Iran participates in the multilateral meetings organized by the United States and Afghanistan, and endorses the broad guidelines developed at the recent meetings in Istanbul (November 2011) and Bonn (December 2011) for the future of Afghanistan, but declines to engage bilaterally with Washington at those venues or independently of multilateral events. In fact, Iran strongly supports the regionalization of efforts to help Afghanistan, and sees the regional approach as a stark alternative to an international approach that includes donors and security partners from western countries.
     It is still worth considering where US and Iranian interests (and Afghanistan’s as well) converge over basic issues such as improving border controls, controlling the flow of drugs and other illicit goods, stabilizing economic life in the cities and in vulnerable provinces, and training provincial level security forces. Leaders in all three countries may also agree and tacitly cooperate on helping moderate Taliban affiliates reintegrate into the national security forces, and on strengthening the central government’s institutional capacities and its ability to represent the country’s diverse political and ethnic groups. This level of engagement could occur when the withdrawal of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is closer at hand, when the immediate realities on the ground drive cooperation in very concrete ways.
     Even if cooperation on Afghanistan develops, it is difficult to see how it could directly or quickly affect the larger strategic blockage in US-Iran relations. While in theory such contact could build trust and contribute to both sides’ willingness to engage on other issues, policymakers should have modest expectations and accept that cooperation on Afghanistan is worth doing for its own sake. Conversely, continued or increased tension over the nuclear issue could adversely affect Iran’s willingness to engage on Afghanistan or other regional topics, even when it could be sacrificing short-term self-interest.
Click here to view the full report.

 Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.