Iran Sceptical About Obama's Afghan Strategy

Elections and nuclear impasse have dulled hopes for an accommodation with the US on Afghanistan.

Iran Sceptical About Obama's Afghan Strategy

Elections and nuclear impasse have dulled hopes for an accommodation with the US on Afghanistan.

Iran has taken a sceptical view of President Barak Obama's new Afghan strategy, but doesn't have one of its own.

Though Tehran shares Washington's desire for the Taleban to be neutralised, it is wary of an increased American military presence in Afghanistan, even if this is aimed at achieving such a goal.

Since the 2001 United States invasion, the US and Iran have engaged in a complicated competition for influence that has been swayed by event on the ground in Afghanistan but also ideological battles inside both Iran and America.

This competition has been tempered by the reality of shared interests and objectives between Washington and Tehran that include the establishment of security and the removal of al-Qaeda and the Taleban from Afghanistan, reconstruction of the country, and the fight against narcotics.

These shared interests created an optimistic atmosphere with the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency, the priority he gave to the security of Afghanistan, and the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran's participation and Holbrooke's encounter with Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mehdi Akhundzadeh, at a conference on Afghanistan on April 1, 2009 was seen as a promising sign regarding future cooperation between Iran and other world powers on how to deal with the deepening problems in Afghanistan.

However, events in both Afghanistan and Iran, including contested elections, as well the decision by the Obama administration to send more American troops to Afghanistan, in all likelihood have further delayed the prospects of Tehran-Washington cooperation in that country despite shared interests.

Last June's election in Iran and the political crisis that has engulfed the country since, as well as the belief among many Iranian leaders that the US is fanning the domestic crisis in Iran, and the impasse over Iran's nuclear plans, have heightened the distrust between the two governments.

This has made immediate interaction between the two quite difficult even if Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, decides to accept an invitation to join the forthcoming conference on Afghanistan co-convened by British prime minister Gordon Brown, Afghan president Hamed Karzai and United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon to be held in London on January 28, 2010.

Meanwhile, Tehran has continued to pursue its own independent Afghan policy. Ahmadinejad was quick to congratulate Karzai on his "victory" in the first round of the presidential election when no other leader did and in some ways treated the clear electoral fraud in Afghanistan as a blessing in disguise as it made fraud seem routine in Iran's backyard.

In addition, although there are no visible strategic changes in Tehran's Afghan policy since Ahmadinejad's election, recent reports of Iran's support for the Taleban - described by US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry as "low level" and "periodic" - suggest Tehran is watching the Obama administration's moves in Afghanistan closely, mindful of the possibility that there might be an attempt at compromise with the more moderate elements of the Taleban.

Tehran remains highly sceptical of the strategy pursued by the Obama administration, which it sees as a continuation of a pattern of vacillating that insisted on local autonomy in 2001, pushed for a strong central government in 2003, and returned to decentralisation in 2006. From Tehran's point of view, the same indecision first tolerated the opium crop, then proposed eradication through aerial spraying, and now underwrites living with opium production for decades.

On a more general level, Iran continues to see Afghanistan's diffuse rural insurgency - spread among a population of 30 million people, 80 per cent of whom are scattered among 20,000 remote, often mountainous villages - as being fuelled rather than contained by the presence of American troops.

This scepticism was again recently expressed in an interview with former president and current chair of the Expediency Discernment Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who told a French television station on December 27 that not only have American policies not reached their objectives, they have backfired.

"We do not consider these policies successful," he said, pointing out that the Taleban and al-Qaeda are much stronger, the volume of narcotics has increased "eight-fold", and a "contagion" of insecurity afflicts Pakistan.

Responding in Egypt on December 10 to a question regarding Iran's anti-American activities in Afghanistan, parliament speaker Ali Larijani said, "The United States is following a policy that the Soviet Union implemented 30 years ago. It entered with 100,000 forces and left with 15,000 dead. Its non-workability is intrinsic and has nothing to do with external agents."

In short, Tehran's overall posture remains one of wanting to reduce the American military presence in its neighbourhood.

Along with scepticism, however, there are signs that Tehran is concerned about Obama's strategy. As described, the strategy intends to use intelligence and special forces to deny al- Qaeda a safe haven, reverse the Taleban's momentum by retaining a sufficiently robust presence to prevent it from mounting a conventional threat to a city like Kabul, strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government, and increase economic assistance particularly in north and central Afghanistan. It would also combine the US military presence with political action and incentives to keep tribal leaders and other regional power brokers on the US side and away from the Taleban.

Iran is concerned because if all these techniques are successful and the likelihood of civil war decreases - something Tehran wants as well - the possibility of a political settlement with the Taleban increases. Tehran has been the most prominent opponent of compromise with the Taleban, which it sees as an arch foe with which Iran almost went to war. But should the US or Karzai reach a compromise with the so-called moderate faction of the Taleban, Tehran does not want to be surprised or be left out of the equation

Inside Iran, however, there are concerns that the diplomatic apparatus may not be active enough or buttressed by strategic thinking. There have been a number of bilateral agreements between the Iranian and Afghan governments, the latest of which - legislation on cooperation in fighting narcotics, organised crime, and terrorism - was passed in the Majles (parliament) on December 29.

But a report by the Majles research centre questions the adequacy of such agreements, pointing out, for instance, that the buttressing of border controls has been mostly a one-way affair with the Afghan government doing almost nothing in the past despite several other previous agreements.

The report said that the main external players in Afghanistan are the US and Iran and chastised the government of Iran for the lack of an overall strategy and for not doing enough to establish security in Afghanistan. It argued that Washington wants Iran's help in solving its problems in Afghanistan in areas unrelated to security but seeks to contain Iran's presence in security-related areas.

It argued for a strategic approach that involves Iran more directly in the establishment of security - including the training of Afghan police - in Afghanistan with implications for both regional and border security. It also called for the pursuit of agreements that prevent future deployment of foreign troops on the border of the two countries.

But greater Iranian involvement in Afghanistan's security architecture is simply not possible without some sort of understanding with the US, and achieving such an understanding has now become much more difficult because of the nuclear impasse as well as events inside Iran.

The dilemma faced by Iran regarding its Afghan policy is best reflected in the differing positions taken by influential member of the Majles national security and foreign policy committee. According to one member, Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh, "Iran should not help the United States and United Kingdom when they are depriving Iran of its rights. Iran can help these countries in Afghanistan but helping is a mistake."

Javad Jahangirzadeh, on the other hand, argues, "These countries (the US and Britain) want to use the lever of the Islamic republic [of Afghanistan] to solve their own problems but in cooperating with them we can also pursue our national interest simultaneously."

This debate over Afghanistan is likely to remain unresolved so long as Iran's domestic crisis continues and Iran's foreign policy remains ambivalent about how to engage with the region's most important player - the US - in Afghanistan.

In short, although cooperation over Afghanistan was deemed by some just a year ago as an entry point for improved relations between the two countries, it has now become dependent on the settlement of the crisis inside Iran and the overall lowering of tensions between the US and Iran.

Mitra Farnik is the pseudonym of an Iranian writer and political analyst based in Washington DC.

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