LAWRENCE J. KORB AND LAURA CONLEY
The contributions of Iran
By Lawrence J. Korb and Laura Conley | October 24, 2008
FEW COUNTRIES were as helpful to the United States in its early involvement in Afghanistan as Iran. Yet after the fall of the Taliban, the US failed to capitalize on the possibilities of that strategic relationship. Now coalition and Afghan troops are losing ground against the same insurgents they confronted in 2001, in a war that the United States is unlikely to win unless it rethinks its relationship with Iran.
Even before the terrorist acts on Sept. 11, 2001, Iran opposed the Taliban and strongly backed the Afghan Northern Alliance. After the attacks, Tehran stepped forward to help topple Afghanistan's extremist Sunni government and pledged $560 million for reconstruction efforts.
Furthermore, Iran demonstrated an impressive ability to work with and guide the nascent Afghan government. James Dobbins, the Bush administration's first special envoy to Afghanistan, recognized Iran's substantial contributions in training and equipping the Afghan army. He also praised their contributions at the Bonn Conference in 2001.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration bungled this successful relationship by continually isolating the Iranians, rather than drawing on their influence to create a relatively stable Afghanistan.
Worse, Bush placed Iran in the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address. While Iranian meddling elsewhere in the Middle East should be criticized, Bush's characterization made no mention of Iran's substantial aid against the Taliban. Rather, the president allowed political calculations to override strategic realities.
The United States has little to show from its diplomatic silence with Iran. Since being inducted into the axis of evil, Iran has proceeded with its nuclear enrichment program. It has also expanded its influence in the Middle East courtesy of the US invasion of Iraq and the election of a Shi'a-dominated government there. Meanwhile, the United States has faltered in Afghanistan, with troops increasingly paying the price.
Bush has asserted that the United States will not sit down with Iran without preconditions. However, asking the Iranians to cooperate in Afghanistan would not imply a resumption of diplomatic relations or a willingness to tolerate Iran's nuclear program. It would demonstrate pragmatic recognition of the need to use regional diplomacy to create stability in Afghanistan.
Others in the Middle East are leading the way. Even though the Saudis cut off diplomatic relations with the Taliban in 2001, they have reportedly conducted peace talks between the government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, negotiations that even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said are necessary. Similarly, Syria and Israel, countries that do not have diplomatic relations with each other, are moving forward with discussions through the Turks. Although the two nations will never be friends, they may find a way to make progress on a number of issues.
Seven years ago, the United States had an opportunity to act in a comparable manner. It could have reached out to Iran in the hope of capitalizing on their long experience in the Greater Middle East and their intimate knowledge of the Northern Alliance. It could have sought a working relationship, distinct from a friendship, with Iran in order to help stabilize Afghanistan. While the US failure to do so did not undermine coalition efforts in Afghanistan so much as its thoughtless race to war in Iraq, the Bush administration's unwillingness to work with a nation it dislikes has made it much harder to achieve US goals there.
While US efforts in Afghanistan do require more troops, any success will not come without a renewed commitment to diplomacy and the engagement of Afghanistan's neighbors. Iran is the indispensable player in this process.
This is a vital time for Afghanistan. US casualties are higher than at any time since the invasion, and instability in Pakistan is fueling violence across the border. The United States may have one more chance to reach out to Iran to secure its participation in stabilization efforts, diplomatic relationship notwithstanding. This time, it should make the right decision.
Lawrence J. Korb is a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where Laura Conley is a special assistant. http://cache.boston.com/bonzai-fba/File-Based_Image_Resource/dingbat_story_end_icon.gif