US-Iran Relations and Afghanistan

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Context
The shifting sands in the Middle East are being felt most strongly in Iran. On the one hand Iran is encircled by the US, with very little in the way of geo-strategic options; on the other a covert channel of communication and cooperation may be on the cards between the US and Iran over stability in Afghanistan.

Analysis

The August drawdown of US combat troops in Iraq has inevitably shifted the focus of the US military to Afghanistan. While it is no secret that the US is by no means gone from Iraq, the symbolic withdrawal has freed up US strategists to channel energy into the embattled US position in the Afghan conflict. The country is expected to increase its presence in neighboring Pakistan as well, especially with the post-flood political morass and the distinct possibility of militant elements filling the power vacuums left in the flood ravaged country. The on-the-ground US presence in the region is actually quite formidable, something which has no-doubt been bothering the largest US antagonist in the region, Iran, and to no less extent China.

Iran faces sizeable US components on three of its major land borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. To counter Iran, the Gulf States of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar the UAE and Saudi Arabia have ordered arms worth $123 billion from the US. PoliTact has previously noted the new American strategy premised on building the capability of the partners, as oppose to itself getting involved in a direct confrontation. On top of this the American military presence in the Caspian Sea has been increasing and there has been talk of increased military cooperation between the US and Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Iran is effectively encircled.

Interestingly though at this point the encirclement is not overtly aggressive – there are definite passive aggressive tones, but the US is not showing signs of any immediate escalation. In fact it has been trying to open a route of dialogue and cooperation with Iran over stability in Afghanistan.

Whether the US has cleverly tried to engage Iran in Afghanistan to counter the claims of Afghanistan being Iran’s “security belt” or whether they are trying to find a diplomatic platform to engage with Iran one thing’s for sure; bring Iran in on Afghanistan under the umbrella of US cooperation and it will be a major turning point in US-Iran relations. If the US can pull this off they will effectively neutralize Afghanistan as a ‘buffer’ for Iran. It may however, be a strategy of keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

US has been flirting with the idea of bringing Iran on board for sometime now. In 2006 the Bush administration asked for Tehran to assist the US efforts in Iraq. When the US later spurned the helped they had asked for, the real opportunity was lost, and it became a sour point in the relationship between the US and Iran.

No one in Washington is under the illusion that this tactic will create a friend out of Iran but there is nevertheless hope that engagement and dialogue could soften the stark horizon of US interaction with Iran. Others are less optimistic and feel it is showing weakness on the US side; hardliners in Iran whole-heartedly agree.

Nonetheless, diplomacy is also about creating leverages. The talk of bringing Iran on board creates urgency for the Sunni stakeholders of the AfPak equation as well as the newly unfolding Middle East peace process.The recent incidences related to Shiite population of Bahrain and other Gulf countries, further add to this pressure.