Sunday, June 21, 2009

Iran and the US -- and the Problem of Afghanistan

Iran and US through Afghanistan

Bahman Aghai Diba, PhD International Law - Persian Journal

Iran sees its cooperation in the Afghanistan exactly contrary to the US view. This means, Iran is not interested in helping the West solve its problems in Afghanistan and then go to other problems. It sees the cooperation in Afghanistan as something that comes at the end. When other problems of the USA and Iran are solved, then Iran may help the USA in Afghanistan as an advantage or a concession to the US.

The US Administration, under President Obama, in a major shift in U.S. policy, declared that the United States wanted to invite Iran to a conference on the future of Afghanistan, which was held at the end of March 2009. Iran's government spokesman, Elham, responded that the Islamic Republic would consider such a request, (1) and later Iran actually took part in it. At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki said the United States came to Afghanistan aiming to root out extremism, restore security and fight the drugs trade."All indicators in regard to these three areas show that the conditions have deteriorated sharply," he told state television. (2)

However, two things were obvious in Mr. Elham's remarks: First, the US and the West (NATO), were in "need" of help in Afghanistan. Second: They have "asked" Iran for help and Iran was going to consider the possible help because: "it was ready to help Afghanistan as it battles a growing Taliban insurgency".

While Iran and the United States sat at the same table to discuss Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, the Bush administration later called Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil.

Iranian regime felt betrayed. Instead of getting some of the "spoil" in return for its services in war, it was made target of more criticisms. This was a source that put the government of Iran in attack from inside. The extremists that had asked the government not to cooperate in Afghan issues were made bolder and they took the American position in Afghanistan vis a vis Iran as a proof that were right. They ask what are the guarantees that we do not get the same response after helping the Americans in Afghanistan?

Iran and the US both want:

1- The Taliban out of power in Afghanistan and disconnected with Pakistan
2- The stability of state in Afghanistan ( Iran is more concerned about areas close to Iran)
3- The control on narcotic drugs (Iran and US both want this but for their own reasons. Both of them are consumption centers, but Iran is also a transit route. US is worried the drugs get the money for Taliban and Al-Qaida and other terrorists)
4- They both do fear from Sunni terrorism headed by Al-Qaida.

At the same time, they have conflicts

1- The US does not wish to see the dominance of Iran in Afghanistan
2- The US is afraid of Shiite terrorism (3)
3- Iran does not want to see the American or Western plans succeed anywhere.
4- The Iranian regime hates to see the growth of democratic institutions in Afghanistan
5- Iranian regime does not want Afghanistan to be used as a base for Western (US) military operations against Iran.
6- Iran is more afraid of the USA than Taliban.

Kayhan Newspaper, close to the Supreme Leader, in an article (under the title of: "NATO's begging of Iran along with arrogance!") has mentioned: "In a move to take distance from their previous positions based on ignoring the influence of Iran in Afghanistan, the Europe and the USA have been forced to invite Iran to the gathering of the G-8 in the same field, while NATO and the USA confess that they are close to total defeat in Afghanistan and they see Iran as the only way to escape however, the Foreign Minister of Italy has said: this is an opportunity for Iran to get out of isolation (!)." (4)

Also, Aleddin Borojerdi, the Chairman of National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Majles have said: "Iran is against stabilization of the presence of [foreign] forces in Afghanistan, the experience in Afghanistan has proved that presence of foreign forces would lead to the deterioration of extremism and terrorism in that region." (5)

A review of these points leavers no doubt about the different ways of Iran and the US in looking at the problems in Afghanistan. Iran and USA have not the same time lines for cooperation in Afghanistan.

In fact what happened in the actual meeting on Afghanistan, indicated to the same fact. Iran not only did not take any step that could be interpreted as cooperating with the USA, but it avoided to let this event be a stage in the developments in the relations of Iran and US through Afghanistan.

There was something of a controversy between Iran and the U.S. regarding whether or not the delegations of the two states met at the Afghanistan conference in the Hague (31 March 2009).
The VOA reported: "Senior U.S. and Iranian leaders met Tuesday on the sidelines of an international conference in the Hague aimed at re-energizing international commitments for war-torn Afghanistan. Participants agreed to boost security and development in the central Asian nation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the meeting that took place between U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke and Iran's deputy foreign minister Mehdi Akhundzadeh as brief but cordial. She said the two sides had agreed to stay in touch." (6)

According to a semi-official news agency in Iran, Mehr, the spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran denied any meeting, official or otherwise, between the representatives of Iran and the U.S. in and around the Hague conference.(7)

Shahrzad news reports that Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen claimed on a television talk show that the night before the conference he met the U.S. representative, and Holbrooke expressed an inclination to meet the Iranian representative unofficially. Therefore, Verhagen as the host arranged for the two to sit at the same table during lunch. (8)

Whatever its nature may have been, the two sides had some kind of contact. Based on the exact words of the Iranian side and whatever they may have meant, however, it may be equally possible to say no "contact" between Holbrooke and Akhundadeh took place. For instance, an employee of the Iranian diplomatic mission in The Hague who was not a member of the Iranian delegation to the conference may have represented the Iranian side.

What did Akhundzadeh, the Iranian representative have to say? According to a report on Zamaneh, a Persian web site sponsored by Radio Holland, "The point that the other side is trying to convey that this [i.e. the meeting] occurred, for whatever reason, perhaps indicates to a certain extent that they are in a hurry, or they want to exploit this in a certain way." (9) The fact that each side persists in interpreting this "contact" in its own way (the U.S. calling it a promising move and Iran calling it "nothing") has certain meanings quite independent of the nature of that contact:

1- The U.S. side is eager, perhaps even overeager to elicit a response from the Iranian side towards establishment of bilateral relations.
2- The U.S. expects much from Iran in response to the Nowruz message of President Obama to Iran.
3- Disregarding other possibilities, the U.S. has interpreted Khamenei's response to President Obama as keeping the door open for negotiation and simply looking for a face-saving way.
4- The U.S. is ignoring indications that Khamenei's response was an attempt to throw the ball back into the U.S. court. The supreme leader repeated he is waiting for the change.
5- The Iranian side did not consider its presence in the Hague conference on Afghanistan "as publicly declared time and again before the conference" as a step in the line of U.S.-Iran negotiations. In fact, the delegation criticized the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as an enhanced presence intended to find a military solution for a problem that cannot be solved militarily.

The conclusion is that Iran is not interested in the stability of Afghanistan the way the US sees it. Iran more likely prefers:

1- To see the defeat of US plans for Afghanistan as a yet another indication that the US policies do not work in the region.
2- Iran likes stability in the parts of Afghanistan near to its borders. The rest of Afghanistan is not so important. If the Taliban and Al-Qaida can create problems for the US, it is welcomed and even persuaded. As far the US relations with the regime of Iran are concerned, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
3- Iran may cooperate with the US for the preservation or continuation of "stability", but it will cost the US in other places and cases.

(4) http://www.magiran/npview.asp?ID=1815268 ) March 2, 2009, No. 19312, P. 2

Bahman Aghai Diba, Washington based Iran analyst, is a former Iranian diplomat and currently a consultant to the World Resources Company
first published Apr 14, 2009

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