Foreign Policy: Accepting Help From Tehran

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Karzai and Ahmadinejad

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai shakes hands with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the 2010 Trilateral Summit. Ahmadinejad has offered to help the U.S. in Afghanistan. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. He is coeditor of the Shadow Government blog at Foreign Policy, and the author of Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations.

By coincidence, I happened to read two stories back-to-back: the Iranian regime is apparently dangling offers to help us in Afghanistan; and Secretary Robert Gates thinks the proliferation-related sanctions are hurting Iran more than expected. My reading them back-to-back may be a coincidence, but I suspect the stories are related in a fundamental way.

David Ignatius notes one way the stories are related: Skeptics will argue against grasping the Iranian dangle for fear that would "dilute the main focus of Iran policy, which is stopping Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons." He claims that similar fears derailed an earlier potentially fruitful collaboration with Iran on Iraq in 2006, and he hopes the Obama administration won't make the same "mistake." To bolster his case, he cites "hardliners" in Tehran who exploited the abortive diplomatic maneuvers in 2006 to discredit the United States as a negotiating partner.  

But I don't find Ignatius's reasoning very persuasive because he avoids addressing the most obvious connection. Perhaps Iran is dangling these offers now precisely so as to disrupt the sanctions. Consider the similarities in the pattern. The earlier Iranian dangle came when a) the situation in Iraq was unraveling so U.S. local leverage was eroding but b) after a long period of paralysis there was finally modest progress on the nuclear file with credible threats of tighter sanctions on Iran and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage was weakening to terrain where it was strengthening made a lot of sense — for the Iranian regime.

The current Iranian dangle comes when a) the situation in Afghanistan is dodgy (and probably some within the Obama camp even fear it is unraveling) but b) after a long period of paralysis there is finally modest progress on the nuclear file with increased sanctions inflicting noticeable pain on the Iranian regime and even rumors of more serious military action. In such a climate, shifting the diplomatic focus from terrain where Iranian leverage is weakening to terrain where it is strengthening makes a lot of sense — for the Iranian regime.

It only makes sense to take up the Iranian dangle on Afghanistan if we can do so without relaxing pressure on the nuclear file. If, as Ignatius and other optimists assert, the Iranians are doing this out of a sincere desire to help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan, we should be able to explore that without relaxing nuclear-related sanctions. Indeed, the sanctions might even improve our leverage leading to more fruitful cooperation. If Iranians set as preconditions for talks on Afghanistan some sort of relaxation of the economic pressure — or if our allies on their own relax the economic pressure so as to "help" negotiations on Afghanistan — then the bargain is a bad one for U.S. foreign policy.  

There was a brief window when the Iranian regime actually was helpful on Afghanistan — during the early post-Sept.11 window when the Iranian regime was afraid, with some justification, that the United States had an unchecked arsenal of military options at its disposal and was in the mood to wield them. During that period, many previously problematic regimes (Iran, Libya, Sudan) got "on side" with the United States, albeit temporarily or provisionally in some cases. Once the difficulties in Iraq undermined U.S. leverage, however, the incentives for cooperation shifted and the Iranian regime returned to its more common pattern of doing everything it could to frustrate U.S. foreign policy objectives in every arena.

The best way to break that pattern is with smart diplomacy. Smart diplomacy begins with a robust pressure track and builds other components — direct talks, regional talks, and other carrots — on that foundation. So let's not take the dangle on Afghanistan until we have locked in the sanctions and have corralled all of our allies in that effort. Once we have, it would be worth exploring other diplomatic avenues, but not before.

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