photo credit: The White House, Pete Souza
Tuesday night, President Obama delivered a much-anticipated speech on the situation in Afghanistan.  He announced that he will be sending 30,000 additional troops in the first part of 2010, and will begin withdrawing troops in the Summer of 2011.
The speech made no direct references to Iran, and only vaguely touched on Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation strategy in general.  But according to Jim Fine at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, President Obama “missed a golden opportunity” in the speech to kick-start the stalled diplomacy with Iran.
In October, 2001, American military and diplomatic officials began meeting privately with officials from Iran to discuss the impending war in Afghanistan.  Following the September 11th attacks, America’s mission in Afghanistan was to root out al Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban–a mission that Iran shared with us and actually supported.
Over the next few months, American and Iranian officials worked together on countless issues involving the war against the Taliban, as has been well documented by Amb. James Dobbins and Hillary Mann Leverett, both of whom participated in these discussions with Iranians.  According to Dobbins, the Iranian delegation provided extremely valuable contributions to the formation of the Afghan provisional government, even working to ensure that Afghan elections will be fair and democratic.  Leverett has recounted stories of her Iranian counterpart going so far in their cooperation as to pull out a map of Afghan territory and pointing out locations that American planes should bomb.
The cooperation between the US and Iran on Afghanistan was fruitful and unprecedented.  Unfortunately, it came to an end when President Bush declared Iran to be part of the “Axis of Evil.”
But here is what Obama missed on Tuesday night: we need all the help we can get in Afghanistan right now.  We’ve asked for troop commitments from NATO partners, but most likely won’t get more than a couple thousand.  President Obama should have lamented the end of US-Iranian cooperation on Afghanstan in his speech on Tuesday as an effective tool that we no longer have at our disposal.  “Isn’t it a shame,” he should have said “that we responded so callously to Iran’s cooperation?”  And yet, isn’t it such a shame also that Iran’s behavior in recent weeks on the nuclear negotiations make it impossible for us to cooperate on Afghanistan the way we did before?
The United States should be willing to cooperate with Iran on Afghanistan, and should not hold hostage every other issue of potential mutual cooperation just because there has been no progress in the nuclear talks.  In fact, all sides claim to want to build confidence through the negotiations; what better way to build confidence than to work together on critical issues?
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran John Limbert has said “If we focus solely on the nuclear issue when dealing with Iran, we will fail.” It’s in America’s best interest to raise human rights concerns in dealing with Iran, and it’s in America’s best interest to work together with Iran on areas of mutual concern.
We have a job to do in Afghanistan, and it won’t be easy.  If Iran becomes a useful partner again, and helps us defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, then I suspect a little bit of the mistrust that has made negotiations so difficult up to now will begin to evaporate.

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