Washington DC – One day after he identified Iran as a grave threat to regional security even without nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Robert Gates received a friendly advice from one of Washington’s key allies in the region. Warning against Washington’s a strategy of aligning its Persian Gulf allies against Iran, Iraq’s National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie stated categorically that “The United States, until they seriously engage with Iran … the long-term regional security will be in doubt.”
Buttressing Al-Rubaie’s call was Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who pointedly emphasized that U.S. moves to isolate Iran over its nuclear program “would make life more difficult for the Iraqis” He went on to say, “I do believe Iran is a major power in the Middle East and holds a key for stability and peace for the whole region. This is why I’m saying that the nuclear issue should be sorted out in round-table negotiations.”
The Iraqi leadership’s call for bolder steps to interact directly with Iran in order to improve security must be situated within the context of Iraqi concern about the country being an arena for regional power plays. Along with Afghanistan, Iraq is the only place in the world where openly antagonistic interlocutors both have such active and influential presence.
The Iraqi leadership has reasons to be worried. Although a fourth round of security talks between Iran and the United States is slotted for December 18, it is becoming increasingly clear to the Iraqis that given the intensity of rhetorical and real conflict between the U.S. and Iran, the stability of their country rests on a dialogue that addresses issues beyond Iraq.
This is essentially because of the unwanted impact of the U.S. strategy of isolating Iran. On the one hand, the U.S. strategy of trying to align its Persian Gulf allies against Iran, by accentuating Iran’s threat, has acted as fuel for other regional players such as Saudi Arabia to meddle in Iraq in order to stunt the consolidation of an Iran-supported government in Iraq. On the other hand, the U.S. pressuring of Iran over the nuclear issue has been at best encouragement for Iran to pursue its interests in Iraq without coordination with the U.S and at worst incentive to further increase instability in order to enhance Iran’s strategic weight and eventually force the U.S. to abandon its policy of only pre-conditioned negotiation with Iran.
These are the realities of the very strange balancing act the Bush Administration is trying to pull off in the region. Highlighting the Iranian threat at every opportunity without offering effective and peaceful means to counter, lessen, or contain the pronounced threat, leaves the regional players worried about the continuation of the conflict in their neighborhood and more intent on securing their own particular interests without coordination with, or even in contradiction to, US policies in Iraq.
In short, U.S. policies act as provocation for all the countries concerned about the fate of Iraq; nothing more and nothing less. A milder version of a similar dynamic is at work regarding Afghanistan.
Having made the disastrous strategic choice – after the possibility of an alternative had opened with Iran’s cooperation in the overthrow of the Taliban – to place its egg only in the Pakistani basket as a means to contain the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the United States now finds both its policies of relying on Pakistan alone and non-engagement with the “threatening” Iran to be sources of unease for the leaders of Afghanistan. They, like their Iraqi counterparts, understand that continued U.S. moves to isolate Iran over its nuclear program would indeed make life more difficult for them.
Understanding very well that Iran, as a large, populous, and comparatively powerful economic neighbor that can help in reconstruction efforts, can neither be turned away nor restructured along the wishes of extra-regional players, both Iraq and Afghanistan are bound to see themselves as casualties of the unending and unmanaged conflict between the U.S. and Iran.
In Afghanistan, in particular, the intensification of conflict with Iran will entail additional economic opportunity costs as Tehran has been very active, pushing ahead with development projects in Afghanistan, albeit amid little interaction with the American forces. Its investments have helped make the country’s western and central regions among the most stable. Central to this effort has been the development of a roads project, costing hundreds of millions of dollars, that connects the Western city of Herat to Iran’s east and then on to the Persian Gulf port of Chabahar, giving landlocked Afghanistan an alternative transport route to the Pakistani port of Karachi.
Iran clearly has its own economic and political interests for pursuing these types of economic activities and nothing the United States does, with the exception of a military attack, will prevent it from pursuing these interests. The fact that large chunks of populations in both Iraq and Afghanistan have long-standing with Iran will make the pursuit of these interests easier. It is worth remembering that during the height of Afghan civil war and consequent troubles Iran hosted more than 3 million Afghan refugees and many of the current Afghan leaders, like their Iraqi counterparts, still have family in Iran. So the Iranian commitment to the economic and political development and stability of these two countries is real, generated out of historical ties and trends, and will withstand U.S. opposition.
Still lack of coordination, which can only come about through direct engagement, prevents the United States and Iran from a modus vivendi that will help bring about stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, contain non-state Islamic radicalism, and allow for the re-direction of massive military spending into reconstruction efforts.
Given the stakes involved, the Bush Administration’s refusal to talk before Iran suspends its enrichment program, a condition that by now should have become abundantly clear Iran will not accept no matter how many UN Security council resolutions are passed against Iran, not only does not make sense, it is looking increasingly dangerous and harmful to U.S. allies in the region.
Dr. Farideh Farhi is an independent researcher and an affiliate professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.