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Shared Interests in Afghanistan Could Break U.S.-Iran Impasse

WASHINGTON, Mar 15 2012 (IPS) - According to a new publication released here Thursday by an influential national security think tank, engaging Iran on shared interests in Afghanistan can help improve U.S.-Iran relations and maximise the chances for stability in the country following the withdrawal of U.S.-led combat forces by 2014.

The Stimson Center’s “Engaging Iran on Afghanistan” report comes amidst a time of increased anxiety about prospects for a positive U.S. legacy in the country, especially after a spate of blowback- inspiring incidents by International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), including the apparent murder of 16 Afghan civilians by a U.S. sergeant.

“The United States has interests in Iran that are much broader than just the nuclear question,” said Stimson President and CEO Ellen Laipson, a former state department official who has focused on Near East and Middle East affairs in policy planning throughout her career.

Over the last two years, Iran has been targeted with unprecedented sanctions, assassinations of its citizens, other covert illegal measures and the increased threat of a military attack.

For its part, the U.S. has charged Iran with conducting nuclear weapons-related activities, the plotting of a terrorist attack against a Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil by Iranian government-related actors, and endangering U.S. interests by threatening to close the vital oil supply-route, the Strait of Hormuz.

Despite enduring further international isolation and significant hits against its struggling economy, such as the severe devaluation of its currency and further decreased trade prospects, Iranian nuclear activities have shown no signs of slowing while the threat of a military strike by Israel has been described as more likely than ever.

At a University of Maryland Iran briefing here on Tuesday, political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that among the negative consequences of an Israeli strike would be Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces and interests in Afghanistan.

The former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter stated that the Iranians would act out against the U.S. because they would consider an Israeli attack as authorised by Washington, especially if Tel Aviv’s forces flew over U.S.-controlled Iraqi airspace.

But the Stimson Center’s research shows that Afghanistan is also an area where the U.S. and Iran can cooperate.

Afghanistan presents the “most obvious convergence of interests” and is the most “promising” issue for better relations, noted report author Laipson.

On Monday, retired top CIA analyst and South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution Bruce Riedel wrote in the Daily Beast that a successful political solution to the Afghan war will require a “regional strategy that includes not only Pakistan but also key stakeholders like Iran and India”.

But while there is a consensus now that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours have to be actively involved in the war-torn country’s future if security is to be established, and while converging U.S.- Iran interests were clear well before before 2001, moving forward on this front has been overshadowed by increased hostility between the U.S. and Iran over its nuclear programme.

While the U.S. and Iran both want to prevent a “draconian” Taliban- led or heavily Pakistan-controlled government from ruling Afghanistan, according to Laipson a “conceptual disagreement” between the U.S. and Iran impedes them from working together more effectively on that goal.

The U.S. believes the international community needs to be involved in a stable Afghan future, but Iran believes regional involvement should be the exclusive “successor” to ISAF withdrawal, which should leave behind no residual foreign forces, she said.

“For Iran the regional approach is an alternative to an international approach. For the United States the regional approach is a component of the international approach,” Laipson noted.

Stimson cofounder Barry Blechman and colleague R. Taj Moore argued in a second publication released at the briefing Thursday that the solution to the political impasse between Iran and the U.S. must involve increased engagement and diplomacy on a wide range issues that have plagued relations since the Islamic revolution.

“The conflict between the U.S. and Iran has continued for more than 30 years” and has “all the negative aspects of the Cold War” but the U.S. does not face anywhere near the same threats to its security, they argued.

Blechman and Moore conclude that the U.S. should “utilize all potential conduits of communications to open negotiations with Iran”, not only on the nuclear issue, but on other issues of “common ground” such as Afghanistan.

The “Iran in Perspective: Holding Iran to Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Technology” report acknowledges the impediments the U.S. faces after years of mutual aggression and ongoing tensions. But it stresses that policy should be “founded not only on our concerns about a nuclear- armed Iran, but also a realistic understanding of the risks of military conflict with Iran.”

A policy aimed at keeping Iran’s nuclear programme peaceful that is more focused on engagement and incentives beyond the mere lifting of sanctions offers increased prospects for positive results, the report authors argue.

Blechman said he hoped that if President Barack Obama was re-elected in November, he would “sort of send Kissinger’s equivalent to China to Iran or work through intermediaries and begin a much broader level of exchanges, not only on the nuclear issue but on the other issues that lie between us.”

Writing in Bloomberg on Tuesday Vali Nasr, a professor of international relations and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, also recommended that President Obama actively pursue diplomacy with Iran now while conditions are optimal.

There has to be “credible reciprocity to build trust and create momentum in the talks” and while the lifting of sanctions by the U.S. and Europe should definitely be on the table, Washington must also be “open to starting bilateral talks with Iran about regional security and the future of U.S.-Iran relations,” he said.

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