EDITOR'S NOTE: Strategic cooperation between the United States and Iran could boost international efforts to help develop Afghanistan, writes George Gavrilis, an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. For the full expert brief, please visit the council's Web site. A few excerpts:
It's high time for the United States to engage Iran over Afghanistan in a way that is public, decisive, and comprehensive. Strategic cooperation is possible because the United States and Iran have converging interests and common aversions in Afghanistan. Both want a stable, central government in Kabul capable of putting down insurgents and narco-traffickers and wish to avoid the wholesale collapse of the Afghan state. An Af-Ir Strategy that formally recognizes these common interests may expand Tehran's contribution to Afghanistan's security and development. It may also trigger a much-needed thaw in Tehran-Washington relations.
Iran in Afghanistan
The sad state of U.S.-Iran relations over Iraq, Israel, terrorism, and the nuclear weapons program makes it easy to overlook Iran's contribution to Afghan state building. By one estimate, Tehran has contributed half a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance since 2001. More importantly, Iran has a vested interest in a stable, well-governed Afghanistan-an interest that it has protected since the fall of the Taliban.
Iran participated alongside the United States and United Nations to help put together a new Afghan government. Behind closed doors, Iranian diplomats urged the United Nations to lead rebuilding efforts and insisted that the new Afghan government be composed not of ideologues, but of technocrats who could effectively govern.
After 2002, Iran's aid and trade role in Afghanistan expanded. Tehran certified joint investment companies, sponsored food fairs, opened cement factories, extended purchase credits to traders, and trained commercial pilots. Tehran also invested in Afghanistan's infrastructure. It extended an electric line into the western Afghan city of Herat and jointly sponsored highway projects with India throughout the Afghan west.
Coping with the neighborhood
The lack of a stable, central authority in Afghanistan fuels the growth of warlords, insurgents, and traffickers whose activities usually spill over international borders. Iranian provinces abutting Afghanistan suffer from Sunni extremism, Baluchi separatism, opium trafficking, and even banditry. Bombings at Shiite mosques in Iran's border areas may be linked to cross-border Sunni extremists. Iranian border guards have been kidnapped by armed groups operating along the frontier. Shootouts with narco-traffickers along the border are common.
Iran has devoted considerable resources to prevent the spillover of instability from Afghanistan - an estimated $600 million annually on counter-narcotics efforts alone. Nearly 10 percent of Iran's conscript army patrols the Afghan border, and walls and ditches dot remote stretches of border. Iranian drug control officials take part in initiatives with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime to interdict the heroin trade.
Time for a U.S. "Af-Ir strategy"
The Obama administration is in a position to broaden Iran's role as a stakeholder in Afghanistan. Engaging Iran in Afghanistan through a new, comprehensive strategy could bolster the international community's beleaguered effort in Afghanistan. It may also create a rare opportunity to reshape U.S.-Iran relations. An Af-Ir Strategy might include the following activities:
Open a U.S. consulate in Herat, the political and cultural heart of the Afghan west abutting Iran. The U.S. consulate would give the United States a perch from which to engage Iran's role in Afghan security and development.
Encourage the creation of special economic zones and lifting of customs barriers along the Afghanistan-Iran border.
Extend assistance to the Afghan side of the Iran border to fight the drug trade.
Broaden infrastructure projects in western Afghanistan. The United States should greatly expand its projects for road building, irrigation canals, and sewage systems throughout the Afghan west.