Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Dialogue with Iran is necessary to solve the region’s problems

As I have argued before in a previous blog, the use of sanctions to isolate Iran is a poor strategy for dealing with the nuclear issue, given that Iranians feel they have long been the victims of Western wrongdoing and thus see sanctions as further evidence of their need to pursue an anti-Western policy. However, my point in this blog is that the continuation of this policy is not only failing to change Iran domestically, but also damaging prospects for peace and stability in the wider region.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama announced a tightening of US sanctions against Iran. The sanctions target foreign banks which help to sell Iranian oil, as the US continues to try and weaken Iran’s vital export market. Both the House and the Senate have also rushed to agree more sanctions, which officials say President Obama was aiming to complement through his own executive announcement. But it is clear to see that election year politics have had a strong effect on foreign policy. With Mr Romney also talking tough on Iran and pledging his unwavering support for the state of Israel, American politics has become a race to see who can be more uncompromising and aggressive, and thus who will gain more support from the American people.

To add to the rhetoric, a federal magistrate recently ruled that Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Iran are liable for $6 billion dollars of compensation for the 9/11 attacks. This ruling is bizarre. Iran is a staunch enemy of both Al-Qaeda and especially the Taliban, who they almost went to war with in 1998 over the murder of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif. Indeed, even the 9/11 commission reports that “We have found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.” It is credible that Iran did not properly check the Saudi passports at the border, thus allowing terrorists to pass through Iran, but this nowhere near enough to justify the waves of American accusations regarding Iranian sponsorship of 9/11. The purpose of all this is to vilify the Iranians and make American politicians look like they are acting tough on national security.

All of this posturing is highly regrettable. In a crucial time for the Middle East, warmer relations with Iran are necessary for the peaceful resolution of conflict in both Syria and Afghanistan. In Syria, Iran’s influence is obvious. The two have been strong allies for decades, supporting each other when few others in the world would. But Iran is now worried, American (they recently permitted the sending of financial aid to the rebels) and Gulf (they pay the salaries of the fighters) support for the Syrian opposition is growing, and a victory for them would almost certainly mean the current Alawite regime would be replaced with a Sunni one (and quite possibly a Sunni one with strong ties to Saudi Arabia and the kind of Islamist groups it exports). As such, the Iranian foreign minister recently announced a change in policy, saying, “The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to sit down with the Syrian opposition and invite them to Iran... we are ready to facilitate and provide the conditions for talks between the opposition and government." This is a clear concession that Iran is worried about what will happen when Assad goes, and sees it as necessary to try and come to a negotiated solution.

If the West does not use the opportunity Iran presents to help broker peace, and instead supports the rebels to a full military victory, it will create serious tensions between Syria and Iran in the future. In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq, Iran supported Shia militias, creating sectarian violence which killed thousands of people. If a Sunni government is installed in Syria, and especially if it uses its power to suppress Alawite and Shia minorities (as gulf states such as Bahrain have done), it will lead to Iran feeling even more cornered and keen to exert influence on its neighbour, as it has successfully done in Iraq. Both Kofi Annan and Russia have expressed support for an Iranian role in negotiating peace in Syria, if the US were to tone down its aggressive rhetoric, this might become a real possibility.

Iran’s role in Afghanistan is also very important. Iran is in many ways a natural ally of the West’s current anti-Taliban interests. During the Afghan civil war, it was the Iranians (and the Russians) who supported (though not all at the same time) the various groups in Afghanistan’s north (Tajiks, Uzbeks and most naturally for the Iranians because they are shias, the Hazaras) whilst the ISI (with the tacit approval of the CIA), funded the various Pashtun groups in the south, with the Taliban emerging as the dominant one (see Ahmed Rashid’s analysis in ‘Taliban’). Indeed as already discussed, Iran and the Taliban have been vicious enemies since 1998. Iran does not want a Pashtun controlled Afghanistan on its doorstep, especially one which would allow for the unchecked spread of Pakistan’s influence in the region. Iran and the Central Asian countries also have an interest in seeing a peaceful Afghanistan to facilitate the trade in natural resources.

If Iran is not brought in to the dialogue on Afghanistan by the West, when the coalition troops leave Iran will take whatever measures it feels necessary to exert its influence and protect its national interests. Indeed, Afghanistan would be a much easier place for it to do so than in Syria. It has an extensive border with Afghanistan which is almost impossible to secure, and much of Western Afghanistan is culturally Persian, especially Herat, whose inhabitants talk in a manner very similar to the dialects of eastern Iran. Afghanistan can only become a prosperous and peaceful country if Iran, and equally importantly Pakistan, agree not to meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs. Leaving Afghanistan with no such an agreement will see it return to the field of the proxy war that has been fought there for decades. The government in Afghanistan has understood this, and is participating in a fourth joint economic commission in October with the Iranians, it is time the Americans realised Iran’s importance in the region and chose cooperation rather than aggression.


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