National interests come first
By Hooshang Amirahmadi
Your survey questions on Afghanistan are well focused and relevant to the present crisis. However, a more important aspect of the problem has to do with the fact that the Iranian government has not handled the Afghan question with due diligence and strategic foresight For years, the political crisis was seen in light of the Sunni-Shia divide, ignoring the more important ethnic dimension of the struggle (the Taleban are Pushtoon majority). Besides, any response to the crisis must be placed in the context of regional and global geopolitics and how the chosen response can be sustained in the direction of attaining Iran's national interests, which have to be carefully defined in relation to the Afghan question.
The Taleban are a product of U.S. policy of dual-containment, created and sustained with the help of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to complement the encirclement of Iran on the eastern border. The western border is contained by a strategic alliance between Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel. In between, on the southern border, Iraq stands along with the UAE and other potentially antagonistic Arab states. For the moment, only the north remains open where Russia is struggling with its domestic uncertainties and pressures from the U.S. for more conformity with the leadership of the "sole" remaining superpower. It is very much possible that the Russian Federation, if domestic economic and political crises continue long enough, will disintegrate into three, if not more, parts (far east, far west and the middle). Even with an integrated Russia, Iran cannot count much on its support in the foreseeable future.
It is in the context of these realities that Iran must decide what to do with the Taleban. More specifically, the Taleban question for Iran directly connects to its policies toward the region and the U.S. The fact that Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood and faces territorial vulnerability, makes the case for an urgent visionary foreign policy. Admittedly, Iran has made a genuine attempt to change its international policy but gains thus far have not been strategically significant. This is particularly true in the case of the U.S.: both parties have said nice words in favor of each other (poetry-reading sessions, with a lot of ta'rof!) but no meaningful deeds. Ironically, incidents like the one in Afghanistan have the potential to return the parties to the spiral of conflict in which they were caught for so many years.
I am not of course suggesting that the way out for Iran is to accept U.S. conditions for normalization of relations. Rather, to follow a two tier policy: a tough line against forces like the Taleban (and not just against the Taleban) and its backers, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and UAE), and a soft line in relation to forces of reason in the region and the West, including the U.S. The implication for the present crisis is:
1) Iran should not take immediate military action of any sort in response to public pressure or rightist politics. It should rather sit back and design a more meaningful strategy, one that ensures gains for its national interests;
2) Diplomatic initiatives should not be restricted to punishing those who murdered the Iranian diplomats or to releasing the remaining hostages; rather the initiatives should be broad enough to make the world understand that Iran's concerns and complaints are much deeper. This is the time for Iran to change world public opinion in its favor;
3) In tough but measured talks, Iran must draw a line between its national interests and intervening in the domestic affairs of Afghanistan. It is important that the world clearly understands and accepts Iran's diplomatic messages; and
4) Iran must help create a more hospitable policy environment in which its antagonists or rivals would consider assisting rather than hindering its Afghan initiative. That will require an independent but friendly foreign policy that accounts as much for Iran's fears and national interests as it does for the fears and interests of other parties involved.
5) Meanwhile, Iran must define its national interests in relation to the Afghan question. Among other concerns, that definition should account for geopolitical and economic interests (e.g., implications for pipelines from Central Asia). As the Taleban movement is part of a larger effort to encircle Iran, national security and defense planning must be carefully incorporated into a more strategic definition of Iran's national interests in Afghanistan.
In sum, the guiding principle for Iran is gains for its national interests not taking revenge or taking aimless sides in the Afghan civil war. Such gains can only be attained if the country's national interests in relation to the Afghan question are carefully defined and a carrot-and-stick policy is adopted to take regional and global realities into account. This is a task not just for one person, faction or institution, but many. The Afghan question has indeed the potential to further the cause of Iran's national reconciliation and unity, the country's most urgent need at present.
Hooshang Amirahmadi is a professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and president of the American Iranian Concil.
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