Relations with Iran Key to Solving Afghanistan

Iranian mischief in Afghanistan is defensive. It needs to change to end the war successfully.

William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state of the United States, sit in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, January 31, 2012
William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Hillary Clinton, secretary of state of the United States, sit in a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York, January 31, 2012 (State Department)

One cannot govern well by reacting to events.

The British government must share this view, as it is the intention behind the National Security Council. It is supposed to put day to day crises into a larger context and shape a strategic response to them. Speaking in Washington DC several months after the NSC was created, William Hague, the foreign secretary, boasted that it had already made Britain’s Afghanistan policy strategically “coherent,” among other things.

Yet Britain’s handling of Iran suggests that this is not the case. The Iranians ought to be the West’s allies in Afghanistan but saber rattling over their nuclear program is forcing them to undermine NATO’s efforts there.

If London really wants to resolve these crises, it needs to adopt a truly strategic approach toward them, not react to them as though they were unrelated events.

It was reported last week that Iran may have tried to exacerbate anti-American riots in Afghanistan in February, after careless soldiers burned copies of the Quran.

The Tehran regime ordered its agents to “exploit the anticipated public outrage by trying to instigate violent protests in the capital, Kabul, and across the western part of the country, according to American officials,” reported The New York Times.

The typical reaction to these stories by war hawks is to see Tehran’s mischief making as a sinister bid for world mastery, not defensive measures meant to deter Western military action.

When Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Taliban were seized in Afghanistan last March, then defense secretary Liam Fox said, “This confirms my often repeated view of the dangers that Iran poses not only through its nuclear program but its continuing policy of destabilizing its neighbors.”

Supplying weapons to help the Taliban kill [ISAF] soldiers is a clear example of the threat they pose.

In response to a question by Robert Halfon shortly before the Quran riots about Iranian activities in Afghanistan, Hague congratulated the hawkish parliamentarian for assiduously “pointing out the malign influence of Iran on its neighbors in several directions.”

The hawk talk about Tehran’s mischief making in Afghanistan adds another stroke to the war drums that have been beaten over Iran of late but it actually undermines the government’s goals vis-à-vis those countries.

It is unlikely that the latter will participate in a regional settlement to end the war if foreign powers persist in viewing them as a malign actor, worsening relations between Tehran and the West and making it harder to negotiate a solution to the nuclear impasse.

Instead of reacting to these crises separately, the British government must adopt a joint approach on them, with sound strategic thinking underpinning it. Such an approach requires a rethink on Iran’s role in Afghanistan, recognition that its actions toward one impact the other, and various diplomatic steps to help achieve the goals stated above.

Although some of its activities may suggest otherwise, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan coincide with Western objectives, which the government must keep in mind. As former diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles observed correctly in Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign (2012), Tehran has “no rational interest in continuing instability in [the country], or in a Taliban victory.”

Given this, why do they mischief make? “Iran currently views its interests in Afghanistan through the prism of American-Iranian enmity,” write Alireza Nader and Joya Laha in a study (PDF) for the RAND Corporation.

Iranian leaders view the American and coalition presence in Afghanistan with great anxiety, especially in light of the American military threats against Iran’s nuclear facilities. As it has reportedly been employed in Iraq, Iran’s asymmetric strategy would use proxy insurgent forces to tie down and distract the United States from focusing on Iran and its nuclear program, and provides a retaliatory capability in the event of American military action.

Unless Britain rethinks its rhetoric on Iranian interference in Afghanistan — recognizing that it is defensive, not offensive — it will force Tehran to undermine NATO efforts there even further. It can forget a regional settlement underwriting the country’s stability after 2014 if it excludes one of the biggest stakeholders.

In addition to a rethink on Iranian behavior, the government needs to take a number of diplomatic steps to restart dialogue between Tehran and London, so that an end to the war in Afghanistan and an end to the nuclear impasse can be negotiated.

First, the United Kingdom should reopen its embassy in Iran. “Without embassies, the basic function of diplomacy — keeping some kind of dialogue going even when views are diametrically opposed — is essentially suspended,” the former diplomat and minister Mark Malloch-Brown has written.

This should be followed up by Britain beginning a conversation with Tehran about how it can work with the West in Afghanistan. If it persuades the Iranians to help, not hinder the allies in ending the war, it may be easier to negotiate a solution to their nuclear program, as there will be an element of trust between the parties.

William Hague once said that the National Security Council will not only minimize risks to the United Kingdom but “look for the positive trends in the world, since our security requires seizing opportunity as well as mitigating risk.” Yet when it comes to Iran and Afghanistan, the government has emphasized risk over opportunity.

If it wants to achieve its goals for either country, this emphasis needs to change.