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The Race for Iran



Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said earlier this week, that the Islamic Republic is prepared to stop enriching uranium to the nearly-20 percent level required to fabricate fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR), if others agree to provide new, finished fuel for the TRR, in line with the Joint Declaration that Iran negotiated with Brazil and Turkey in May.  Speaking at a press conference in Berlin with his German counterpart, Davutoğlu said that “another important message given by [Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr] Mottaki during his visit to Turkey [this past weekend, to meet with Davutoğlu and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim] was that if the Tehran deal is signed and Iran is provided with the necessary fuel for its research activities, then they will not continue enriching uranium to 20 percent”. 

Predictably enough, Western media outlets report that “U.S. and European diplomats said they believe the rash of new economic sanctions imposed on Tehran over the past two months has rattled the Iranian leadership”, prompting Iran’s renewed interest in talks and willingness to consider ceasing enrichment at the near-20 percent level.  In coming days, we will be elaborating our own view on the connections between sanctions, the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration, and prospects for the next round of nuclear talks with Iran, which are likely to take place in September, after the end of Ramadan.  For now, suffice it to say that, in our view, the assessment attributed to “U.S. and European diplomats” reflects another (seemingly willful) misreading of the Iranian position, for two reasons: 

–First, the Iranians have always—since they first proposed to the International Atomic Energy Agency last June to buy new fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR)—linked their pursuit of enrichment to the near-20 percent level to the international community’s failure to come through, in a credible and timely way, to cooperation with Tehran to refuel the TRR.  There is nothing new in Mottaki’s position, also expressed recently in a television interview by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organziation, and which can hardly be attributed to sanctions. 

–Second, the Iranian position, as described by Davutoğlu, stipulates international acceptance of the Joint Declaration—which includes an explicit acknowledgement of the Islamic Republic’s right to enrich uranium on its own territory.  In our conversations with them, Iranian officials have consistently indicated that acceptance of (safeguarded) enrichment in Iran would open up possibilities for cooperative solutions to a range of contentious issues in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear diplomacy with the world’s major powersThe United States and its European partners have yet to come to terms with this in a serious way.      

On these points, we want to share the perspective of Kayhan Barzegar, an outstanding scholar and foreign policy analyst who is currently on the faculty at Iran’s Islamic Azad University and is also a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research and the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (both in Tehran) and an associate of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  We have highlighted some of Kayhan’s work on www.TheRaceForIran.com, on Iran-Russia relations, see here, Iran’s foreign policy strategy, see here, and the TRR issue’s significance in the wider context of multilateral diplomacy regarding Iran’s nuclear program, see here

Last week, the Belfer Center published an English translation of an Op Ed by Kayhan, “Sanctions to Spur Negotiations:  Mostly a Bad Strategy”, see here, which had been published in Persian by ISNA and reprinted in Tabnak.  We present here some important passages from the Op Ed:        

“From recent events, it is clear that United Nations Security Council’s Resolution 1929 was adopted in order to force Iran to sit down at the negotiating table and accept the West’s conditions pertaining to Iran’s nuclear policy.  From the West’s perspective, Iran will only change its nuclear position when it is confronted by meaningful international pressure.  Such a view shows the West’s—and especially the United States’—lack of understanding of the role and importance of Iran’s nuclear program in its domestic and international politics.  Contrary to what this misguided policy believes, more international pressure will compound Iran’s assertiveness and unwillingness to relent vis-à-vis its nuclear policy.” 

Kayhan notes that there are three perspectives regarding the West’s aims in adopting the latest round of sanctions against Iran.  One holds that the main goal of the new sanctions “is to prepare global public opinion for conflict with Iran”.  Against this, Kayhan argues that, because the Security Council is extremely unlikely to authorize military action against Iran and because of continuing U.S. commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama Administration will probably not judge itself to be in a suitable position to initiate war with Iran.  He goes on to note that

“there exists of course the issue of an Israeli military operation against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Observers inside Iran believe that because of the existing domestic crises such as the inability to adequately deal with Hamas and the sentiments of global public opinion with respect to its disproportionate response to the Gaza flotilla crisis, Israel is not in the position to conduct a military operation against Iran.  As in the past Israel prefers to pressure the United States behind the scenes and plead with the latter to conduct a military operation against Iran.”

Another perspective on the new sanctions, according to Kayhan, holds that they have been adopted “to contain Iran’s successful efforts in establishing regional and global” coalitions: 

“Because Iran’s peaceful nuclear activities are in accord with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) rules and regulations and have international legitimacy, Iran can participate in new coalitions with rising powers and the critics of the dominant Western trends in the NPT in order to enhance its nuclear policy.  In this respect, the Tehran Nuclear Declaration (May 17, 2010) and Brazil and Turkey’s acceptance of Iran’s right to continue enriching uranium on its soil, supported subsequently by other countries, afford Iran the upper hand in future negotiations.  It is thus necessary from the West’s perspective to contain Iran’s power.   The new sanctions were rapidly adopted, drawing a fault-line in the sand and allowing the opponents and proponents to take their positions and be identified. And because the West has many economic and political levers of pressure and influence, many countries were forced to accept the West’s new policy vis-à-vis Iran (emphasis added).” 

Interestingly, Kayhan expounded this particular argument in greater detail last month, shortly after the passage of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, see here, in a piece published in Iran Diplomacy.  As he wrote then,

“The Tehran Agreement was a massive step taken by Iran towards trust-building with the international community especially the United States.  While the above-mentioned initiatives taken by Tehran were an opportunity to create a new wave in the international political atmosphere, they also turned into a challenge and moved the once friendly Russia and China closer to other Western powers. They realized that continued support for Iran at this level will undermine their long-held political clout and traditional authority at the United Nations Security Council.

Meanwhile, Iran’s new nuclear policy harbored the potential to challenge President Obama’s efforts to forge a global consensus against Iran. This, amongst other reasons, led the United States to quickly pass another sanction resolution so as to gain the upper hand vis-à-vis Iran. This may explain why immediately after the adoption of the Resolution, Washington announced that diplomacy remains on the table and the EU has asked Iran for a new round of negotiation…

Russia and China’s recent position has shown to what extent these countries are ready to support Iran, as well as connect their global strategic issues with their short-term lucrative economic relations to Iran. It has also shown that upon entering global strategic issues such as global nuclear disarmament, nuclear monopoly, etc., the Islamic Republic of Iran will face serious challenges, even from rival great powers like Russia and China. By contrast, Turkey and Brazil admirably stood firm on their position and cast a negative vote against the 1929 resolution. This could be a turning point for Iran in reassessing the role and place of new rising powers in its regional and international strategic affairs.”

Finally, Kayhan argues that a third perspective on the new sanctions holds that they are necessary for Western powers to be able to negotiate “from a position of strength and thus ought to be considered diplomacy by other means”.  As he elaborates, this perspective reflects a belief that      

“coercive and meaningful sanctions will change Iran’s nuclear policy.  They are also essential for preventing a possible war, especially on the Israeli side.  Being more effective, the current multilateral sanctions should be advanced further by the unilateral sanctions of states.  Accordingly, President Obama signed the gasoline sanctions adopted by the U.S. Congress and a few other Western and European countries did or are currently doing the same. 

Challenging the latter perspective, one should argue that no political faction or wing in Iran claims that new sanctions will not impact Iran’s economy and as even noted by Dr. Ali-Akbar Salehi, the Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, sanctions will slow the pace of Iran’s nuclear activities.  But the fact of the matter is that sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear position.  Because beyond the issue of energy and technological advancement, this program is an identity-value issue and relates to Iran’s regional and global roles and status.  Meanwhile, since sanctions and economic constraints will directly impact ordinary Iranians, they will intensify the current sense of distrust towards the West and especially the United States in all political trends and people, subsequently resulting in national mobilization and unity, thereby strengthening the hand of the Iranian government to resist the sanctions.  This is the complete opposite of the result desired by the West.  Here even unilateral sanctions by the United States and European countries will have a more destructive effect on the two sides’ relations.”

Kayhan concludes that, while the “sanctions for negotiations” policy may, on the surface, seem to be a diplomatic success for the United States and its allies,

“in practice it will have paradoxical consequences for containing Iran or changing its nuclear policy.  Undoubtedly, the new sanctions will deepen the existing distrust between Iran and the West and have the potential of leading both sides to a dead-end and lose-lose game over nuclear negotiations and related issues.  The West must find a sustainable solution based on a win-win strategy and relative satisfaction of both sides.” 

The West will have another opportunity to find a “sustainable solution based on a win-win strategy and relative satisfaction of both sides” when nuclear talks reconvene in September or so.  But realizing this opportunity will require, among other things, that the United States and its European partners be prepared to accept the reality of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil as an indispensable element in a sustainable, win-win solution. 

More on this important topic later.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Turkey and the Iranian Nuclear Issue

(Photo Credit: State Department)

This post also appears at The Washington Note.

Iranian Petroleum Minister Masoud Mirkazemi’s visit to Turkey last week highlighted Turkey’s multifarious equities vis-a-vis Iran.

A new article by Kadir Ustun, “Turkey’s Iran Policy: Between Diplomacy and Sanctions” in the current issue of Insight Turkey offers a Turkish perspective on Ankara’s relations with Tehran in the context of the nuclear issue and relations with the United States.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the piece.

First, while Ustun does not say this explicitly, he indicates that Turkey must keep some distance from the United States in order to maintain its credibility in the Middle East. During the Cold War, many Arab countries viewed Turkey with suspicion due to its close ties with the United States and Turkey has no interest in allowing anti-Americanism to prevent Ankara from exerting regional influence. This sentiment is understandably unpopular in Washington, but it is a fact of life for Turkey.

Second, Turkey sees itself as a natural candidate to mediate regional conflicts. Turkey’s leaders relish this role both because they view the resolution of local conflicts as in Turkey’s national interests and because mediation raises Turkey’s international profile and is popular at home. Effective mediation requires maintaining positive relations with all sides. Therefore, Ustun says that “Turkey saw no choice but to vote ‘no’ to the sanctions [on Iran] in order to protect its reputation as an honest broker.”

It is noteworthy that while Turkey has been (rightly) subjected to vehement criticism in Washington for its over-the-top reaction to the Gaza Flotilla crisis, many of those same people have criticized Ankara for seeking to maintain friendly relations with Tehran. The fact is that Turkey is most valuable as a partner when it enjoys friendly relations with all of the Middle East’s major stakeholders.

With that goal in mind, Ustun’s major theme is that Iran simply believes that diplomacy, rather than sanctions and threats, is the best way for the international community to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is the crux of the problem between Turkey and the United States and will remain so until either the United States engages in more vigorous engagement or Turkey determines that diplomacy has failed and that a more confrontational policy is necessary.

— Ben Katcher




Recently, there has been a torrent of high-profile calls for military strikes—either by the United States or by Israel—against Iranian nuclear targets.  Amid this push for war with Iran, no one is asking—much less answering—what we believe is a critical and fundamental question:  What, exactly, would be the legal basis for attacking the Islamic Republic? 

While the legal basis for America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 was clearly inadequate, there were at least some legal authorities—Security Council resolutions, etc.—that could be (mis)interpreted and stitched together by clever lawyers to make a case for war, even if large parts of the world did not accept that case.  (Once Saddam had been overthrown, America’s European partners—even those that had opposed and questioned the legitimacy of the invasion—focused on getting a United Nations Security Council resolution in place to legitimate the post-Saddam occupation, so that we could all move beyond the previous unpleasantness.) 

But, in the case of Iran, there will be no legal justification for an attack.  All of the relevant Security Council resolutions dealing with the nuclear issue say explicitly that they do not authorize the use of force against the Islamic Republic and that such authorization would require further and separate action by the Council.  That action will not be forthcoming.  And while, no doubt, the U.S. government has lawyers at the State Department, Pentagon, and the National Security Council who would do their best to come up with a self-defense case under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, literally no one—even advocates of attacking Iran—will be able to take that case seriously.  There will be no casus belli

As we wrote in May, see here, “a proper assessment of Iranian military capabilities should put to rest the constantly recycled, hyperbolic rhetoric in the United States and some quarters of the Middle East about the Iranian ‘threat’ to peace and security.  Iranians correctly point out that their country has not invaded any of its neighbors for centuries—and, since 1979, they have not developed the military capabilities that would let them carry out large-scale offensive operations”.  In the end, we will be attacking Iran because it is enriching uranium. 

We have written previously, see here, about the immediate costs of strikes against Iranian nuclear targets on America’s strategic position in the Middle East.  But the United States would also pay a heavy price in terms of international legitimacy.  This matters, because legitimacy is a critical factor influencing how others view America’s still prominent role in international affairs

Throughout the post-Cold War period, the United States, under Democratic and Republican administrations, has presented itself to the world as a uniquely benign hegemon—a superpower that other important states did not need to fear.  That image was called profoundly into question with the invasion of Iraq.  Launching an illegitimate war of aggression against the Islamic Republic—a war that would have deeply negative consequences for virtually everyone else in the international system—would have a much more strategically consequential impact on international perceptions of the United States than the Iraq war did.  Other important states would almost certainly determine that using non-military means to constrain such a dysfunctional hegemonic power need to become a much higher and more explicit goal of their foreign policies.  As we also wrote in May,

“[A]ny wars that the United States chooses to fight in the Middle East in the future will be fought on borrowed money—money borrowed from creditors like China and Saudi Arabia that will not be amused by Washington undertaking a military initiative that would be so harmful to their own interests.  Starting a war with Iran would “break the back” of America’s increasingly strained superpower status—just as surely as the British mistake of invading Egypt and seizing the Suez Canal in 1956 (with help from France and Israel, to be sure) forever ended the United Kingdom’s claims to great power status.” 

There is a historical precedent which Iran hawks would do well to consider—the Cuban missile crisis.  In October 1962, President John F. Kennedy and his advisers were not facing a perfectly legal civilian nuclear program in a country that had no nuclear weapons but did have tense relations with the United States, with some highly questionable and certainly inconclusive intelligence suggesting that the country in question might, at some point, have thought about some of the engineering challenges it would need to solve if it ever wanted to build nuclear weapons at some point in the future.  No, in October 1962, the Kennedy Administration had hard, photographic evidence that the Soviet Union—a nuclear superpower that had had the bomb since 1949—had deployed nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in Cuba, thereby obviating the elaborate systems built up by the United States to provide early-warning of a nuclear attack. 

The arrival of this intelligence catalyzed 13 days of intense debate among President Kennedy’s closest advisers, convened in an ad hoc “Executive Committee” (ExCom) of the National Security Council.  During the ExCom’s deliberations, some of the most imposing figures in the Kennedy Administration urged the President to order preventive strikes against the Soviet missiles in Cuba; America’s senior military leadership recommended strikes coupled with a full-scale invasion of Cuba.   

As these arguments garnered momentum, the President’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, pushed back hard.  In what Robert Kennedy’s biographer Evan Thomas rightly describes as “testy exchanges” with former Secretary of State Dean Acheson (who had been asked to join the ExCom’s deliberations by the President), the Attorney General used international law to draw a clear red line, making it clear that “My brother is not going to be the Tojo of the ‘60s”.  [Note:  The reference is to Hideki Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister who presided over the surprise attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941.]  For the United States to strike the Soviet missiles deployed in Cuba in a similar surprise strike would, Robert Kennedy argued, be a “Pearl Harbor in reverse”. 

In the end, President Kennedy took care to ensure that all of his major decisions during the Cuban missile crisis plausibly conformed to the requirements of international law.  Critically, the naval “quarantine” of Cuba announced by President Kennedy as the crisis headed toward its climax was endorsed by a unanimous vote of the Organization of American States, under the hemispheric defense provisions of the Rio Treaty.  The policy choices made by President Kennedy—including his willingness to “swap” the Soviet missiles in Cuba for aging U.S. missiles forward deployed in Turkey and to abandon the pursuit of coercive regime change in Havana—resulted in the withdrawal of the Soviet missiles from Cuba while avoiding direct military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.  President Kennedy’s refusal to be pushed into aggressive military action against Soviet missiles in Cuba was indispensable to this outcome.    

We concur with the judgment on President Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis offered President Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, see here, who wrote in 2008, before returning to government service,

“If [the United States had attacked and recent scholarship on Soviet decision-making at the time is correct], Cuba and the Soviet Union would have fought back, perhaps launching some of the missiles already in place.  One can only conclude that our nation was extremely fortunate to have had John F. Kennedy as president in October 1962.  Like all presidents, he made his share of mistakes, but when the stakes were the highest imaginable, he rose to the occasion like no other president in the last 60 years—defining his goal clearly and then, against the demands of hawks within his administration, searching skillfully for a peaceful way to achieve it.”

Fifty years from now, will a reviewer be able to write anything nearly as laudatory about President Obama’s handling of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran? 

Today’s Iran hawks would also do well to consider another powerful precedent from the Kennedy era:  President Kennedy’s commencement address at American University in Washington, DC, delivered in June 1963—eight months after the Cuban missile crisis and just five months before Kennedy’s assassination.  This speech is rightly remembered as the occasion for Kennedy’s announcement of negotiations aimed at producing a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—a goal, sadly, that still eludes the international community.  (Kennedy, it should be noted, also provided critical impetus for the diplomatic discussions that would lead to promulgation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—the same treaty that remains today the only appropriate legal framework for dealing with international controversies regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities.)  But many passages from the speech seem highly relevant to current debates in the United States about how to deal with Iran: 

“Some say that it is useless to speak of peace or world law or world disarmament, and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude.  I hope they do.  I believe we can help them do it.  But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitudes, as individuals and as a Nation, for our attitude is as essential as theirs…[E]very thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward, by examining his own attitude towards the possibilities of peace, towards the Soviet Union, towards the course of the cold war and towards freedom and peace here at home…

First examine our attitude towards peace itself.  Too many of us think it is impossible.  Too many think it is unreal.  But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief.  It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.  We need not accept that view.  Our problems are manmade; therefore, they can be solved by man.  And man can be as big as he wants.  No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.  Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable, and we believe they can do it again.  I am not referring to the absolute, infinite concept of universal peace and good will of which some fantasies and fanatics dream…

Let us focus instead on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions—on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned…With such a peace, there will still be quarrels and conflicting interests, as there are within families and nations.  World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor, it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.  And history teaches us that enmities between nations, as between individuals, do not last forever…

And second, let us reexamine our attitude towards the Soviet Union…No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered as lacking in virtue…[L]et us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved.  And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.  For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures.  And we are all mortal…

[Also, l]et us reexamine our attitude towards the cold war, remembering we’re not engaged in a debate, seeking to pile up debating points…[A]bove all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.  To adopt that kind of course in the nuclear age would be evidence only of the bankruptcy of our policy—or of a collective death-wish for the world…

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war.  We do not want a war.  We do not now expect a war.  This generation of Americans has already had enough—more than enough—of war and hate and oppression.  We shall be prepared if others wish it.  We shall be alert to try to stop it.  But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just.  We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success.  Confident and unafraid, we must labor on—not towards a strategy of annihilation but towards a strategy of peace.”

Unfortunately, the world learned in 2003 that the United States will sometimes start a war.  Now is the time for Americans to remind themselves that it is never in the interests of the United States to do so.  There is a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue—particularly if the United States is willing to trade acceptance of uranium enrichment on Iranian soil for tighter international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities and abandon the pursuit of coercive regime change in Tehran.  Will President Obama “rise to the occasion” as President Kennedy did?        

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Increasingly pressed by Washington’s dysfunctional Afghanistan policy and America’s high profile relationship with China, India may be moving closer to the Islamic Republic. 

Of course, India has never been “anti-Iranian” in any meaningful sense.  But, as the Singh government worked, during President George W. Bush’s second term in the White House, to consolidate a new strategic partnership with the United States—a partnership seemingly embodied in a new, Indo-U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement—New Delhi was prepared to distance itself from Iran to some degree, especially on nuclear matters. 

In particular, since 2006, India has voted “against” Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors three times.  (For a scathing critique, from an Indian perspective, of the most recent IAEA action of this sort that was endorsed by New Delhi, a Board of Governors resolution in November 2009 criticizing Iran over the Tehran Research Reactor and other issues, see this brilliant piece by our colleague Siddharth Varadarajan.     

But now India seems to be moving closer to Iran, on a number of fronts.  We hope to offer a deeper analysis of Indo-Iranian relations soon.  But, in the meantime, we want to bring together a number of diverse media reports that, in our view, discuss some of the current dynamics in interesting ways.    

First, it seems clear that energy and economics are an important strategic driver for India’s efforts to bolster its ties to Iran.  On this point, there is this short but factoid-filled report, filed from New Delhi, by (U.S.) National Public Radio’s Corey Flintoff, see here, focusing on the extraordinary growth in Indo-Iranian economic relations, even as the nuclear issue has heated up as an international concern.  A few noteworthy points from Corey’s report:    

–Iran’s trade with India “has tripled in the past five years to around $15 billion a year”.  [Note:  Earlier this month, at a meeting in New Delhi of the India-Iran Joint Commission, co-chaired by India’s Minister of External Affairs and Iran’s Finance Minister, participants looked forward to Indo-Iranian trade expanding to $30 billion a year by 2015—with sectors such as oil and gas, petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, textiles, and agriculture identified as high-priority growth areas—and signed several new economic cooperation agreements, see here.   

–Iranian exports of oil to India continue to grow, as the Indian economy continues on its impressive high-growth track; currently, Iran “provides about 14 percent of India’s crude oil”. 

–Indian companies “are heavily invested in Iran’s oil sector and likely to become more so as Western companies stay away because of the sanctions”.  [Note:  That statement is true and important.  We would underscore, however, that Chinese companies are more important upstream players in Iran than their Indian counterparts.]  Furthermore, India is also “looking at ways to tap Iran’s huge reserves of natural gas, including a proposed undersea pipeline”.    

Second, current trends in Afghanistan motivate New Delhi to align its policies more closely with Tehran.  In this regard, a Reuters piece by Sanjeev Miglani, see here, focuses on Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s outreach to the Taliban and Pakistan, in a way that complements some of our recent analyses of Iran’s Afghanistan policy; see, for example, here and here .  Miglian aptly describes India’s strategy in Afghanistan and some of the challenges it faces there now,

“India sought to win Afghan support through a “soft power” approach, using some $1.3 billion to build roads, power lines and the Afghan parliament, raising the ire of Pakistan which frequently urged its ally the United States to lean on New Delhi to limit its presence.  Pakistan complains India is trying to hem it in, and that a string of newly opened Indian consulates in Afghanistan were intent on stirring up discontent in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province just over its border. 

But with the United States announcing plans to pull out its forces next year, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai turning to Pakistan to help bring the Taliban and other militant groups to negotiations, the tables appear to have turned against India…New Delhi has…engaged in a flurry of diplomatic contacts with Iran, the other regional player in Afghanistan which like India is strongly opposed to the Sunni Muslim Taliban.  Neither Iran, nor India “wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups”, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said this month.” 

A Reuters analysis from earlier this month, see here, emphasizes the risks of a regional proxy war in Afghanistan—and the common interests of India and Iran in managing and dealing with those risks. 

“[T]he feverishness of the 21st century Afghan war, the perception (right or wrong) of a likely early American disengagement may be encouraging more, rather than less, zero-sum gamesmanship.  The danger then is that far from moving towards a settlement in Afghanistan, regional players back different sides in the Afghan conflict, leading to de facto partition and renewed civil war.  

With India now convinced Pakistan is pushing for a political settlement in Afghanistan which could return its former Taliban allies to power in Kabul, New Delhi in turn has renewed a drive to work with Iran to offset Pakistani influence there.

“I would today reiterate the need for structured, systematic and regular consultations with Iran on the situation in Afghanistan,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said in a speech this week to Indian and Iranian think tanks, posted on the Ministry of External Affairs website:

“We are both neighbours of Afghanistan and Pakistan and have both long suffered from the threat of transnational terrorism emanating from beyond our borders.  India, like Iran, is supportive of the efforts of the Afghan government and people to build a democratic, pluralistic and peaceful Afghanistan.  Neither of our countries wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups.”

India has bad memories of Taliban rule when Afghanistan was used as a base for training camps for militants fighting in Kashmir.  Along with Iran and Russia, it supported the then Northern Alliance which opposed the Taliban government when it was in power from 1996 to 2001.  It has since invested heavily in Afghanistan—raising hackles in Pakistan, which fears encirclement by its much larger neighbor. 

So how will Iran respond?  India’s once warm relations with Iran soured somewhat in recent years after Delhi gave some limited support to a U.S.-led drive to impose sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear programme.  It has since begun to chalk out a position that is more independent of Washington, and spoken out against unilateral sanctions on Iran.

Pakistan meanwhile has been working to improve relations with Iran, including saying it helped Tehran with the arrest earlier this year of Abdolmalek Rigi, leader of the Baluch Sunni rebel group Jundollah,  who was hanged in Iran last month.  Yet relations between Tehran and Islamabad are also hostage to any fall-out in the row over Iran’s nuclear programme, particularly given Pakistan’s close ties to Iran’s main rival Saudi Arabia.

With fresh sanctions being imposed on Iran, some of the most explosive issues in global politics—from rivalry between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, to the row over Tehran’s nuclear programme, to the fate of Afghanistan and the battle against Islamist militants—are converging.  We have known for some time that these issues would run into each other sooner or later—but maybe not quite so soon, and at a time when U.S. policy on Afghanistan is so uncertain. Predicting the likely outcome is harder than ever.”

Third, the recent opinion piece by Harsh Pant of Kings’ College, London, emphasizes the impact of blundering U.S. policy—toward India, Afghanistan, and Iran—in prompting New Delhi’s turn toward Tehran. 

“[T]he Obama administration’s callous attitude toward India is pushing India toward Iran, and that could have grave geopolitical consequences.

America’s Afghanistan policy has caused consternation in Indian policymaking circles.  A fundamental disconnect has emerged between U.S. and Indian interests with regard to Af-Pak.  The Obama administration has systematically ignored Indian interests in crafting its Af-Pak priorities.  While actively discouraging India from assuming a higher profile in Afghanistan, for fear of offending Pakistan, the U.S. has failed to persuade Pakistan to take Indian concerns more seriously.

While the U.S. may have no vital interest in determining who actually governs in Afghanistan—so long as Afghan territory is not used to launch attacks on U.S. soil—India does.  The Taliban—good or bad—oppose India in fundamental ways.  The consequence of abandoning the goal of establishing a functioning Afghan state and a moderate Pakistan will be greater pressure on Indian security.  To preserve its interests in this milieu, India is now coordinating more closely with states like Russia and Iran.

During Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit earlier this year, India sought Russian support in countering what it views as a U.S.-Pakistan axis in Afghanistan.  India is making a concerted move to reach out to Tehran.  India’s deputy national security adviser, Alok Prasad, was in Iran a few weeks back trying to seek Iranian support in stabilizing the rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan.  Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, too, has held discussions with his Iranian counterpart, especially concerning the West’s plans for reintegrating “good Taliban” gathers momentum.”

Interestingly, a former director of policy planning at India’s Ministry of External Affairs makes an even broader point to Corey Flintoff about the impact of dysfunctional American policy on New Delhi’s strategic calculations: 

“We thought we had a strategic relationship.  But we see that at a strategic level you’re again taking the Pakistani line.  Our interests in Afghanistan are not being considered.  You are cozying up to the Chinese.  We are not getting the technology that we thought we were getting as a result of the nuclear deal.  So I think the government is right in saying enough is enough.” 

It looks like India is becoming an increasingly interesting player in the “race for Iran”. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki delivered a speech yesterday that underscores a risk we have been highlighting recently, see here and here—namely, that the present direction of U.S. policy is raising the risks of renewed civil war in Afghanistan, which would simultaneously be a regional “proxy war” between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, on one side, and Iran, on the other.  

Mottaki spoke in Kabul at the international conference on Afghanistan.  Western media coverage of Mottaki’s address tended to be rather superficial, focusing on it being longer than other speeches at the conference.  But Mottaki’s remarks were substantively important. 

As Iranian media summarized the speech, see here, “Mottaki called for a regional solution to the Afghanistan crisis and blamed growing insecurity and drug trafficking on foreign military presence in the war-ravaged country.”  More specifically, Mottaki outlined five principles that should guide efforts at post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan:

–The Afghan constitution (ratified in 2004) should be the standard for judging particular initiatives and proposals and the international community should support the strengthening of Afghanistan’s civil institutions. 

–The presence of foreign military forces in Afghanistan will not help the situation and a timetable should be set for the withdrawal of such forces. 

–Double standards must be avoided with regard to terrorism. 

–Security and development are inseparably related, so more attention should be devoted to the reconstruction of Afghanistan and its infrastructure.  (In this context, Mottaki highlighted Iran’s contributions to Afghan reconstruction.) 

–Regional cooperation is key to post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan—including cooperation in energy, transportation, and other important economic sectors. 

It is important to understand Mottaki’s speech from an Iranian perspective.  The Foreign Minister’s address comes less than a week after a lethal suicide bomb attack at a Shi’a mosque in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan—an attack for which the Sunni extremist/Baluchi separatist group Jundallah claimed credit. 

Iran has long charged that the United States supports Jundallah’s anti-Iranian terrorist activities, see here.  (Interestingly, the Obama Administration considered but then pointedly declined to designate Jundallah as a foreign terrorist organization in 2009.)  Tehran has also suggested that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—two of the Islamic Republic’s leading regional antagonists—support Jundallah, see here.    

With regard to the Zahedan attack, however, Iranian state media, see here, have reported that “the group is unlikely to have carried out the attack since it was effectively disbanded after [its leader, Abdolmalek] Rigi was executed in Iran last month.”  Rather, Iranian media suggest that “extremist Wahhabis and Salafis trained by U.S. intelligence agents in Pakistan are believed to have carried out the bombings.” 

In his Kabul speech, Mottaki accused the United States of complicity in the Zahedan attack, declaring that interrogations and other evidence indicated the individuals who carried out the operation had been trained by international forces inside Afghanistan, see here.  (Over the weekend, Iran’s deputy police chief warned that his country would “deal with insurgents” who take refuge with “neighbors on the eastern borders” of the Islamic Republic—a geographical orientation that covers both Afghanistan and Pakistan, see here.)  Today, the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused the United States of supporting the Zahedan attack.   

In this context, Mottaki’s remarks in Kabul take on a special—and ominous—significance. 

–Past conversations with the Foreign Minister and more recent exchanges with senior Iranian diplomats indicate that, as a matter of policy, the Islamic Republic continues to oppose the Taliban’s participation in Afghanistan’s government.  Mottaki’s observations in Kabul about observing the constitution signal that Tehran is opposed to modifying the constitution to facilitate the creation of power-sharing arrangements between the Karzai government and the Taliban

–Mottaki’s call to set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign military forces from Afghanistan is clearly directed at the United States.  Apart from the risk that U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan could at some point be turned against Iran, Iranian officials judge that the prolonged U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is increasingly seen by much of the local population as an occupation.  From Tehran’s perspective, this occupation is fueling an escalating cycle of violence and instability that empowers Iran’s Afghan adversaries, principally the Taliban.      

–The reference to “double standards” regarding terrorism is hardly opaque.  The United States and its Western allies are not the only countries that believe they face a terrorist threat from an unstable Afghanistan.  Iran, too, believes it has been the victim of terrorist attacks perpetrated by Sunni extremists with roots in Afghanistan and ties to Pakistani intelligence.  Senior Iranian diplomats point out that the Islamic Republic has strongly supported the Karzai government in Afghanistan—and has put up with some significant problems as a result, such as the resurgence in opium production and drug trafficking out of Afghanistan.  Iran’s patience with a heightened terrorist threat emanating, at least in part, from an unstable Afghanistan in which the influence of the Taliban and its main external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, is growing is not likely to be infinite

–Mottaki’s point about Iran’s contributions to Afghan reconstruction is certainly accurate.  However, our impression is that Iran’s reconstruction aid to Afghanistan—as well as its investment flows and burgeoning trade ties—is focused on the western (Herat) and northern (Mazar-e-Sharif) parts of the country.  These are precisely the parts of Afghanistan that Tehran would want to have in its strategic “orbit”, as a buffer against the Taliban and Pakistani and Saudi influence, should Afghanistan move further down the path of renewed civil war.    

–Mottaki’s call for a regional approach to post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan is, we believe, genuine.  It is consistent with the Islamic Republic’s constructive participation in the United Nations’ “6+2 framework for Afghanistan prior to 9/11, and with the Islamic Republic’s cooperation with the United States and the United Nations on Afghan issues after 9/11.  But, if the United States continues to support a one-sided effort by Karzai to negotiate power-sharing arrangements with the Taliban, Tehran will work with its Afghan allies to protect Iranian interests.  (For useful discussions of Karzai’s approach to the Taliban, see Heather Hurlburt’s recent piece in the Guardian and, at greater length, Steve Coll’s article in The New Yorker.)      

It is noteworthy that, before Mottaki traveled to Kabul, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced preemptively that he would have no meetings with U.S. officials.  Among those left in American foreign policy circles who understand the importance of serious U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran, many assert facilely that Washington and Tehran can and should rejuvenate their difficult diplomatic interactions by cooperating over Afghanistan, because the United States and the Islamic Republic have “mutual interests” there.  They should pay more attention.  Right now, Tehran does not support America’s current strategy in Afghanistan and is not likely to be inclined to help the Obama Administration implement that strategy.  The battle lines are being drawn now for the next round in Afghanistan’s 20-year old civil war.  The United States needs a new strategy in Afghanistan for a lot of reasons; preventing renewed civil war there is one of the more important ones. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett