An 1814 map of Persia (Iran), engraved by J. Smith, Clement's Inn, Strand.
Iran has played a key role in the affairs of its eastern neighbor for centuries, going back to the days when western Afghanistan was part of the Persian Empire. A decade ago, Iran worked with the United States to overturn the Taliban, but more recently it has assisted some anti-American Taliban commanders to hedge against the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran over its nuclear program. Defusing the nuclear crisis would diminish Iran’s incentives to continue such hedging behavior, says Barnett Rubin, an Afghan specialist who directs the Center on International Cooperation of New York University and recently left a position as senior adviser to the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. State Department.
“If there is significant progress on the nuclear file, it will create space for talks on Afghanistan,” Rubin said Friday. The U.S. and Iran have “many common interests” in Afghanistan but the Iranians want to be sure that any residual U.S. military presence after 2014 is not a threat to them, he added.
The Obama administration could also improve the outlook for Afghan stability by working with Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan to resolve regional sources of instability, including scarce and poorly managed water resources, energy shortages, ethnic insurgencies and drug trafficking.
According a new report released Friday by the Atlantic Council written by Fatemeh Aman and this reporter, one of the key issues dividing Iran and Afghanistan is disagreement over the Helmand River. A 1973 agreement to share the water - which irrigates Afghanistan’s Kandahar, Helmand, and Nimruz provinces and Iran’s province of Sistan-Baluchistan - was never ratified or fully implemented. The Afghan government has at times cut off Iranian access to the water by closing the sluices to the Kajaki dam, while climate change has exacerbated prolonged droughts that threatens the residents of Sistan-Baluchistan and the Hamoun basin, a major haven for wildlife on the Iran-Afghanistan border. Iranians charge that Afghanistan uses water that should flow to them to irrigate poppy crops while Afghan authorities accuse Iranians of digging illegal wells near the Iran-Afghan border.
Two U.S. researchers, Laura Jean Palmer-Moloney and Kea U. Duckenfield, recommend setting up a commission to manage water issues to include Iran and Afghanistan plus representatives of U.S., European, and U.N. development agencies. The commission would help Afghanistan better measure annual water flows from the Helmand and use its portion of the water more sustainably. They write in a new paper also cited by the Atlantic Council that “competent handling of water concerns in the Sistan Basin could encourage closer cooperation with Iran on stability and development in Afghanistan and potentially create a framework for U.S. cooperation with Iran.”
The United States could contribute to regional stability by changing its views on two other issues: the use of Iran’s Chabahar port and the fate of the so-called “peace pipeline” meant to provide Iranian natural gas to energy-starved Pakistan and eventually to India as well. U.S. sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program have inhibited wider use of Chabahar as a conduit for trade to and from Afghanistan, Central Asia and India. Meanwhile, Pakistan has cited U.S. sanctions as a reason not to complete its portion of the peace pipeline. Instead, the U.S. has backed the so-called TAPI pipeline to send Turkmen gas through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. That project is even farther from completion.
Aman, a specialist on Iran and South Asia, said that the pipeline still makes sense for Iran and Pakistan despite recent threats by leaders in both countries to cancel the project. “The Pakistanis are waiting to see how it goes with the nuclear negotiations,” she said.
Should the nuclear talks go well, the Obama administration could give Pakistan a green light to construct its section of the pipeline and even provide financial assistance. Such a change in U.S. policy would benefit Iran and improve U.S. relations with Pakistan, recently strained again by a drone attack that killed the head of the Pakistani Taliban.
The U.S., Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan also have a mutual interest in curbing the drug trade, which supports organized crime and extremist groups including ethnic insurgents who menace all three countries. Here the water issue comes in again as, Aman noted, better management of the Helmand River would make it easier for Afghan farmers to diversify away from poppy, which grows well even in drought conditions.
According to Rubin, the historic U.S. animus toward Iran and vice-versa has skewed policy toward Afghanistan and South Asia to the detriment of the region. Because of its close ties with numerous Afghan political actors, Iran will be heavily involved in next year’s Afghan elections and the formation of a new post-Hamid Karzai government, Rubin said.
“If the U.S. and Iran are not speaking, it will be harder,” he said. If relations improve, Iran “can play a positive role” in shoring up stability in a country in which the United States has poured immense blood and treasure over the past 12 years.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America. (see more of Barbara Slavin's columns)
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