With Iran Nuclear Deal, US Avoids Dangerous Collision with Timing of Afghan Withdrawal

December 2, 2013

In response to a renewed offer by Vice President Joe Biden at the Munich Security Conference in February for direct U.S.-Iran talks, then Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi promised that, “We are the golden key to the region.”

That assertion is yet to be tested through the many pitfalls ahead as the United States and Iran begin to walk back from more than three decades of antagonism.

But in the short-term, one of the more significant outcomes of the agreement in Geneva to curb elements of Iran’s nuclear program in return for a roll-back of some sanctions is the reduction in what was previously a major risk  – confrontation with Iran is now less likely to converge with U.S. efforts to wind up the war in Afghanistan in 2014.

Iran as Help or Hindrance?

For several years, two of the Obama administration’s foreign policy priorities looked perilously close to colliding. After once insisting that Afghanistan was the “good war” – in contrast to Iraq – President Obama now needs to pull out U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014, begin to put in place a political settlement that can outlast the American withdrawal, and see the country through a stormy election next year.

Tehran can be helpful in achieving this. Its new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, played a pivotal role in the agreement at the 2001 Bonn conference, which established a new Afghan government after the overthrow of the Taliban. Along with India and Russia, Iran had supported the former Northern Alliance which opposed the Pakistan-backed Taliban when they were in power. Before being denounced by President George W. Bush in 2002 as part of the “axis of evil,” Iran cooperated quietly with the United States on Afghanistan.  And as a direct neighbour of Afghanistan, Iran has built up powerful political and economic interests there over recent years.

But Tehran also has the capacity to play spoiler. Notwithstanding its ideological opposition to the Sunni Taliban, Shi’ite Iran – which has always put national interests above the religious divide – has been cultivating ties with Afghan insurgents; in 2007 then Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested it was supplying weapons to the Taliban. It hosted for years a group of senior members of al Qaeda who fled Afghanistan after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, and it has never been entirely clear what plans Iran had to use that group against the United States. Moreover, Iran’s hostility to al Qaeda has increased markedly with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. That said, few have ever doubted that it would use whatever means necessary to create trouble for the United States in Afghanistan were it to face military action over its nuclear program.

For this reason President Obama’s commitment to the “good war” looked set to conflict with his belief in non-proliferation.  Without the Geneva deal, Tehran’s nuclear program was progressing to the point where the United States could have been compelled to bomb Iran next year if it wanted to prevent it from going any further.

This was not just because of the rise in stockpiles of 20-percent enriched uranium; Iran was also increasing the number and capability of its centrifuges to the point where it could have made a dash for a bomb faster than the international community would have had time to detect and stop it. Its Arak heavy water reactor, capable of producing a plutonium bomb, was another looming deadline; the facility would have had to be bombed before it became operational, since doing so later would have caused an environmental catastrophe.  In short, without the Geneva deal to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, it was heading for a crisis next year – from an Afghan perspective, just about the worst possible time for an escalation in regional tensions.

Many years ago, the United States was faced with a choice about Pakistan’s nuclear program.  It could have gone all out to stop it from obtaining a nuclear bomb, or it could have overlooked the nuclear issue in favour of working with Pakistan in the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  It put the war against the Russians in Afghanistan first and looked away while Pakistan built its nuclear weapons – both Pakistan and India publicly tested in 1998.

Next year, the United States could have been faced with a similar choice (and may still have to face it if the interim deal goes off the rails.)  Would it avoid bombing Iran to keep Tehran on board in Afghanistan? Or would it take military action against Iran, prove President Obama’s commitment to non-proliferation and run the risk of seeing U.S. efforts to extricate itself respectably from the Afghan war demolished?

The Geneva agreement has kicked the can down the road, and for now that is enough.

Longer Term

The “golden key” promised by Salehi – is harder to predict and also the most beguiling.

At its best, Iran can open up trade across the region, including providing energy to neighbouring Pakistan. In that country, which, unlike Iran, already has nuclear weapons, the combination of a domestic Islamist insurgency and a collapsing economy means it will remain one of Washington’s biggest foreign policy challenges for years to come.

An increase in regional trade – the so-called New Silk Road – could also help propel another cherished ambition of the Obama administration – that if the economies of countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are inter-linked, they will be more inclined to put aside the decades of rivalry which has led Pakistan to nurture Islamist militants for use against its neighbours.

Little in practical terms is likely to change in the short term – sanctions remain in place against a planned Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline which was once meant to stretch to India and even China.

But the prospect of a deepening thaw in U.S.-Iran relations will lead to a reassessment in Pakistan of its own pivotal role in the region.  The unhealthy co-dependency between the United States and Pakistan which began during the Cold War increased significantly after Washington lost its foothold in Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Repeated efforts by the Obama administration to improve its relationship with Pakistan, combined with billions of dollars in aid, have failed. Populist anti-Americanism – focused for now mainly against drone strikes – is running so high that some politicians from leading political parties sound as though they are reading from a script written by Islamist militants. In part, the conviction that it was essential to the United States – it remains the main route into Afghanistan – allowed Pakistan to cultivate the idea that it could do what it liked and get away with it.

In the short term, the appeal of creating an alternative supply route through Iran to Afghanistan would by far be offset by the risks of giving Tehran more control at a time when the nuclear talks remain extremely difficult.   Pakistan, a nuclear power, will continue to be a concern in its own right regardless of what happens in the rest of the region.

But even the possibility of a deeper thaw with Iran provides the United States with something it has sorely lacked in the last 12 years – leverage over Pakistan.  The risk that Washington might one day simply walk away, and by renewing its old pre-1979 ties with Iran shift to containing rather than working with Pakistan, will concentrate some of the more sober minds in Islamabad and Rawalpindi.


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has worked in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia. She was Chief Correspondent in France and Bureau Chief in India. After publishing Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, she has focused in recent years on writing about Pakistan.


Photo credit: smlp.co.uk (modified by War on the Rocks)