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The U.S. should test Iran's resolve to stabilize Afghanistan

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By David Ignatius
Friday, September 17, 2010

Iran is signaling that it wants to join regional efforts to stabilize Afghanistan -- presenting President Obama with an interesting diplomatic opportunity. He had solicited just such help from Tehran last month, but the administration has not yet responded to the Iranian feelers.

U.S. policy is still in flux, but the administration appears ready for a limited dialogue with Iran about Afghanistan, perhaps conducted through the two countries' embassies in Kabul. This position has not been communicated to the Iranians, in part because Washington is waiting to see whether Iran will return soon to negotiations about its nuclear program with the "P-5 plus 1" group.

The administration's dilemma is similar to what the Bush administration faced in 2006, when it requested and then spurned Iranian help in Iraq. The worry then was the same as now -- that regional cooperation might blunt U.S. pressure on the nuclear issue. Several former senior Bush administration officials now view that stutter-step in 2006 as a significant lost opportunity.

President Obama discussed U.S.-Iranian engagement with a group of columnists on Aug. 4. He said that in addition to talks about curbing Iran's nuclear program, he favored a "separate track" for discussing Afghanistan, where the two sides have a "mutual interest" in combating the narcotics trade and fighting the Taliban.

Obama told us that as part of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's push for "reintegration" with the Taliban, Iran should join regional talks about stability. "Iran should be a part and could be a constructive partner," he said.

In publicly endorsing such a dialogue, Obama was embracing a position that had been advocated in private for many months by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is said to have pressed her case in one-on-one meetings with the president.

Iran responded in several positive ways, which have been noted by U.S. officials. On Aug. 10, Iranian officials met in Tehran with Michael Steiner, a German diplomat who is serving as Berlin's coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the foreign policy committee of Iran's parliament, "voiced Iran's readiness to cooperate with other countries and help resolve the crisis in Afghanistan and fight drug smuggling," according to a story in the Iran Daily. The Iranians are said to have conveyed a similar positive message to Italian diplomats.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to control any channel of dialogue with Washington. On Aug. 24, he appointed his own special representative for Afghanistan, a hard-liner named Abolfazl Zohrevand, who is deputy chief of Iran's national security council. The Iranian president named three other special representatives as well, to further consolidate his power on key diplomatic issues. Though Ahmadinejad continues his sulfurous anti-Israel rhetoric, over the past year he has been, in Iranian terms, an advocate of engagement with the West.

Iran has made other gestures that suggest it is ready for dialogue on Afghanistan. Its foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, attended the Kabul conference hosted by Karzai in July to encourage reconciliation. And the Iranians this month are said to have signaled a willingness to cooperate on Project Global Shield, a program to limit transportation of precursor chemicals that can be used to make explosives in Afghanistan.

The question for the Obama administration is whether to take up these feelers. Advocates argue that stabilizing Afghanistan is a strategic priority and that the United States should seek help wherever it can. They also argue that rather than undermining talks on the nuclear issue, contacts on Afghanistan could be an important confidence-building measure.

Skeptics contend the Afghan gambit would dilute the main focus of Iran policy, which is stopping Tehran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. That same logic led the Bush administration to pull back in March 2006 from its proposal for talks in Baghdad with Iran, after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had appointed a key adviser, Ali Larijani, as his representative.

When I visited Tehran in August 2006, hard-liners there were still gloating over the stop-and-go diplomacy, which they said proved the United States was an unreliable partner.

I hope the administration will open a U.S.-Iranian channel on Afghanistan soon, before the morass there gets any worse. It's one of the best ways I can think of to undermine the Taliban's morale -- and bring all the key regional powers into a process that could allow an eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops. The only way to find out if Iranian signals are for real is to start testing them.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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