Is Iran genuinely interested in a stable, peaceful South Asia or is something larger looming behind its efforts for regional cooperation?
On February 17, 2012, the presidents of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan held the third Trilateral Summit in Islamabad. The main objective of this three-day event was to strengthen relations, increase security and enhance stability between the three neighbors, with a specific focus on Afghanistan. The issues discussed covered a wide range of topics from communication and cooperation to energy, infrastructure counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism. Although on a superficial level the summit appeared to be productive, the sincerity of each country’s objectives remains questionable. Was there any breakthrough discussion concerning the region and Afghanistan’s security or was it just another opportunity for Iran to showcase and perhaps strengthen its personal agenda? More importantly, is Iran interested in pursuing a strong relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan because it wants to increase regional cooperation or is it because of its own troubles within the international community.
Comparing this meeting to the previous two trilateral summits shows that little progress has been made. The wheels of international diplomacy and cooperation turn slowly, nevertheless, the tone and rhetoric of all three meetings is very similar. Over the years, issues such as agriculture, infrastructure, energy, private sector investment, border control, drugs, terrorism, Afghanistan’s stability, regional strength and independence from foreign powers have featured prominently in each of the three summits with little progress to show for it. While serious concerns remain outstanding, three basic advancements have been made. Firstly, the three countries signed a regional economic deal to enhance trade. Secondly, the meeting pushed forward the Iran-pakistan gas pipeline deal that is successfully developing in spite of America’s objections. Thirdly, the three neighbors signed a joint statement declaring that they will not allow their land to be used against each other. However, such advancements do not hide the fact that the core issue that drew the three together – Afghanistan and regional stability – has yet to be improved, let alone solved.
Although Afghanistan’s security is-
If Iran can build a strong, secure, unified and stable region with its two neighbors, then the US and NATO footprint will be limited, allowing Iran to gain more influence in the region.
sue received proper attention during the trilateral summit, it was highlighted in an indirect way. Iran and Pakistan’s bilateral discussions were instead at the forefront. Since Afghanistan depends on its neighbors for its own stability, it is imperative that Iran and Pakistan first strengthen their own national security and relationship before assisting Afghanistan. Speaking in the increasingly important bilateral relationship, President Zardari stated, “Iran and Pakistan … need to interdepend on each other for prosperity of the region.”
On the one hand, rhetoric illustrates that no real breakthrough occurred but, on the other hand, it would appear that Iran and Pakistan are moving in the right direction, albeit gradually. As a result, Iran’s interest in her neighbors comes into questioning because nothing significant has occurred in the past three years and this summit did not bring any break through discussion for the future. What then are Iran’s intentions with regard to Pakistan and Afghanistan?
A theory in political science argues that all governments are rational actors and hence make decisions that first benefit their own wellbeing and national security. However, clear-cut questions never develop clear-cut answers. Even though Iran may be interested in regional cooperation, there are indeed aspects of personal ben- efits to its relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan on an international scale.
Iran faces continued sanctions by Washington and Europe, Israel continues threats of military action on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the ever-growing uncertainty of the MENA region symbolizes that it is in Iran’s best interest to gain as many allies as possible. While rhetoric runs only skin deep, the signing of the joint statement declaring that the three countries will not allow their land to be used against each other, will provide some comfort to Teh- ran. While it would be premature to assume foreign powers will have two less countries to look to for assistance against Iran, it does provide some temporary relief. Furthermore, Iran’s foreign policy can be seen as a zero-sum game against the United States. If Iran can build a strong, secure, unified and stable region with its two neighbors, then the US and NATO footprint will be limited, allowing Iran to gain more influence in the region.
Iran used the Trilateral Summit as a platform to express its opinions and to counter criticisms and distrust of the West with regard to herself as well as South Asia. “There are countries determined to dominate our region and they have targeted our region for their domination and hegemony… today, clearly all these powers are interfering in our internal affairs, in the affairs of our region with military presence. We believe that the problems of the region must be solved regionally… we should deny others the opportunity to interfere in our affairs.”
Iran’s view of the West is no secret. As a result, it is difficult to ignore this aspect of its national interest when it comes to building relationships with Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, Iran’s interest in this three-way relationship, although complex, is explainable: Its involvement with Pakistan and Afghanistan will go as far as it benefits its national interests. Iran’s number one priority is its own security against the West. However, this cannot be achieved single-handedly, thus the significance of a three-state alliance.
Iran’s primary objective from the third Trilateral Summit appears to be driven more by national security and threats from the international community than by regional cooperation. That is not to say that her relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan is not important but rather it plays a part in Iran’s foreign policies vis-à-vis the West. The three advancements made, although beneficial for the region, mainly benefit Iran in its long-term pursuit of freeing itself from the United States grasp. Furthermore, having two more allies in the region will help Iran gain further stability during an unstable time, given its nuclear program.
All things considered, this approach by Iran is not unique or controversial. If Afghanistan or Pakistan were examined in place of Iran, it is likely that the same conclusion would be drawn.