Ul­te­rior Mo­tives

Is Iran gen­uinely in­ter­ested in a sta­ble, peace­ful South Asia or is some­thing larger loom­ing be­hind its ef­forts for re­gional co­op­er­a­tion?

Southasia - - Front page - By Reza Khan­zadeh

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.

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