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Should the West isolate Iran from the efforts for stabilizing Afghanistan?

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The Montreal Review, September 2010

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Foreign policy analyst David Ignatius (Washington Post) argued recently that Obama's administration has a good opportunity to improve the relationships with Iran if the United States includes the country in the regional efforts for stabilizing Afghanistan. There are signals from Teheran that the regime seeks participation in the joint politics led by the West. The engagement of Iran in Afghanistan's future can be a recognition that Iran is a regional power and an important factor in the Middle Eastern political process - positions that Tehran desperately tries to prove. More importantly, the inclusion of Iran may play as confidence-building measure that will facilitate the talks on the nuclear issue.

The sceptics say that accepting Iran in the broader politics of the Middle East will provoke the opposite effect - it will strengthen Ahmadinejad's positions at home and will make Tehran more tenacious internationally. This same logic of scepticism led the Bush administration to pull back in March 2006 from its proposal for talks in Baghdad with Iran. Analysts such as Ignatius think that this turn in American politics was a mistake. "When I visited Tehran in August 2006, Ignatius wrote in an article for the Washington Post, hard-liners there were still gloating over the stop-and-go diplomacy, which they said proved the U.S. 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," was Ignatius' conclusion.

Yet the sceptics' apprehensions that Iran might be emboldened by a softer Western attitude are justifiable. In the recent years, after the demise of Saddam's Iraq, Iran has been conducting a broad and ambitious program for increasing its regional and global influence. A survey made by the University of Maryland and the Carnegie Corporation indicated that today 77 percent of Arabs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Morocco believe Iran has a right to its nuclear program and 57 percent see a positive outcome to Iran's developing nuclear weapons. This means that Arab world seems ready to accept Iranian leadership. Today, Iran's diplomacy and foreign activities are spreading from Sub-Saharan Africa through Tajikistan and Iraq to Venezuela and China. "Such hard and soft power expansions fit well into Iran's long-term scheme for reshaping global actions and shifting international priorities away from those championed by the US and its allies," says Jamsheed Choksy from the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Perhaps the best policy of the West towards an ambitious Iran is the recognition of its regional significance and its inclusion into the politics concerning Afghanistan and the Middle East, while realizing its limitations and internal weaknesses. There is no ground for fear, Iran cannot exceed its regional status and is impossible to become a "global leader," with or without nuclear bomb, as the regime in Tehran dreaming (Ahmadinejad's Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei boasted recently: "What Westerners are most concerned about is Iran leading the world."). Iran has neither economic, nor political strength to lead the world, but without the balancing existence of a strong Iraq and with the continuing decline of the American potential to influence the Middle Eastern political tempers, Iran will be enough strong to follow its own, regionally limited agenda.

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