Back in July, I wrote a post on this blog with the title, “Is Petraeus Preparing to Betray the Neo-Cons?” in which I suggested that, given his expanded geographical jurisdiction as CentCom commander, Gen. David Petraeus, like the Joint Chiefs (and candidate Barack Obama for that matter) at the time, would soon see Afghanistan/Pakistan as the “central front on the war on terror” and thus develop a sense of urgency about diverting more U.S. military and related resources from Iraq to Southwest Asia. At that time, neo-cons like Fred Kagan and Max Boot were arguing that Iraq was far more important than Afghanistan and that any diversion of troops eastward could have catastrophic geo-political consequences for the U.S. position in the Gulf and the Middle East.
Since then, of course, Petraeus has occasionally noted the necessity of a regional approach in dealing with Afghanistan/Pakistan, one that would include India to the east, the “Stans” to the north, and Iran to the west, but he has never been as explicit about common U.S. and Iranian interests in the region as he was today in a presentation to the U.S. Institute of Peace (sponsored, incidentally, by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, as well as McDonalds and Coca-Cola). Despite evidence that Tehran has provided some weapons to anti-NATO forces in Afghanistan, he noted, Iran doesn’t “want …to see Afghanistan in the grip of ultra-fundamentalist extremist Sunni forces. Nor do they want to see the narcotics problem get worse. In fact, they want to see it reduced; it’s a huge issue in Iran,” he said, noting again that Iran, like India, could be critical to stabilizing Afghanistan.
Petraeus’ appreciation for the importance of bringing Iran into a regional effort to stabilize Afghanistan — he spoke shortly after former UN Special Envoy on Afghanistan Ibrahim Brahimi told the same conference that Iran was “second perhaps in influence to Pakistan” in Afghanistan and would not hesitate to create problems if it felt its interests there were threatened — may, of course, lead him into conflict not only with the neo-conservatives (as I suggested back in July), but, more importantly, with Dennis Ross and his backers within the Obama administration. Ross, who, according to numerous reports now, appears certain to be made special envoy on all matters pertaining to Iran (and possibly the entire Middle East) has even less expertise on Afghanistan and Southwest Asia than he does on the Islamic Republic. Moreover, his Israel-centric worldview (in which Iran, rather than al Qaeda, represents the greatest regional threat to both the U.S. and Israel) is almost certain to clash with Petraeus’ (and the Pentagon’s) view that Iran’s cooperation — or at least acquiescence — is critical to stabilizing Afghanistan and ultimately Pakistan as well. In other words, a serious conflict is likely to develop between those, like Ross, who see Iran as the greatest threat to U.S. interests and Israel in the region defined as the “Middle East”) and those who believe that al Qaeda and its allies in “Southwest Asia” represent the greatest immediate threat to U.S. security.
Of course, Richard Holbrooke, who will be special envoy on Afghanistan/Pakistan (and India in parenthesis, according to the latest news), generally shares Ross’s views on Iran — they are co-founders, after all, with James Woolsey and Fouad Ajami of a group called United Against Nuclear) Iran; see this Wall Street Journal op-ed, for example — and may be expected to back him up in inter-agency debates about how confrontational a policy Obama should pursue toward Iran. But I think Petraeus and the military will have some pretty strong views about how well-positioned Tehran is to make life much more difficult for the U.S. in both Afghanistan and even in Pakistan, not to mention Iraq — and how much easier it could be if some sort of a “grand bargain” — even one that recognizes Iran’s right to enrich uranium under strict international inspection — with the Islamic Republic could be forged. Perhaps, if things really went well, Iran could even offer NATO a desperately needed new and inexpensive supply route for its troops in Afghanistan…