Iran Joins Afghanistan ‘Contact Group’

In a sign of Iran’s desire to remain in the fold of the international community, Tehran dispatched a diplomat to attend a meeting of the so-called ‘international contact group’ of diplomats from countries with interests in Afghanistan. This is the first time Iran has joined the group of 44 nations.

The BBC reports that Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan welcomed their attendance:

“We recognise that Iran, with its long, almost completely open border with Afghanistan and with a huge drug problem… has a role to play in the peaceful settlement of this situation in Afghanistan,” Richard Holbrooke – the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan – told a news conference.

“So for the United States there is no problem with their presence.”

It’s worth mentioning that U.S.-Iran cooperation on Afghanistan is not new. As Eli wrote last year, Ambassador James Dobbins has spoken extensively about U.S.-Iran cooperation in the early days of the war. Iran’s help in mobilizing its ally, the Northern Alliance, was instrumental in overcoming the Taliban regime. The Islamic Republic also participated heavily in the Bonn Conference that decided what sort of government would be installed in Afghanistan following the Taliban’s fall. All this, of course, came just before Israel persuaded the Bush Administration to lump Iran into its ‘Axis of Evil.’

The New York Times notes that Iran’s first day at the ‘contact group’ meetings, with this round being held in Rome, saw a high level Iranian diplomat sitting in with one of the U.S.’s top military commanders who has run operations in Iraq, the whole of the Middle East, and today is in charge of Afghanistan:

The Iranian, a high-ranking diplomat, even attended an in-depth briefing Monday morning by the American military commander, Gen.David H. Petraeus, on NATO’s strategy for transition in Afghanistan. […]

The Iranian delegate listened to Gen. Petraeus’s PowerPoint presentation “very attentively,” [German Ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan Michael] Steiner said. “I had the impression that he appreciated the transparency displayed.”

A senior Western official said: “This is one area where Iran and the West have similar overlapping strategic interests. They see us entering a new phase, and they want to be part of it.”

At the Washington Post, Karen de Young astutely provides some important background:

U.S. military and civilian officials have offered differing assessments of the role Iran has played in the [Afghanistan] war, at times accusing Tehran of providing weapons and training for insurgents there and promoting continuation of the conflict as a way of tying down U.S. troops and resources.

More often, officials have discounted any significant malign Iranian influence, emphasizing a shared interest in Afghan stability and sympathizing with Shiite Iran’s concerns about drug trafficking and refugee flows across its lengthy border with Sunni Afghanistan.

Regional cooperation was a major pillar of the goals Obama outlined for Afghanistan even before taking office, when political aides said he would reach out to all players in Afghanistan’s neighborhood, including Iran. In addition to preventing Iranian mischief-making, some officials saw it as a way to begin a cooperative dialogue on a subject of mutual concern that could lead to broader collaboration.

But early efforts to involve Iran were quickly overshadowed by U.S.-Iranian enmity over the nuclear issue and by conflicting policy voices within Iran’s political structure, according to administration officials.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.