Journal Essay

U.S.-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan

Mir H. Sadat, James P. Hughes


Spring 2010, Volume XVII, Number 1
My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.1
–U.S. President Barack Obama
Show us if really anything other than your language has changed …. Should you change, our behavior will change too .…My expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction.2
–Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Tehran boycotted the January 2010 London Conference on Afghanistan attended by 66 countries, primarily due to Iranian accusations that Britain is fomenting anti-government protests in Iran and that the United States and Britain are obstructing Iran’s nuclear progress. However, two days earlier, Iran had been present at the “Friends and Neighbors of Afghanistan” meeting in Istanbul also attended by officials from Britain, the United States, NATO and the European Union in order to seek a “single voice” ahead of the London conference.Hence, even though Tehran has expressed national territorial concerns as the United States has begun increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, Tehran has not ruled out diplomatic contacts with Washington.

Although U.S. President Barack Obama has made diplomatic engagement with Iran a foreign-policy priority,3 at least 30 years of conflict have complicated U.S. Iran relations. The United States is viewed by the Iranian government as a hostile, interventionist state attempting to topple the Iranian republic, indicated by the U.S. role in the 1953 coup d’état of the legal Iranian government, vehement rejection of the Islamic Revolution, disregard for Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, the shoot- ing down of an Iranian passenger plane, imposing economic sanctions, freezing of Iranian financial assets, resistance to Iranian nuclear progress for clean energy, and threats to invade or attack Iran.4 Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, its obstruction of the Middle East peace process, its involvement in the Beirut attacks of the 1980s and the 1996 Khobar Towers (Saudi Arabia) bombing of an American troop residence, and providing lethal aid to violent non-state actors in Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan are viewed by the United States as obstacles to rapprochement. In both the short and perhaps even long terms, full progress is unlikely on all these issues due to historical resentment and distrust. However, countering drug trafficking and developing the infrastructure in Afghanistan offer immediate opportunities for cooperation between the United States and Iran, based on convergent strategic interests.

Afghanistan and Iran share one of the region’s busiest trade borders and speak similar languages; approximately half a million Afghan refugees still live in Iran.5As a regional power and neighboring state, Iran has a strategic stake in Afghanistan. Former CIA case officer Robert Baer explains,

Afghanistan has long been a source of instability and strategic interest for Iran. Under both the shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran demonstrated that it will take almost any measure to keep western Afghanistan out of the hands of its enemies. In 1996, for instance, Iran’s National Security Council voted in an emergency meeting to invade Afghanistan and capture Herat to stop the Taliban from marching on Iran’s border. Ultimately, the Taliban threat subsided and Iran didn’t need to invade, but the vote was evidence of Iran’s commitment to keep that part of Afghanistan at least neutral.6

Tehran seeks an Afghanistan friendly to Iran. To achieve this objective, Iran fosters relationships with Afghanistan’s political leaders and exerts soft power among the Shia, Hazara and Dari-speaking communities, especially in Herat province.7 The majority of Afghans are Sunni, and the largest segment of Shia — the Hazara — are of non-Persian descent. The relationship between the Hazara and Iran are conflicted: they were discriminated against while refugees in Iran and were forced to repatriate following the souring of the U.S.-Iranian relationship. At the moment, the Hazara are not a natural ally of the Iranian government, nor are they in a position to take control over the Afghan state anytime soon. Thus, it is very unlikely that Iran will be able to succeed in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq. However, Baer warns that “NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 … left a vacuum in western Afghanistan, allowing Iran to annex it economically. ”8 Iran is also promoting education in Hazara and Shia communities. In a generation or two, there is a strong probability that the leading Afghan intellectuals and technocrats will be Hazara, at which point Iran would have a strong ally in Afghanistan. Iranian officials have expressed a desire to cooperate with the international community in Afghanistan on issues relating to political stability, economic reconstruction and counternarcotics. If this cooperation succeeds, the framework serves as a foundation for a broader strategic dialogue between the United States and the Islamic Republic.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Iran assisted the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and participated in international efforts to establish a new Afghan government. A senior Iranian diplomat describes the decision making in Iran immediately after the 9/11 attacks: “[W]e consciously decided not to qualify our cooperation on Afghanistan or make it contingent upon a change in U.S. policy, believing, erroneously, that the impact would be of such magnitude that it would automatically have altered the nature of Iran-U.S. relations.”9 U.S.-Iran cooperation was unprecedented, but in the years that followed, the George W. Bush administration chose not to continue substantive diplomatic dialogue with Tehran on Afghanistan unless Iran changed its behavior toward nuclear development.10 Perhaps in 2002, the United States could afford to ignore Iran’s interests in Afghanistan. Eight years later, however, as the first decade of the twenty-first century closes, the situation has changed. There are indications that rogue elements within the Iranian government, presumably the Revolutionary Guard Corps, are providing support to the Taliban in response to perceived threats from the United States.11A U.S. strategy that fails to incorporate Iran’s constructive role in Afghanistan, while weakening its destructive role, may not succeed and could further jeopardize future relations. Although engaging Iran will not be easy, Afghanistan provides an opportunity for both countries to achieve some practical strategic objectives independent of other more entrenched foreign-policy disputes.

This paper focuses on U.S. engagement with Iran in order to achieve the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan. First, a background on recent U.S.-Iranian engagement in Afghanistan is provided. Second, the paper explores the arguments for and against U.S. cooperation with Iran on common interests in Afghanistan. Third, it contends that as part of a comprehensive policy toward the region, the United States should consider exploring diplomatic engagement with Iran. Finally, the paper presents policy initiatives for the implementation of a joint U.S.-Iran strategy in Afghanistan that, if successful, could lead to an improved U.S.-Iran strategic relationship. Nonetheless, Afghanistan should not be used as a pawn in the resolution of the conflict between the United States and Iran.


[T]he nations of the world expect an end to policies based on warmongering, invasion, bullying, trickery, the humiliation of other countries by the imposition of biased and unfair requirements, and a diplomatic approach that has bred hatred for America’s leaders and undermined respect for its people. They want to see actions based on justice, respect for the rights of human beings and nations, friendship and non-intervention in the affairs of others. They want the American government to keep its interventions within its own country’s borders .... The great civilization-building and justice-seeking nation of Iran would welcome major, fair and real changes, in policies and actions, especially in this region.12
–President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I’ve made it clear to Iran’s leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.13
–President Barack Obama

Prior to September 11, 2001, U.S. State Department officials were meeting with Iranian diplomats as part of the UN six-plus-two talks, which sought regional cooperation on policy issues concerning Afghanistan.14 Karl Inderfurth, the U.S. representative to these talks from 1997 to 2001, explains that on September 21, 1998, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan convened for the first time a six-plus-two meeting at the ministerial level.15While U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attended, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi did not. Albright and Kharrazi would later meet in September 2000 during a sixplus-two meeting. In general, these meetings were “professional but not harmonious”16 because Washington and Tehran disagreed over Iran’s provision of support to the Northern Alliance, the main anti-Taliban resistance group. The United States was reluctant to become tangled in the Afghan war.17

After the 9/11 attacks, the situation changed. According to Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst on the Middle East, while members of the sixplus-two group, such as Russia and Pakistan, opposed a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran supported the plan. Officials from the United States and Iran began meeting outside the six-plus-two forum to develop a plan to topple the Taliban. These meetings became known as the Geneva Contact Group, and although the Germans, Italians and the United Nations provided some political cover for these discussions, the group’s focus was U.S.-Iran cooperation on Afghanistan.18 Iran not provided reliable intelligence regarding the Taliban, it arrested and deported hundredsof Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters who had crossed into the country for sanctuary.19

Pollack adds that the Iranian government also provided search and rescue for downed U.S. aircrew members. Iran permitted the offloading of humanitarian supplies at its port of Chah Bahar for transport into Afghanistan, and offered access to airfields near the Afghan border for use by U.S. transport aircraft. Iran also supported the initial discussions between the United States and the Northern Alliance, which enabled subsequent military success against the Taliban.20After the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Iran played a critical role in international efforts to establish a new Afghan government and pledged and honored commitments toward Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Through interaction with Iranian diplomats in thisforum, U.S. officials succeeded in curbing the anti-U.S. activities of Iran’s security and intelligence services inside Afghanistan.21 Whether motivated by national interest or international goodwill, Tehran’s participation in the Geneva Contact Group demonstrates a pragmatic foreign-policy approach indicating that U.S. engagement with Iran on common areas of interest in Afghanistan is achievable, despite disagreements on unrelated issues.

James Dobbins, the U.S. representative to the Bonn Conference in 2001, and Hillary Mann, a political advisor of the U.S. mission to the United Nations from 2000 to 2001 and later director for Iran and Afghanistan at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003, participated in the post-9/11 talks with Iran and claimed that their Iranian counterparts sought to expand the discussion agenda beyond Afghanistan.22 Dobbins, who was present at the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan, reported that he had numerous contacts with the Iranians between 2001 and 2002, but none in Kabul.23 After almost two years of meetings between U.S. and Iranian diplomats, in March 2003 Zalmay Khalilzad, then a National Security Council senior director for the Near East and South Asia, and Ryan Crocker, then-deputy assistant secretary of state dealing with Iraq, Iran and the Persian Gulf, met with the Iranian deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Javad-Zarif in Geneva to discuss Afghanistan.24 When Crocker was deployed to Iraq in early 2003, his diplomatic engagement with Iran regarding Afghanistan ceased, even when he met with his Iranian counterpart to discuss Iraq in May 2007; when Khalilzad continued involvement, he was primarily focused on Iraq.25

According to Michael Singh, former senior director for Middle East affairs in President Bush’s National Security Council, the Bush administration engaged Iran in more dialogue than any other since the Islamic Revolution.26 However, the political honeymoon between Washington and Tehran was short-lived.27 On January 3, 2002, Israeli forces intercepted a ship, the Karine A, in the Red Sea carrying weapons that had been manufactured in Iran. Israel alleged that the weapons were bound for the Palestinian security services.28 This event, along with a 2002 story from an Iranian dissident group, The National Council of Resistance of Iran, about the Iranian nuclear project, contributed to the inclusion of Iran in the “Axis of Evil” in President Bush’s State of the Union address later that month.29 Twenty-eight days later, Iran released from house arrest Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a wanted Afghan warlord with a $25 million bounty on his head.30 He was allowed to exit Iran and enter Afghanistan to reconstitute part of the insurgency against the Afghan government and coalition forces: “His group claimed responsibility [in 2009] for an attack that claimed the lives of three American servicemen in northern Afghanistan.”31 As the U.S.-Iran relationship deteriorated again, Iranian ties to Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami and the Taliban presumably grew. Nonetheless, the Iranians decided to return to talks with the United States in Geneva.32

According to Mann, the Bush administration ended the bilateral dialogue with Iran in 2003 because Iraq consumed U.S. foreign-policy attention.33 Her assessment is supported by statements from U.S. diplomats involved in Afghanistan-related issues during that period. According to Crocker, “right from the start, we were imposing our own constructs on a region we had barely started to reengage.”34 Robert Finn, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2003, did not participate in any meetings with Iranian officials in Kabul other than those held under the auspices of the United Nations.35 In public statements during his time as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from November 2003 to June 2005 and afterward, Zalmay Khalilzad also gave no indication of any continued bilateral discussions with Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan.36 His successor as U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Ronald E. Neumann, explains that between July 2005 and April 2007:

[He] was authorized to meet with the Iranian ambassador, but discussions were to be limited to matters related to Afghanistan, not overall U.S.-Iranian relations or other subjects. The instructions dated from before my arrival, but I cannot comment on earlier meetings. I did meet [with Iranian diplomats in Kabul]. Later, I was verbally instructed by Washington to cease such meetings. The decision to stop holding meetings was a part of Washington’s broader policy to press Iran in all channels on the nuclear issue. On two or three occasions I recommended verbally to then Secretary of State Rice that I be authorized to resume the discussions about Afghanistan with Iran, but the policy of suspension remained in force as of the time of my departure in April 2007. The discussions were businesslike. I believe they might have been productive, but they were suspended before I could judge. There were no discussions with Iranian officials other than at my level.37

Tehran believed their diplomats pursued bilateral dialogue with Washington at all times. The Bush administration’s isolation policy toward Iran was perceived by Iran not as an attempt to change Iranian behavior but rather as an effort to change the regime. In response to this isolation policy and rumors that the United States was rebuilding the Shindand airfield in Herat Province as a launching pad for an attack against Iran, aid to the Taliban was increased by Tehran.38 These conspiracy fears were heightened inadvertently by the subsequent U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from April 2007 until 2009, William Wood, who complained to members of the Afghan Parliament regarding Iran’s policy toward Afghanistan: “There is no question that elements of [the] insurgency have received weapons from Iran …. Whether that is meant to assist Afghanistan or influence Afghanistan, I leave that to you.”39 Tehran perceived the Bush administration’s abandonment of talks with Iran as talking at Iran, thus threatening Iran with military action.


This isn’t an issue of talk to Iranians, don’t talk to Iranians …. It is a question of what price the Iranians are trying to extract for engagement. Are they trying to extract a grand bargain in which Iran is acknowledged as a regional power without having given up the very policies that are destabilizing the region?40
–Condoleezza Rice, Former U.S. Secretary of State

Arguments against engagement with Iran in Afghanistan fall into two main categories. First, there are the proponents of a “grand bargain” or an “all-or-nothing engagement,” who believe that an approach focused on limited goals will not succeed. They claim that an effective engagement strategy must address the full spectrum of Iranian concerns in relations with the United States. Some members in this camp also argue that U.S. national interests can tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran if engagement efforts fail to curb its nuclear ambitions. Second, there are those who oppose any engagement policy unless Iran complies with all U.S. demands regarding nuclear development and support to non-state actors, whom the United States and its regional allies perceive as violent. Some advocates of this “containment” approach argue that, since Iran will never concede to U.S. demands, engagement is impossible. Some containment advocates consider a constructive dialogue infeasible based on claims that Iran is a messianic state that displays irrational foreign-policy behavior. Other containment proponents are even prepared to use military force to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

All or Nothing

Tehran is capable of securing its interests in Afghanistan and Iraq without the U.S., and feels no need to be helpful unless Washington is willing to reciprocate at the strategic level.41
–Trita Parsi, President, NationalIranian American Council.

The first argument against the proposed U.S. engagement plan with Iran contends that cooperation on limited goals in Afghanistan may be unsuccessful unless this effort is part of a comprehensive approach that addresses the full spectrum of Iranian strategic concerns. Trita Parsi and Ray Takeyh, both proponents of engagement, encourage Washington to recognize the broad context of Tehran’s perspective.42 According to Parsi, small “confidence building” measures with Iran may not work without a clarification of long-term strategic objectives.43 Takeyh advocates U.S. cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan as part of a broader engagement strategy. He finds that the United States should be prepared for Iran to “insist on comprehensive talks” and not settle for single-issue cooperation.44

Proponents of wide-ranging engagement differ on the use of military action against the Iranian government. According to Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, the United States tolerates nukes in the hands of Russia, China, North Korea and even Pakistan.45 He acknowledges that a nuclear-armed Iran poses a grave threat to U.S. interests, but he asserts that tolerating a nuclear-armed Iran is a better option than military action to stop it. Indyk advocates moves short of war, including augmenting Israel’s nuclear-deterrent capability, applying tougher economic sanctions, and reengaging in diplomacy with Russia and China to isolate a nuclear-armed Iran.46 During the Bush administration, a form of sanctions enforcement known as Proliferation-Security Initiatives was launched against Iran, but it has failed to deter and has served only to delay proliferation. Previous diplomatic engagement with Iran from Russia and China also failed to deter Iran from nuclear proliferation. Furthermore, Russia may also limit the deterioration of the Iranian government, in order to prevent U.S. inroads into Iran, while China may not move against Iran because of its increasing reliance on Iranian oil and gas. Russia and China have major investments in Iran, and thus are unlikely to act against the Islamic Republic unless the United States sweetens the deal.

Containment: No Concessions, No Preconditions

It’s been conclusively proven Iran is not going to be talked out of its nuclear program. So to stop them from doing it, we have to massively increase the pressure. . . . And if all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force.47
–John Bolton, former U.S. UN ambassador

Containment proponents differ on their perspective of Iran’s behavior. One group argues that engagement is useless because Iran’s past behavior demonstrates non-compliance with U.S. and UN diplomatic demands. Three decades of Iranian aggression are cited as evidence against the effectiveness of softer diplomatic approaches. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006, claims that the West’s “collective failure to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions has persuaded Iran that it faces minimal risks in greater adventurism on other fronts as well.”48 The Obama administration’s policy of “carrots and sticks,” as Bolton puts it, will “lead Tehran’s mullahs to one inescapable conclusion: They have won the nuclear race, absent imminent regime change or military action.”49 Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy in the Bush administration from 2005 until January 2009, warns that U.S. military action against Iran should be a policy of last resort because the risks are immense. However, if all other methods of coercion fail, Abrams concludes that the “risks of inaction are greater.”50

The second group concentrates on the so-called messianic leanings of the Iranian state. Bernard Lewis, the Middle East and Islam scholar who influenced senior officials in the Bush administration, writes, “There is a radical difference between the Islamic Republic of Iran and other governments with nuclear weapons. This difference is expressed in what can only be described as the apocalyptic worldview of Iran’s present rulers. This worldview and expectation [is] vividly expressed in speeches, articles and even schoolbooks.”51 The Bush administration reasoned that Iran’s revolutionary ideals, its calls for the destruction of Israel, and its support to Islamic terrorist organizations are indicators of a messianic regime guided by religious extremism. Thus, engagement is neither feasible nor recommended because Iran is irrational and therefore incapable of pragmatic foreign-policy negotiations.52 Based on this perspective, the United States cannot allow the Islamic Republic to acquire nuclear weapons.53

Containment advocates assert that any U.S. approach must seek Iran’s full compliance with American demands regarding Iranian acquisition of nuclear technology and support to violent non-state actors. Until Iran agrees to both these points, containment advocates oppose any engagement and prescribe continued isolation through economic sanctions, international political pressure, and the use of military force as a preemptive measure.54 Brief reviews of these policy options demonstrate why engagement with Iran is still the preferred approach to U.S.-Iran relations, and why Afghanistan presents an opportunity for U.S.-Iran cooperation.

Hard-line options include a range of military actions that are inadvisable for various geostrategic reasons. Although airstrikes or other limited attacks against Iranian targets are possible, such attacks may weaken international support for U.S. pressure on Iran, galvanize the hard-line elements in Iran’s government and society, and destroy the opportunity for any constructive dialogue with the Iranian government. Karim Sadjadpour points out that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is not a “one-off.” 55 Even if airstrikes destroy part of Iran’s nuclear production capacity, he explains that this would be only a temporary setback, providing Iran with greater incentive to harden its facilities and continue its nuclear pursuits.

An invasion and occupation of Iran for the purposes of regime change or other objectives pose a military challenge even greater than the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is approximately four times the size of Iraq with over three times as many inhabitants — half of the Middle East’s population.56 While Iran’s military would be no match for invading U.S forces, it consists of over 500,000 active-duty troops and possesses a variety of land, sea and air capabilities.57 These forces, along with the mountainous terrain in northern and western Iran, would pose operational challenges. Furthermore, U.S. forces and the public are not prepared to wage or sustain a war with Iran, much less deal with the challenges of post-combat stabilization.

While maintaining the status quo is feasible and does not require an investment of U.S. political or financial resources, the existing containment strategy may not achieve effects desired by Washington. Sanctions have not produced a breakthrough in 30 years and continue to hinder U.S.-Iran relations.58 While economic sanctions and demands for nuclear-development transparency should be retained, there must be an accompanying diplomatic effort. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, “Perhaps if there is enough economic pressure placed on Iran, diplomacy can provide them an open door through which they can walk.”59 However, there is no necessity to link U.S. pressure through sanctions on the nuclear front to U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan.


[For] Afghanistan a regional approach is critical .… Iran, as a bordering state, plays a role as well. And to the degree that we are able to dialogue with them, find some mutual interests, there is potential there for moving ahead together. But I really leave that to the diplomats to lead with that dialogue. I have said for many, many months I think … it is important to engage Iran. Iran is unhelpful in many, many ways in many, many areas. And so I wouldn’t be overly optimistic at this point. But there are mutual interests and I think that that might offer some possibilities.60
–Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Some issues are not only less complex than others, but they may also be resolved more easily. Engagement with Iran may require a more limited and pragmatic approach, rather than an all-or-nothing foreign-policy agenda. Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh warn that the “ideal opportunity for dealing with Tehran will never come; the objective of American policy must be to create the grounds for progress with Iran even if the Iranian internal environment remains hostile or the regional context continues to present challenges.”61 They insist that the United States and Iran can pursue narrow issues of common interest, while “generating multilateral consensus to maintain or even intensify pressure on the key concerns of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.”62 The political-military challenges of war with Iran also make U.S. military action against that state difficult, whereas a U.S. commitment to work with Iran on common interests in Afghanistan may provide opportunities for diplomatic breakthroughs and confidence-building measures that would otherwise not exist.

The United States should reassure the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China — which also seem concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran — that U.S. engagement with Iran on Afghanistan will not detract from efforts on nuclear deterrence. There are risks in engaging Iran without demanding an end to Tehran’s nuclear pursuits and support for violent non-state actors in Iraq and Afghanistan; it might provide Tehran with strategic leverage in the regional neighborhood. The United States should continue all efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear-weapons technology, and it should hold the Iranian state accountable for legitimate violations.

The Iranian government has been accused of providing lethal aid to violent non-state actors in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has led to the deaths of U.S. troops. Iran perceives U.S. presence in these countries as an existential threat. Takeyh contends that the United States can use the prospect of Iran’s integration into the regional order to “impose limits” on Tehran and “reorient its more objectionable practices.”63 Cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan does not mean that the United States stops applying pressure on the Iranian state to cease this support. U.S. engagement may moderate Tehran’s activity by creating a forum in which Iranian officials are presented with documentation of Iran’s lethal aid to these groups. The U.S. experience with Iran’s support to lethal groups in Iraq is one example. Following U.S. military operations that led to the capture of Iranian operatives and Iraqi Shia militia leaders in 2007, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, held a series of meetings with the Iranian ambassador in Baghdad.64 Crocker demanded that Iran cease providing lethal aid to insurgents in Iraq, and this engagement coincided with a reduction in Tehran’s covert support to pro-Iran groups.65 There is no strong indication that this approach would not produce similar results in severing the Iran-Taliban nexus.

Arguments in favor of engagement with Iran on Afghanistan are based on a realist-oriented approach that insists on the primacy of U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Proposed U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran should be part of a multilateral international framework. Although this approach includes working through international organizations and cooperative agreements when necessary, it never subordinates U.S. national interests to those of the international collective. An argument against this dismisses U.S. efforts to engage Iran through international arrangements as just a continuation of the failed policies employed by the European Union during nuclear negotiations. This argument holds that a hard-line approach, backed by the threat of military force, is the realist way to deal with Iran. However, not only is military action impractical but it is unlikely to generate a favorable outcome. It has also never been proven that diplomacy and cooperation are at odds with a realist-oriented foreign-policy agenda.

Another argument asserts that realism is not a valid framework for dealing with Iran because the Islamic Republic is driven by messianic ideology and is therefore unpredictable, as illustrated by its revolutionary history and aggressive posturing. Based on realism, “states act in response to their vital needs, not in response to international norms or institutions.”66 The strategic goals of the Islamic Republic are based on pragmatic evaluation of national interests not purely on ideological conviction. Realism is the appropriate paradigm for examining Iran’s actions and formulating a plan for engagement.

Engagement Is Necessary

Just as these problems cannot be solved without the Afghan people, they cannot be solved without the help of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Trafficking in narcotics, the spread of violent extremism, economic stagnation, water management, electrification and irrigation are regional challenges that will require regional solutions.67
–Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State

A successful U.S. strategy requires recognition of Iran’s regional role in fostering Afghan stability, as well as U.S.-Iran cooperation. The uncertainty concerns how to engage Iran and what preconditions to demand, if any. Direct diplomatic engagement on the specific issue of Afghanistan is recommended.68 Barring major transgressions of international law by Iran, this approach should not be tied to unresolved U.S.-Iran issues external to Afghanistan. Existing U.S. sanctions should not be terminated, but rather de-linked from the Afghan effort. The United States should stipulate that the Islamic Republic halt the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or other elements in the government from supplying lethal support to the Taliban or other groups in Afghanistan. Progress toward these policy shifts can be used as a confidence-building metric by the United States.

Any legitimate strategy for stability in Afghanistan must include a regional approach that capitalizes on the constructive contributions of neighboring states and the international community. Afghanistan’s neighbors are stakeholders in its reconstruction, and Iran is a key player in this process. Halting Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan is neither constructive nor possible. Parsi considers that, whether the United States likes it or not, “By virtue of its history, geography, population, religion and energy resources, [Iran] has always been and will always be a regional power.”69 Furthermore, Iran is a major player in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Maloney and Takeyh argue that any model of engagement with Iran must acknowledge Iran as a regional power.70 Past efforts to ignore or deny this role have only encouraged Tehran to exert its regional influence through less legitimate means. Iran has called for a regional solution in Afghanistan. Iran’s foreign minister said in a recent interview with the Iranian semi-official Fars News Agency, “Iran’s goal in the region is to help peace, stability and calm which, [are] necessary for the region’s progress.”71 Iranian officials have also indicated that Tehran is prepared to cooperate with the United States to ensure Afghanistan’s reconstruction and to assist in the fight against violent extremists.72

Acknowledging Tehran’s concerns, the U.S. plan for engagement should ensure that any cooperative agreements with Iran are couched within a regional approach toward stability in Afghanistan. Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid have called for this type of U.S. “major diplomatic initiative” to secure a long-term commitment from regional “stakeholders” such as Pakistan, India, Iran and others.73 As part of this effort, they encourage the United States to open “direct dialogue” with Iran regarding common concerns in Afghanistan.74

There are indications that the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has acknowledged Iran’s role in Afghanistan and is taking steps to encourage Tehran’s constructive participation. The U.S. Government Interagency Policy Group’s “White Paper on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan” recommends a “wide-ranging diplomatic strategy” that involves “regional engagement.”75 General David Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who are responsible for military and diplomatic efforts in the region, have both emphasized that the long-term solution for Afghanistan must incorporate all neighboring countries, including Iran.76 On March 5, 2009, in a gesture of diplomatic outreach, Secretary of State Clinton invited Tehran to send representatives to a UN conference on Afghanistan at The Hague held on March 31, 2009. She stated that “a regional solution should be found for the Afghanistan crisis.”77 Iran accepted the invitation and then engaged in spoiler tactics by sending Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Akhundzadeh, even though other countries were represented by their foreign ministry principals. During the conference, Holbrooke and Akhundzadeh had an informal exchange. Although the interaction was downplayed as non-substantive by Washington, the encounter signaled a step toward constructive dialogue.78

Maloney and Takeyh assert that over the past three decades the United States has employed various strategies toward Iran, incorporating elements of regime change, containment and engagement. They find that only engagement “offers a serious prospect of decisively altering the enduring antagonism between Tehran and Washington and enhancing the context for promoting and protecting American interests in the region.”79 Cooperation with Iran offers an alternative U.S. foreign-policy approach aimed at achieving long-term U.S. interests in Afghanistan and presents an opportunity for advancing U.S.-Iran relations.

Improved relations between Washington and Tehran in Afghanistan provide the United States with alternative logistical overland access to Afghanistan through non-Pakistani territories, and this increases U.S. political leverage in dealing with Islamabad. According to Rubin and Rashid, “U.S.-Iran cooperation would show that the U.S. need not depend solely on Pakistan for access to Afghanistan.”80 U.S. logistical access through Iran would reduce reliance on routes originating in Pakistan. Transport routes through the Afghan-Pakistan border region account for 84 percent of materiel going to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.81 The risk of insurgent attacks in this region constitutes a strategic limitation for the U.S. effort. The United States should not abandon its relationship with Pakistan, but access through Iran provides needed flexibility while reducing Washington’s sole reliance on Pakistan.

Engagement Is Achievable

. . . [T]he door is open for Iran to participate in international efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.82
–Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Rep. for Afghanistan and Pakistan

Development of a regional strategy for Afghan stability presents a potential opportunity for U.S.-Iran cooperation that capitalizes on a shared commitment to Afghanistan and other common interests. Mohsen Milani finds that the “convergence between Tehran’s interests and Washington’s interests in Afghanistan remains substantial,” and he cites drug trafficking, the defeat of al-Qaeda, and reconstruction common priorities.83 Sadjadpour references stability and capacity-building, economic reconstruction, counternarcotics, support of the Afghan government, and opposition to the Taliban as areas of joint concern.84 Barnett Rubin and Sara Batmanglich encourage a U.S.-Iran dialogue to discuss common goals related to counternarcotics, economic cooperation and border security.85 Although to varying degrees, Maloney, Takeyh and Rubin all acknowledge opportunities for progress on mutual U.S.-Iran priorities in Afghanistan.86

Iran has demonstrated its commitment to Afghan stability and development. According to Milani, since 2001 Iran has been a reliable donor of reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. At the International Pledging Conference for Afghanistan in 2002, Iran committed $560 million, making it the largest single donor. In 2006, Iran pledged an additional $100 million and announced the delivery of the last installment of its 2002 donation.87 Approximately 4 percent of Iran’s exports comprise trade with Afghanistan, about 11 percent of Afghanistan’s imports.88 In addition to strategic interests in the development of Afghanistan, Iran has security concerns relating to narcotics, refugees and violent extremists. Iran has approximately two million heroin users, with an estimated 1,000 pounds of opium crossing into Iran from Afghanistan each month.89 During the last two decades more than 3,000 policemen and soldiers have been killed in Iran’s war against drugs, along with an estimated 10,000 traffickers.90 During March 2009, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan conducted a joint counternarcotics operation under UN leadership.91 In March 2009, there were reports that NATO and Iranian officials were holding secret talks on Afghanistan.92

Along with other NATO and coalition partners in Afghanistan, the United States should consider overt cooperation with Iran to synchronize the regional counter-narcotics effort. Iran has security concerns regarding terrorism and the re-emergence of an extremist Sunni state in Afghanistan reminiscent of that of the Taliban.93 In 1998, Iran mobilized 200,000 troops on the border with Afghanistan following the Taliban massacre of 11 Iranian officials working at the Iranian consulate in Mazare-Sharif.94 Iran has no interest in a Taliban rise to power, although some elements in the Islamic Republic have been accused of supporting the Taliban. Iran continues counterterror activities among Sunni groups in the Sistan and Baluchistan province in southeastern Iran along the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan.95

Iran’s support for U.S. actions in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks demonstrates Iranian willingness to work with the United States when collaboration serves Iran’s strategic interests. However, as a state actor in the international environment, Iran’s motivations, decision-making processes, and strategic objectives are not always transparent. Through various means over the past three decades, Iran has sought to advance its model of Shia Islamic government in the Middle East to counter Arab, Israeli, and Western influences in the region.96 This effort has involved support to terrorist and insurgent movements, the pursuit of nuclear-weapons technology, and rhetoric from Iran’s leaders calling for the destruction of Israel.97

Despite its reputation as a state motivated by a revolutionary Shia-influenced ideology, the Islamic Republic has had a history of pragmatic foreign-policy decision making.98 Rouhollah K. Ramazani concludes that, throughout Iran’s history “circumstances have forced Iranian foreign-policy makers to interpret their religious ideology pragmatically in order to advance state interest.”99 Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh argue that “Iran is not . . . a messianic power determined to overturn the regional order in the name of Islamic militancy; it is an unexceptionally opportunistic state seeking to assert predominance in its immediate neighborhood.”100 Milani asserts that Tehran’s foreign policy has its own “strategic logic” and is “formulated not by mad mullahs but by calculating ayatollahs” based on the Iranian state’s threat perception.101 Based on these judgments, U.S. policy should consider Iran a pragmatic state and test this assessment through cooperation with Tehran on common interests in Afghanistan. Cooperation between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan is not complicated by divergent positions on Arab, Sunni, Israeli and other regional issues that have challenged U.S.-Iran relations in the Middle East. Maloney and Takeyh find that the central premise of U.S. engagement with Iran in the Middle East should be “a willingness to coexist with Iran’s influence while seeking to restrain its excesses.”102 While coexistence with Iranian influence might not be achievable in the Middle East, it may be attainable in Afghanistan, where common interests exist and where Iran-friendly communities among the Hazara or other Shia, as well as the Dari speakers of Afghanistan may benefit from cooperation between the United States and Iran.


The challenge associated with engaging Iran has always involved determining the appropriate method and conditions. President Obama speaks from a position of strength as the popularly elected leader of the world’s unmatched superpower, and the political cost of his outreach efforts is low. Although the Obama administration’s overtures alone may not achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, the president’s call for reconciliation lays the foundation for substantive engagement and applies pressure on Tehran to open a dialogue with Washington. Each time Iran’s leaders reject the U.S. olive branch, they weaken the Islamic Republic’s standing in the international community as well as among its Iranian constituency. Formulating and executing a plan for diplomatic engagement with Tehran will be more difficult than reaching out to Iran with promises of “mutual respect.”103 There are indications that any “grand bargaining” with Iran may result in “grandstanding” by Iran. Therefore, President Obama should consider disaggregating U.S.-Iran conflict issues. Afghanistan is an area in which the two countries share common ground.

Two policy changes are needed in order to implement the proposed engagement plan. First, direct diplomatic contacts between the United States and Iran must be authorized to explore opportunities for bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan. Ambassador Holbrooke’s exchange with Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister at The Hague on March 31, although superficial, represents a step in the right direction. However, the diplomatic barriers must be removed at all levels. Doing so will not produce near-term breakthroughs in U.S.-Iran relations but, as Dobbins argues, “It will prove a lot easier to set up and maintain a confidential and authoritative back channel between Washington and Tehran if any number of openly acknowledged front channels exist and have ceased to occasion great comment.”104 The establishment of reliable diplomatic contacts is a necessary first step to any further engagement.

In conjunction with the reestablishment of diplomatic contacts, the Obama administration should consider initiating a direct and periodic dialogue between the United States and Iranian ambassadors in Kabul. Previous bilateral discussions from 2005 to 2007 in Kabul between U.S. and Iranian ambassadors serve as a precedent. While agreements between Tehran and Washington regarding cooperation in Afghanistan may be coordinated and approved at the cabinet level through the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, execution of such agreements inside Afghanistan should fall under the purview of the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan in coordination with Iran’s ambassador in Kabul.105 Embassy-to-embassy contacts may develop the habitual relationship necessary for future diplomatic progress. Dobbins finds that the talks between the United States and Iran following the 9/11 attacks were successful because U.S. diplomats were not “subjected to micromanagement” from Washington.106 In Iraq, Ambassador Crocker was not provided the necessary latitude to further negotiate with Iran; as a result, the United States missed an opportunity to expand discussions.107

Second, the United States should consider the inclusion of Iran in all forums that coordinate international efforts in Afghanistan. By inviting Iran to the Afghan Conference at The Hague and by insisting that Iran is a vital component of the regional solution in Afghanistan, the Obama administration may be laying groundwork for a formal meeting with the Iranian delegation. Consistent with the U.S. Government “White Paper on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the United States should create a diplomatic “Contact Group” and a regional security and economic-cooperation forum to facilitate U.S.-Iran dialogue and to integrate Iran’s efforts into the U.S.-led counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.108 This Contact Group could provide a specific forum for U.S.-Iran engagement and could be modeled on the one used to facilitate U.S.-Iran cooperation in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

As part of the overall U.S.-Iran engagement plan on Afghanistan, the Obama administration should consider making counternarcotics the top agenda item. Secretary of State Clinton has identified this effort as “an area where they [Iran] are willing to work with others.”109 Unlike other policy stalemates between the United States and Iran, the counternarcotics effort is an area in which the two countries share common goals. Stopping the influx of illicit drugs into Iran from Afghanistan is a security and public-health priority for Tehran, while cutting off the drug trade as a source of income for the Taliban in Afghanistan is a counterinsurgency priority for the United States. The logical place to start with counter-drug initiatives includes intelligence sharing among all counternarcotics stakeholders. Washington should also seek to expand cooperation with Iran to other areas of interest, such as infrastructure development.

Another agenda item for the Obama administration may be to request that Iran cease all support to violent non-state actors in Afghanistan as a confidence-building measure of Iranian commitment to stability in Afghanistan. Media and government reporting suggest that Iran has been providing arms to the Taliban since 2007.110 Secretary of Defense Gates and other U.S. officials have cited Iranian government complicity at the highest levels.111 Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair asserts: “We judge Iran distrusts the Taliban and opposes its return to power but uses the provision of lethal aid as a way to pressure Western forces, gather intelligence, and build ties that could protect Iran’s interests if the Taliban regains control of the country.”112 The United States should consider examining the same model of targeting, exposure and confrontation that it used to address Iran’s support to insurgent groups in Iraq. By raising this issue during diplomatic talks, Washington might encourage Iran to halt such activity in order to avoid undermining its constructive dialogue with the United States. The Iranian government’s commitment to cooperation can be assessed by monitoring subsequent Iranian contacts with violent non-state actors in Afghanistan. In exchange, the United States should commit 113 Iran should be encouraged to continue its donor aid to Afghan reconstruction efforts, as well as its trade activities with Afghanistan.


The arguments against engaging Iran fall into two main categories. First, there are those who support engagement but argue that an approach focused on limited goals, such as cooperation in Afghanistan, will not succeed. They claim that an effective engagement strategy must address the full spectrum of Iran’s concerns in its relationship with the United States. Some members of this “all or nothing” camp calling for a “grand bargain” argue that the United States can live with a nuclear-armed Iran, if engagement efforts fail to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Second, there are the containment advocates who oppose any engagement policy unless Iran complies with all U.S. demands regarding nuclear development and support to violent non-state actors. Supporters of this viewpoint submit that Iran will never concede to U.S. demands, making a comprehensive engagement strategy infeasible. Others in this camp believe that a constructive dialogue is not possible because Iran is a messianic state that displays irrational foreign-policy behavior. Most of those who oppose engagement efforts are prepared to use military force to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

Despite these arguments, U.S. cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan is necessary and achievable. As part of a comprehensive policy toward the region, the United States should consider a strategy of diplomatic engagement with Iran aimed at achieving cooperation on shared security and stability interests in Afghanistan, but not at the risk of presenting Afghanistan as a sacrificial offering to broker the relationship. This collaboration should be de-linked from Iran’s conduct on other issues; existing economic sanctions and pressure on Iran’s nuclear development activities should be maintained. Since Afghanistan is not tied to Middle Eastern politics, it provides an opportunity for U.S.-Iran cooperation in an area not influenced by other disagreements such as the Israeli-Palestinian Peace process. Counternarcotics could provide the first agenda item for the group, and the only precondition should be the cessation of Iran’s lethal support to the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan. Iran continues to be a major player in Central/South Asia, and any viable U.S. plan for Afghan stability and reconstruction must consist of an inclusive regional approach that includes Tehran. Cooperation with Iran may give the U.S. strategic depth in its logistics as well as leverage with Pakistan by providing an alternative supply route into Afghanistan via Iran. The United States and Iran share overlapping strategic goals and multiple common interests in Afghanistan. Iran has demonstrated a willingness to subordinate its ideological objectives in exchange for pragmatic strategic benefits that involve joint counternarcotics initiatives, halting provisions to the Taliban, providing safe overland access through Chah Bahar, and continuing economic investment and trade as well as humanitarian efforts. At worst, engagement improves the probability for long-term stability in Afghanistan. At best, engagement improves more than the outlook for Afghanistan by opening the door to a broader reconciliation between the United States and Iran.


1 Barack Obama, “Videotaped Remarks by the President in Celebration of Nowruz,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 20, 2009, by-the-President-in-celebration-of-Nowruz (accessed April 8, 2009).

2“Leader Says U.S. Must Prove Change ‘in Practice,’” Tehran Times (Iran), April 4, 2009, (accessed May 10, 2009).

3 The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Videotaped Remarks by the President in Celebration of Nowruz;” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama in Hradcany Square,” Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009, President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered/ (accessed June 1, 2009).

4 “Ahmadinejad’s Letter to Bush,” The Washington Post, May 9, 2006, (accessed May 10, 2009).

5 Central Intelligence Agency, “Afghanistan,” The 2008 World Factbook, updated April 23, 2009, https:// (accessed May 7, 2009); Central Intelligence Agency, “Iran,” The 2008 World Factbook, updated April 23, 2009, publications/the-world-factbook/geos/af.html (accessed May 7, 2009); “Said to Resume Deportation of Afghan Refugees,” Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, January 15, 2009, Deportation_of_Afghan_Refugees (accessed June 1, 2009).

6 Robert Baer, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower (Crown, 2008), p. 131.

7 Jason Motlagh, “Iran’s Spending Spree in Afghanistan,” Time Magazine, May 20, 2009, http://www.,8599,1900013,00.html (accessed June 1, 2009); David Rohde, “Iran Is Seeking More Influence in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, December 27, 2006, http://www.nytimes. com/2006/12/27/world/asia/27afghan.ready.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 (accessed June 18, 2009); John Ward Anderson, “Arms Seized in Afghanistan Sent From Iran, NATO Says,” The Washington Post, September 21, 2007, p.A12, html (accessed June 2, 2009); Pirouz Mojtahedzadeh and Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, “A New Season in Iran Relations,” The Boston Globe, March 29, 2009, articles/2009/03/29/a_new_season_in_iran_relations/ (accessed April 3, 2009).

8 Baer, The Devil We Know, p.131.

9 Quoted in Barbara Slavin, “A Broken Engagement,” The National Interest, November-December 2007. (accessed November 10, 2008).

10 Glenn Kessler, “At Confirmation Hearing, Clinton Talks of Engagement with Iran,” The Washington Post, January 1, 2009, p.A1. AR2009011301145.html (accessed January 16, 2009). For accounts from two U.S. officials involved in the discussions with Iran, see James Dobbins, “Negotiating with Iran,” Testimony presented before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2007, /CT293/ (accessed June 10, 2009); Hillary Mann, “U.S. Diplomacy with Iran: The Limits of Tactical Engagement,” Statement to the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, November 7, 2007, http://nationalsecurity.oversight. (accessed June 10, 2009).

11 Motlagh, “Iran’s Spending Spree in Afghanistan”; Rohde, “Iran Is Seeking More Influence in Afghanistan”; Anderson, “Arms Seized in Afghanistan Sent From Iran, NATO Says,” p.A12; Mojtahedzadeh and Afrasiabi, “A New Season in Iran Relations.”

12 “Translation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Letter to Barack Obama,” The Wash ington Post, November 6, 2008, AR2008110603030.html (accessed May 10, 2009).

13 “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, June 4, 2009, Cairo University, Cairo, Egypt, (accessed July 1, 2009).

14 The “six plus two” countries included China, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as the United States and Russia.

15 Karl F. Inderfurth, Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs, Testimony before the Subcommittee for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Remarks on Afghanistan,” Washington, D.C., October 8, 1998, (accessed June 2, 2009).

16 Kenneth Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America (Random House, 2005), p. 345.

17 Ibid, p. 346.

18 Ibid.

19 Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “Have We Already Lost Iran?” The New York Times, May 23, 2009. (accessed May 24, 2009).

20 Pollack, Persian Puzzle, p. 346.

21 Ibid, pp. 348-49.

22 Dobbins, “Negotiating with Iran”; Mann, “U.S. Diplomacy with Iran.”

23 James Dobbins, Email to the authors, May 11, 2009.

24 Pollack, Persian Puzzle, p. 353.

25 Mann, “U.S. Diplomacy with Iran: The Limits of Tactical Engagement.”

26 Michael Singh, “Changing Iranian Behavior: Lessons from the Bush Years,” in Engaging Iran: Lessons from the Past, edited by Patrick Clawson, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Focus 93, May 2009, p.24, (accessed July 1, 2009).

27 Pollack, Persian Puzzle, pp. 346-48.

28 Ibid, pp. 350-51.

29 Ibid, pp. 350-58.

30 Shahin Eghraghi, “Hekmatyar: The Wild Card in Afghanistan,” Asia Times, January 7, 2004, (accessed June 1, 2009).

31 Murray Brewster, “No Sacrifice of Human Rights, Democracy in Taliban Talks: Afghan Ambassador,” The Canadian Press (Canada), May 31, 2009, June 20, 2009).

32 Pollack, Persian Puzzle, p. 353.

33 Mann, “U.S. Diplomacy with Iran,” p. 8.

34 Ryan Crocker, “Eight Years On: A Diplomat’s Perspective on the Post-9/11 world,” Newsweek, September 5, 2009, (accessed September 17, 2009).

35 Robert Finn, Email to the authors, May 26, 2009.

36 “Nomination of Zalmay Khalilzad to be U.S. Ambassador to Iraq,” Hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington D.C., Federal News Service, June 7, 2005; “Ambassador Khalilzad Delivers Remarks on the Elections in Afghanistan,” released by the State Department, Washington D.C., October 19, 2004; “Remarks by Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, to Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies,” Washington, D.C., October 27, 2004.

37 Ronald E. Neumann, Email to the authors, May 11, 2009.

38 Andrew North, “All Quiet on Afghanistan’s Western Front,” BBC News, March 23, 2005, (accessed May 10, 2009); Ramtanu Maitra, “U.S. Scatters Bases to Control Eurasia,” Asia Times, March 30, 2005, (accessed May 2, 2009).

39 “U.S. Ambassador Questions Iranian Interests in Afghanistan,” Agence France-Presse, January 30, 2008.

40 Glenn Kessler, “At Confirmation Hearing, Clinton Talks of Engagement with Iran.”

41 Parsi, “On Iran, Begin with the End in Mind.”

42 Ibid; Ray Takeyh, “What Iran Wants,” The Washington Post, December 29, 2008. (accessed May 20, 2009).

43 Parsi, “On Iran, Begin with the End in Mind.”

44 Takeyh, “What Iran Wants.”

45 Martin Indyk, “Resolution: America Cannot Tolerate a Nuclear Iran and Must Go to Any Lengths to Prevent It,” Miller Center of Public Affairs—National Discussion and Debate Series, March 25, 2009, http:// public/debates/iran (accessed April 12, 2009).

46 Ibid. For examples, see David Palkki and Lawrence Rubin, “Dealing with the Damage: How to Manage a Nuclear Iran,” in Debating 21st Century Nuclear Issues? Edited by Owen C.W. Price and Jenifer Mackby. July 2007, pp. 59-71, (accessed June 1, 2009).

47 Toby Harnden, “We Must Attack Iran Before It Gets the Bomb,” Daily Telegraph (U.K.), May 16, 2007. (accessed January 2, 2009).

48 John Bolton, “Iran Clenches Its Fist,” The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2009, (accessed June 1, 2009).

49 Ibid.

50 Elliott Abrams, “Resolution: America Cannot Tolerate a Nuclear Iran and Must Go to Any Lengths to Prevent It,” Miller Center of Public Affairs—National Discussion and Debate Series, March 25, 2009; Joshua Muravchik, “Resolution: America Cannot Tolerate a Nuclear Iran and Must Go to Any Lengths to Prevent It,” Miller Center of Public Affairs—National Discussion and Debate Series, March 25, 2009, http:// millercenter. org/public/debates/iran (accessed April 12, 2009).

51 Bernard Lewis, “Does Iran Have Something in Store,” The Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2006, http:// (accessed May 20, 2009).

52 Ibid; Muravchik, “Resolution: America Cannot Tolerate a Nuclear Iran.”

53 Muravchik, “Resolution: America Cannot Tolerate a Nuclear Iran.”

54 Ibid; John Bolton, “Iran’s Axis of Nuclear Evil,” The Wall Street Journal, March 21, 2009, (accessed May 20, 2009).

55 Karim Sadjadpour, “Resolution: America Cannot Tolerate a Nuclear Iran and Must Go to Any Lengths to Prevent It,” Miller Center of Public Affairs—National Discussion and Debate Series, March 25, 2009, http:// (accessed April 12, 2009).

56 Central Intelligence Agency, “Iran,” World Factbook, 2008, publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ir.html (accessed March 31, 2008).

57 Kenneth Katzman, “Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses,” CRS Report for Congress RL32048 (Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, updated January 30, 2008), p.15; Anthony Cordesman and Martin Kleiber, Iran’s Military Forces and Warfighting Capabilities: The Threat in the Northern Gulf(Praeger Security International, 2007), p.73.

58 Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh, “Pathway to Coexistence: A New U.S. Policy Toward Iran,” in Restoring the Balance in the Middle East: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, eds. Richard Haass and Martin Indyk (Brookings Institution Press, 2008), p.64. The authors claim that containment is obsolete because Iran is no longer an expansionist power.

59 Eli Lake, “Seeking Leverage, U.S. Puts Pressure on Iran,” The Washington Times, March 31, 2009. (accessed May 20, 2009).

60 Foreign Press Center Briefing by ADM Mullen, U.S. National Security Strategy Update, Foreign Press Center, Washington, D.C., January 27, 2009, (accessed July 2, 2009).

61 Maloney and Takeyh, “Pathway to Coexistence,” p. 75.

62 Ibid, p. 73.

63 Ray Takeyh, “What Iran Wants.”

64 Kenneth Katzman, “Iran’s Activities and Influence in Iraq,” CRS Report for Congress RL32048, Washington DC, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, updated January 30, 2008, pp.3-5. Media reports indicate that Ambassador Crocker held at least five such meetings with his Iranian counterpart.

65 Ibid.

66 Mir Sadat, “U.S. Foreign Policy toward Syria: Balancing Ideology and National Interests,” Middle East Policy, vol. 16, No. 2 (Summer 2009), p. 95.

67 Kessler, “At Confirmation Hearing, Clinton Talks of Engagement with Iran.”

68 Engagement is a tactic and not a strategy, therefore any U.S. plan to engage Iran regarding Afghanistan on common interests in Afghanistan must be nested in the broader U.S. strategies for both Afghanistan and Iran.

69 Trita Parsi, “On Iran, Begin with the End in Mind,” The Chicago Tribune, February 22, 2009. (accessed May 20, 2009).

70 Maloney and Takeyh, “Pathway to Coexistence: A New U.S. Policy Toward Iran,” p.67.

71 Fredrik Dahl and Zahra. Hosseinian, “Iran to Attend Afghan Meet, Seeks Regional Solution,” Reuters, March 26, 2009, (accessed March 27, 2009).

72 Open Source Center, “Iranian FM Motaki Aide Ghashghavi on U.S. Ties, Afghanistan, Nuclear, Israel, EU,” Open Source Center, March 4, 2009, _0_0_6235_780_1559_43 (accessed March 5, 2009).

73 Barnett Rubin and Ahmed. Rashid, “From Great Game to Grand Bargain: Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 6 (November / December 2008), p.43.

74 Ibid, p.44.

75 “White Paper on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The White House, Interagency Policy Group, March 27, 2009, (accessed March 12, 2009).

76 Ann Scott Tyson, “Petraeus Mounts Strategy Review,” The Washington Post, October 16, 2008; Open Source Center, “BBC: Iran’s Mixed Signals Over Possible Cooperation with U.S. in Afghanistan,” Open Source Center, February 24, 2009, (accessed February 27, 2009).

77 Dahl and Hosseinian, “Iran to Attend Afghan Meet.”

78 Kessler, “U.S. Extends Hand to Iran.”

79 Maloney and Takeyh, “Pathway to Coexistence,” p. 61.

80 Rubin and Rashid, “Great Game,” p. 43.

81 Ibid, p. 44.

82 Reuters, “Pentagon Chief Favors Sanctions to Press Iran,” March 29, 2009, politicsNews/idUSTRE52S1Z420090329 (May 20, 2009).

83 Mohsen Milani, “Tehran’s Take,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 88, No. 4, July/August 2009, p. 57.

84 Karim Sadjadpour, “Iran: Is Productive Engagement Possible,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Paper, October 2008, pp. 4-5.

85 Barnett Rubin and Sara Batmanglich, “U.S. Animosity towards Iran Thwarts Policy in Afghanistan,” Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, October 29, 2008, casmii/casmii/index.php?q=node/6680 (accessed November 15, 2008).

86 Maloney and Takeyh, “Pathway to Coexistence”; Rubin and Rashid, “Great Game.”

87 Mohsen Milani, “Iran’s Policy towards Afghanistan,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 60, No. 2, Spring 2006, pp. 251-52.

88 Trade Promotion Organization of Iran, (accessed May 15, 2009); CIA World Factbook on Afghanistan, (accessed May 15, 2009).

89 David Montero, “Afghan Refugee Crisis Brewing,” The Christian Science Monitor, May 17, 2007; “Iran Offers to Train Afghan Police in Drug Fight,” Reuters (U.K.), April 13, 2009, usTopNews/idUKTRE53C2V220090413 (accessed May 15, 2009).

90 David Borden, “Iran’s Brutal War on Drugs,” AlterNet, July 11, 2001,’s_brutal_war_on_drugs/ (accessed July 1, 2009).

91 William. Kole, “Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran Join in Drug Crackdown,” The Associated Press, March 11, 2009, (accessed April 9, 2009).

92 Mojtahedzadeh and Afrasiabi, “A New Season in Iran Relations.”

93 Milani, “Iran’s Policy towards Afghanistan,” pp. 235-265.

94 Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 74-76.

95 Nazila Fathi, “Rare Suicide Bombing in Iran Kills 4,” The New York Times, November 30, 2008, http:// (accessed June 24, 2009); Reuters, “Iran: Official Blames U.S. for Bombing at Mosque,” The New York Times, May 29, 2009, http:// (accessed June 24, 2009).

96 In 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini announced as quoted in Pollack, Persian Puzzle, p. 183: “We shall export our revolution to the whole world. Until the cry ‘There is no God but God’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.”

97 Ahmadinejad has been credited with calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”; see “Iran leader’s comments attacked,” BBC News, October 27 2005, /4378948.stm (accessed February 19, 2009). However, there are claims asserting that this translation is inaccurate; see Ethan Bronner, “Just How Far Did They Go, Those Words Against Israel?” The New York Times, June 11, 2006, (accessed February 19, 2009).

98 Gawdat Bahgat, “Iran and the United States: The Emerging Security Paradigm in the Middle East,” Parameters (Summer 2007), pp. 5-18; David Menashri, “Iran’s Regional Policy: Between Radicalism and Pragmatism,” Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 60, No. 2 Spring/Summer 2007, pp. 153-67; Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, “The Costs of Containing Iran,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 87, No. 1, January/February 2008, pp. 85-95; Rouhollah K. Ramazani, “Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran’s Foreign Policy,” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 58, No. 4, Autumn 2004, pp. 549-59; Maloney and Takeyh, “Pathway to Coexistence,” pp. 59-91.

99 Ramazani, “Ideology and Pragmatism in Iran’s Foreign Policy,” p. 59.

100 Nasr and Takeyh, “The Costs of Containing Iran,” pp. 92-93.

101 Milani, “Tehran’s Take,” p. 46.

102 Maloney and Takeyh, “Pathway to Coexistence,” p. 67.

103 Obama, “Videotaped Remarks by the President in Celebration of Nowruz.”

104 James Dobbins, “To Talk With Iran, Stop Not Talking,” The Washington Post, March 3, 2009, (accessed May 20, 2009).

105 The Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan would assume responsibility for any cooperation involving the U.S. military.

106 James Dobbins, “How to Talk to Iran,” The Washington Post, July 22, 2007, (accessed June 1, 2009).

107 Ibid.

108 Interagency Policy Group, “White Paper on U.S. Policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

109 Paul Richter, “Iran has Interest in a Stable Afghanistan, Clinton Says,” Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2009. (accessed May 3, 2009)

110 Katzman, “Iran: U.S. Concerns and Policy Responses;” Thom Shanker, “Iran May Know of Weapons for Taliban, Gates Contends,” The New York Times, June 14, 2007 middleeast/14gates.html (accessed May 20, 2009); Robin Wright, “Iranian Arms Destined for Taliban Seized in Afghanistan, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, September 16, 2007. wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/15/AR2007091500803.html (accessed May 20, 2009).

111 Michael R. Gordon, “U.S. Says Iranian Arms Seized in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, April 18, 2007. (accessed May 20, 2009).

112 Director of National Intelligence, “Unclassified Statement for the Record: Annual Threat Assessment for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, February 12, 2009, 11. (accessed March 1, 2009). 113 Rubin and Rashid, “Great Game,” p.43.