Aaron Ellis 10.42am
You can’t govern properly by just reacting to events. But that is what the Government’s lauded National Security Council (NSC) does, putting day-to-day crises into a larger context and shaping a strategic response to them.
Speaking in Washington, D.C. several months after its creation, William Hague boasted that the NSC had already made Britain’s policy in Afghanistan strategically “coherent”.
Yet our handling of Iran suggests otherwise. The Iranians ought to be our allies in Afghanistan but Western sabre-rattling towards the Iranian nuclear programme undermines our efforts there. If the Government truly wants to resolve these crises, it must adopt a truly strategic approach. It cannot just react.
The typical reaction of hawks to these stories is to see Tehran’s mischievousness as a sinister bid for global mastery - rather than defensive measures to deter Western military action against them. When Iranian weapons allegedly destined for the Taliban were seized in Afghanistan last April, the former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said:
“This confirms my often repeated view of the dangers that Iran poses not only through its nuclear programme, but its continuing policy of destabilising its neighbours. Supplying weapons to help the Taliban kill [ISAF] soldiers is a clear example of the threat they pose.”
The hawk-talk about Iran in Afghanistan adds another stroke to the war drums beaten over Iran of late, but it also undermines the Government’s goals in both countries. It is unlikely that Iran will participate in a regional settlement if we persist in branding it a malign actor. Any solution to the nuclear impasse also grows more difficult to find.
Instead of reacting to these crises separately, the Government must adopt a combined approach. Sound strategic thinking involves reappraising Iran’s role in Afghanistan, recognising that our actions towards one impact the other, and taking various diplomatic steps to achieve the various goals stated above.
Though some actions suggest different, Iran’s interests in Afghanistan coincide with Western objectives. The Government has to be mindful of this. One former senior diplomat has noted, correctly, that Tehran has no “rational interest in continuing instability in [the country], or in a Taliban victory.” This point was covered in great detail in a RAND paper last year.
Given this, why the Iranian mischief-making? The RAND paper’s authors, Alireza Nader and Joya Laha, point out that Iran’s enmity towards the US determines its interests in Afghanistan.
Iranian leaders view the US and coalition presence in Afghanistan with great anxiety, especially in light of the US military threats against Iran’s nuclear facilities. As it has reportedly been employed in Iraq, Iran’s asymmetric strategy would use proxy insurgent forces to tie down and distract the United States from focusing on Iran and its nuclear program, and provides a retaliatory capability in the event of US military action.
The Government has to rethink its rhetoric about Iran, and recognise that country’s involvement in Afghanistan is defensive rather than offensive. We can forget any regional settlement post-2015 if we exclude one of the region’s biggest stakeholders. We must also restart diplomatic dialogue between Tehran and London.
This means first reopening the embassy in Iran. As former diplomat Mark Malloch-Brown has written, “Without embassies the basic function of diplomacy - keeping some kind of dialogue going even when views are diametrically opposed - is essentially suspended.”
Then Britain must begin talks with Iran about how we can co-operate over Afghanistan. If we persuade the Iranians to help, not hinder, the winding down of the war there, it might be easier to negotiate a solution to the nuclear impasse.
Mr Hague once said that the National Security Council would not only minimise the risks we face but also “look for the positive trends in the world, since our security requires seizing opportunity as well as mitigating risk.”
Yet with Iran and Afghanistan, the Government has emphasised risk over opportunity. If we want to achieve our goals, this emphasis must change.
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