Why an Afghanistan-First Approach to Iran Won't Work

There has been much talk and speculation about bringing in Iran into consultations on Afghanistan. President Obama has appropriately turned focus back to Afghanistan, and Special Envoy Holbrooke has used very open and constructive language in regards to an Iranian role in Afghanistan.

"It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan," Holbrooke said on Tolo TV, a private Afghan television network. "They have a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbors."

Others have even suggested that Iran is needed as a supply route for US troops, since both the Pakistani Central Asian theaters have closed.

These steps have been taken in the midst of a yet to be concluded review of Washington's Iran policy. An unintended consequence may be the emergence of an Afghanistan-first approach towards Iran, that is, an attempt to seek Iran's assistance in Afghanistan as a confidence building measure prior to the roll-out of a broader Iran policy and a signaling of America's strategic intent.

Such an Afghanistan first approach would be a mistake.

In an op-ed published in Sunday"s Chicago Tribune, Stanley Weiss of the Business Executives for National Security and I argue against the small-step, tactical confidence-building approach void of any strategic dimension. We argue that with Iran, we should begin with the end in mind.

We write:

The temptation to begin small with confidence-building measures only and without a clarification of America's long-term objectives must be resisted. Due to the history of U.S.-Iran relations, small tactical steps won't work.

Indeed, the tactical route has been tried--and has failed--repeatedly. Tehran cooperated with Washington in forging the post-Taliban government in Afghanistan partly in hopes of a strategic shift in U.S.-Iranian relations.

The Bush administration, however, had no interest in any such shift and branded Iran part of the "axis of evil."

Iran's lesson from Afghanistan should not be underestimated. From Tehran perspective, it didn't exact a price for its assistance in Afghanistan, and as a result, it got nothing in return. This time around, it will be even harder to get Tehran to cooperate:

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.

The Obama administration must decide on its end game--its vision of Iran's role in the Middle East--and then, in a truly grand confidence-building measure, clearly communicate this end game to Tehran.

In the oped, we go on to suggest what that end game should entail. What we didn't get a chance to mention, however, is that Iran has not made America's work any easier. Tehran has repeatedly failed to communicate its own vision, leaving Washington endlessly pondering on the question "What does Iran want?"

That is, however, where the conversation should begin.