Tension between Iran and the West has not been higher in recent memory. The debate about military strikes and crippling economic sanctions on Iran has been confined to the issues of efficacy, limitations, and potential reaction by the Iranians. However, there is a critical matter that sheds light on the potentially disastrous and costly ramifications of a military operation against Iran: the damages to peace and stability in Afghanistan and its region. Any strike against Iran would severely hamper a successful transition process in Afghanistan by 2014.
Iran holds the keys to stability in that region. The Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Southwest Asia -- which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan -- all border on Iran. Tensions in and with Iran thus affect the entire neighborhood.
The deteriorating relations with Pakistan have made abundantly clear how a neighbor can be detrimental to the situation in and around Afghanistan. Afghanistan's western neighbor Iran is just as important as Af-Pak. Afghanistan's second longest border is with the large Islamic Republic of Iran -- positioning Kabul close to any development there: from Iran's nuclear ambitions to the impact of Afghan refugees and drugs.
Iranian influence in Afghanistan is strong: the western part of Afghanistan, especially the Herat province, has intense human, cultural, and commercial relations with Iran, not to mention its intelligence presence there. The Tajiks in Afghanistan's north have benefited from Iranian support. In fact, Iran's connections with the Northern Alliance helped the Western intervention in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban 2001. Today, India assists Iranian-Afghan commercial and infrastructure development.
As Afghanistan seeks to counterbalance Sunni Pakistan's influence, it has also turned to Shia Iran. On numerous occasions President Karzai has made diplomatic and personal overtures to the Islamic Republic for its shared language, culture, political and economic interests with Afghanistan.
In case of a hot crisis, Iran could easily upset stability and peace in Afghanistan and beyond. This would be disastrous for American and international intentions to provide for an orderly and stable transition for a secure and prosperous Afghanistan. During this time when there is a need for strategic tranquility, escalating tensions with Iran are most counterproductive.
Perception forms reality and influences intent and action. At this point, it is hardly just a matter of military operation or the beginning of acts of war against Iran. The perception of a vital threat is enough to cause intense fog of suspicion and duplicity which could, with the right catalyst, easily escalate to hot conflict.
Indeed by virtue of the power of perception, war with Iran might already have begun. The combination of targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, surprising blasts at nuclear sites, cyber sabotage at nuclear facilities, critical economic sanctions, provisions for opposition members to access the internet without government censorship, previous investments in democratic civil society groups in Iran, and the alleged foreign intelligence operations with the Baluchi rebels -- all of these combined could be interpreted as war-like acts against Iran.
For their part, radical elements within the Iranian regime may even consider whether war with the United States wouldn't be good for shoring up national support and quelling opposition activities. Moreover, actions of a deliberate third party, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, or a non-state-actor like Hezbollah could further accelerate the downward spiral to hot conflict and devastating regional consequences.
It is imperative to develop a strategy that denies Iran nuclear weapons within a working and balanced regional context. Otherwise, the United States and its allies in the region may find itself in a troubling disadvantageous situation which critically challenges all intentions and achievements in Baghdad and Kabul.
Some, especially Russia, might benefit from yet another American crisis involvement; harvesting an increasing oil price and a freer hand in their interest in Central Asia and the Caucasus. From the Levante to the Hindukush, the U.S. and its allies have sacrificed soldiers and treasure to establish security and stability for men, women, and children living there. War with Iran would not only nullify all that but plunge the region further into instability, conflict, and radicalization -- in dangerous proximity to Pakistan's nuclear weapons.
Daniel Nikbakht assisted in writing this article.