Iran’s recent announcements that it would pursue a Chah Bahar (port) rail link to Afghanistan on its own without India finally made me realize how incredibly dependent the US is on Iran. Strangely, this didn’t quite hit me until very recently, and in fact it should have been painfully obvious to US ‘war’ planners back in 2001 – but it simply wasn’t! People have been dancing around this issue, believing there are other options for decades. But it’s the simple truth, Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s post war development is to a large extent controlled by Iran.
When the US ‘invaded’ Afghanistan, there was one painful truth: that post invasion planning would require Iran’s full participation for Afghanistan to prosper. And as a result, the US has been struggling with the simple reality that a full and constructive engagement with Iran is an absolute must – that keeps getting pushed back.
And again, when the US ‘invaded’ Iraq, there was one other painful truth: that post invasion planning would require Iran’s full participation for Iraq to prosper. And again, as a result, the US has been struggling with this simple reality since 2003 – and just can’t seem to get itself wrapped around this.
Its only now, 3 administration later and Trump finds himself in the same painful position – and can’t seem to get his head around it. Its a humiliating thought. (Just like saying the US economy can’t survive without Hispanic Labor – it doesn’t feed into his narrative, but its the truth).
Afghanistan is a land-locked country. It is also very poorly developed and has suffered from literally several centuries of endless wars, as great powers seem to vie for influence in Central Asia by playing Chess with Afghanistan (and its people). The U.S. is but the 4th or 5th ‘great power’ to get sucked into it. For the country to find some enduring peace, Afghans need to have their basic needs met – i.e. shelter, food, education, water, electricity, roads … If they are starving, and isolated, they will turn to any ‘power’ that throws them a bone. They will change allegiances on a whim. This simple reality means that if the U.S. wants to, or wanted to ‘win the peace’, it needed to have post-invasion plans for helping Afghanistan’s economy to develop and bring the ‘basics’ out to their villages. Again, Afghanistan is a land-locked country. Bringing the basics, means either delivering them from the North (Via Russia) or from the South (Via Pakistan), or from the East (Via China), or from the West (Via Iran).
On the face of it, there appear to be a lot of great options for supplying Afghanistan with its basic staples. But this is where DC beltway naivete or lack of ‘on the ground’ experience threatens the success of literally Trillions of dollars of effort in invading Afghanistan. This is precisely how you get bogged down.
Pakistan, it seems, is an unwilling partner. There is no security for truck traffic from Pakistan’s ports to Afghanistan. The roads are poor. And anyway, Pakistan is getting geared up for a strategic alliance with China (as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative), which means they have no real interest in helping Afghanistan (when they have higher paying clients to cater to).
China itself is very interested in engaging in Afghanistan. But the U.S. sees China as a rival – thus economic (and political) dependence on China is problematic. And there is this other – not so subtle issue of logistics. For Chinese goods to make it to Afghanistan, they must be shipped across China, and then through some of the tallest mountain ranges in the world – to finally get to the other side. There are no roads, no railways – no access across those mountains now. And it would be prohibitively expensive to put this sort of infrastructure in place. Better, for Chinese goods to go north through Tajikistan and then south again to Afghanistan – but then, it exposes Afghanistan to the potential for Russia to intervene in its supply chain (since Russia still has a great deal of influence in the region). This is after, the Afghans kicked the Russians out.
This leaves Iran!! Yes, Iran provides a direct pathway to Afghanistan. It has roads across the border in multiple areas. It already has a very robust trading relationship with Afghanistan. Iranians share a common language with approximately half of the population of Afghanistan – i.e. they can communicate effectively. Iran has a deep and growing industrial base – and has become self-sufficient in virtually every category of basic commodities. And, most importantly, Iran offers low cost, deep water, ocean access ports for commodities to be shipped in (and transported) to Afghanistan – safely.
Iran is by far, Afghanistan’s best partner in its development efforts. But the US has failed to recognize this simple reality. And so, the US has dithered around for two decades wondering how to solve their Afghanistan ‘problem’! They asked India to help. And India said yes (why not increase their exports and trade? It’s a no-brainer). But India too, need Iran’s help to supply commodities to Afghanistan (note: Pakistan will not let Indian ships offload there, and a land route to Afghanistan from India would require trucks to climb mountains that would give Mount Everest a run for its money!)
So, after spending literally Trillions of dollars – for now – it looks like the U.S. has been wholly unable to implement a post-invasion development plan for Afghanistan. The net outcome of this is, that the Taliban are re-surging. Afghanistan’s Opium production is hitting record figures…. Causing instability not only in Afghanistan but record Opiate addiction, and related deaths in the rest of the world. Afghanistan is slowly but surely descending into a chaos. And, the U.S. that ‘broke it’, has been unable to ‘fix it’! Why, because the US fails to simply recognize Afghanistan’s dire dependence on Iran.
This same story could be parroted with Iraq instead of Afghanistan in the prose. Iraq too is in a difficult neighborhood. On its northern border, it has Syria who has been going through a decade long civil war (i.e. Syria can’t help Iraq, Syria itself needs help). On its southern border it has a long stretch of desert with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as its neighbors. Needless to say, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are not known for their bumper production of agricultural commodities, or global dominance of stoves and refrigerators. There is isn’t much Saudi Arabia or Kuwait have that Iraq needs – except for oil (which Iraq has plenty of). This leave Turkey and Iran. Turkey for sure is a vital regional power with a solid industrial base. But, Kurdish tribesmen dominate the border region with Turkey, and Turkey has been unwilling to participate wholly in Iraqi reconstruction because it believes that it will enable Kurds to become prosper and subsequently push for independence (splintering Turkey itself). Turkey has dragged its feet – all the way – in assisting the U.S. in its invasion of Iraq (and subsequent post-invasion support).
Iran, on the other hand, has been Iraq’s best partner in its development efforts. It provides a direct pathway to Iraq. It has roads across the border in multiple areas. It already has a very robust trading relationship with Iraq. Iranians share a common religion and cultural connectivity with almost 2/3rds of Iraq’s population. Iran has a deep and growing industrial base – and has become self-sufficient in virtually every category of basic commodities. And, most importantly, Iran offers the lowest cost, most easily shipped commodity delivery to Afghanistan – safely. In many cases, Iranians built roads, tunnels, rail lines, electrical lines etc. to improve deliveries to Iraq – providing vital supplies like Kerosene in the winter, electricity, etc. after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This begs the question, did US military no see all this? Was this reality not obvious to US policy makers or its embassy staff
These are but two examples of the huge dependencies the US has in engaging with Iran to accomplish its post-invasion goals. If the US doesn’t care about these countries and wants them to destabilize and drift into sectarian warfare… then I suppose after spending Trillions of dollars on war, it should simply leave. Then this begs the question, why did the US invade these countries in the first place? If on the other hand it wants to add-value to these countries, provide an enduring positive legacy in the region, increase its influence and promote its values regionally – then the US has an obligation to aid Afghanistan and Iraq’s post-invasion development. And, if so, then it is completely dependent on Iran for doing so. This is a simple fact.
These comments focus on economic dependencies and economic development, but there are many other dimensions to US-Iranian constructive engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq – which involve political, security, military, drug enforcement etc. issues to name a few.
Iran is vital to Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s future – whether the U.S. likes it or not. If the US wants a ‘return’ on its ‘8 Trillion dollar’ invasion/investment in these countries, then it surely must find a way to re-engage with Iran. This too is a fact.
There are also, other examples of US dependence on Iran in the region (outside of Afghanistan and Iraq). With for example security in the Persian Gulf. Energy supplies to India (an emerging US ally). As a buffer against Chinese expansionism. I could go on and on.
Not-withstanding all this, there is another simple reality, that Iran offers the U.S. a massive market for its high technology industrial goods and services, and also the capacity to operate a regional economic node that can distribute these same products to all virtually of Central Asia.
In conclusion, all of this ‘begs’ for a completely different strategic posture by the US vis a vis Iran.
The Trump administration has strained US-Iran relations. It has emphasized its alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia, at the expense of its relations with Iran. US zero-sum thinking is idiotic. There is absolutely no reason why the US cannot simultaneously enjoy good relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia AND Iran at the same time. Iran is fundamentally in a different geo-political environment – in Central Asia. It is an absolute mistake to believe that if it wants to engage with Iran, it must abandon other alliances.
I can understand US government hesitation in engaging with the Mullahs in Iran. It is a fact that Iranians themselves are hesitant to engage with the Mullahs too i.e. Iranians do not want an autocratic theocracy just as much as others in the West. But, engagement with Iran, will (in the long run) enable Iranians to address this issue for themselves, by themselves. This isn’t an issue that US policy makers need to be concerned about. Frankly its none of their business. Iranians know that the Mullahs can impose their will on Iranians forever but for now given the threats from Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US and opposition groups like MEK (all vying to splinter Iran), that the Mullahs offer the best national security options for the country. It is IN FACT American threats against Iran and Iranians that reinforce religious hard liners, and the regime. US should purse evolutionary change in Iran, rather than revolutionary change (i.e. constant talk of regime change, and support for sick opposition groups like MEK are really not helpful at all).
But, Iran’s regional position, and capacity to support US regional and strategic goals is without question. Iran’s geography, demography and intellectual base have nothing to do with the Mullahs – and everything to do with the people of Iran and its indigenous resources. To deny this simple reality is idiotic. Engaging with Iran means engaging with Iranians – not the mullahs. Think about that for a minute! It’s crazy not to face reality and appreciate simple facts on the ground.
There isn’t a single week that goes by, where one item of news doesn’t peter out, that reaffirms this simple reality: US needs Iran, much more than Iran needs the U.S. (Sanctions haven’t affected Iran’s behavior at all in over 40 years). Just think about that!
If this wasn’t true before 2001, its truer today than ever before. All people need to do is look at the mess in Afghanistan and Iraq… on top of the mess left behind everywhere the US touches in places like Vietnam! US needs to give people a reason to favor America! If the US wants to dominate the next century, it must be able to add value to places it touches. The things US touches can’t keep turning to shit. Which is precisely why the US desperately needs Iran.