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Global conversations

"Global conversations" Continued...

U.S.-Iranian relations have been rocky (to say the least), but have reached a point where it is now politically acceptable for both openly to discuss U.S.-Iranian cooperation on issues related to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Iranians hold influence and where the United States is still engaged militarily.

Iran knows that even with the United States drawing down from Iraq, Washington will still maintain a strategic agreement with Baghdad that could be used as a launch pad for U.S. designs in the region as it works to protect Sunni Arabs from Iranian expansionist goals. At the same time, Washington has come to realize that its influence in Baghdad will have to be shared with the Iranians given their geographic proximity and clout among large segments of the Iraqi Shia.

Though U.S. and Iranian interests overlap enough to the point that the two cannot avoid working with each other, negotiating a power-sharing agreement has not come easily. In Iraq, Tehran needs to consolidate Shiite influence, contain Sunni power, and prevent the country from posing a future security threat to Iran's western frontier. In addition, the Iranians are looking for the United States to recognize its regional sphere of influence and accept the existence of an Iranian nuclear program. The United States, on the other hand, needs to defend the interests of Israel and its Sunni allies and wants Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions (or at least place real curbs on its nuclear program) and end its support for militant proxies. Though Washington and Tehran have made some progress in their diplomatic dialogue, the demands of each remain just as intractable. As a result, the U.S.-Iranian negotiations start and stop in spurts without any real willingness on either side to follow through in addressing the other's respective core demands.

In reaching out to Iran over Afghanistan, the Obama administration is now trying to inject more confidence into the larger negotiations by recognizing Iran as a player in Kabul in return for intelligence sharing and potential logistical cooperation in supporting the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. But as much as Iran enjoys the recognition and shares an interest in preventing jihadist spillover into its territory, the Iranian regime is not about to offer its full cooperation on an issue as big as Afghanistan as long as the United States avoids addressing issues that the Iranians deem more central to their national security interests (e.g., Iraq.) Complicating matters further at this juncture is Iranian displeasure over U.S. talk of speaking to the Taliban, a long-time enemy of Tehran that the Iranians will fight to keep contained, but with which the United States needs to engage if it has any hope of settling Afghanistan.

The Taliban

Obama told The New York Times in a March 6 interview that the United States is not winning the war in Afghanistan, and that in addition to sending more troops, his strategy for the war might include approaching elements of the Afghan Taliban. While he acknowledged that the situation in Afghanistan is more complex, he related the idea to the successful U.S. strategy of reaching out to Iraqi Sunni nationalists to undercut the al-Qaida presence in Iraq.

The idea of negotiating with the Taliban to split the insurgency has been thrown around for some time now, but just talking about talking to the Taliban raises a number of issues. First, the United States is fighting a war of perception as much as it is fighting battles against die-hard jihadists. So far, Obama has approved 17,000 additional U.S. troops to be deployed to Afghanistan, but even double that number is unlikely to convince Taliban insurgents that the United States is willing or even capable of fighting this war in the long run. The Taliban and their allies in al-Qaida and various other radical Islamist groups are pursuing a strategy of exhaustion where success is not measured in the number of battles won, but rather the ability to outlast the occupier. Considering that Afghanistan's mountainous, barren terrain, sparse population centers and lack of governance have historically denied every outside occupier success in pacifying the country, the prospects for the United States are not good in this war.

Talk of reconciliation with the Taliban from a U.S. position of weakness raises the question of how the United States can actually parse out those Taliban members who can be reconciled. It also raises the question of whether those members will be willing to put their personal security on the line by accepting an offer to start talks when the United States itself is admitting it is on the losing side of the war. Most important, it is unclear to us what the United States can actually offer these Taliban elements, especially as Washington simultaneously attempts to negotiate with the Iranians and the Russians, neither of which want to live next door to a revived Taliban and both of which must cooperate with the United States if Washington is to be able to fight the war in the first place.

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