This report examines the importance of engaging Iran as one of the key neighbors of Afghanistan during the period of withdrawal of international forces through 2014. It looks at the US-Afghanistan-Iran triangle from the perspective of two distinct policy priorities: how to engage Afghanistan’s neighbors constructively to maximize the chances for stability in that country after foreign troops withdraw, and how to create possibilities for US-Iran interaction on issues where there is at least some common or shared interest.
In early 2012, prospects for success in either of these policies are not assured, as policymakers, politicians, and pundits engage in passionate debate about the virtues and shortcomings of nearly any policy option. They face formidable obstacles due to unstable conditions inside Afghanistan, political turmoil inside Iran, the deterioration in US-Pakistan relations, and the tensions between Iran and the international community over its nuclear activities. Despite considerable diplomatic effort and the achievements of several international conferences on Afghanistan in late 2011, it has proven difficult to make progress in forming any bilateral understanding with Iran about the future of Afghanistan and its role there.
Nonetheless, this report is premised on the notion that think tanks can do more than monitor or evaluate ongoing crises or diplomatic initiatives. They can sustain analytic thinking about problems
that are undeniably hard in the short run, but that still require attention and planning for a more promising moment of opportunity. The analysis about how to identify practical areas of common concern in Afghanistan, and how to see US-Iran cooperation over Afghanistan in its larger context, is offered with humility and a hope that readers can take the long view. The stalemate in US-Iran relations will eventually give way to a new reality, but any dramatic change is unlikely until after presidential elections in both countries. This report identifies one area in which cooperation is possible and can be mutually beneficial.