Tehran agrees to talk
Iran's acceptance of a US invitation to a conference on the future of Afghanistan signals a subtle thawing of diplomatic relations – though Iran's help in Afghanistan will come at a price.
Iran confirmed on March 26 that it will accept a US invitation to participate in a UN conference at The Hague on March 31 regarding the future of Afghanistan. The conference, originally proposed by the United States, will be attended by delegates from more than 80 countries.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said that Iran still has yet to decide who it will send to the meeting on behalf of Tehran.
The acceptance of the US invitation follows a televised address by US President Barack Obama on the occasion of the Persian New Year, in which he offered a new "diplomatic beginning” with the Islamic Republic.
The United States is not only publicly recognising the staying power of the clerical regime, but is also acknowledging an Iranian sphere of influence that spreads to Southwest Asia in Afghanistan.
While Iran is pleased to be in this diplomatic spotlight, it must also tread carefully. The Iranians made it clear in their response to Obama that the mere offering of talks is insufficient. Iran has geopolitical interests in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, and Iran is motivated to develop its nuclear program, all of which clash with US interests. If the United States is unwilling to shift its position on any of these issues, then Iran will not exhibit much eagerness to go beyond the talks and actually deal.
Still, Iran is not about to pass up an opportunity to show the world that it carries significant influence beyond the borders of the Islamic Republic. The United States and its NATO allies could use Iran’s assistance in Afghanistan, specifically in regard to the wealth of intelligence the Iranians have on Taliban and al Qaeda movements in the country.
There is also potential for discussions over a supplemental supply route for coalition forces in southern Afghanistan that could run through Iran.
Although Iran is willing to play the diplomatic game, tangible cooperation will come at a high price, particularly as the United States is building a strategy to engage 'moderate' Taliban.
On a tactical level, the Iranians might offer support to certain Taliban factions in Afghanistan with an aim of keeping US and NATO forces tied down on its eastern frontier. But on a strategic level, the Iranians do not want to see their Taliban rivals back in power in any shape or form. This is just one of many core disputes that will complicate any new 'diplomatic beginning' between Washington and Tehran.
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