OpinionIran in the World PressIran grasps for regional power

Iran grasps for regional power

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ImageWall Street Journal: Afghanistan, site of many a surrealistic scene over the years, produced another one earlier this month. The Wall Street Journal

By GERALD F. SEIB

ImageAfghanistan, site of many a surrealistic scene over the years, produced another one earlier this month.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited the Afghan capital of Kabul, and he asserted along the way that Iran next door was trying to undermine the American effort to bolster Afghanistan's leaders. Iran's mischief, Mr. Gates indicated, includes providing at least some arms and money to the Taliban fighters trying to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

As soon as Mr. Gates left Kabul, another visitor arrived: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran. Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave the Iranian leader a warm welcome, called Iranians his "brothers" and stood by quietly as Mr. Ahmadinejad publicly suggested that American soldiers—the very soldiers fighting and dying to keep Mr. Karzai in power—had no business being in Afghanistan at all.

American officials play down the significance of Mr. Karzai's symbolic embrace of Iran's leader, describing it as the sort of thing he has to do to cope with a powerful neighbor that isn't going away.

Still, the byplay illustrates why Iran's nuclear program isn't the only problem American leaders have to worry about. The broader concern is Iran's interest in becoming a more powerful regional player. Indeed, Iran's nuclear program is worrisome in part because a nuclear-armed Iran would be even better able to intimidate its neighbors.

In many ways, America's post-9/11 incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan have only made it easier for Iran to spread its wings in the region. To the west, the U.S. eliminated Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who, for all his grievous sins, was the most powerful counter-weight to Iranian influence in the neighborhood. He has been replaced by an embryonic Iraqi democracy whose most prominent leaders have a history of working with, rather than battling, Iran.

To the east, the U.S. eliminated Afghanistan's Taliban regime, another needle in Iran's side. The Taliban's brand of Sunni extremism was distasteful to Iran's Shiite leaders, while Taliban mistreatment of Shiites and ethnic groups sent refugees streaming into Iran.

Now, of course, Iran has to worry instead about tens of thousands of American troops next door in Afghanistan. But Iran's leaders, like those in Afghanistan itself, know those American soldiers will leave someday. Then the question is what kind of relationship Mr. Karzai's government has with Tehran.

On the one hand, there is the concern Mr. Gates articulated, that Iran is secretly helping the Taliban. Mr. Gates accused Iran of playing a "double game," seeking to maintain good relations with Mr. Karzai's government while simultaneously trying to undermine international forces seeking to support that same Afghan government. Other U.S. officials said the Iranian aid going to the Taliban fighters includes training, arms, ammunition and some financing.

Yet at the same time Iran doesn't seem to want to be too provocative. Mr. Gates described the Iranian support to the Taliban as "relatively low level."

Other officials say it is significant that U.S. forces haven't seen Iranian-provided explosively formed penetrator devices, which insurgents in Iraq have used to attack armored vehicles.

Some analysts argue that Iran and the U.S. actually share the same long-term goal in Afghanistan, which is creation of a stable government.

The U.S. needs a stable Afghanistan so al Qaeda and other terrorist groups don't again form operating bases there. Iran needs a stable border free of refugees and drug trafficking.

George Gavrilis, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in a paper last year that Iran has, overall, behaved responsibly toward Afghanistan. "Iran works furiously to protect its vast boundary with Afghanistan, responds to unrest in its border provinces with an iron fist, and avoids major intrigues in Kabul," he wrote.

As a result, Mr. Gavrilis argued, "it's high time for the United States to engage Iran over Afghanistan in a way that is public, decisive, and comprehensive. Strategic cooperation is possible because the United States and Iran have converging interests and common aversions in Afghanistan."

Given the current state of tensions over Iran's nuclear program, that kind of engagement seems unlikely now. In the long run, on the Afghan question—as on the nuclear question—America's best bet may be that the internal unrest now coursing through Iran will produce a different kind of regime there that could serve as a partner rather than an adversary.

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