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Iran, Afghanistan and Washington's South Asia Dilemma

The United States is facing some interesting diplomatic choices in South Asia. Washington is no doubt cheered by Turkmenistan’s recent commitment to ship natural gas via Afghanistan to India and Pakistan. But if Washington is to fulfill its wish of developing stronger ties between Central and South Asia, US policymakers will have to find a way around two stumbling blocks, Iran and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The central problem for the United States is this: Washington is determined to keep the pressure on Iran in the hopes of thwarting Tehran’s nuclear program; at the same time, the Iranian containment policy, as currently constructed, could hinder efforts to promote stabilization in Afghanistan.

At present, a central element in the US stabilization strategy for Afghanistan is a plan to turn the war-torn country into a regional trade hub. Turkmenistan’s gas-supply deal, signed in late May, marks a significant step in that direction. But it must be stressed that there are lots of pitfalls ahead for the "New Silk Road" project. It would seem that if the United States is going to remain wedded to its Afghan stabilization strategy, it will have to be somewhat flexible on Iran. Right now, both Pakistan and India are disinclined to follow the US lead in efforts to isolate Iran.

Pakistan, of course, has a very prickly relationship with the United States right now, and has let it be known that, even though it is participating in the so-called TAPI pipeline connecting Turkmenistan to South Asia, Islamabad is intent on proceeding with an Iranian-Pakistani pipeline. US officials are strongly opposed to the latter project. Pakistan, however, is committed to the Iranian route for a couple of reasons: one, Islamabad wants to reinforce the impression that it maintains an independent foreign policy; and, two, it is already economically committed to the project. According to a preliminary provision, if Pakistan does not complete the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline by the end of 2014, it will have to pay substantial financial penalties to Tehran.

New Delhi is also in no mood to drastically reduce its present level of engagement with Iran. This was evident during the recent visit of an Iranian business delegation, a mission that clinched a deal with India to buy shipments of sugar, rice and soybeans, and which also articulated a desire to rapidly expand bilateral trade. In addition, the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited New Delhi on May 31 to hand over an invitation to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the upcoming Non-Aligned Movement Summit, scheduled to be held in Tehran in August. The Iranian foreign minister also discussed other issues, such as circumventing Western sanctions on Iran and joint efforts on combating piracy of the Gulf of Aden.

The United States must also take into account India’s ambitions concerning the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional grouping of states dominated by China and Russia that is holding its annual summit on June 6-7. India enjoys observer status in the SCO, and retains hope of one day gaining full membership in the group. New Delhi is intent on using the organization as a means to help build economic relations with other member states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It should also be noted that Iran is a SCO observer. The organization has long been suspicious of the US strategic presence in Central Asia, and has, in the past, made pointed calls for the US military to leave the region. US military leaders are similarly hostile to SCO’s efforts to dominate Central Asia’s security agenda. It remains to be seen how US policymakers will react to India being actively engaged with the SCO, while also being an important component in Washington’s vision for Afghanistan’s stabilization.

Until now, the SCO has not been a major factor in discussions about Afghanistan’s stabilization. But there is a good possibility that Afghanistan will obtain observer status in the SCO during the course of the SCO summit . And top officials from member states have sent hints in recent days of wanting the SCO to take on responsibilities for Afghanistan's stabilization. Given the differing agendas of the SCO and the United States/NATO, Afghanistan’s embrace of the SCO could greatly complicate reconstruction efforts.

All these developments raise some significant questions: is connectivity between South Asia and Central Asia chimerical without Iran’s involvement? How will New Delhi strike a balance between Washington and Tehran? And, if the SCO draws nearer to Kabul, will the United States have to re-think its economic stabilization plans for Kabul?

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow with The Observer Research Foundation. The views expressed in this commentary of Maini's own, and do not necessarily represent the foundation's position.

Iran, Afghanistan and Washington's South Asia Dilemma

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