On February 17 2012, the presidents of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan held their Third Trilateral Summit in Islamabad. The main objective of this three day event was to focus on regional cooperation in strengthening relations, security, and stability between these three neighbors and specifically Afghanistan. The issues they discussed covered a wide range of topics, from communication & cooperation to energy & infrastructure to counter-narcotics & counter-terrorism. And although on a superficial level this summit appeared to be productive, there are some signs for caution as to the sincerity of each country’s objectives. With that in mind, this paper will examine Iran’s objectives by raising two questions: 1) was there any breakthrough discussion in regards to the region and Afghanistan’s security or was it another opportunity for Iran to showcase and perhaps strengthen its personal agenda? 2) Is Iran interested in pursuing such a relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan because it wants to increase regional cooperation or is it because of Iran’s own troubles within the international community?
Comparing this third meeting to the previous two trilateral summits shows that little progress has been made between these three countries. Obviously the wheels of international diplomacy and cooperation turn slowly, but nevertheless the tone and rhetoric from all three meetings are very similar. Issues like: agriculture, infrastructure, energy, the privet sector, border control, drugs, terrorism, Afghanistan’s stability, the Taliban, regional strength, and independence from foreign powers were all points of interest in each of the summits with no progress being made from one year to the next. Even though there were three advancements made: (1) the three countries signed a regional economic deal to enhance trading; (2) Iran and Pakistan’s gas pipeline deal is successfully moving forward in spite of America’s objection; and (3) the three neighbors singed a joint statement declaring that they will not allow their land to be used against each other, it does not hide the fact that the core issues – Afghanistan and regional stability (the things they say have brought them together) – have yet to be improved, let alone solved.
However, although Afghanistan’s security has not improved it was still given the proper attention at the trilateral summit, but more in an indirect way. In other words, during Iran and Pakistan’s bilateral discussions on their relationship and the region’s future, they were simultaneously mindful of Afghanistan. Since Afghanistan depends on her neighbors for its own stability it is imperative that Iran and Pakistan first strengthen their own national security and then their relationship with one another in order to successfully help Afghanistan, which in turn will improve the region. Even President Zardari stated that “Iran and Pakistan […] need to inter-depend on each other for prosperity of the region.” Thus, on the one hand, the tone and rhetoric at this summit has shown that no real breakthrough has occurred, but on the other hand it would appear that Iran and Pakistan are trying to move in the right direction, despite it being a very gradual process. As a result, Iran’s interest in her neighbors now comes into questioning because a) nothing significant has occurred in the past three years, b) this summit did not bring about any break through discussion for the future, and c) the core issues were not on the forefront. Therefore raising the question as to what are Iran’s intentions in regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan?
One theory in political science argues that all governments are rational actors, and hence make decisions that first benefit their own well being and national security. However, such clear cut questions, like the ones stated above, never develop clear cut answers, because, even though Iran might be interested in regional cooperation there are still some personal benefits to their relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan on an international scale. First off, given Iran’s standing within the international community with the continued sanctions by Washington and Europe; Israel’s continued threats of military action on its nuclear facilities; and the ever growing uncertainty of the MENA region; it is in Iran’s best interests to gain as many allies as possible. And especially with the signing of the joint statement declaring that they will not allow their land to be used against each other, for what it’s worth, will provide some comfort for Tehran that the foreign powers that be have two less countries to look towards for assistance. Second, Iran’s foreign policy can be argued as a zero-sum gain against the United States, wherefore if Iran can build a strong, secure, unified, and stable region with its two neighbors then the need for the US and NATO will be limited, therefore allowing Iran to gain more influence in the region.
Thirdly, Iran has used the Trilateral Summit as a platform to express its opinions, criticisms, and distrust of the West in regards to herself as well as this region: “there are countries determined to dominate our region and they have targeted our region for their domination and hegemony […] today, clearly all these powers are interfering in our internal affairs, in the affairs of our region with military presence. We believe that the problems of the region must be solved regionally […] we should deny others the opportunity to interfere in our affairs.” By now, Iran’s view of the West is no secret; as a result it is difficult to overlook this aspect of its national interest even when it comes to building relationships with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and increasing regional cooperation. However, Iran’s interest in this three-way relationship, although complex, is explainable: its involvement with Pakistan and Afghanistan will go as far as it benefits its national interests. Iran’s number one priority is its own security against the West, but it knows this cannot be achieved unilaterally, thus the significance of this three state alliance.
In closing, Iran’s primary objective from this Third Trilateral Summit appears to be driven more by national security and the threats from the international community than by regional cooperation. That is not to say that her relationship with Pakistan and Afghanistan is not important but rather it plays a part in Iran’s foreign policies vis-à-vis the West. Therefore, the three advancements that were made, although beneficial for the region, also benefits Iran in its long term pursuit of freeing itself and this region from the United States. Furthermore, having two more allies will help Iran gain further stability during an unstable time, given its nuclear program. And all things considered, this approach by Iran is nothing unique or controversial. If Afghanistan or Pakistan were examined in place of Iran it is likely that the same conclusion can be made.