The adversarial objectives that Iran and the US have pursued in the expanded region comprising West Asia, Central Asia and Afghanistan can be understood properly within a larger geopolitical framework. Following the decline of Iraq’s power, Iran has been aspiring to be a strong regional power by playing a major role in oil politics and by extending its influence and connectivity with other parts of the region through land and sea. This would not only benefit Iran in terms of trade and supply of oil, it would allow Iran to develop multidimensional strategies as well.
While the US seeks to contain Iran’s influence in such a geopolitically significant region and extend its own, Iran’s ambition for a greater regional role was reflected in its attempt to become a nuclear power until recently, despite international sanctions, in its massive support for non-state militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in terms of finance and arms, seeking support of the Islamic countries against the occupation of Palestine by Israel and in its continued role of strengthening Shiite groups in the neighboring countries where they are a minority. Supporting Sunni groups like Hamas has compensated for its policy of promoting the interests of Shiite groups exclusively. Though initially, after the Islamic revolution in 1979, the zeal to export Shiite ideology shaped Iran’s foreign policy, geopolitical considerations played a prominent role in the formulation of later foreign policies.
Unlike the early phase, Iran’s support for groups abroad is based on geopolitical considerations. For example, Iran’s relations with hardline Shiite factions, such as al Sadr were occasional, tactical and short term and aimed at undermining the unilateral US policy of excluding Iran from Iraqi politics. Iran was quite aware of the fact that any long term support for the Shiite factions in Iraq would disturb the power equations there and not serve the interests of Iran in the long run by generating greater regional instability. Similarly, multiple supports for different non-Pashtun groups to challenge the Taliban during the latter’s rise to power and alleged support for the Taliban to bog down the US forces point to the fact that co-ethnic groups did not remain the permanent constituency for Iranian support.
To weaken the American role in the region, Iran has argued for an increased role of the UN in Afghanistan, has invested in selected areas of the overall rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan primarily to enhance its connectivity with the Central Asian region and worked towards the formation of alternative regional groups along with its support for proxies in the region.
As part of the Obama administration’s policy of pragmatic engagement with Iran, the P5+1 made concerted efforts to bring Iran to the negotiating table on the nuclear issue. The P5+1 and Iran reached an understanding in Geneva that the West would lift sanctions partially with the temporary suspension by Iran of its nuclear program. However, such an understanding may not remove their mutual suspicions which lie in their adversarial geopolitical objectives. It would also be far-fetched to believe that the US would alienate its allies like Saudi-Arabia and Israel and cooperate with Iran beyond a limit. The Iranian regime might have thought it to be prudent to engage the western powers on the nuclear issue for relieving pressures on the economic front as Iran has suffered from sanctions from the major economies of the world for years. Iran would nevertheless object to any intrusive role that the US might pursue to inspect Iranian military facilities under the guise of the nuclear deal.
This understanding, however, has given rise to concerns and fears among American allies in the region that an economically stronger Iran might bring greater instability in the region by channeling more aid towards assisting its proxies. The Obama administration’s pronouncement of pragmatic engagement with Iran has been contradicted by many counter-productive policies which strengthen the American allies in the region over the years. The trust-deficit between the US and Iran lies in the broader context of conflicting geopolitical objectives that both pursue in the expanded region of West Asia, Central Asia and Afghanistan. Mutual suspicions are likely to continue unless and until the US recognizes Iranian claims and objectives in the region.