Recently, Tehran staged the International Conference on Global Fight against Terrorism with delegates from Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan as well as Sudan, Tajikistan, Mauritania the United Nations and the OIC. The US criticised the conference as "ironic" and urged countries to avoid ties with the Islamic Republic.
However, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the outset of the conference, and the three discussed trilateral agreements in a range of areas, including security, economics and infrastructure.
The key talking point was the ongoing presence of US troops in Afghanistan. Karzai has long called for an end to the stationing of international forces in his country, and at the conference both Tehran and Islamabad voiced their support for his position.
"Regional security issues, requires very close cooperation of three countries," Ahmedinejad said. "We should prepare the ground so that Muslim countries will become powerful because if we become powerful, the situation will change, and no country will allow itself to invade the region."
Last month, US President Barack Obama announced the removal of 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, with 33,000 to be withdrawn by mid-2012 and full transition by 2014.
In a speech delivered during the summit, Karzai made clear his intention that once NATO forces have withdrawn, it will be Afghanistan’s neighbours — not Western powers — who will play the critical role in rebuilding his country.
"The Afghan nation demand withdrawal of foreign forces from their country, in this situation Iran and Pakistan can have an important role in establishing peace in Afghanistan," he said.
During the conference Iran warned against the establishment of permanent military bases close to the Afghan-Iran border, a prospect raised by both Karzai and the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff earlier this year.
Lowy Institute Middle East expert Dr Roger Shanahan told New Matilda Iran is keen to deter Afghanistan from any long term security or economic ties with Washington after the withdrawal of US forces — both to prevent a Western ally entering the region and to further promote Iran’s interests.
"The geostrategic reason for it is to encourage a degree of independence for Afghanistan so they’re not just a containment base for western forces. Initial views that the invasion of Iraq would (contain) Iran have mostly dissipated as Tehran now wields a fair degree of influence there. Iran realises it can’t wield that kind of influence in Afghanistan at present so the best thing to do is maintain cordial relations.
"For Afghanistan, Iran is a fact of life so having good relations with Tehran makes sense, in addition to creating some separation from Washington. The US certainly would have preferred more countries boycotted that conference, so by attending it demonstrates the independent decision-making of Afghanistan," he said.
Pakistan also sees a value in cultivating ties with Iran, after relations with Washington soured following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, including the cutting of foreign aid and the arrest by Pakistan of suspected CIA informants. Ties to Iran have been equally fractious in recent years but the Pakistani president said in a statement he is looking toward their common interests, including increased cooperation in areas of counter terrorism, narcotics control and human trafficking and the long delayed $7.5 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline.
Iranian influence is also growing beyond its immediate neighbours, with the announcement by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani of his government’s intention to close the Ashraf refugee camp in central Baghdad. The camp is host to Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), a militant group that has fought against the Iranian regime after being driven from the country after the 1979 revolution.
However the conference was equally notable for its absences, most importantly Saudi Arabia. Riyadh declined its invitation amid a failed diplomatic effort to convince Pakistan to also boycott the conference.
The Saudi monarchy has long criticised Iran for supporting Shi’ite-led insurgencies in Gulf states, and recently came to a diplomatic row over Saudi military assistance to quell the uprising in Bahrain.
The US State Department lists Iran as the most active state sponsor of terrorism with much of that alleged activity focused in the Gulf region. Still, that did not prevent the United Nations from becoming involved in the conference, with Ban Ki Moon sending messages of support.
His words provoked strong criticism from NGOs monitoring the UN, particularly as the conference was attended by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Indeed, the intention of the conference was to shift the focus away from Iran and its allies to link the causes of terrorism with the conduct of Western powers, especially wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the long running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
In his opening speech, Iran’s Supreme Leader the Ayatalloh Khameini condemned American drone attacks that "have turned weddings into mourning ceremonies" and the killing of Iraqi civilians by American private military contractors.
And despite much of Iran’s rhetoric on terror activity being labeled as "ironic" by Washington, there was one message from the conference that was inescapable.
Defined by organisers as a meeting of the "victims of terror", the conference began with news of a deadly suicide attack on an Afghan hospital that killed 38, and ended with a siege on the high-profile Kabul hotel days later that killed 21.
If Iran can continue to push its narrative of destructive Western interventions in Muslim nations as the root cause of such atrocities, it will also be able to use events such as the counter terrorism summit to ingratiate itself with nations seeking a capable ally to balance US demands.
Indeed the conference was designed to send a clear message to both Iran’s regional and global adversaries that Tehran cannot be isolated from establishing strategic partnerships. And with Iran growing in stature and the US presence in Afghanistan coming to an end, the message from Tehran will no doubt sound all too familiar to US policy makers: you may have the watch, but we have the time.
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