Iran and the U.S. ‘meet’ again over Afghanistan: Atlantic Council

May 26, 2020 - 11:3

In an administration short on diplomatic talent, Zalmay Khalilzad stands out.

His title is U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation and he is charged with extricating the United States’ military presence in that country. Tangentially, Khalilzad’s deep background as a multilingual former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations—and his nature as an inveterate schmoozer—have put him in a position to revive U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and to help de-escalate what had been a dangerous rise in tensions.

Recently, under United Nations (UN) auspices, there was a meeting of something called the “Six Plus Two.” Created after the Taliban seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, this format brings together the six neighbors of Afghanistan, Russia, and the United States to discuss how to stabilize Afghanistan.

In a digital chat with the Atlantic Council on May 20, Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Undersecretary-General for Political and Peace-building Affairs, confirmed that Khalilzad had been present at a recent virtual Six Plus Two meeting, along with diplomats from Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan’s neighbors. She noted that this was a “unique” convening of American and Iranian officials at a time when other direct channels appear shut.

In the late 1990s, this format was an important venue for U.S.-Iran interaction in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. Both countries used the meetings to send signals to each other and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even attended a session in 1998, hoping to encounter her Iranian counterpart. She eventually did in 2000.

Khalilzad, an Afghan native who went on to become the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the UN, has used his fluent Dari—a close cousin of Persian—to chat with Iranian counterparts in a variety of settings. He recognized then. As now, that Iran has enormous capacity to help or hinder the political stability of its neighbors and, thus, advance or retard U.S. interests in the Middle East.

One of the many flaws of the Trump administration’s heavy-handed approach toward Tehran is that it has sacrificed the interests of Iran’s neighbors in the pursuit of “maximum pressure.” Countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, need to trade with their large neighbor in order to be successful. Consequently, sanctions reimposed by the U.S.—after they quit the Iran nuclear deal two years ago—have hurt Iran’s neighbors and complicated their relations with the United States.

Furthermore, DiCarlo said Iran had been helpful in convincing squabbling factions in Afghanistan’s government to reach an agreement on a joint committee to negotiate with the Taliban, with whom Khalilzad has forged a tentative pact. “Iran is now playing a constructive role regarding the Houthis” in Yemen, DiCarlo added, without providing details.

Six Plus Two proved useful in that regard two decades ago and could do so, again, especially, with a diplomat like Khalilzad at the table.

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