In crafting a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, U.S. military and political leaders say Iran-once dubbed a member of the "axis of evil" by former President George W. Bush-could play a key role. Despite ongoing concerns over Iran's nuclear program and allegations of arming militants in the region, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in the region, says Washington and Iran could coalesce around stabilizing Afghanistan. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the sentiment (PDF) in late January 2009. NATO partners, too, have sought to include Iran in Afghan strategy decisions. German lawmakers have called for the creation of a "contact group" of nations to chart a new regional course. "Such an initiative, that would include Iran, would benefit if it came to direct talks between Washington and Tehran," Andreas Schockenhoff, vice chairman of Germany's Christian Democratic Party, said in a statement reported by German media.
Yet bringing Iran into the fold, and judging Tehran's willingness to do so, is complicated by Iran's historic relationship to its eastern neighbor. For one, Iran is accused of supplying weapons to Taliban rebels operating along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Allegations have been tempered in recent months, but experts nonetheless see a number of reasons why a strengthened Taliban would serve Iran's interests, particularly in keeping U.S. forces off balance. "It is true that Iran was helping the Taliban out," possibly by supplying weapons and training, says Elizabeth Rubin, an Afghan expert. But, she adds, "in the big picture the Iranians do not want the Taliban back."
Iran has close linguistic and cultural ties to Afghanistan, particularly with Tajiks, Persian-speaking Afghans in Herat Province, and the Hazara, a Shiite minority residing in central...