Obama's back door to Iran ties

First create trust by seeking a deal on Afghanistan – it's a mess for both.

Obama officials are playing cat-and-mouse these days with Iran's envoys.

The new administration is eager to catch a meeting in any international forum that might lead to one-on-one talks. Issues range from Iran's nuclear program to an American journalist charged by Iran with spying.

If US diplomats do snag a secret negotiation, they'd be smart to start with the one issue in which Iran and America share a strong common interest: Afghanistan.

Neither country wants the Taliban back in power there or to have Al Qaeda again sending terrorists into other lands from that Himalayan backcountry. Iran needs stability on all its borders to cope with its worsening economy. And it remembers the killing of nine Iranian diplomats in 1998 under the then-Taliban regime.

And neither country wants Afghanistan to keep supplying 90 percent of the world's heroin – mainly across the 582-mile border with Iran. Over the past two decades, more than 3,700 Iranian police have been killed in drug-trafficking violence. And one study finds more than 1 in 7 young Iranians are addicted to heroin.

By working together on a mutual desire to stabilize Taliban-threatened Afghanistan (and to some degree, Pakistan), the two longtime enemies must build enough trust to tackle the more difficult issues that will require onerous trade-offs.

So far, the Islamic Republic is reluctant to give much ground to President Obama. And that's despite his appeal for a new beginning and his dropping of a Bush-era condition on resuming nuclear talks (that uranium enrichment be suspended). Iran even denies a US claim that one of its diplomats met with an American envoy last month.

And while Iran hints of offering a compromise for a new round of talks on its nuclear program, the biggest road bump is Iran's great distrust of the US. It feels burned after it helped President Bush in the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, only then to be tagged as a part of an "axis of evil." It is not sure whether Mr. Obama might succumb to domestic or Israeli pressure and reverse course on any deal.

Iran has lately made moves to help Afghanistan, with which it shares some similarity in language and ethnicity. It is offering to train Afghan police in fighting drugs, as Japan is doing now.

"When you talk about a regional approach to dealing with terrorism and extremism, Iran is an important player to the region," Pakistan's foreign minister told reporters this week.

Obama's chief diplomat for possible talks with Iran is longtime Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross. Last year, in a scholarly article, he called for a "direct, secret back channel" with Tehran. Such secrecy would help "protect each side from premature exposure" of any positions that might create a backlash.

If such talks begin on Afghanistan, one key issue would be whether Iran or the US – or neither – would end up having more influence in that country.

The two nations did seem to have come to an accommodation over influence in Iraq once US forces leave. Why not Afghanistan?

Iran and the US have to start somewhere to avoid a train wreck on the nuclear issue.

With so little goodwill, the two should start small.

As one Iranian negotiator said last year, Tehran's negotiations with the West are like weaving a Persian carpet. They can only "move ahead in millimeters."

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