Is McChrystal dovish on Iran?

I’ve blogged a lot about Iran and Afghanistan over the past few months, but I’ve been remiss in not highlighting an important connection between the two issues. As Spencer Ackerman noted a few days ago, U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal offered this intriguing comment during his remarks at IISS headquarters in London last week: Iran, ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
579924_091006_waltb2.jpg
579924_091006_waltb2.jpg

I've blogged a lot about Iran and Afghanistan over the past few months, but I've been remiss in not highlighting an important connection between the two issues. As Spencer Ackerman noted a few days ago, U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal offered this intriguing comment during his remarks at IISS headquarters in London last week:

Iran, of course, being, you know, in such proximity to Afghanistan and having significant influence inside Afghanistan, is a big player. They, in my view, they have a lot of very positive influence inside Afghanistan, some of it cultural, some of it financial, just things that any neighbor would have to try to build the stability. I think that if Iran takes a very mature look at a stable Afghanistan and support the government of Afghanistan, then we'll be -- we'll be in good shape. If they were to choose not to do that, and they were to choose to support insurgents, I think that would be a significant miscalculation.

I’ve blogged a lot about Iran and Afghanistan over the past few months, but I’ve been remiss in not highlighting an important connection between the two issues. As Spencer Ackerman noted a few days ago, U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal offered this intriguing comment during his remarks at IISS headquarters in London last week:

Iran, of course, being, you know, in such proximity to Afghanistan and having significant influence inside Afghanistan, is a big player. They, in my view, they have a lot of very positive influence inside Afghanistan, some of it cultural, some of it financial, just things that any neighbor would have to try to build the stability. I think that if Iran takes a very mature look at a stable Afghanistan and support the government of Afghanistan, then we’ll be — we’ll be in good shape. If they were to choose not to do that, and they were to choose to support insurgents, I think that would be a significant miscalculation.

I don’t think this comment was an idle remark by McChrystal. What he’s telling us is that Iran could be a positive influence in Afghanistan, and that it could also be a real hindrance to our efforts. And that means that an attack on Iran would make our situation in Afghanistan even worse than it is already, because Iran would have both the capacity and the incentive to retaliate.

There’s no love lost between Iran and the Taliban, in part because the Taliban murdered ten Iranian diplomats in Mazari Sharif back in 1998. But Iran does retain some influence there — as McChystal points out –and they would undoubtedly be looking for some way to pay us back if we were foolish enough to strike them. McChrystal is probably aware that advocates of a hardline approach to Tehran have a lot of clout in the Obama administration, and that plenty of other voices — such as GOP Senator Lindsay Graham — continue to wave the big stick even as negotiations get underway.

So McChrystal’s seemingly innocuous remark might actually be something of a pre-emptive strike against those who keep suggesting that our only approach to Iran is preventive war. If so, then this might be another illustration of Richard Betts’s argument in Soldiers, Statesmen, and Cold War Crises, which showed that at least in the U.S. context, civilians are often a lot more bellicose than the uniformed military. In any case, I hope Obama is paying attention.

SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.