Stephen M. Walt

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, ...

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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 the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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