http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/LJ21Ak01.html By Kaveh L Afrasiabi Iran and the United States may have too much in common to engage in a "new cold war" based on clear-cut concepts of containment and deterrence. For instance, Tehran sent its special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Qanezadeh, to an international conference on Afghanistan, held in Rome on Monday. This came after the green light from US officials, including the US envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, who admitted that Iran played a key role in Afghanistan's stability. Similarly, Mark Toner, a spokesman for the US State Department, said Iran's attendance showed that, as a neighbor of Afghanistan, Iran had "an interest in seeing a stable, prosperous, peaceful content Afghanistan emerge". Delegates from more than 40 countries as well as the United Nations and the European Union attended the gathering. The meeting, a prelude to next month's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Lisbon, reviewed progress in achieving the stability needed "to guarantee democracy and development in the region", with special attention paid to the transfer of control of Afghanistan to local authorities. Tehran's presence in Rome comes against the backdrop of recent news regarding the Afghan police's discovery of a large cache of arms smuggled from Iran, sure to remind NATO forces of Iran's potential for a great deal of mischief. At the time of the meeting in Rome, though, in Washington senior officials in the Barack Obama administration issued a joint statement with a group of visiting Israeli officials that cited Iran as the "greatest challenge" to Middle East stability. This is not to mention that some European countries are refusing to provide jet fuel for Iranian passenger airplanes, in line with other United Nations and US sanctions on Iran over its uranium-enrichment program. The West's decision to attempt to weaken Iran through a combination of sanctions, "soft-power attacks" to paraphrase Iranian officials, including psychological warfare and cyber-attacks, does not sit well with the objective of relying on Iranian power to strengthen Kabul, deter the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and curb drug-trafficking. Concerning the latter, in light of the hefty costs of combating trafficking, the international community could provide financial and other support to Iran's police guarding the porous Iran-Afghanistan border, yet any such support is precluded by the net of UN and unilateral sanctions against Tehran. This in many ways sums up the West's self-imprisonment in the Cold War language of containment and deterrence vis-a-vis Iran, when in reality a more complex mixed game of simultaneous conflict and cooperation is emerging. Thus, while in both Iraq and Afghanistan there are elements of what can be described as "selective intelligence cooperation" between the US and Iran, the two countries have not shown any sign of such cooperation on Persian Gulf and larger Middle East issues, including Lebanon and the Occupied Territories. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's trip last week to Lebanon was widely interpreted, or rather misinterpreted, in the West as an alarming sign of Iran's growing regional influence imperiling Lebanon's fragile internal unity, this despite the special emphasis on Lebanon's national unity placed by Ahmadinejad throughout the two-day visit. Ahmadinejad did play up the theme of "forces of resistance" gaining the upper hand, mentioning Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria, but this does not necessarily translate into a situation of friends versus enemies in which there is no possibility of a win-win outcome. To elaborate, even inside Israel, moderate politicians may gain against their extremist colleagues in government by pushing for a more conciliatory approach on Palestinian issues in light of the growing backlash of Middle East radicalization due to those extremist policies. Beyond containment and deterrence Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, the US has pursued a straightforward policy of containment, aimed at preventing Iran's export of its revolution beyond its borders and gaining regional influence. This was done initially under the "Carter doctrine" of president Jimmy Carter, which eschewed the previous "Nixon doctrine" of president Richard Nixon that relied on the twin pillars of Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional stability. This resulted in a more interventionist policy that culminated in president Ronald Reagan's explicit support of Iraq during Saddam Hussein's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s. During president Bill Clinton's "dual containment" approach, unilateral sanctions on Iran were institutionalized, making it harder than ever to revert to normal diplomatic relations with Tehran. This was followed by the "axis of evil" of the George W Bush administration, despite Iran's major cooperation on Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, on Iraq.  Bush coined the phrase in his state of the union address in January 2002 as a label for countries accused of helping terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction. Along with Iran, Iraq and North Korea were fingered. With the Barack Obama administration, a new "engage Iran" policy translated into Washington's authorization in the spring of 2008 that Tehran could be invited to international conferences on Afghanistan. But this paled in comparison with the opposite policies that reflected the administration's addiction to the pre-existing policy of containment. "The US is exploiting the nuclear crisis to sell arms to wealthy Arab countries in the region, so you might say this is a functional crisis," says a Tehran University political science professor who is close to the president's inner circle. "But the problem is that this is also dysfunctional in areas of potential cooperation ... it makes it difficult for Iran to cooperate when we are under the gun of sanctions." The US fixation on "containing" or "deterring" Iran leaves little or no room for the expansion of Iranian countervailing influence in Afghanistan to stem the tide of the Taliban-led insurgency. Iran has a vested interest in maintaining the present status quo in Kabul and despite its rhetoric against foreign forces, it does not want a power vacuum when these troops finally leave. Should forces leave at this point, the Afghan police and army would not be able to fill the gap. Privately, many Tehran political analysts raise questions about the wisdom of Obama's planned troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, beginning in the middle of next year. Some Western observers believe that Iran intents to step into the void of American power. Yet Tehran is happy to play a secondary role while the US picks up the tab for stability, one that prevents the chaos of new waves of Iran-bound refugees. Nor is Iran too concerned about the proposed Turkmenistan-India "peace" pipeline that will run through Afghanistan as an alternative to the planned Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline. "Afghanistan is light years away from being a secure environment for a pipeline and that [project] is a long shot," says the Tehran professor. Indeed, Tehran may want to offer a bargain to the US: support for Afghan security in exchange for dropping official opposition to the "peace pipeline". The Pakistanis, who are in competition with both Iran and India for influence in Afghanistan, may not like this option, but they may live with it if they conclude that Afghanistan's security pie can be evenly shared.