Facing increasing problems in Afghanistan, the Obama administration is comprehensively rethinking America’s approach towards the country. Obama is planning a regional strategy to tackle the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Given its considerable clout in Afghanistan, initiating any new regional approach without engaging Iran would be meaningless.

Iran's cooperation with the United States in 2001 was vital, both for removing the Taliban and bringing into power a democratic government in Afghanistan. But the collaboration between Iran and the U.S. did not last long after Bush's "Axis of Evil" declaration came out during his January 2002 State of the Union speech. With that experience behind us, it is hard to believe that Iran would easily engage with the U.S. in Afghanistan unless their future cooperation is defined in a comprehensive and strategic context.

It is now clear that Iran enjoys a great deal of potential in playing an important role in both the stability and development of Afghanistan. Historical, cultural and linguistic links between Afghanistan and Iran have always encouraged close ties between the two countries. Iran is a principal trading partner for Afghanistan. Renewed links with Iran allow Afghanistan to use the Iranian port of Chabahar, which is the closest and best access point of Iran to the Indian Ocean. Thus, Iran has provided the shortest and best access to open seas to the landlocked Afghanistan. Iran had granted 90% discount on Iranian customs duties or tariffs for Afghan trade. Herat, once a part of the Persian Empire, has been the principal beneficiary of a burgeoning trade with Iran. Trade between Iran and Afghanistan is facilitated by a well-paved highway built by Iran, which crosses the border into western Afghanistan. Iran's non-oil exports value to Afghanistan will exceed one billion USD as of March 20, 2009 (IRNA, November 7, 2008).

Iran also has good reasons for wanting to see a more stable Afghanistan, both to tackle the refugees’ problems and to block the flow of Afghan drugs. Young Iranians are paying the price for NATO's failure to curb opium production in neighboring Afghanistan. The volume of opium-based drugs being smuggled from Afghanistan - the source of more than 90% of the world's opium - had increased fivefold over the past five years. (guardian.co.uk, Sept11, 2008)

Despite of growing signs that the situation was worsening in Afghanistan, the Bush administration and its NATO allies adopted only half measured security options and largely ignored the development needs of the population. Therefore, the news about the resurgence of the Taliban and its activities was taken most uncaringly. The growth in poppy cultivation and the burgeoning narcotics trade were not taken seriously either. Overall, the security situation in the country dwindled each day and only limited security was provided for the capital city, Kabul. In a nutshell, continual negligence of their responsibilities practically poised the U.S. and NATO on the verge of a military defeat. Indeed, such a circumstance could become a very humiliating experience for the U.S. in its fight against terrorism and for NATO in its first "out of the region" expedition.

Obama came into power inheriting two unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there is some cause for optimism in Iraq, Afghanistan's situation is gloomy. In fact, there exist many issues of concerns and situation is deteriorating every day in the country.

To stop that downward spiral situation, Obama pledged in his presidential campaigns to focus American foreign policy on the problems in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan moves to centre-stage in U.S. foreign policy in Obama's administration, it is reported that a regional approach is under consideration in which assistance of regional countries like Russia, China and Iran would be sought hereafter. But, as far as Iran is concerned, Obama faces the dilemma of how to turn Iran into a partner in Afghanistan without establishing diplomatic relations. Some reports indicate that Obama’s administration is conducting a full policy review on Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. is planning to deploy up to 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in the next 12 to 18 months, but is facing new challenges regarding insecure routes from Pakistan. Since the onset of the crisis, the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan transported up to 75 percent of non-lethal supplies such as food, fuel and building materials across Pakistan. Adding to that problem is the decision by the government of Kirgizstan to close the American air base in the country, which serves as a vital supply point to Afghanistan. Under such circumstances, the planning is underway to find alternative routes of supply to Afghanistan.

Naturally, Iran with its strategic location looms high on the list of neighboring countries that can be helpful. In the past, what obstructed Iran's active and constructive role in Afghanistan was the Bush administration's apprehension about the growing influence of Iran in the region, making sure to curtail whatever Iran initiated in the benefit of security and development of Afghanistan. Although Iran has a long history of opposing the Taliban's rule from the beginning, the Bush administration viewed Iran's role in Afghanistan with suspicion. U.S. officials have previously alleged that Iranian-made weapons and explosive devices were finding their way in the hands of insurgents in Afghanistan. But this unfounded criticism was muted recently as Barack Obama's administration attempted to set a new tone in relations with Iran.

Some political and military leaders in the West have recently hinted at the need for closer cooperation with Iran for the stabilization of Afghanistan. NATO's Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, urged the U.S. and other members of the Western military alliance to engage with Iran to combat the Taliban militants in Afghanistan. In what is considered a clear shift in Washington's view of Tehran, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, mentioned that, "It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan” (UPI, Feb. 16, 2009). With that background, it is not surprising that much of the talk in the American media is that Iran and the U.S. have a great deal in common. They both reject the ideology that underpins the Taliban and Al Qaeda militancy. Nevertheless, it is still questionable whether the issue of Afghanistan can serve as a bridge to broader negotiations for Washington and Tehran or vice versa. That is to say, their cooperation has to wait for a comprehensive settlement between them that could cover many strategic issues including Afghanistan. As things stand today, the latter seems to have a better chance of materializing.