Want To Improve Ties With Iran? Ship It FedEx
As nuclear non-proliferation talks drag on between Iran and the rest of the international community, many observers remain unconvinced about any real tangible benefit. However, the recent downward trend in relations with Russia, and a strained relationship with Pakistan, may provide a novel opportunity for us to reach a deal with Iran that will not only prove economically beneficial to U.S. taxpayers, but that could also lay the groundwork for friendlier dealings between the U.S. and Iran overall.
The ongoing military drawdown in Afghanistan has presented a massive logistical challenge for the United States and coalition militaries. Given the current absence of a bilateral security agreement, some 35,000 combat vehicles and 95,000 containers comprising over $50 billion dollars of war materiel will be redeployed by the end of 2014. Crucially for taxpayers, the $6 billion estimated cost of the operation will be driven up tremendously if geopolitical constraints push more of the outgoing cargo to air shipment.
Most of the equipment will be trucked out, and the current route options are overland through Pakistan, subject to high fees per truck and intermittent militant interdiction, or through the Northern Distribution Network in Russian-influenced Central Asia, not to mention Russia itself. Over the past few years, the costs and tolls have crept up and created a myriad of political headaches for the United States and our NATO allies. Importantly, a feasible, if diplomatically challenging, solution exists.
Ship the materiel through Iran. Better yet, FedEx it. But for one problem.
Although it makes good business sense to open ground transportation from Afghanistan through Iran, today U.S. corporations are prohibited from considering such an enterprise. A Google search of FedEx + Tehran will return a FedEx site that unambiguously explains "Due to the current U.S. trade embargo, we currently offer no services to or from Iran."
Commercial vendors like FedEx and others have been crucial partners in sustaining forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world. Their terminal operations have been prominent drivers of on-the-ground success over the past decade, and have moved cargo from Baghdad International Airport to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Additionally, their proven business expertise compliments the capacities of the U.S. Transportation Command and the Defense Logistics Agency in executing the Department of Defense's global supply-chain operations. Most importantly, commercial enterprises provide the agility to actually make this happen.
From a purely logistical perspective, a ground route through Iran makes imminent sense, and has in fact been studied over the preceding 5 years by defense planners. A route west through Iran provides a comparable distance of 1,700km (compared to 1,600km for the Pakistani route through Khyber Pass) uncomplicated by extreme terrain, and has a terminus in the Gulf of Oman port of Chabahar. This seaport option places cargo near existing major United States logistical hubs. A route through Iran brings with it the potential to move cargo more quickly and more cheaply than would be the case through the other distribution routes. Perhaps the greatest appeal of at least having an Iranian option is removing the possible single points of failure represented by Pakistani and Russian routes.
From a geostrategic perspective, this initiative would eliminate much of the leverage that Pakistan, Russia, and the Russian influenced states in Central Asia have vis-a-vis ongoing retrograde operations from Afghanistan. This initiative also provides a simultaneous carrot and stick to Iran parallel to our ongoing dialogue: a limited scope and duration currency infusion for opening a transit route, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate that Iran wants to be a responsible partner in the global economy . . . or continue to pursue policy that leads to isolation.
There will certainly be stakeholders that do not see the comparative value of this alternative. Assuredly, any negotiation with Iran will be halting and byzantine. However, the anticipated completion of a Bilateral Security Agreement with Afghanistan should alleviate the urgency of the current pace of equipment withdrawal; it will allow time to finalize a route and source transportation companies.
This alternative poses many diplomatic questions: Would it collapse the sanctions regime? How would the State Department and Department of Defense's regional combatant commander's theater security programs be impacted by a commercial enterprise with Iran? Politically, it may ultimately only be acceptable to have coalition partners utilize this option. But the opportunity to save millions of dollars, reduce dependence on Russia and Pakistan, and open a productive dialogue with Iran is intriguing enough to merit further examination.
Afghanistan will have commercial dealings with Iran regardless of the presence of NATO's ISAF or follow-on coalition forces post 2014. Fostering commercial enterprises that provide benefits for both parties can be an important first step towards confidence building and normalizing relations. And if it saves U.S. taxpayers a small fortune, the story will get even better.
Col. Eric Shirley (United States Army) and Lt. Col. Matthew Atkins (USAF) are National Security Fellows at the Hoover Institution. The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the authors. They do not reflec the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Army, the United States Air Force, or Air University.