Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon gathered in Tehran on Thursday for a meeting with their Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It was the fourth such tripartite meeting in the past two years, and came a day after Ali Akbar Velayati, the adviser on international affairs to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, met in Beirut with Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. The two gatherings were technically unrelated, but demonstrated a common point: Iran is capable of projecting power in multiple arenas, from the Levant to southwest Asia, and wants the world - especially the United States and, to a lesser degree, Russia - to know it.
Velayati is the Supreme Leader's man, not Ahmadinejad's. That he was dispatched to Beirut to meet with Nasrallah is quite significant. Khamenei does not normally dispatch his own people to make such trips abroad. He prefers to sit back and leave such matters to the administration. For him to personally tap Velayati for such a mission is a sign of the strategic value Tehran ascribes to its foothold in the Levant.
Hezbollah, despite its connections to Damascus and its own independent motivations, is how Iran maintains that foothold, in addition to serving as Tehran's primary deterrent against any future Israeli attack. Few understand this fact better than Velayati, who served as Iran's foreign minister from 1981 to 1997, the time during which Tehran was cultivating Hezbollah from its infancy into one of the most capable Islamist militant groups in the world.
Ostensibly, Velayati was in Lebanon attending a summit at the invitation of the Islamic Organization for the Press. In reality, though, Velayati was there to publicly touch base with Iran's Lebanese Shia militant proxy Hezbollah, something that never ceases to capture Washington's attention. Velayati's visit comes only a few days after Saudi King Abdullah visited Beirut alongside Syrian President Bashar al Assad as part of Riyadh's efforts to pull Damascus out of Tehran's orbit and weaken Hezbollah. By sending Khamenei's adviser to meet with Nasrallah, the Iranians are letting the Saudis - and by extension, the Americans - know that any efforts to weaken their influence in Lebanon will not go unanswered.
"Just as the United States demands concessions from the Iranians, Tehran in turn seeks to gain some sort of recognition from America regarding its natural leading role in the region."
While Iran was tending to matters in Lebanon, it was also busy in another arena. As aforementioned, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hosted his counterparts from Afghanistan and Tajikistan in a meeting held in Tehran. While Tajikistan is predominately locked into Russia's sphere of influence in Central Asia, the Iranians have an interest in playing up their common Persian heritage with both countries to demonstrate the influence they can bring to bear in the region on their northeastern flank. Tehran demonstrating its ties to a country within the Russian sphere of influence will definitely grab the Kremlin's attention as the move comes at a time when Russia appears to be wavering on its support for Iran.
The same goes for Iran's desire to send a message to the United States. Ahmadinejad used the occasion on Thursday as an opportunity to continue the common Iranian refrain about the imminent American departure from the region and called upon the Afghans and Tajiks to join Tehran in establishing a security alliance of their own once all U.S. and NATO troops had departed. "The fate of the three countries are knotted together in different ways," the Iranian president said, "and those who impose pressure on us from outside, and who are unwanted guests, should leave. Experience has shown they never work in our interest." Ahmadinejad also made sure to draw a parallel between Iran's ability to cause problems for the United States in Iraq and its potential to do the same in Afghanistan. He said, "the Afghan question must be resolved within the region, and experience has shown that others are unable to solve problems in the region, as they have been unable to do in Iraq."
For Ahmadinejad, it was only the most recent public reminder directed at Washington - and partially toward Moscow - of the potentially disruptive role Tehran could play in southwest Asia. Actual capability aside, this type of rhetoric is all part of the subtle negotiating process under way between Iran and the United States. Just as the United States demands concessions from the Iranians, Tehran in turn seeks to gain some sort of recognition from America regarding its natural leading role in the region. Velayati's trip to Beirut sends a similar message about how Iran views its position in the Levant. All parties know that the United States cannot stay in Iraq and Afghanistan forever, and that Iran will still be exactly where it has always been long after U.S. troops leave: right in the middle. Tehran will try to take advantage of the inevitable American departure to bolster its own position as a regional leader, but would very much prefer to have an arrangement worked out with the United States beforehand, one in which Iran is recognized as the pre-eminent player in the region.