The lessons of geography appear to be ignored by policymakers in Washington D.C. these days. The Obama administration is pursuing tenuous negotiations with Iran regarding its supply of low-enriched uranium, in the hopes of taking the first step to erase the longstanding animosity between the two countries. It is also rethinking its Afghanistan and Pakistan policy to emphasize reconstruction and economic development. These two strategies are unfortunately disconnected -- despite the fact that Afghanistan shares a 600-mile-long strategic border with Iran.
Neither a "surge" of troops and aid in Afghanistan, nor negotiations over Iran's nuclear program without addressing its regional isolation, will bring Central Asia much closer to stability. The United States must support a policy that addresses the major deficiency all these countries share in common: a lack of clean, affordable energy for their poor populations. Only natural gas pipelines, not military supply lines, can do this.
The United States has so far been ambivalent about using Central Asia's natural resources to guide its policy, confounding the prospects for pipeline development. Yet without an energy infrastructure, individual U.S. reconstruction programs are going to struggle to get off the ground. For example, the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) established in Pakistan's tribal areas, which provide goods produced in these areas with duty-free access to the U.S. market, will have little impact without a steady energy supply to fuel local industry. Pipelines and power lines can be a much more significant economic stimulus. By providing energy for power-starved nations, they can empower microeconomic activity through lower fuel and electricity costs.
Natural gas pipelines can also provide an impetus for a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran. Two proposed pipeline routes currently offer the greatest opportunity to solidify regional integration and create lasting stability: the route from Iran via Pakistan to India (IPI), and from Turkmenistan via Afghanistan and Pakistan to India (TAPI). But thus far, the U.S. had sought to hinder international commerce with Iran, lobbying only for pipeline routes that avoid Iranian territory. It actively lobbied against the proposed Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) project - even despite its tacit acceptance of the pipeline that runs between Iran and Turkey. This Iran-Turkey pipeline, which traverses Turkey's volatile Kurdish region, also exemplifies how security along such infrastructure can be adequately provided, even in conflict zones.
The IPI pipeline might represent the most promising confidence-building measure with Iran. Furthermore, recent discussions surrounding TAPI actually route it through Iran as well. If this turns out to be the case, it will force the U.S. to accept that the stabilization of Pakistan and Afghanistan requires a rapprochement with Iran. Since demand for gas in South Asia continues to skyrocket, the U.S. should encourage both projects and actively link their implementation to its conflict resolution strategy for the region. Détente with Iran need not wait for a nuclear breakthrough.