Roger Cohen, International Herald Tribune
If one country should have been happy with the post-9/11 upheaval the United States has engineered in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was Iran.
The Shiite mullahs in Tehran were delivered from their sworn enemy, the Taliban, against whom they had amassed 200,000 troops on the Afghan border in 1997, and from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, against whom they had fought an inconclusive war in the 1980s that took one million lives.
Afghanistan came under the authority of President Hamid Karzai, who has called Iran a ''close friend.'' Iraq's social revolution brought Shiite brothers to power. All this came thanks to the ''Great Satan,'' at no cost in Iranian treasure (growing by the day with oil at $70 a barrel) or blood.
I know history has its ironies, not least the fact that the United States funded the creation of Muslim holy warriors, Osama bin Laden among them, as agents in the Afghan undoing of the Soviet Union, only to face these warriors reinvented as death-to-America jihadists once the Cold War ended.
This was harsh payback for Washington. But Iran's payback for the favorable power shift gifted upon it has been as bitter.
In contrast to Iran, the countries that ought to have been most unhappy with the regime changes were America's regional allies — Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — Sunni powers with scant sympathy for the governments installed in Kabul and Baghdad.
They are indeed displeased by the power shifts. Everyone is irked, Iran chief and most dangerous among them.
The failure to parlay two American military interventions that served Iran's objective strategic interest into substantive engagement between the two countries constitutes the Bush administration's most costly diplomatic failure. Such expenditure of U.S. treasure and blood merited more creative diplomacy.
This failure hurts U.S. interests in Iraq and Lebanon and in finding an Israeli-Palestinian peace. It has even begun to hurt U.S. interests in Afghanistan where, in a fantastic turnabout, Iran is arming its erstwhile mortal enemy, the Taliban.
If America is engaged in another Cold-War-like generational conflict, which is the way the administration has chosen to characterize the war on terror, then Tehran is the closest equivalent to Moscow.
Iran combines ideological fervor, military vigor, strategic agility, domestic repression, economic weakness (petrol shortages despite having the world's second largest oil reserves) and serious social fissures in ways suggestive of the former Soviet Union. It is, in the assessment of one seasoned American diplomat, ''a worthy adversary.''
That adversarial role is now channeled into a proxy war in Iraq. U.S. accounts this week of Iranian involvement, through agents of its elite Quds Force, in the killing of five American soldiers in January were the most specific of a series of persuasive U.S. and British charges against Tehran.
What is Iran up to in Iraq and Afghanistan? It wants to keep America bleeding. Looking down the barrel of a gun over its nuclear program, Iran likes the idea of American forces stretched as thin as possible. It wants its Shiite proxies armed in the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. And, angered by the notion that Pakistan can have nukes but not Persia rising, it is looking for respect.
''Iran and the United States were closest on Afghanistan and Iraq, and farthest apart on the nuclear issue, Hamas and Hezbollah,'' said Vali Nasr, the author of ''The Shia Revival.'' ''The conciliatory logic of Iraq might have dominated, but the reverse has happened and Iranian moderates were never cultivated.''
Iran is an ugly regime. Its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a foul-mouthed buffoon. But it is also a sophisticated country and the only one in the Middle East with a government far more anti-Western than its generally America-loving population. Placing Iran in the ''axis of evil'' and isolating it has served no constructive purpose.
It is time to put the onus on the mullahs. The United States should propose broad, high-level talks with Iran across the range of issues confronting the two countries — Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine — while dropping its meaningless insistence that Iran suspend nuclear enrichment activities before talks begin.
That will test whether the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad feel they can survive without the ''Great Satan'' distraction from acute domestic woes.
If the answer to the invitation is no, and Iranian-orchestrated attacks in Iraq continue, America should play hardball. Iran, like Iraq, is a multiethnic country. Its Kurds, ethnic Baluchis and other minorities can find money and weapons flowing to them from a ''worthy adversary'' of the mullahs' regime.