Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan Conundrum

Obama’s diplomatic initiative on Iran

From The Statesman

So far the USA’s focus has been shoring up unstable Pakistan with billions of dollars in direct aid as well as occasional bombing by drones the Taliban-controlled border region in order to stabilise Afghanistan.

The strategy is not working. Much more is needed. For example, it is being realised that ignoring Afghanistan’s historic neighbour, Iran, would not bring about lasting peace in the region.

In a new diplomatic initiative, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Iran would be invited to an international summit meeting on Afghanistan. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Netherlands would host what Mrs Clinton called “a big-tent meeting” on 31 March. Iran’s response to the proposal has not been negative.

Unlike in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaida and the Taliban is supposedly the NATO’s war, though the USA has a major commitment including 38,000 troops, while the rest of NATO has contributed 30,000 troops. President Barack Obama has decided to send another 17,000 troops by the summer, but the number would increase substantially as the US presence in Iraq decreases over the next eighteen months, according to the Obama withdrawal plan.

Since the 1979 revolution under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the toppling of the Shah and the holding of 52 American hostages for 444 days, Iran and the USA have treated each other, rhetorically at least, as mortal enemies. The diplomatic relations were broken off in 1980 after which the USA imposed trade embargo on Iran. Added to these cold war hostilities has been the Iranian support for the radical Islamic groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, which the USA regards as terrorist organisations. But what worries the USA most is Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme, though Iran claims that the nuclear programme is only for peaceful power generation purposes, which is hardly convincing.

At the same time, Iran cannot but realise that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, with opium flowing freely in all directions, would not be in its best national interest. Bringing about reasonable governmental functionality and political stability to Afghanistan would make Iran’s backyard safe. Geopolitically Iran’s diplomatic face is turned towards West Asia where it would like to play its historic role and exercise its influence, though it has growing trade relations with India and China.

A failing and chaotic state like Afghanistan ruled by drug lords and the Taliban (supported by Pakistan’s ISI) would be a terrible threat for Iran. So if Iran and the USA could cooperate in Afghanistan in pursuit of their common interests, so goes the rationale, there might be some thaw in the long frozen diplomatic relations. Eventually some acceptable international solution to Iran’s so-called peaceful nuclear programme might be reached.

Iran-US relations have always been marked with complexity and opportunism since the British-US engineered coup d’état against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 brought Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power in Iran, who continued to rule the country authoritatively, albeit secularly, until he fled the country after the Khomeini revolution in 1979.

In 1986, the Reagan administration entered into a secret arms-for-hostage deal with Iran (through Israel) in order to get the release of American hostages held by pro-Iran militant organisation Hezbollah in Lebanon. At that time Iran was also fighting the long lingering war against Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who was ironically being supported by the USA.

During the brutal Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996-2001), Iran supported the Northern Alliance, which after the 9/11 terrorist attacks became a US-NATO ally in the fight against the Taliban. Perhaps the US-Iran relations might have improved but in January 2002 President George W Bush in his messianic zeal clubbed Iran with other countries that formed “an axis of evil,” accusing it of clandestinely working on nuclear weapons.

The coming of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power as Iran’s president ~ with his rhetoric of Holocaust denial and a bizarre vision of a West Asia without Israel ~ further aggravated the relations. Nonetheless, Mr Obama in his new approach to global diplomacy expressed his willingness to talk with Iran, if it “unclenched its fist”.

The important point to keep in mind is that Americans are seldom shy of discarding dysfunctional political principle; rather they are eager to find new diplomatic ways to seek a workable solution to a difficult international problem. Consider this: Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 normalised relations between the two most ideologically extreme countries, which eventually hastened the end of the Vietnam war.

No principle is more sacred to Americans than their paramount national interests. Today the Obama administration is determined to stabilise Afghanistan by eliminating the Taliban and Al- Qaida regardless of the cost because Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, presents an existential threat to the USA.

So it may be necessary to develop working diplomatic relations with Iran whatever the carrot and stick strategy is needed. Although our attention is drawn to Afghanistan-Pakistan badlands that provide sanctuary to Islamic militants, Afghanistan’s trade relations with Iran have been flourishing since the overthrow of the Taliban. The new road network, one built by Iran that connects Herat to the Iranian border and the other built by India that gives Afghanistan access to the Iranian port of Chah Bahar and the Arabian Sea, has substantially enhanced trade between the two countries. This could be the beginning of the US-Iran cooperation for stabilising Afghanistan. Pakistan is the only problem for Afghanistan. “The whole question about Afghanistan and Pakistan is one that we’ve given a great deal of thought to,” Mrs Clinton said in Brussels after the NATO foreign ministers meeting, according Reuters. “It is clear that the border areas between the two countries are the real locus of a lot of the extremist activity. It’s becoming obvious that Pakistan faces very serious internal threats, and that Afghanistan faces continuing external threats that emanate out of Pakistan.”

So the biggest challenge for Mr Obama is to explore what would work in Pakistan, a country that gives the nightmarish impression that neither President Asif Ali Zardari nor the all-powerful Army (including ISI) is in complete control of the whole country, considering what happened in Swat.

Building bridges between Iran and the USA might be a challenging diplomatic role for India for which the rewards will be immense.

(ND Batra teaches communications and diplomacy at Norwich University)

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