Moscow, Tehran force the US's hand
By M K Bhadrakumar
It may seem there could be nothing in common between the blowing up of a bridge
in the Khyber, the usage of an air base nestling in the foothills of the Pamirs
and the launch of a 60-pound (37.2 kilogram) satellite into the night sky that
will circle the Earth 14 times a day.
But band them together and they trigger the political and diplomatic equivalent
of what is known in the game of chess as zwischenzug, which means an
intermediate move that improves a player's position.
Persians, who invented chess, would have mastery over zwischenzug.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi said in
Tehran on Wednesday, "Iran has no plans to stop its nuclear activity. At its
forthcoming meeting, the 'Iran Six' should draw up a logical approach and
accept the fact that Iran is a nuclear state."
The Taliban don't play chess
It is unlikely the Taliban factored Iran's imminent zwischenzug when
they blew up the 30-meter iron bridge in the Khyber Pass 24 kilometers west of
Peshawar in northwest Pakistan on Monday, which halted the supplies for North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops in Afghanistan. But the disruption
of traffic once again exposed the vulnerability of the main NATO supply route
and focused attention on Tehran.
This is forcing NATO into a major policy shift. NATO's top military commander
in Afghanistan, General John Craddock, admitted that the alliance would not
oppose individual member nations making deals with Iran to supply their forces
in Afghanistan. To quote Craddock, a four-star American general who is also
NATO's supreme allied commander, "Those would be national decisions. Nations
should act in a manner that is consistent with their national interest and with
their ability to resupply their forces. I think it is purely up to them."
Craddock was transferring rapidly to the operational plane what the alliance's
secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had said only a week ago that NATO
member countries, including the United States, should engage Iran to combat the
Taliban in Afghanistan.
Scheffer wouldn't have spoken without Washington's nod. Craddock underscored
it. NATO is keen to use the new highway built by the Indian government from
central Afghanistan to the Iranian border at Zaranj, which would allow access
to Iran's deep-sea Persian Gulf port at Chabahar. The road is largely unused.
The Indians completed work on the highway hardly a fortnight ago.
NATO is scrambling. It must somehow reduce dependence on Pakistani supply
routes, which are currently used for ferrying about 80% of supplies. The irony
cannot be lost on onlookers. NATO seeks an Iranian route when Tehran is
demanding a US troop pullout from Afghanistan.
Last Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki remarked that Iran
had paid attention to the plans of US President Barack Obama's administration
to withdraw US troops from Iraq and "we believe this should be extended to
Afghanistan as well".
The irony deepens insofar as a fortnight ago US Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates in his first congressional testimony in the new administration leveled
allegations about increased Iranian "interference" and doublespeak in
Afghanistan, and implied that Tehran was fueling the insurgency.
The heart of the matter is that the US's efforts to open supply routes from the
north across the Amu Darya have got caught up in the great game in Central
Asia. American spokesmen blithely claimed Russia and the Central Asian states
were providing supply routes. But the geopolitics do not bear that out.
Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev dropped a bombshell on Tuesday by
demanding the closure of the US military base in Manas, which is used for
ferrying supplies for Afghanistan. He said this after talks with Russian
President Dmitry Medvedev, during which Moscow pledged to Bishkek that it was
writing off $180 million debt and would also provide Kyrgyzstan with a $2
billion soft loan and an outright grant of $150 million.
NATO's envoy to Central Asia, Robert Simmons, rushed to Bishkek in a last-ditch
attempt to stall the Kyrgyz move, but only to regret the development and admit
that NATO's Afghan operations would be adversely affected. Washington still
hopes to salvage the situation, but that involves taking Moscow's help.
Moscow is willing, as always - provided the US is prepared to shelve its
untimely geopolitical agenda to broaden and deepen its (and NATO's) strategic
presence in Central Asia on the pretext of developing new supply routes for
Afghanistan. Plainly put, Moscow feels irritated about Washington's abrasive
diplomacy in Central Asia in recent weeks.
The US signed an agreement with Kazakhstan, Russia's key ally, offering to
procure "a significant part" of its supplies for Afghanistan from that country.
and in turn is pressuring it to make troop deployments in Afghanistan.
Conceivably, Moscow (and Beijing) view with disquiet the US move to court their
key Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Collective Security Treaty
Organization (CSTO) ally into the Western strategic orbit. Conceivably,
Moscow's zwischenzug to evict the US military from Kyrgyzstan would
enjoy tacit Chinese encouragement as well.
Nyet to selective engagement
Washington prefers "selective engagement" without addressing the underlying
factors that caused the chill in relations. The Kremlin remains cautiously
optimistic that Obama may address relations from a fresh perspective. The mood
is reflected in a pithy comment by former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev
that "there are grounds for optimism, so far".
But an underlying sense of exasperation is visible. As a Moscow commentator put
it, the George W Bush era may be over, but the "consequences are still there";
Obama might have new ideas, but the "old wire-pullers" are still there in the
establishment in key positions; and, therefore, Obama might need "years rather
than months to shape a new foreign policy".
So, Moscow resorted to zwischenzug. Last Saturday, the influential
Moscow paper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported that Russia proposed to reopen the
key Soviet air base of Bombora on the Black Sea coast in Abkhazia. On Tuesday,
Russia signed an agreement with Belarus setting up an integrated air defense
system. On Wednesday, Medvedev used the CSTO forum to reiterate he was open to
cooperation with the US in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan.
Again, in related comments on Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister
Grigory Karasin said, "We hope that we and the United States will hold special
and professional talks on this issue [of transit routes to Afghanistan] in the
near future. We will see how effectively we can cooperate ... The US, Central
Asia, China - we are all interested in a successful anti-terrorism operation in
Karasin assured that the US's eviction from Manas "would not prove an
obstruction". He said, "We [Russia] hope that we and the United States will
hold special and professional talks on the issue in the near future. We will
see how effectively we can cooperate."
In sum, the ball is in Obama's court. The big question is whether he can
bulldoze the hardliners and jettison the heavy baggage of geopolitics that his
faltering Afghan war is needlessly carrying.
Meanwhile, the shadow of US-Russian relations falls on the Hindu Kush. The
Russian media reported that a high-level Afghan military delegation is expected
in Moscow in the "near future". With a growing possibility that Obama may
withdraw support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Moscow will be weighing its
The US is perched on a slippery slope in Afghanistan. The Taliban resurgence
continues and the security situation is deteriorating, but NATO is unable to
increase its force level or evolve an effective strategy. NATO supply lines
have come under threat, but alternate routes are yet to be negotiated. The US's
rift with the Karzai regime is widening, but a replacement is never easy to be
catapulted into power in Kabul. Again, Washington should pressure Islamabad,
but the situation in Pakistan is far too fragile to take any greater pressure.
It is against this complex backdrop that Iran's satellite took off into the
star-studded night sky on Monday. Named Hope, its launch has a multiplier
effect on geopolitics. Warning bells are ringing in Western capitals that any
expectation of Tehran lowering its guard is misplaced. The launch can be seen
as a technological feat, which it indeed is, but Hope also gives a hard message
about Iran's military capability.
Experts estimate that the two-stage rocket used for its launch could easily
carry a small warhead to a target 2,500 kilometers away. It may not be an
inter-continental ballistic missile, but southern Europe comes within its
range, as indeed the whole of Israel. Simply put, Iran has in hand a credible
deterrent against a US-Israeli military attack.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs described the launch as of "acute
concern to this administration". German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeir
said after his first meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "We
want to be helpful in making sure that the outstretched hand of President Obama
is a strong hand." No doubt, these are strong words.
But an unmatchable German word is more to the point - zugzwang. It
literally means "compelled to move". That is, a situation develops on the
chessboard when any move a player makes can only weaken his position, but he is
nonetheless compelled to make his move.
It may be far-fetched to say that Moscow and Tehran coordinated their
respective zwischenzug, but certainly both keenly await Washington's zugzwang
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.