Biden may hold unclenched Iranian hand
By M K Bhadrakumar
Eyes trained to watch the Hindu Kush must now turn askance toward Germany where
the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy is scheduled to take place next
weekend. Organizers of the annual event revealed on Thursday that among the 300
prominent figures from the international arena of foreign, security and defense
policy will be a "very high-ranking personality" from Tehran.
Other VIPs include US Vice President Joseph Biden, who is expected to make a
major foreign and security policy speech. The big question is: Will the United
States and Iran make contact at Munich?
The Jerusalem Post carried a Guardian newspaper report on Thursday that
Washington is preparing a letter to Tehran to
rapidly defrost the ties and pave the way for direct talks. The letter will
apparently be in the nature of a reply to the congratulatory letter from
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to US President Barack Obama on the
latter's victory in the November election.
Anyone familiar with the complex ways in which Persians express their heart's
desire will agree Ahmadinejad's response within hours of Obama's interview with
al-Arabiya on Monday showed Tehran seems quietly pleased with the drift of
things. Recent signals, it seems, have been reaching Tehran after all.
Tehran knows a main reason is that it has a crucial role to play in salvaging
the crisis in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the European Union's External
Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner flagged the importance of
inviting Iran to the EU's forthcoming "regional conference" on Afghanistan. The
ruling Christian Democratic Union of Germany has proposed in the Bundestag the
setting up of a "Contact Group" on Afghanistan that would comprise the UN
Security Council's permanent members, as well as the EU, Pakistan and Iran.
On Wednesday, in her first press conference as Secretary of State, Hillary
Clinton announced that the US will attend the next round of multilateral talks
with Iran on the nuclear issue next week in Germany. She said there is a "clear
opportunity for the Iranians" to demonstrate "some willingness to engage
meaningfully". Borrowing Obama's metaphor, Clinton added, "Whether or not that
hand becomes less clenched is really up to them. But as we look at the
opportunities available to us, we are going to have a very broad survey of what
we think we can do."
So, will the "very high-ranking" Iranian official be arriving at Munich with an
unclenched fist? If that happens, will Biden notice it? And will he
unhesitatingly extend his own hand? The fortunes of the Afghan war hang by a
It is fairly clear that Ahmadinejad, who is riding a wave of popular support
inside Iran, is all but certain to win a renewed mandate in the forthcoming
presidential elections in June. Therefore, the US administration need not wait
for months, as experts previously predicted, to deal with a cohesive Iranian
regime. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has publicly stated that Ahmadinejad should
remain at the helm.
On Tuesday, the chief of Iran's armed forces General Hassan Firouz Abadi, who
comes directly under the Supreme Leader, implied that "conspiracies" against
the incumbent in the Byzantine corridors of Iranian domestic politics have
withered away and that Iran needed someone of Ahmadinejad's "capability and
dynamism". Former president Mohammad Khatami, who was tipped to be a candidate
of the reformist camp, has since excused himself from the race.
Arguably, the Iranian regime has also cleared the way for a swift engagement
with the Obama era. At a minimum, it seems Iran anticipated that an opportune
moment to engage might unceremoniously arise. Tehran knows any number of third
parties - not necessarily Israel - might exploit delays to try to subvert a
direct US-Iran engagement.
To be sure, the US is in acute need of Iran's cooperation for the success of
its new Afghan strategy. The US's "surge" strategy is coming under a cloud
already. Critics are piling up questions marks and voicing skepticism about its
need and efficacy. In his Congressional testimony in Washington on Tuesday,
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admitted that while the US military expects
to be able to send three additional combat brigades totaling up to 12,000
troops to Afghanistan between late spring and mid-summer, he remained "deeply
skeptical" of any further troop increases. The US commanders in Afghanistan
asked for as many as 30,000 more combat and support troops.
Gates suggested the US goals in Afghanistan must be "modest" and "realistic".
He said, "This is going to be a long slog, and frankly, my view is that we need
to be very careful about the nature of goals we set for ourselves in
Afghanistan." Critics point out that even a doubling of the current US troop
strength of 30,000 will not mean much. Military experts estimate the Afghan
insurgency can be successfully overcome only with a force level of half a
Besides, other major hitches remain.
First, European countries remain averse to making troop contributions.
According to Robert Hunter, former US ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) during the Bill Clinton administration, there could at best
be only some "token response" if Washington made a new appeal, despite the
"extraordinary goodwill" for Obama among Europeans. "I rather suspect if the
United States pushes too hard on asking for new forces, it will lead to a
rebuff," Hunter said.
The US will be compelled to hasten the search for a political solution even as
robust attempts to regain the military momentum from Taliban continue. This is
where Iran's cooperation is critically needed. It is never easy to finesse a
contradictory strategy of "Talk, talk; fight, fight". Iran can help keep the
western, northern and central regions of Afghanistan calm while the US focuses
on pacifying the south and southeastern provinces and the Afghan-Pakistan
border areas. At the very least, Iran should not meddle with US operations
there. In his testimony, Gates warned of Iranian interference in Afghanistan.
Second, despite all the propaganda, the US would know it has no better ally
than Iran in combating al-Qaeda and the Taliban. However, this could work in
different ways. It could pose problems if the US embarked on a genuine dialogue
with the Taliban without having a degree of Iranian acquiescence. Iran can
easily undermine any inter-Afghan talks.
On the other hand, the US can use Iranian opposition to the Taliban as a
bargaining chip to get the latter (and Pakistan) to pare down any excessive
claims on power sharing in a future set-up in Kabul. Finally, Iran will be a
useful partner to persuade the non-Taliban protagonists. Most important, the US
should ensure Tehran does not resent any mediatory role by Saudi Arabia.
Third, Iran can help to put together any credible loya jirga or other
form of inter-Afghan dialogue that is needed to legitimize any new regime in
Fourth, if the US chooses to look beyond Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the
interim and decides to engineer a new political dispensation in Kabul, it will
run into serious difficulties without tacit Iranian concurrence. Kabul has just
announced the date of the presidential elections as August 20. Karzai is making
a serious bid for re-election and has begun networking with erstwhile
mujahideen figures in a bid to boost his candidacy, many of whom are in Iran's
orbit of influence. Of course, Tehran has a serious choice to make here.
Karzai maintained an easy equation with Tehran despite US attempts to get him
to allege Iranian interference within Afghanistan. Thanks to Karzai's goodwill,
Iran enjoyed a level playing field within Afghanistan. As a result,
government-to-government ties and Iranian trade and cultural activities gained
and overall Iranian influence flourished.
Tehran must seriously ponder if its interests are served by Karzai's exit at
this juncture or not. Tehran stands to gain out of a genuinely independent
Karzai who asserts Afghanistan's sovereignty and resists the US diktat. Karzai
is becoming assertive and is even demanding a SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement)
with the US on the Iraqi model, which would give Kabul decisive say in critical
matters such as where the US troops should be based and how they operate.
Karzai is openly seeking Russian military aid. As Foreign Minister Rangin
Dadfar Spanta put it, "our [Afghan] military personnel, pilots in particular,
are familiar with [and have been trained in] Russian techniques. And some of
the Russian helicopters work well in our mountainous areas. So if the Russians
help us in these areas, we ... are not opposed to it".
Fifth, even if a "grand bargain" with Iran over the Afghan situation is some
way down the road, the US is far better off engaging Iran directly than leaving
Tehran to "gang up" with other regional powers. Finally, US-Pakistan relations
have entered a critical period. The Predator drone strikes on Pakistan's border
areas have become controversial. Islamabad feels distressed about Washington's
decision to appoint a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan but
keep India and the Kashmir problem out of the envoy's directive.
Nothing could alter the Afghan calculus more than if a Tehran-Islamabad axis
emerges, unlikely as the prospect may seem at this point. But then, in the
quicksands of Afghan politics, anything can change overnight. Therefore, if
Biden, the grey cardinal of the US foreign policy establishment, extends his
hand to a distinguished Iranian personality with unclenched fist at Munich next
weekend, he will be doing so not a day too soon.
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.