A United States-Iran opportunity arises
By M K Bhadrakumar
Like in the Billy Ocean song, "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going",
 the United States special representative for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke, left
Kabul just as his confabulations over the Afghan presidential elections were
getting tough. By Tuesday, he was already at the fabulous Ottoman Palace-turned
super luxury hotel Ciragan Kempinski on the Bosphorous in Istanbul.
If Independent newspaper's Kim Sengupta is to be believed, at a brusque,
"frosty" meeting on Monday in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai felt
"irritated" and did some plain speaking when Holbrooke tried to discuss the
Afghan leader's electoral tactic and insistently tried to persuade him to face
a second round run-off in
October - most likely against former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
Watching the ships go by, as he stood on the Ciragan terrace overlooking the
Bosphorous among a galaxy of statesmen from the East and West for a photo-op on
Tuesday, Holbrooke didn't have to crane his neck to spot, at the other end of
the lineup, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Surely, the highlight
of the ministerial meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP) on
Tuesday in Istanbul would have been a chance encounter between Holbrooke and
Mottaki. The two-day meeting of the FoDP has brought together representatives
from 20 countries and six international organizations, including the US, China,
the European Union and the World Bank.
We may not get to know easily whether Holbrooke and Mottaki had a one-on-one on
the sidelines of the conference. But they could always bump into each other.
Surely, the Turkish hosts would do all they could to facilitate a US-Iranian
pow-wow. They have a way of making such impossible things happen, such as
bringing Israelis and Syrians together.
It is for the first time after the turmoil of the Iranian presidential
elections in June that a US-Iranian high-level "contact" might take place. That
in itself becomes a point of interest. The Barack Obama administration is
desperately trying to figure out the grain from the chaff. Experience shows
that it is when Iranian rhetoric is strident, that one should look for signs of
flexibility. Indeed, the signals coming from Tehran are mixed. The appointment
of Ali Akbar Salehi (who has a great reputation as a pragmatist) as Iran's
chief nuclear negotiator and the reappointment of the highly accomplished,
eminently reasonable and persuasive Mottaki as foreign minister cannot be
overlooked. This is because the appointments come amid the gathering storms
over the ongoing showcase trial of "conspirators" of the unrest in Tehran or
the incessant allegations by high-ranking Iranian officials of an American
attempt to stage a color revolution in Iran.
The Tehran trial has implicated a son of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani. It could take dangerous turns. Again, as it happens, Iran seems to
have voluntarily slowed down its enrichment of uranium since May and there have
been sudden signs of improved access for United Nations inspectors as they have
been allowed into a reactor that had been off-limits for a year. But then,
these could as well be a fresh Iranian ploy to buy time on the nuclear front
just ahead of a report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency in
The Iranian puzzle doesn't easily give way. But Holbrooke will not be deterred
by the West's struggle with Iran's game. He holds a clearcut brief: how far
will Tehran be willing to work with the Obama administration for the
stabilization of Afghanistan? In a well-publicized statement on August 13,
Holbrooke acknowledged that Tehran had a "legitimate role to play in the
resolution of the Afghan issue". He said, "They are a factor. And to pretend
that they're not, as was often done in the past, doesn't make much sense."
It was an act of kite-flying. Holbrooke estimated that Tehran would have
pondered his conciliatory words by the time he came across Mottaki in Istanbul.
Specifically, at the moment, the US seeks a helpful Iranian role in ensuring
the orderly formation of the next government in Kabul following the acrimonious
The last thing the US would want is that the bitter political divide among
Afghan politicians degenerate into violence. But at the same time, the US must
have a political dispensation in Kabul that is willing to go the entire way,
100%, with the Obama administration's AfPak strategy. Important decisions are
in the offing in Washington, which are certain to be controversial, relating to
the American troop strength in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency operations, and
reconciliation with the Taliban. The Kabul government would have to accept
these decisions. True, any new government in Kabul may well turn out to be a
transitional one, but its role is nonetheless critical.
As Holbrooke acknowledged, Tehran is unquestionably a "factor". Both Karzai's
vice-presidential nominees - Mohammed Fahim and Karim Khalili - and his most
powerful backers - Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Mohaqiq - are on
excellent terms with the Iranian establishment. It is reasonable to estimate
that Tehran has nothing to fear out of a second term for Karzai.
On the other hand, Tehran has maintained the correct equidistance between
Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah, since the latter too is no stranger
to the Iranians, who were a major promoter of the anti-Taliban Northern
Alliance of which Abdullah was a key player. Tehran is keeping its fingers
crossed about the election results and has hardly broken its silence on the big
picture emerging out of Kabul. Tehran seems wary that Karzai could always
upstage onlookers by having a backstage deal or understanding with the
What stands out is that with all the imperfections of the Afghan presidential
elections, Tehran is willing to accept the result at face value in the
interests of overall political stability at this critical juncture. Tehran is
willing to lower the bar of democracy for Afghanistan. But it has serious
apprehensions that the US has a game plan to manipulate the political scene.
The Iranian ambassador in Kabul, Fada Hossein Maleki, openly said in a media
interview last Thursday, "Probably, after the elections, we will see some
countries may cause certain problems or engage in provocative measures ... One
gets the feeling that a scenario has been drawn up."
An influential political figure in Tehran, Esmail Kowsari, who is also the
deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign
Policy Commission, has alleged that Western powers are deliberately whipping up
an opinion casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election results. He exhorted
Afghan authorities to be vigilant about preventing any Western attempt to
render the election verdict controversial. "They [Western powers] are after
their interests and not the interests of the Afghan people and officials," he
A comment by another influential Iranian parliamentarian is even more
revealing. Significantly, Seyed Hossein Naqavi, who is also a member of the
parliamentary Committee on Security and Foreign Policy, drew a parallel with
the turmoil after the Iranian election in June. He said, "We [Iran] also
witnessed during Iran's election that these Westerners tried to attain their
goals through misguiding the people and diverting their tendencies. In
Afghanistan, too, they are looking for pro-Western forces to attain their
He warned that a "huge wave of propaganda" had been unleashed with the intent
of casting doubt in the minds of Afghans and international opinion about the
election verdict. Naqavi said the US was certain to continue to put pressure on
Karzai to jettison his supporters and instead recast his cabinet in a way that
suits American "policies and goals", a view shared by former Iranian ambassador
to Kabul, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian.
Taherian said, "Kabul and Washington have certainly made deals to select
nominees for a number of key posts through mutual understanding." However, in
contrast with Iranian politicians, ambassador Maleki sounded a conciliatory
tone, offering that if the Obama administration gives up its interference in
Iran's domestic affairs, Tehran will be prepared for talks with the US on
On balance, it is in Iran's interest that the precarious Afghan political
situation does not worsen or take the form of public agitation over contested
results. Holbrooke can expect Iran to use its influence on Afghan protagonists
to cool political tempers and accept the verdict. But it seems highly
improbable that Tehran will play ball with the Americans in any shenanigans to
fix the results or to impose a political equation in Kabul. Indeed, Holbrooke
is miles away from striking a "grand bargain" with Mottaki. But an exchange in
Istanbul could be a useful confidence-building measure and step forward.
The Turks have a crucial role. They are taking up the leadership of the
International Security Assistance Force in November. They have a direct
interest to ensure that the security situation in Kabul doesn't break down.
Turkey is doubling its military presence in Afghanistan by 800 troops and is
also likely to host a summit of countries bordering Iran later this year.
Ankara has set an ambitious agenda for itself as a promoter of any Afghan
settlement. Away from the public limelight, Ankara kept up diplomatic contacts
with the Taliban leadership in Kabul (and Kandahar) at a very senior level
through a designated special envoy right up to the Taliban's ouster in 2001.
Such contacts do not wither away and can always be resuscitated. And all the
while, the Turkish envoy also kept in touch with Northern Alliance groups.
Dostum has close links with the Turkish authorities. Turkey today enjoys
excellent relations with Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, Turkey is
ideally placed to promote US-Iran contacts on Afghanistan.
1. This saying is attributed both to Joseph P Kennedy (1888-1969), father of US
president John F Kennedy, and to Norwegian-born American football player and
coach Knute Rockne (1888-1931).
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.