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    South Asia
     Mar 11, 2009
The trade-off season begins on Afghanistan
By M K Bhadrakumar

With the likelihood of the United States engaging Iran in the near future and with Washington "resetting the button" in relations with Moscow, the air is thick with rumors of trade-offs. This is almost inevitable, given the interlocking cross-currents swirling around the three-way US-Iran-Russia equations.

Iranians have a penchant for trade-offs and Soviet-American detente historically relied on trade-offs. Thus, a season for trade-offs could indeed be commencing. But we may never quite know. That is because trade-offs often carry a stigma of opportunism and are deniable even when they are manifestly based on legitimate balancing of interests.

In recent weeks, Tehran has been watching with uneasiness the

 

President Barack Obama administration's game plan to isolate Iran by tempting Russia (and Syria) into a trade-off. But it seems there is no such trade-off on the Russian front. The official Russian stance is that there has been no such American offer of a trade-off.

This flies in the face of reports in the Russian and American media that Obama had sent a letter to his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in February offering to abandon the US plan to deploy components of the missile defense system in Central Europe in exchange for Russian help to halt Iran's nuclear activities.

If there was such a US offer, it would have been "meaningless and crudely simplistic from the very start", to quote a Moscow commentator. The fact is that Iran is a key player on a vast geopolitical landscape where Russia has profound security interests, stretching from the Middle East to the Caspian and Central Asia and Afghanistan and Russia cannot and will not jeopardize its excellent relations with Iran.

Besides, Russian experts see the missile defense issue as integral to an altogether different template - Russia's relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the security in Europe including the core issue of strategic balance or the preservation of nuclear and missile parity between Russia and the US.

Moreover, Russia senses that the Obama administration may ultimately have no choice but to scrap (or at least mothball) the missile defense program since it is hard-pressed to mobilize funds for such a huge project. So, why should Russia get into a trade-off at all when the US's missile defense deployment plan could be all set to drop from the tree like a rotten apple? That's sound thinking.

To be sure, the Russians haven't budged on the Iran nuclear issue. They are not only proceeding with the commissioning of the Bushehr nuclear power plant but are negotiating the long-term fuel supply for the plant.

Also, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week, "[The] American side should join the position of the '[Iran] Six' [the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany] not only on paper, but also the talks with Iran as proposed by the six ... At issue is also involving Iran on an equal, worthy basis in efforts to resolve the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, as well as in all aspects of the Middle East settlement."

A week later, following talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva on Friday, Lavrov added, "In addition to serious, tangible economic stimuli, we need a dialogue with Iran with the involvement of all the countries in the region to ensure stable, reliable security where all countries there, including Israel, would live side-by-side in peace and security."

Even on the issue of Russia supplying long-range missiles to Iran, Lavrov parried that while Russia fully takes into account the US and Israeli concerns, "These issues ... are decided exclusively within the law and Russian national obligations ... We are supplying non-destabilizing, defensive weapons." Prior to the meeting on Friday, Clinton had said she would ask Lavrov to halt the transfer of missiles to Iran since they posed "a threat to Russia as well as to Europe and neighbors in the region". But it seems Lavrov gave no such assurance. The constructive ambiguity in the Russian stance remains.

Meanwhile, the divergence in the Russian and US approaches to the Iran question is plain to see. While on a visit to Israel last week, Clinton said US and Israel have "an understanding that we share about the threat that Iran poses. We intend to do all that we can do deter and to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. That is our stated policy. That is the goal of any tactic that we employ."

She also referred to Iran's "continued financing of terrorist organizations like Hamas [in Gaza] and Hezbollah [in Lebanon]" and promised to have "very close consultation" with the pro-West Arab countries and Israel over "what a threat Iran poses today and what a greater threat it would pose were it ever to be successful in its pursuit of nuclear weapons". Clinton underlined that "the bond between the US and Israel, and our commitment to Israel's security and to its democracy as a Jewish state, remains fundamental, unshakeable and eternally durable".

Evidently, against such a backdrop, there is hardly any scope for US-Russia trade-offs at this point involving Russia's ties with Iran. But, on the other hand, could that also be because Russia might be having a back-to-back understanding with Iran? Both are, after all, great chess-playing nations.

Last week, while on a visit to Germany, the influential chairman of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) Foreign Relations Committee, Alaeddin Broujerdi, flatly ruled out Iran providing transit facilities for NATO supplies to Afghanistan. "Iran is not interested in becoming a logistic bridge for NATO to Afghanistan," he said while reiterating Tehran's principled opposition to the US-led alliance's presence in Afghanistan. Broujerdi said NATO had no scope for a "permanent presence" in Afghanistan and it should come up with an exit strategy, as its deployment would only "lead to more extremism and terrorism".

Tehran is also helping Russia by its tough stance. It comes at a juncture when, after granting transit routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan, Russia has begun discussing the transportation of the alliance's military cargo. The defense ministers of Russia and Germany discussed in Moscow last Tuesday the transit of military equipment and supplies for the German contingent in Afghanistan via Russia, including by rail.

At first glance, the Iranian and Russian stances are contradictory, which is what makes them look suspicious. The point is, Moscow and Tehran have a high level of understanding over the Afghan situation and it is unlikely that they would allow contradictions to emerge with the Afghan war at a critical juncture. Indeed, Iran is indirectly helping Russia by its refusal to provide transit routes for NATO. An Iranian transit route for NATO would have significantly reduced the NATO countries' growing dependence on the northern corridor via Russian territory.

But on its part, Moscow has every reason to encourage NATO to become more and more dependent on the northern corridor. Such cooperation is already a significant factor in Russia's complicated equations with NATO. Major European powers like Germany will now disfavor any moves by NATO that may provoke Russia, such as the alliance's expansion or the issue of the US missile defense system.

Thus, we have a curious paradigm: to be sure, there can be no US-Russia trade-off over Iran, but a Russia-Iran understanding over the Afghan transit routes enables Moscow to exploit NATO's dependence on the northern corridor, which, in turn, compels the alliance to be sensitive about Russia's security interests and concerns and at the same time paves the way for Russia to play a bigger role in the stabilization of Afghanistan, which of course suits Iran.

As the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman summed it up on Thursday, Moscow stands for "realistic and practical collaboration" with NATO, and "the fight against terrorism, WMD [weapons of mass destruction] cooperation, the narco-threat and other challenges, and cooperation on Afghanistan can be effective only in the event of a unification of efforts by all countries in the Euro-Atlantic area". The Lavrov-Clinton meeting in Geneva on Friday held out precisely such a prospect.

According to Lavrov, Russia and the US now consider it their "common goal" to stabilize the Afghan situation. Two, the two countries are interested in "practical cooperation". Three, they will now develop "new areas of cooperation" on the Afghan problem. Four, they have agreed on a virtual trade-off: Washington will "facilitate the successful conclusion" of the conference on Afghanistan in Moscow on March 27 under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), while Moscow will "facilitate the successful conduct" of a similar conference on Afghanistan at the initiative of the US, to be held possibly on March 31 at The Hague.

The US-Russia trade-off over the Afghan conferences seems to ensure that the agendas of the two conferences do not work at cross-purposes. The Moscow conference will be devoted to the "threats of drugs and terrorists originating in Afghanistan", whereas the US-sponsored conference under the auspices of the UN will have a broader agenda of stabilizing Afghanistan. In essence, the US pulled back from opposing tooth and nail the SCO conference in Moscow, while Russia agrees to keep the conference's agenda in modest terms so as not to overtly complicate Obama's Afghan strategy.

On balance, Russia succeeds in establishing itself as a key partner of the US in Afghanistan, thanks to the cooperation it extends to NATO over the transit routes. Again, the northern corridor places Russia in a position to demand a quid pro quo in the nature of an end to NATO's expansion and the deployment of the US missile defense system.

Least of all, Russia returns to Afghanistan in a big way after an absence of two decades. The seemingly contradictory impulses in the Russian policy - whether Moscow actually seeks that the US-led war succeeds, fails or remains a stalemate - might just be dissipating. It seems Russia might have no problem if NATO manages to avert a defeat in Afghanistan.


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.

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