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
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
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
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
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
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
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.