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    South Asia
     Jun 23, 2011

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A summit in Tehran trumps the US
By M K Bhadrakumar

Almost directly in proportion to the nosedive in Washington's ties with its allies in Kabul and Islamabad, Iran has stepped up its political and diplomatic activity over the Afghan problem and the regional situation. Tehran estimates that the United States' relations with the Afghan and Pakistani governments have suffered a serious setback and a swift recovery is unlikely.

Thus, a window of opportunity has opened for Tehran to roll back the 10-year ascendancy of the US in the geopolitics of the region. Tehran is determined not to miss the opportunity.

The immediate focus is on somehow torpedoing the US's plans to establish military bases in Afghanistan and expand into the strategically vital Central Asian region, while also outflanking Iran

in the east. The Iranian political and diplomatic thrust comes at a time when US-Afghan differences have surfaced during the negotiations, which lately spilled into the public domain.

But, Tehran also sees this as a high-stakes game with much wider ramifications than a matter of frustrating the US plans on military bases. Tehran's objective will be to scatter the cordon of the US-Saudi-Israeli alliance in the wake of the upheaval in the Middle East.

Afghanistan, after all, becomes part of the Greater Middle East and Pakistan has been a long-time ally of the US and Saudi Arabia and together the three countries - Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan - become a strategic hub of immense significance to the geopolitics of a vast region stretching from the Levant to the Ferghana Valley.

To be sure, Tehran's aim will be to forge regional unity with Kabul and Islamabad on the basis of their shared concerns and interests vis-a-vis US regional policies.

Iranian efforts will get a boost this week with the visits by the Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and President Hamid Karzai to Tehran to participate in the international conference on terrorism at the invitation of the Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The conference is scheduled for on June 25-26, but Zardari is arriving on a two-day visit on Thursday.

The fact that Zardari and Karzai are attending a conference on terrorism hosted by Iran at this point in time is by itself a significant indicator of the way winds are blowing currently in regional politics. The Saudi Arabian government reportedly made a diplomatic demarche with Pakistan, suggesting it should ignore the Tehran conference and instead attend a similar conclave on terrorism that it proposes to convene shortly in Riyadh.

The US will also be highly displeased with Karzai's decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with Iran at this juncture on the "war on terror". It knocks the bottom out of the US's contention that Iran foments terrorism. Zardari is taking a delegation of ministers that includes Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Minister for Oil and Natural Resources Asim Hussain and Minister for Water and Power Syed Naveed Qamar.

The Iranian media reported that Zardari's talks will cover the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, which is strongly opposed by the US, and that a "decisive step for the execution of the already delayed project" can be expected during his visit. Iran has already completed the construction of 1,000 kilometers of the pipeline out of the 1,100 kilometers portion on Iranian soil.

Iran has also proposed that an electricity transmission network be built next to the pipeline, connecting the electricity grid of Iran with that of Pakistan. Additionally, Iran has offered to sell 1,000 megawatts hours of electricity to Pakistan at a subsidized rate.

'Attempts to bypass'
Tehran is making an all-out attempt to impart a new dynamic to its bilateral ties with Pakistan. Tehran traditionally harbored a sense of frustration over the US-Pakistan alliance. Ahmadinejad said recently that Tehran is in possession of "specific evidence" to the effect that the US is planning to seize Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Indeed, Iranian intelligence is very active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, given the US military presence and US support for the terrorist group Jundallah which foments violence in the Sistan-Balochistan region in eastern Iran bordering Pakistan. Tehran has an intelligence sharing mechanism at the bilateral level with Pakistan and most certainly Malik will be discussing ways and means of strengthening the arrangement. Pakistan can help Iran counter Jundallah while Iran can share intelligence regarding the US' covert activities on Pakistani soil.

Iran seems to share the estimation by Russia and China that Pakistani foreign policy is on a course correction of reducing Islamabad's political, economic and military dependence on the US.

Equally, Tehran factors in that the US is keeping both Islamabad and Kabul at arm's length over its dealings with the Taliban and is adopting a method of sharing information with these key partners on a need-to-know basis.

Last Saturday, Karzai utilized a nationwide address to lash out at the US to the extent of exposing that US is already holding direct talks with the Taliban. Significantly, Pakistan swiftly took the cue from Karzai and made a strong demarche in the same regard with the Americans on Monday.

Senior Pakistani officials have reportedly conveyed concerns to visiting US deputy special representative Frank Ruggiero about Washington's "attempts to bypass" Islamabad and to deliberately keep Pakistan at bay about its efforts to seek a peace deal with the Taliban ahead of the phased withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The statement issued by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry after talks between State Minister Foreign Affairs Hina Rabbani Khar and Ruggiero in Islamabad on Monday said: "The minister underscored the importance of clarity and strategic coherence as well as transparency to facilitate the Afghan people and the Afghan government in the process for peace and reconciliation."

The Pakistani newspaper Tribune quoted a Pakistani diplomat, who is posted in Kabul, as alleging that Islamabad is being kept in the dark by the US over its recent contacts with the Taliban. "We do know that some meetings have taken place between the US officials and the Afghan Taliban in Germany and Qatar. It seems Pakistan is being deliberately kept out by the US to minimize our role in future political dispensation of Afghanistan," he insisted.

Again, Dawn newspaper quoted an unnamed Pakistani officials as saying, "On one hand they [the Americans] are talking to Mullah Omar's aide, but on the other the Taliban leader is on the list of the five men that they [the Americans] want to be taken out," asking acerbically if there could be space in the US's political dialogue for the Haqqani network as well.

However, it will be a rush to judgment to conclude that Islamabad and Kabul are coordinating their opposition to the US. The Afghan-Pakistan relationship remains highly problematic, the trust deficit is substantial and a radical improvement in the climate of relations proved elusive.

In fact, border skirmishes have increased in frequency. To what extent the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are fueling these tensions as part of the concerted effort to "pressure" Pakistan remains unclear. Clearly, a genuine meeting of minds between Karzai and Islamabad cannot materialize so long as these subterranean tensions keep erupting on the Afghan-border region involving the Pakistani military and the Afghan forces.

Maybe, Tehran can lend a hand to sort out these tensions. To be sure, Iran has a strong interest at this point in bringing Afghanistan and Pakistan closer together in a purposive working relationship.

Iranian Defense minister Ahmed Vahidi, who visited Kabul last week, had a substantive meeting with the former Northern Alliance strong man and current vice president, Mohammed Fahim. Vahidi told Fahim, "The great and brave nation of Afghanistan is capable of establishing its security in the best possible form without the interference of the trans-regional forces [read the US and NATO]."
Vahidi told his Iranian counterpart Abdulrahim Wardak, "Their [the US] presence hinders materialization of the will of the great, hard-working and resolute nation of Afghanistan and will cause discord, tension and insecurity and waste of the country's capital." 

Continued 1 2  

US finally talking to the enemy
(Jun 21, '11)

Why Karzai lashed out at the US
(Jun 20, '11)

  NATO at a crossroads in Libya

2. Turkey cools down tempers over Syria

3. Why the US is talking to the enemy

4. NATO, the ultimate transformer

5. Cambodia a capital success

6. Why Karzai lashed out at the US

7. Zhu sets his record straight

8. The military as a jobs program

9. Assad's shrinking options

10. Economy alone can't explain success

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jun 21, 2011)


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