An emerging force

Importance of Iran

Iran, Pakistan, Israel among others, know more or less, their respective preferred outcomes in Afghanistan. I am not so sure about the US or New Delhi.

Israeli vision, though obstructed at Tehran, does take account of Afghanistan where a few contradictions attend it. For example Jerusalem would not mind a resurgent Taliban pestering Shia Iran, its principal target these days, but Talibanism (extremism) in West Asia is its much advertised anxiety.

So, Sunni Islamic militancy plaguing Shia Iran is okay (in whispers, only) but it is intolerable in Israeli’s Arab neighbourhood. Where does Israel place Saudi Arabia in this framework? “Their Bedouin DNA enables them to survive walking on Wahabi egg shells.” Very clever.

Islamabad and Jerusalem are scaring Washington on two distinct counts. Islamabad advises Washington that American reversal in Afghanistan would be catastrophic for US prestige and influence in the region and globally. However, should the US depend on Islamabad’s deep knowledge of the Mujahedeen, al-Qaeda, Taliban and arrive at a settlement with the Taliban Islamabad knows, Afghanistan will be sufficiently tranquilized to enable President Obama to contemplate a second term with a cool head.

Israel would like Washington to be more alert about the other ‘Ogre’, a nuclearised Iran. Should Iran go nuclear despite sanctions, American admonitions, egged on by Israel and Europe, in that order, the US, already in decline, will have its nose rubbed in the dust before a risen China, resurgent Russia and an Arab World which will charge down to their respective basements and start assembling bombs. The Saudis, (say the Israelis) may go nuclear with Pak help.

Meanwhile, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and his Inter Services Intelligence chief, Gen Shuja Pasha, have been shuttling between Islamabad and Kabul. Traffic from Kabul is equally frequent. Likewise between Tehran and Kabul.

Time was when Peter Galbraith, supported by President Obama’s special Af-Pak envoy, Richard Holbrooke had asked for President Hamid Karzai’s head on a platter alleging election fraud and worse.

Obviously, Galbraith was not aware of intense turf battles in Washington in which the state department’s line did not prevail. Galbraith was shown the door. Holbrooke ducked into a low profile.

Sufficient attention has not been paid to the fact that the only person from George W Bush’s team retained by Barack Obama is defence secretary Robert Gates. It is he who represents the ‘American Establishment’s’ interests in Af-Pak, Iran and elsewhere.
He is particularly suited to comprehend the region because he was deputy to CIA chief William Casey during the Reagan years when the Mujahideen were being trained and equipped with Stinger Missiles in Afghanistan. Also, he was around during the Iran — Contra affair — transferring Israeli arms to Iran to fight Iraq. The money thus generated was transferred to the Contras to oust the pro Soviet Sandinistas from Nicaragua.

Rise of Rafsanjani

The ‘high level’ contact the US made during that phase was the speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Hojjetulslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, who later became president for two terms.
American pique at the outcome of recent Iranian elections is largely explained by the defeat of ‘their candidate,’ Rafsanjani in June 2005 and Mir Hussein Mousavi (backed by Rafsanjani) in June 2009, on both occasions bringing President Ahmedinejad to power. That a tamed Rafsanjani still survives in the expediency council is because he knows too much.

The puzzle in all of this is this: how can the US take such a tough line on Iran at a time when it needs Iranian co-operation in stabilising Afghanistan? Is some obscure Washington — Tehran track still functioning?

Ask Jaswant Singh, who was external affairs minister in November 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan. “Iranians, more that the Russians, helped oust the Taliban from Kabul.”

Iran has lengthy borders with Afghanistan and Iraq — both flowing over with US troops. Equally strategic is Iran’s border with Balochistan, the most important supply route for US troops in Afghanistan.

Iran’s real quest is for a recognition of its status as regional power: it cites its ancient civilisation, 70 million population, second and third largest gas and oil reserves respectively, its strategic location on the gulf, contiguity with South and West Asia, Central Asia, Caucasus. Iran believes its stand on Palestine gives it influence among Arab populations. Moreover it juxtaposes its ‘Dialogue of Civilisations’ against Wahabi Puritanism.

All of this causes convulsions in Riyadh and Cairo. In other words a nuclear Iran, or a non nuclear Iran as a regional power, are both anathema to West Asia, Israel and the US. Surely something must give.

In the general pirouette involving Washington, Islamabad, Kabul, Tehran, Riyadh, Jerusalem, where is New Delhi? Well, New Delhi has good relations with each one of these centres except Islamabad and Tehran, the latter disrepaired in Vienna during the Indo-US nuclear deal. Leaders of each one of the countries (except Israel, of course) have visited Kabul several times in recent years.

On July 20, several world leaders and UN officials were once again in Kabul to attend an international peace conference. India was represented by external affairs minister S M Krishna. Jolted out of its stupor, New Delhi is now not only picking up the thread with Tehran, but actually redistributing the eggs it had once placed exclusively in the US basket.

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