A Persian message for Obama


Oct 8, 2009
Asia Times Online :: A Persian message for Obama

By M K Bhadrakumar

The season of diplomacy on the Iran nuclear issue is once again approaching. Another harsh winter has passed. Rhetoric has touched a point of diminishing returns.

The logical conclusion of the sanctions packages of the United Nations Security Council, the United States and the European Union as well as the military buildup in the Persian Gulf ought to be the enforcement of sanctions through high-sea inspections of Iranian vessels. But that is a route fraught with dangerous consequences as Tehran will retaliate.

Meanwhile, Tehran has offered a ladder for the US to climb down from the high horse it mounted - in the nature of the announcement that it is willing to talk about a nuclear-fuel swap "without preconditions". Washington has done the right thing to accept the Iranian overture and European powers are visibly relieved.

United States State Department spokesman Philip Crowley set the ball rolling on Wednesday when he said, "We obviously are fully prepared to follow up with Iran on specifics regarding our initial proposal involving the Tehran research reactor ... as well as, you know, the broader issues of trying to fully understand the nature of Iran's nuclear program. We hope to have the same kind of meeting coming up in the coming weeks that we had last October."

The "initial proposal" Crowley mentioned refers to a plan to provide fuel for a research reactor in Tehran in exchange for low-enriched uranium. The plan was mooted at the meeting in Geneva last October between Iran and the "Iran Six" - the US, Britain, China, Russia, France and Germany.

All of a sudden, "beeps" are appearing at several points on the diplomatic radar screen. It transpires that there had been confabulation regarding a "prospective meeting" involving the US and Iran between Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative, and Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, on July 20, on the sidelines of the international conference regarding Afghanistan.

Six days after that meeting in Kabul, Tehran addressed the International Atomic Energy Agency with a communication suggesting it was ready to negotiate the details of exchanging 2,646 pounds (1,200 kilograms) of its own 3% enriched uranium for 265 pounds of 20% enriched uranium. Again, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued three conciliatory statements between Tuesday and Wednesday robustly backtracking on its abrasive stance in recent months regarding the Iran nuclear issue.

Most important, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has since revealed that Tehran has given Ankara an assurance that it will stop enriching uranium to 20% if the swap is agreed. Mottaki gave another important message during his visit to Turkey last week, saying that if the Tehran deal is signed and Iran is provided with the necessary fuel for its research activities, "then they [Iran] will not continue enriching uranium to 20%,'' Davutoglu said.

Today the big question is not whether US-Iranian negotiations will resume but what should be their scope. The EU's Ashton, while suggesting that talks should begin again as soon as possible, voiced the opinion that talks must focus exclusively on Iran's nuclear program. But the agenda needs to be broader and should cover the range of security concerns that underline the US-Iran standoff.

As Suzanne Dimaggio, director of policy studies at the Asia Society think-tank told the BBC last week, there is a lot to talk about. "The Iranians make it clear that they live in a tough neighborhood surrounded by nuclear weapon states: Russia, Pakistan, Russia and Israel. They also have two major wars on their borders ... What kind of security atmosphere do Iranians want to see in their neighbors, Iraq and Afghanistan? What are the possibilities of forming some sort of cooperative agreements around stabilizing both countries?"

In particular, the US should strive to pursue an active engagement of Iran over Afghanistan. The fact remains that the most significant salient point from the WikiLeaks disclosures is that the US has trapped itself in Afghanistan by its overwhelming dependence on the Pakistan military. And much of this folly is to be traced to the limitations placed on the Barack Obama administration's Afghan strategy by the US-Iran standoff.

Any serious course correction on Afghanistan by the Obama administration involves engaging Iran. Broader negotiations will not be easy. How could the US-Iran engagement prove to be a game-changer in Afghanistan for Obama's AfPak strategy?

First, if history is any guide, in the weeks following 9/11 Tehran unequivocally showed the will to work with Washington during the US's invasion in 2001 with the expectation that the cooperative enterprise would help moderate Washington's hostility toward the regime in Tehran. If the limited short-term project lasting up to the Bonn conference in December 2001 did not blossom on the lines Tehran expected, the fault lies entirely with the George W Bush administration's myopic outlook.

Second, Iran's longstanding concerns about the Taliban are in actuality no different from those of the Obama administration. Iran shares abhorrence of the Taliban's resurgence as a major force in Afghan politics. In fact, Iran goes a step further, regarding the Taliban's Wahhabist ideology as pernicious and seeing Taliban outfits such as the so-called Haqqani network as pawns for the projection of Pakistani and Saudi influence in Afghanistan. Tehran will be as much wary as Washington about an outright Taliban takeover in Kabul once the US drawdown is underway.

Third, Iran has a total commitment to vanquishing the last traces of al-Qaeda from the region. Fourth, there is a meeting point between the Iranian and US positions regarding the "reintegration" of insurgents who are not linked with al-Qaeda. Fifth, neither Iran nor the US is obdurate about a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul that reflects the country's diverse society. Sixth, Tehran's approach of developing multiple alliances within Afghanistan and its awareness of the need to have a regional balance in any Afghan settlement ought to be of use to the Obama administration.

Karzai's "reconciliation" strategy is already generating a backlash among non-Pashtun communities which also happen to be Iran's Afghan allies. Conceivably, Iran can be a useful bridge for restraining these groups while at the same time finessing them as they "push back" against the resurgent Taliban. In short, Iran can be of help to the US strategy to reduce the risk of renewed civil war in Afghanistan.

Tehran sees that the foreign occupation creates resentment among substantial portions of the Afghan population and this can only work to the advantage of the Taliban. But then, it can be argued that Tehran and Washington would even have a shared interest in developing an "exit strategy" within a definable timeline.

In sum, there is enormous scope for American and Iranian strategies in Afghanistan complementing each other. The effort at the forthcoming negotiations should be to bridge the trust deficit that exists between the two sides. Tehran perceives Washington as hostile to its interests and would, therefore, do its utmost to ensure the US doesn't use its military presence in Afghanistan to attack it, to undermine its government and political system through covert operations or to strengthen Iran's regional rivals.

Needless to say, after a promising start, the Obama administration systematically abandoned its own new thinking on Iran. Under current circumstances, therefore, the US needs to go the extra mile to persuade Iran to cooperate once again with the United States in Afghanistan. There is no alternative to addressing Tehran's longstanding concerns about the Taliban, the regional balance of power, and US intentions towards Iran.

In his first public reaction to the WikiLeaks, Obama said, "The fact is these documents don't reveal any issues that haven't already informed our public debate on Afghanistan." (Emphasis added.) However, sometimes it is perceptions rather than facts that matter and besides, the Afghan war is not a matter of debate within the US alone; rather, this war also concerns the people of Afghanistan.

The perceptions drawn by the Afghan people from the WikiLeaks are likely to be extremely unsavory, to say the least. To be sure, Afghans will be laughing their guts out at how a bumbling superpower has been had by the smart Pakistani generals. It is important that the meeting that Obama has called in the Situation Room in the White House should hear this laughter ringing loud in the valleys and mountains of the Hindu Kush.

The US's credibility has been seriously eroded and it becomes particularly difficult to restore it in the Hindu Kush. Objectively speaking, a US-Iranian grand bargain is the need of the hour to avoid what is perilously close to strategic failure in Afghanistan.