A United States-Iran opportunity arises
Like in the Billy Ocean song, "When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going",  the United States special representative for AfPak, Richard Holbrooke, left Kabul just as his confabulations over the Afghan presidential elections were getting tough. By Tuesday, he was already at the fabulous Ottoman Palace-turned super luxury hotel Ciragan Kempinski on the Bosphorous in Istanbul.
If Independent newspaper's Kim Sengupta is to be believed, at a brusque, "frosty" meeting on Monday in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai felt "irritated" and did some plain speaking when Holbrooke tried to discuss the Afghan leader's electoral tactic and insistently tried to persuade him to face a second round run-off in October - most likely against former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
Watching the ships go by, as he stood on the Ciragan terrace overlooking the Bosphorous among a galaxy of statesmen from the East and West for a photo-op on Tuesday, Holbrooke didn't have to crane his neck to spot, at the other end of the lineup, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Surely, the highlight of the ministerial meeting of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan (FoDP) on Tuesday in Istanbul would have been a chance encounter between Holbrooke and Mottaki. The two-day meeting of the FoDP has brought together representatives from 20 countries and six international organizations, including the US, China, the European Union and the World Bank.
We may not get to know easily whether Holbrooke and Mottaki had a one-on-one on the sidelines of the conference. But they could always bump into each other. Surely, the Turkish hosts would do all they could to facilitate a US-Iranian pow-wow. They have a way of making such impossible things happen, such as bringing Israelis and Syrians together.
It is for the first time after the turmoil of the Iranian presidential elections in June that a US-Iranian high-level "contact" might take place. That in itself becomes a point of interest. The Barack Obama administration is desperately trying to figure out the grain from the chaff. Experience shows that it is when Iranian rhetoric is strident, that one should look for signs of flexibility. Indeed, the signals coming from Tehran are mixed. The appointment of Ali Akbar Salehi (who has a great reputation as a pragmatist) as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and the reappointment of the highly accomplished, eminently reasonable and persuasive Mottaki as foreign minister cannot be overlooked. This is because the appointments come amid the gathering storms over the ongoing showcase trial of "conspirators" of the unrest in Tehran or the incessant allegations by high-ranking Iranian officials of an American attempt to stage a color revolution in Iran.
The Tehran trial has implicated a son of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. It could take dangerous turns. Again, as it happens, Iran seems to have voluntarily slowed down its enrichment of uranium since May and there have been sudden signs of improved access for United Nations inspectors as they have been allowed into a reactor that had been off-limits for a year. But then, these could as well be a fresh Iranian ploy to buy time on the nuclear front just ahead of a report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
The Iranian puzzle doesn't easily give way. But Holbrooke will not be deterred by the West's struggle with Iran's game. He holds a clearcut brief: how far will Tehran be willing to work with the Obama administration for the stabilization of Afghanistan? In a well-publicized statement on August 13, Holbrooke acknowledged that Tehran had a "legitimate role to play in the resolution of the Afghan issue". He said, "They are a factor. And to pretend that they're not, as was often done in the past, doesn't make much sense."
It was an act of kite-flying. Holbrooke estimated that Tehran would have pondered his conciliatory words by the time he came across Mottaki in Istanbul. Specifically, at the moment, the US seeks a helpful Iranian role in ensuring the orderly formation of the next government in Kabul following the acrimonious presidential elections.
The last thing the US would want is that the bitter political divide among Afghan politicians degenerate into violence. But at the same time, the US must have a political dispensation in Kabul that is willing to go the entire way, 100%, with the Obama administration's AfPak strategy. Important decisions are in the offing in Washington, which are certain to be controversial, relating to the American troop strength in Afghanistan, counter-insurgency operations, and reconciliation with the Taliban. The Kabul government would have to accept these decisions. True, any new government in Kabul may well turn out to be a transitional one, but its role is nonetheless critical.
As Holbrooke acknowledged, Tehran is unquestionably a "factor". Both Karzai's vice-presidential nominees - Mohammed Fahim and Karim Khalili - and his most powerful backers - Ismail Khan, Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Mohaqiq - are on excellent terms with the Iranian establishment. It is reasonable to estimate that Tehran has nothing to fear out of a second term for Karzai.
On the other hand, Tehran has maintained the correct equidistance between Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah, since the latter too is no stranger to the Iranians, who were a major promoter of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of which Abdullah was a key player. Tehran is keeping its fingers crossed about the election results and has hardly broken its silence on the big picture emerging out of Kabul. Tehran seems wary that Karzai could always upstage onlookers by having a backstage deal or understanding with the Americans.
What stands out is that with all the imperfections of the Afghan presidential elections, Tehran is willing to accept the result at face value in the interests of overall political stability at this critical juncture. Tehran is willing to lower the bar of democracy for Afghanistan. But it has serious apprehensions that the US has a game plan to manipulate the political scene. The Iranian ambassador in Kabul, Fada Hossein Maleki, openly said in a media interview last Thursday, "Probably, after the elections, we will see some countries may cause certain problems or engage in provocative measures ... One gets the feeling that a scenario has been drawn up."
An influential political figure in Tehran, Esmail Kowsari, who is also the deputy chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, has alleged that Western powers are deliberately whipping up an opinion casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election results. He exhorted Afghan authorities to be vigilant about preventing any Western attempt to render the election verdict controversial. "They [Western powers] are after their interests and not the interests of the Afghan people and officials," he said.
A comment by another influential Iranian parliamentarian is even more revealing. Significantly, Seyed Hossein Naqavi, who is also a member of the parliamentary Committee on Security and Foreign Policy, drew a parallel with the turmoil after the Iranian election in June. He said, "We [Iran] also witnessed during Iran's election that these Westerners tried to attain their goals through misguiding the people and diverting their tendencies. In Afghanistan, too, they are looking for pro-Western forces to attain their goals."
He warned that a "huge wave of propaganda" had been unleashed with the intent of casting doubt in the minds of Afghans and international opinion about the election verdict. Naqavi said the US was certain to continue to put pressure on Karzai to jettison his supporters and instead recast his cabinet in a way that suits American "policies and goals", a view shared by former Iranian ambassador to Kabul, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian.
Taherian said, "Kabul and Washington have certainly made deals to select nominees for a number of key posts through mutual understanding." However, in contrast with Iranian politicians, ambassador Maleki sounded a conciliatory tone, offering that if the Obama administration gives up its interference in Iran's domestic affairs, Tehran will be prepared for talks with the US on Afghanistan.
On balance, it is in Iran's interest that the precarious Afghan political situation does not worsen or take the form of public agitation over contested results. Holbrooke can expect Iran to use its influence on Afghan protagonists to cool political tempers and accept the verdict. But it seems highly improbable that Tehran will play ball with the Americans in any shenanigans to fix the results or to impose a political equation in Kabul. Indeed, Holbrooke is miles away from striking a "grand bargain" with Mottaki. But an exchange in Istanbul could be a useful confidence-building measure and step forward.
The Turks have a crucial role. They are taking up the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force in November. They have a direct interest to ensure that the security situation in Kabul doesn't break down. Turkey is doubling its military presence in Afghanistan by 800 troops and is also likely to host a summit of countries bordering Iran later this year. Ankara has set an ambitious agenda for itself as a promoter of any Afghan settlement. Away from the public limelight, Ankara kept up diplomatic contacts with the Taliban leadership in Kabul (and Kandahar) at a very senior level through a designated special envoy right up to the Taliban's ouster in 2001. Such contacts do not wither away and can always be resuscitated. And all the while, the Turkish envoy also kept in touch with Northern Alliance groups. Dostum has close links with the Turkish authorities. Turkey today enjoys excellent relations with Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Indeed, Turkey is ideally placed to promote US-Iran contacts on Afghanistan.
1. This saying is attributed both to Joseph P Kennedy (1888-1969), father of US president John F Kennedy, and to Norwegian-born American football player and coach Knute Rockne (1888-1931).
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.