Three’s not a crowd
The trilateral summit between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran has helped in bringing the three Islamic neighbours and stakeholders in the region closer on how to end the Afghanistan imbroglio. However, intractable problems and differences remain.
The summit has taken place at a time when in the wake of Tehran’s burgeoning nuclear programme, a standoff between the US and Iran seems imminent. On the other hand, perennial tensions between Washington and Islamabad have perilously put relations on a continuous downward spiral.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is miffed with the US for holding secret talks with the Taliban behind his back. The Taliban on the other hand do not take him seriously, claiming that he is nothing more than a quisling whose writ in Afghanistan does not extend beyond Kabul.
Obviously, it is highly unlikely that Karzai can be part of a possible Taliban-led broad-based government in Kabul by 2014. In any case, his term will expire by then. He knows that his mentors, true to their colours, are bound to abandon him in the ultimate analysis.
A clear and present danger to the stability of the region is the heightened tension between Washington and Tehran. Israel considers Iran’s nuclear programme as an existential threat and is bending over backwards to co-opt Washington to take pre-emptive action through military means.
Recent attacks on Israeli diplomats in Delhi and Tbilisi have been blamed on Tehran who has vehemently denied any involvement. It is another matter that Israel earlier had claimed responsibility for blatantly assassinating Iranian nuclear engineers.
The likelihood of Tel Aviv launching a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear installations and enrichment facilities is being openly discussed. If worst comes to worst, the possibility of Washington chipping in or directly attacking Tehran is not being ruled out.
Easier said than done. Firstly, although theoretically possible, it would be a logistic nightmare for Israel to launch a successful attack on Tehran. According to some US experts in the know of things, a successful operation by Israeli fighter aircrafts armed with bombs would require refuelling stops and use of air space of at least two Arab nations possibly Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The Shia dominated government in Baghdad is unlikely to cooperate. Similarly, Saudi Arabia, despite its rivalry with Tehran and its diplomatic and strategic proximity to Washington, cannot afford to risk such an adventure against another Islamic country.
The US with its large military presence in the region is quite capable of launching an attack on Tehran. It has the requisite military muscle in the form of bases in Qatar and Central Asia and its aircraft carriers are omnipresent in the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, President Obama cannot risk such an adventure in an election year unless dragged into it by Israel.
For starters, it could fail like it did in the case of President Carter’s botched rescue operation to retrieve US hostages in 1980 that cost him his re-election. Even if it succeeds, long queues at the petrol pumps and fuel prices shooting through the roof as a result of disrupted oil supplies could cost Obama his re-election, not to speak of the political consequences in an already radicalised Islamic world including Pakistan.
The only viable option is talking to Tehran that the US in its present belligerent mood is loath to use. Tehran has offered to resume stalled nuclear talks with “P5 plus one” as soon as possible, according to a letter that the nation’s nuclear negotiator has sent to the European Union.
A similar offer was made to President George W Bush that he spurned. The present offer made in the wake of Tehran openly brandishing its enriched uranium has also been met with skepticism from Washington.
To talk to Iran (rather than to bomb it) is the only sensible alternative. Hopefully, the West – with a little push from Russia and China – will adopt this sensible approach rather than exacerbate tensions in the most volatile region of the world.
The Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has offered to enhance trade with Islamabad to $10 billion. This is also easier said than done. A sanction-ridden Tehran can offer deals through currency swaps that have limitations for Pakistan already strapped for hard currency. Both President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani have pledged to complete the mega Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline by 2014 and have expressed interest in buying electricity from Iran.
Closer economic relations with Tehran are a win-win for Islamabad. But does it have the gall to defy US sanctions on Tehran? India has refused to budge and remains the biggest customer of Iranian oil. President Zardari on the conclusion of the trilateral summit has vowed to resist any pressure on the pipeline deal. Let us see how the chips fall.
Hamid Karzai has pressed Islamabad to resume NATO supplies. He is playing the role of a mediator to mend badly frayed relations between Islamabad and Washington that have been on a continuous decline since the Salala incident that resulted in the death of 24 Pakistani military men. Despite admitting its culpability, the US till now has refused to apologize for the incident.
In return, Islamabad has downgraded its relations with Washington. Many high level officials’ visits have been put on hold and visitors like the CENTCOM commander General James N Mattis and Washington’s chief envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman have repeatedly taken a rain-check.
A former US envoy and a specialist on the region told me that Washington has come to the end of its tether so far as its relations with Islamabad are concerned. Harbouring Al-Qaeda and Taliban in its badlands, Islamabad is increasingly seen by the US as the enfant terrible in the region.
Islamabad on the other hand by shifting the responsibility to the national security committee of the parliament has put the entire matter on an indefinite hold. Meanwhile, Washington, perfectly behaving like an arrogant superpower paying much more for its disrupted NATO supplies, is simply not willing to apologize.
Pakistan visibly cosying up to Tehran by upgrading its economic and political ties will not be seen kindly by Washington. President Zardari’s categorical statement that Pakistan will oppose any possible aggression against Iran and would not lend its bases for the purpose will further alienate Washington.
These are tough times for a region in turmoil. Afghanistan is increasingly becoming a quagmire for Washington. It wants to cut and run by 2014. Coming under increasing pressure from an increasing belligerent US, all the stakeholders at the summit face tough and difficult choices.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today