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December 31, 2012, Monday

US secret talks with Iran over Afghanistan

While I was in New Delhi over the weekend to participate in a regional conference on Afghanistan, organized by the Delhi Policy Group, I had a chance to talk to Pakistani diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi on the sidelines of meetings.

Qazi, who served as the special representative of the UN secretary-general in Iraq between 2004 and 2007, told me his recollections from his days in Baghdad. He recounted how he urged James Baker, a former secretary of state who co-chaired the Iraq Study Group (ISG), which was authorized by the US Congress to assess the situation in Iraq in 2006, over a breakfast in Baghdad that the US needed to talk directly to Iran to stabilize Iraq.

That advice later turned out to be one of the key recommendations on a 79-item to-do list in terms of policy change the 10-person ISG panel made to the George W. Bush administration on how to tackle the grim situation in Iraq. The White House initially balked at the idea of talking to the Iranians, but later gave a green light to striking a deal with Tehran. It led to major concessions to Tehran, while Iran limited its support to the insurgency until after the US troops departed from the country by the end of 2011. What Qazi did not predict at the time is that Americans would go overboard in their concessions to Tehran interests, eventually turning a major Arab country into an Iranian proxy state at the expense of Turkey, Pakistan and other Sunni monarchies in the Gulf.

Now it feels like déjà vu all over again at a critical juncture in Afghanistan as the drawdown of the US-led NATO forces will be finalized by the end of 2014. My Afghan and Pakistani sources tell me that secret talks have been going on between the Americans and the Iranians on the future of Afghanistan already, and that there have been messages exchanged between the two governments using intermediaries. Some who have intimate knowledge of the details on several encounters between US and Iranian envoys described the nature of the talks as very serious. That should not come as a surprise because Iran has publicly announced that it is ready to sit down and talk to the Americans on Afghanistan, although it denied having any intention to widen the scope of talks beyond the Afghan issue, echoing similar sentiment from the US side.

What Iran wants from the US first and foremost is the recognition of Tehran's regional role. It demands acknowledgment of Iran's right to be involved in the affairs of others that the mullah regime sees as perfectly fit for their grand ideology in a triangle area from Central Asia through the Horn of Africa all the way to the North Africa and Middle East (MENA) region. For that, Iranian's top clerics, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are willing to make a bargain with what they label as the “Great Satan,” America. The anti-US and anti-Israel rhetoric we often hear from Iranian political and religious leaders conveniently serves the realpolitik of Persian interests of the establishment in Tehran.

The game is simple: The Iranian regime, using revolutionary ideologies to advance national interests, funds all kinds of operations and factions to potentially destabilize a country from within, mostly using grassroots movements. Then others feel compelled to sit down and negotiate with Iran to quell these activities, hoping that Iran, acting as a rational state, would restrict provocative actions. That is how the Iranian regime did it in Iraq before, forcing Washington to make a secret agreement. This has benefitted Iran immensely. Now Iraqi Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki, who sits in the laps of the mullahs back in Tehran, is calling the shots in Baghdad. Iranians are very happy with this new setup, while Turkey and Sunni monarchies in the Gulf, which are supposedly allies of the US, are left as simple bystanders watching a major Arab country slipping towards the Iranian axis.

It appears the US has picked up on signals from Tehran and moved swiftly to capitalize on that before the 2014 deadline. I was at the Herat conference in October as part of Track II discussions on Afghanistan, sponsored by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies and the Delhi Policy Group, when Hossein Sheikh ul-Islam, the senior advisor to the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, and the director of its International Affairs Department, announced that Iran is ready to talk with the US. That prompted considerable interest from Washington, with a team from the National Security Agency (NSA) coming to Afghanistan to follow on that lead. Even though the White House denied story run by The New York Times on Oct. 20 that said the US and Iran had agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations, those who have intimate knowledge of the secret talks say that was not unexpected as the news broke just two weeks before the presidential elections.

For example, I was told that it took six weeks for Washington to clear US Consul General Jillian Burns of the US Consulate in Herat to participate in this panel discussion in Herat, attended by Sheikh ul-Islam. The US, which opened the Herat consulate in June 2012, uses this mission, located less than 50 miles from the Iranian border, to monitor Iranian activities in Herat and its surrounding area. It makes perfectly sense for the Americans to also put this consulate into use by linking up with the Iranians away from the watchful eyes of the world.

It is kind of ironic that Sheikh ul-Islam, a former deputy prime minister and a former Iranian ambassador to Syria, has emerged as a point man to deliver messages to the American side considering how he was one of the militants who held Americans captive during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. As the Foreign Ministry's director for Arab affairs in the 1980s, it was claimed that he coordinated the Islamic Revolutionary Guards participation in Hezbollah operations. I had a spat with him on Saturday in New Delhi in a panel discussion for Afghan national TV during which he blamed terrorism, drug problems and the refugee crisis on Afghans. He also accused the Afghan government of allowing US troops to remain beyond the 2014 deadline and of allowing Afghan territory to be used against his country, including sending drones into Iranian airspace.

In response to his across-the-board criticism, I said Afghanistan's immediate and extended neighbors should also focus on positive accomplishments the Afghan people had achieved despite the terrible ordeals and suffering in the last three decades. I also underlined that Iran needed to respect the sovereignty of the Afghan nation and that it has no business meddling in its neighbor's affairs, citing excuses the Afghan nation has little or no control over. On a side note, I said it was also cynical for him to complain about US drones while his government hands over Iranian drones to Hezbollah in Lebanon to probe Israeli airspace in clear violation of international law.

For the moment, India seems to be very happy to see Iran very closely involved in Afghan affairs. I suppose the Indian government wants the Iranians to deal with the Afghan folder rather than the Pakistanis, with whom they have had decades-long problems and deep concerns. It was evident how Indian government representatives turned the second session of the meeting in New Delhi on Saturday into a Pakistani-bashing session to which I had to react strongly. In hindsight, maybe the Pakistani delegation's decision to protest the session by not participating was the right one. The realignment of India with Iran at the expense of Pakistan will have further ramifications in the region, forcing Turkey and the Gulf monarchies to re-evaluate their position vis–à–vis India. We need Pakistani engagement to resolve issues in Afghanistan and beyond.

If the secret talks between Iran and the US, obviously encouraged by India, lead to a repetition of the Iraqi scenario and fail to address the concerns of third parties, this will lead to fundamentally questioning American motives in the region, paving the way for Turkey and others to seriously reassess their ties with the West, and primarily with the US.