The premise looks impossible, given the current state of relations between Iran and US / NATO. However, let us look at this from five perspectives:
1. Infrastructure: Zaranj Delaram Road and Indian connections.
2. NATO: Current hurdles
3. Russia: Imperatives
4. NATO & IRAN – new relations with Obama
5. IRAN’s nuclear ambitions
INFRASTUCTURE – ZARANJ DELARAM ROAD:
On 22nd Jan 2009, INDIA handed over to Afghan authorities ZARANJ - DELARAM highway built by it in the face of stiff resistance from Taliban, vowing that the collaboration between the two countries in the field of development will not stop.
There are approximately 3,000-4,000 Indian nationals working on several reconstruction projects across Afghanistan. The principal projects include, among others:
- Construction of a 220 KV Double Circuit Transmission Line from Pul-e-Khumri to Kabul and a 220/110/20 KV sub-station at Kabul under the North-East Power System project to bring power from neighbouring countries to Kabul (USD 111 million);
- Humanitarian food assistance of one million tons of wheat in the form of high protein biscuits distributed to 1.4 million schoolchildren every day under the School Feeding Programme, administered through the World Food Programme (USD 100 million);
- Construction of a 218 kilometre road from Zaranj to Delaram to facilitate movement of goods and commodities from Afghanistan to Iranian border (USD 175 million – approval for an additional USD 91 million is being sought);
- Reconstruction and completion of Salma Dam Power Project (42 MW) in Herat province (USD 116 million – approval for additional USD 36 million is being sought);
- Construction of Afghan Parliament (USD 83 million);
- Reconstruction of Indira Gandhi Institute of Child Health in Kabul in various phases, including reconstruction of surgical ward/polyclinic/diagnostic centre (USD 6.7 million);
- Reconstruction of Habibia School (USD 5.1 million);
- Digging of 26 tube wells in North West Afghanistan (USD 1.2 million);
- Gifting of vehicles (400 buses, 200 mini-buses, 105 municipality and 285 army vehicles) (USD 25 million);
- Setting up of 5 toilet-cum-public sanitation complexes in Kabul (USD 0.9 million);
- Telephone exchanges in 11 provinces connecting to Kabul (USD 11.1 million);
- Expansion of National TV network by providing an uplink from Kabul and downlinks in all 34 provincial capitals, contributing towards greater integration of the country (USD 6.8 million).
The present level of India’s assistance to Afghanistan is USD 750 million, making it the 5th largest bilateral donor after the US, UK, Japan and Germany. According to the Indian Embassy at Kabul, of the total pledge of USD 750 million between 2002 and 2009, the fully committed amount is USD 758.21 million and cumulative disbursement up to 2006-07 has been US $ 278.94 million.
This ambitious project (Zaranj – Delaram), funded and executed by India, will provide Afghanistan a shorter route to the sea, via the Iranian port of Chabahar, than is currently available through Pakistan. Iran, India and Afghanistan had signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in January 2003, to improve Afghanistan's access to the coast.
Under this agreement, Iran is building a new transit route to connect Milak in the southeast of the country to Zaranj in Afghanistan, and has already completed an important bridge over the Helmand River.
On its part, India has completed building the new road connecting Zaranj to Delaram, which is on the main Herat-Kandahar road.
These projects will shorten the transit distance between Chabahar and Delaram by over 600 kilometres. (Understand why the Indian embassy was bombed by Taliban (Haqqani group under orders from ISI).
According to the MoU, Afghan goods will have duty-free access to the Iranian port and the trade from Afghanistan will have to pay no more than what is applied to Iranian traders for using Iranian territory for transit purposes.
India is to enjoy similar benefits as Afghanistan at Chabahar port and for transit. Furthermore, India and Iran have also agreed to build a railroad from Chabahar to the Iranian Central Railway Station, thus creating a link to the Karachi-Tehran Railway line, which goes further westwards.
While Afghanistan gains superior access to realize its trade potential, India will be able to prevail over hurdles posed by Pakistan in refusing to allow the transit of Indian goods en route to Afghanistan. Furthermore, India would be able to obtain quicker access (of GAS / HYDROCARBONS) to Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine.
The Zaranj-Delaram project, consequently, has direct ramifications for the three participating countries, and impacts on Pakistan by default. Afghanistan, the host country that is still a long way away from recovery, continues to be a playground for competing foreign policy agendas and the ‘new great game’ that is evidently being played out on its soil.
The Taliban (actually Pakistan Military and ISI) detests India’s proximity with the Hamid Karzai regime and leaders of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. The Taliban/al Qaeda combine and the transnational jihadi groups headquartered in Pakistan have consequently and continuously targeted Indian nationals and interests since India began reconstruction operations in Afghanistan, particularly in southern Afghanistan and in the Herat area bordering Iran.
Reconstruction efforts and the unfortunate consequence of violence play out amidst the reality of the limited control exercised by the Hamid Karzai Government over southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban, al Qaeda and an assortment of tribal elders and warlords, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have de facto control over this region, and some of these entities either operate from their safe sanctuaries within Pakistan or directly secure support from the establishment in Islamabad.
The dangers of anarchy across wide areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border go well beyond the confines of the region, and are seen to be sourced in Pakistan to a far greater extent than in the debilitated state of Afghanistan.
Despite the steadily worsening situation in Afghanistan and the direct attacks against Indian projects and workers, there is no indication that India intends to dilute its presence or commitment to projects in Afghanistan. Indeed, there are strong efforts to further consolidate India-Afghanistan relations beyond the present commitment, which is primarily related to reconstruction and development efforts.
There is, for instance, a proposal for the Indian Army to train the Afghan National Army in counter-insurgency operations (this is ongoing, I believe). While India would remain "actively engaged" in the reconstruction exercise in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, the next step of military cooperation would unambiguously threaten Pakistan’s attempts to secure dominance and recover strategic depth in Afghanistan.
Though Pakistan is currently wracked by multiple internal convulsions that have, in some measure, undermined its capacities of power projection into Afghanistan, it remains the case that it shares strategic goals with the Taliban in this theatre.
The Taliban and the transnational jihadi groups headquartered in Pakistan’s tribal areas remain the principal instrumentalities of Islamabad’s response to India’s deepening co-operation with Afghanistan – notwithstanding evidence of some radical Islamist activity now being redirected towards Islamabad.
Pakistan’s prospective strategies envisage an augmented share of power for the Taliban at Kabul, in the proximate future, and a return to the status quo ante of a Taliban regime, in the medium term. Preventing the stabilization of the Karzai is an integral element of this broad strategic vision. This orientation is also seen to constitute an existential imperative for Islamabad, since a strong and stable regime at Kabul would immediately put the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan into question, and further destabilize North Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Pakistan’s covert assistance to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and its efforts to recover ‘strategic depth’ in that country through this proxy, will inevitably continue, though its scale may be calibrated to ensure that it does not provoke US ire and reprisals.
2. NATO – Current Hurdles
Currently, half of the US supplies passing through Pakistan is pilfered by motley groups of Taliban militants, petty traders and plain thieves. The US Army is getting burgled in broad daylight and can't do much about it. Almost 80% of all supplies for Afghanistan pass through Pakistan. The Peshawar bazaar is doing a roaring business hawking stolen US military ware, as in the 1980s during the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. This volume of business will register a quantum jump following the doubling of the US troop level in Afghanistan to 60,000.
To circumvent this pilferage and destruction (Taliban with a wink from Pakistan Army blew up NATO trucks in Peshawar from time to time) the American military has secured agreements to move supplies to Afghanistan from the north, easing the heavy reliance on the transit route through Pakistan. "There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and Russia," Petraeus said.
However, this is wholly not correct as Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, added from Brussels, "We know nothing of Russia's alleged agreement of military transit of Americans or NATO at large. There had been suggestions of the sort, but they were not formalized."
Russia may give the go ahead if it realizes that its stake in the central Asian gas is not “captured” by these NATO / US forces. Any transit to NATO can also work as gas transit routes.
3. RUSSIA – IMPERATIVES
a)Russia is not facing the “bear hating & phobic" neo-con government in US, however it is very clear what the ultimate agenda of US / UK / NATO is in Central Asia. The missile defense and games in Poland have left a bad taste in the mouth of the Russians who saw it explode “2nd degree” by withdrawing gas from Europe through Ukraine ostensibly on “pricing issues”. The political undertone was not lost on anyone.
Russian experts have let it be known that Moscow views with disquiet the US's recent overtures to Central Asian countries regarding bilateral transit treaties with them which exclude Russia. Agreements have been reached with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Moscow feels the US is pressing ahead with a new Caspian transit route which involves the dispatch of shipments via Georgia to Azerbaijan and thereon to the Kazakh harbor of Aktau and across the Uzbek territory to Amu Darya and northern Afghanistan.
Russian experts estimate that the proposed Caspian transit route could eventually become an energy transportation route in reverse direction, which would mean a strategic setback for Russia in the decade-long struggle for the region's hydrocarbon reserves.
b) However, the other "major" thing that the Russians are very worried about is the explosion of militant Islam from Pakistan and into its hinterland.
Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin said,"I can responsibly say that in the event of NATO's defeat in Afghanistan, fundamentalists who are inspired by this victory will set their eyes on the north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan ... If things turn out badly, in about 10 years, our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organized Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan."
Obviously, Russia would not want to fight militant Islamists (Taliban + Al Qaeda elements armed by Pakistan Army) in Uzbekistan.
The ultimate aim of Pakistan is of course to take control of these hydrocarbon reserves in Central Asia – as most of these countries are Islamic and it feels that with the “Islamic bomb” (read: nuclear) it has the de-facto ownership of “strategic reserves” of these Islamic countries.
Russia is very clear on Pakistan’s game plan and it wants to see NATO do the dirty job of eradicating this menace.
4. NATO & IRAN – New relationship under OBAMA
Washington is preparing a letter that will apparently be a reply to the congratulatory letter from Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to US President Barack Obama on the latter's victory in the November election.
Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said there is a "clear opportunity for the Iranians" to demonstrate "some willingness to engage meaningfully".
It is fairly clear that Ahmadinejad, who is riding a wave of popular support inside Iran, is all but certain to win a renewed mandate in the forthcoming presidential elections in June. Former president Mohammad Khatami, who was tipped to be a candidate of the reformist camp, has since excused himself from the race.
Thus US will have to deal with Ahmadinejad. And Ahmadinejad extended his hand of friendship first.
The US calculus will also factor in the following facts:
a) Iran can help keep the western, northern and central regions of Afghanistan calm while the US focuses on pacifying the south and southeastern provinces and the Afghan-Pakistan border areas. At the very least, Iran should not meddle with US operations there.
b) US can use Iranian opposition to the Taliban as a bargaining chip to get Pakistan to pare down any excessive claims on power sharing in a future set-up in Kabul.
c) Iran can help to put together any credible loya jirga or other form of inter-Afghan dialogue that is needed to legitimize any new regime in Kabul.
d) US is far better off engaging Iran directly than leaving Tehran to "gang up" with other regional powers (read: India + Russia). Remember the original backers of Northern Alliance (Ahmed Shah Masoud group were and remains : INDIA + IRAN + RUSSIA)
e) Karzai who knows that US is planning to oust him and replace him with Khalilzad, is loathe to hand over power and is actively wooing Russians and Iranians and is not averse to giving space to SCO (Shanghai Cooperation ) too. This will surely rile the US and it will quickly make reassessment of its plans.
5. IRAN’s nuclear ambitions
Every analyst worth his / her salt has discussed and came to two basic conclusions as to the main reasons for Iran’s nuclear ambitions:
a) To ensure that US / NATO do not invade or play in its yard and backyard
b) To ensure that Israel does not attack Iran and it retains the capacity to strike back.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, who is also the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press)gives a refreshing perspective (it has historical connotations - discussed later).
He states: Shi'ite Iran is nervously watching the security and political developments in neighboring Pakistan, which is rife with Sunni extremism. Inevitably, Iranian leaders and policy experts have to confront the question: what happens if some of those ardently anti-Shi'ite extremist groups get their hands on nuclear bombs? As it is, the Shi’ites are getting slaughtered in Pakistan by groups like Lashkar e Jhaghvi which are allied to Al – Qaeda.
It turns out that Iran's tacit consent to the US invasion of Iraq under the pretext of weapons of mass destruction was based primarily on Tehran's fear of Saddam's nuclear threat.
Iran had no fear of Pakistan's bombs when they were directed against India. But today the threat of those same bombs falling in the wrong hands is shaping Tehran's national security calculus.
With northwest Pakistan now lawless and its government unable to stem the tide of al-Qaeda and Sunni extremism, Iran's worry is that sooner or later this will infect the Pakistani army. If Pakistan's top military command were infiltrated, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal would be in jeopardy.
Historical connotation: Muslim world believes that in the end, the world will be largely Islamic through conquests etc, and the last fight will be between Sunnis and Shias. Iran cannot ensure victory for Shias if Sunni Pakistan has the atomic bomb. Hence, either it too will have the bomb or Pakistan should be "denuded" of its atomic arsenal. (US/NATO/INDIA/RUSSIA favour the "denuded" option - rather than seeing a nuclear IRAN).
Hence what can one take after reading the 5 issues:
The NATO supply route through Pakistan is all but over and the one suggested by US through Central Asia will require time and approval by Russia (which it might get with a time frame)
Iran’s anti-Taliban stance and its fear of Pakistani loose nukes fit well with the US rationale.
The shortest route to Afghanistan from a port, outside of Pakistan, to reach Afghanistan, lies through Chabahar port. The port and the road in Afghanistan has been built by India. (Note: How close is the Chabahar port to Gwadar (Pakistan). Gwadar is built with Chinese help to station Chinese Navy).
India can swing a deal for NATO, if agreements are reached between NATO / US and IRAN on imperatives in Afghanistan. It would need a tacit approval of Russia too.
This situation is dire enough to warrant serious consideration from Tehran about direct security dialogue with Washington on the entire gamut of regional issues: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and nuclear terrorism.
BuA analysis: Makes for a good point to start thinking about NATO shipments through Chabahar. The financial investments made on the port and the roads can be made in under a year by just transporting NATO goods.
Interesting side note: If Indian troops were to be stationed in Afghanistan, surely this will be the feeder route.
However, in statistical analysis of probability based on "random walk", the equations always carry an epsilon denoting "error" probability. In this analysis - ISRAEL and its concerns have not been taken into account. ISRAEL is the "epsilon" in the above analysis - one whose actions can throw everything out of gear.