While still in Kabul on his first mission as US presidential emissary for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke said Feb. 15: “It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan.”
Talking to Tolo, a private Afghan TV network, he said: “They have a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbors.”
He then turned aside the allegations that Tehran had abetted the Taliban insurgents, saying curtly: “I heard those reports. I talked to the military command about them… I did not have enough time really to get into the details yet, but I will get into it on future trips.”
He did not refer to the destinations of those trips. But by then, Holbrooke already knew that president Barack Obama had decided to appoint him emissary for the Iranian track as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. His comment: “They have a legitimate role to play, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbors” indicated he had been empowered to deal with the Afghanistan war not only through India but also through Iran, both being neighbors.
On Feb. 13, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 384 wrote: Above all, the insurgents will do their utmost to lead Holbrooke away from his plan to introduce India into a peacemaking venture in Afghanistan in partnership with Pakistan.
Now, our sources predict, both the Taliban and al Qaeda will mount a supreme effort to keep Tehran out of the game.
Holbrooke's expanded brief conflicts with US pact with Saudi Arabia
Obama's decision to add Iran to Holbrooke's brief bears heavily on the shape of his administration's power structure in foreign and security affairs and the direction he has chosen to pursue with regard to South Asia and the Persian Gulf.
As presidential envoy, Holbrooke enjoys direct access to the president with authority to bypass secretary of state Hillary Clinton, defense secretary Robert Gates and national security adviser Gen. James Jones. He has been empowered as foreign policy strongman for shaping the president's strategy in key world arenas.
Obama needs to be free to concentrate on the economic crisis consuming America and is therefore expected to rely more and more on his senior foreign policy envoy taking Afghanistan and contacts with Iran off his hands.
But there is a price to pay for this change of course.
By granting Iran a pivotal role in the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Holbrooke has afforded the Islamic Republic strong leverage. This step implies that Washington is willing to recognize Iran's long sought-after standing as a regional power – not merely in the Middle East but in Asia at large.
This acute shift in emphasis brings Obama's foreign policy into direct collision with another venture only just broached by his administration, the strategic pact with Saudi Arabia (revealed first in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 385 of Feb. 20: Saudi Prince Live Wire in Afghanistan Deal).
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is ready and willing to broker a US settlement with the Taliban and help heal Washington's rift with Damascus – but only for the sake of cutting Iran out of the race for regional superpower status. Holbrooke is driving Obama's regional policy in the opposite direction. It is hard to see how the two directions can be coherently melded.