Richard Holbrooke, US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had nice words to say about Iran and its potential role in fixing Afghanistan, in a manner that the New York Times suggests might signal a change of policy toward "direct engagement with Tehran" and "discussions with Iran about Afghanistan." Said Holbooke:
"It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan. They have a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbors."
Concerning reports of Iranian support for the Taliban, Holbrooke declined to play:
"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."
Meanwhile, Dennis Blair, the new Director of National Intelligence, also discussed Iran's role in Afghanistan in a way that was remarkably even-handed, perhaps indicating a willingness of Obama officials across the board to get Iran involved in combating the Taliban. According to Walter Pincus, in his invaluable "Fine Print" column:
Regarding Iran, Blair said Tehran is pursuing "multiple tracks" on neighboring Afghanistan. On the one hand, Iran has "focused on promoting a friendly central government in Kabul" by providing "political and economic support to the Karzai government." On the other hand, it is "developing relationships with actors across the political spectrum."
Blair's description of Iran's relationship with one of those actors, the Taliban, is most interesting. He said the intelligence community's judgment is that "Iran distrusts the Taliban and its return to power." Thus, he said, Tehran has opposed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's attempts to have reconciliation talks with the Taliban "as risking an increase in the group's influence and legitimacy."
But Blair also said Iran is providing the Taliban some "lethal aid," to help keep pressure on U.S. and NATO forces, to gather intelligence on what is going on, and as insurance in case the Taliban ends up controlling the country.
It's too early to say that Holbrooke and Blair are reflecting a coordinated policy, but it looks like that's the direction things are moving. It's important to note that while talks with the parts of the Taliban are crucial to ending the insurgency, neither Iran nor Russia and India want to see the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan. The three countries backed the non-Pashtun, anti-Taliban Northern Alliance during the 1990s. On the other hand, some sort of deal is going to have to be struck, and getting the Northern Alliance's foreign backers on board will be critical.