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The world has been so chaotic lately that it was easy to overlook two U.S. diplomatic maneuvers - involving the turbulent nations of Afghanistan and Iran - that avoided what could have been dangerous ruptures.
The architect of these two agreements was Secretary of State John Kerry, who these days seems to be in constant airborne mediation mode. In calmer times, Kerry would have made front-page headlines with his power-sharing pact in Afghanistan that defused talk of a possible civil war there, and with his agreement to extend the delicate Iranian nuclear talks until November.
With the catastrophic violence in Gaza and Ukraine, these developments were barely noticed. Kerry himself raced off to Cairo and Tel Aviv this week to chase an Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire. He also continues his regular, largely fruitless, conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about Ukraine. Kerry has yet to demonstrate, in any of these crises, that he can achieve more than temporary political fixes or extensions of interim agreements. But the intensity of his effort is admirable.
The Afghanistan and Iran deals, though little discussed, are worth a closer look. They challenge the conventional wisdom about security problems in those two countries. In both cases, American diplomatic pressure has so far averted what many analysts were predicting a year ago could pose new security threats for the United States. Both crises could still return with a vengeance, but U.S.-led diplomacy has had some traction.
The surprise about Afghanistan is that the June runoff election to succeed President Hamid Karzai has produced a power-sharing agreement between the apparent winner, Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, and Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik.
Abdullah, who had polled the most votes in the first round, screamed fraud when the official count reported that he had lost the runoff by a roughly 56-44 percent margin. His allies warned that they would mobilize Tajik militias for a renewed Afghan civil war. Some Afghan analysts had been predicting such a return to warlordism ever since President Obama decided to withdraw U.S. combat troops.
But, wonder of wonders, civil strife hasn't engulfed Afghanistan. Security is shaky, and Afghan forces struggle daily to keep the Taliban at bay. But the country hasn't cracked. Ghani and Abdullah both endorse the bilateral security agreement negotiated with the United States, which will provide a continuing American military presence, at least through the end of 2016. Karzai had refused to approve the pact, but it's likely to be signed quickly after the recount is finished in September.
Kerry's unity deal came when Ghani and Abdullah agreed to a full audit of the election results, and Ghani offered his rival a significant role as a quasi-prime minister. Ghani also plans, as he put it in a campaign manifesto, to "enter into a dialogue with the armed opposition" when he takes office.
Ghani told me in a telephone interview last week that he and Abdullah have agreed on a program of outreach to political and business leaders. His plans for an inclusive national government assume that Afghan security forces, numbering about 340,000, can operate effectively as the United States withdraws support. That's a big "if," especially in providing logistics for such a big army, but so far the Afghans have held their ground.
Kerry's agreement to extend the nuclear talks with Iran for another four months is harder to assess. In the run-up to the July 20 expiration of the interim agreement, U.S. officials had seemed doubtful that the Iranians would offer enough concessions. But in the final days, the Iranians appear to have shown flexibility and creativity on several key issues.
The areas where Iranian negotiators are said to have signaled willingness to compromise include: reconfiguring their planned reactor at Arak so it won't produce plutonium for a bomb; converting their hardened facility at Fordow so it is verifiably for peaceful uses; addressing so-called "possible military dimensions" of their nuclear activities; and limiting their stockpile of enriched uranium.
The big gap between Iran and the P5+1 negotiating group is the number of centrifuges Iran claims it needs for a peaceful nuclear program. On this, Kerry appears to have made little progress in his meetings a week ago with his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. The number of centrifuges seems to be the deal-maker, or breaker.
Critics might argue that Kerry's negotiations with Afghan and Iranian officials have produced little more than agreements that "kick the can down the road." But in such a turbulent world, there are worse things than buying some time in hopes of an eventual breakthrough.