A Broken Engagement

A Broken Engagement

Mini Teaser: Hell hath no fury like a Tehran scorned.

by Author(s): Barbara Slavin

IT MAY seem counterintuitive, but September 11 produced an opening for improved U.S.-Iran relations that could have enhanced the U.S. ability to marginalize the number one threat to U.S. and Western interests: fundamentalist, suicidal Sunni terrorism. However, continued U.S. antipathy pushed Iran to become more of a strategic competitor, leading it to retain tactical links to Al-Qaeda as well as to bolster radical Shi‘a Muslim groups and other proxies. Instead of dividing our enemies, the Bush Administration united them against us.

Among the worst consequences of the Bush Administration's post-9/11 strategic choices is the unabated rise of Iran. The U.S. decision to reject Iranian overtures for comprehensive negotiations in 2003 and to topple Saddam Hussein without a prior regional consensus about what would replace him has strengthened the most hard-line elements of Iran's Islamic government, spurred its nuclear program, revived its expansionist ambitions and undermined pro-U.S. political factions throughout the Middle East. The question now is whether it is still possible to reach an understanding with Iran that will temper its motivation to play the spoiler and strengthen forces within the country that seek an end to extremism and isolation.

Immediately after 9/11, Iranians distinguished themselves by spontaneously demonstrating in sympathy with the victims of the attacks. At a multinational meeting on Afghanistan at the UN, then-Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi passed then-Secretary of State Colin Powell a note that read: "The United States should know that the Iranian people and the Iranian government stand with the United States in its time of need and absolutely condemn these vicious terrorist attacks", according to a U.S. diplomat who saw the document.

At the time, the Iranian government saw an opportunity to distinguish its behavior from that of Sunni radicals by defeating a regional rival and building on a warming trend with Washington, begun during the latter part of the Clinton Administration. A high-ranking Iranian diplomat told me:

The general impression was that [9/11] was a national tragedy for the United States and that success in addressing that national tragedy was extremely important for the U.S. public in general and the administration in particular. . . .There was not another moment in U.S. history when there was more of a psychological need for success on the U.S. part. That is why we consciously decided not to qualify our cooperation on Afghanistan or make it contingent upon a change in U.S. policy, believing, erroneously, that the impact would be of such magnitude that it would automatically have altered the nature of Iran-U.S. relations.

The diplomat's comments show that Iranians were-and may still be-willing to cooperate with the United States, although no longer for free. Iran will demand, at a minimum, acknowledgement of its role in the region, particularly in the affairs of co-religionists in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. Iran will also seek economic concessions-especially a loosening of the U.S.-led embargo on investment in the Iranian oil industry.

Considering its recent and intensifying belligerence, it may be hard to believe that Iran and the United States did cooperate strategically in Afghanistan. Iran had long backed the Northern Alliance, an amalgam of anti-Taliban groups. Advisors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were present in Kabul when the Northern Alliance captured the Afghan capital in November 2001. Although most Americans are unaware of it, U.S. and Iranian representatives held one-on-one talks in Europe from 2001 to 2003. Senior State Department officials, including current U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and current UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, led discussions with Iranian diplomats in Geneva and Paris. (The talks grew out of the so-called Six-Plus-Two meetings, begun in 1997 by the United States, Russia and Afghanistan's neighbors about how to deal with the Taliban regime.)

The U.S.-Iran talks took place over non-alcoholic drinks and potato chips in hotel lounges and at the Paris home of then-UN Afghan Coordinator Lakhdar Brahimi. Among issues discussed: arresting and extraditing Al-Qaeda fugitives, the status of anti-Iran militants in Iraq and what the U.S. could expect if it toppled Saddam.

The talks, according to Iranian and U.S. participants, occurred on a nearly monthly basis from November 2001 to May 2003. The one exception: February 2002, after Bush's famous "axis of evil" State of the Union address. Iran, furious at being lumped together with Saddam's Iraq and North Korea, cancelled a round of the talks in a huff. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, when asked about the remark in 2006, said she had not considered what impact it would have on Iran before signing off on the language in Bush's speech.

Nevertheless, the Iranians swallowed their irritation and resumed the quiet dialogue with the Americans. Simultaneously, but separate from the talks, Iranian diplomats honed an agenda for broad negotiations on all key issues, including the nuclear program and Iran's support for anti-Israel Arab militants. The agenda, whose existence was revealed in 2006 by former National Security Council officer Flynt Leverett, was drafted by former Swiss Ambassador to Iran Tim Guldimann and then-Iranian Ambassador to France Sadegh Kharrazi-the nephew of Foreign Minister Kharrazi and a relative by marriage of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mohamed Javad Zarif, then a deputy foreign minister and later Iran's ambassador to the UN, edited the document, which was faxed from the Swiss embassy in Tehran to the Swiss embassy in Washington and hand-delivered to the State Department in early May 2003. Iranians and Swiss have told me the offer was authoritative, backed by the supreme leader as well as by the government of President Mohamed Khatami. Convinced that it was winning in Iraq without the benefit of Iranian help, however, the White House rejected the overture out of hand.

Essay Types: Essay