A Broken Engagement

By Slavin, Barbara | The National Interest, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

A Broken Engagement


Slavin, Barbara, The National Interest


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. …

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