Post-9/11 rebuff sunk US-Iran ties
By Barbara Slavin
WASHINGTON - Of all the mistakes and missed opportunities that have
characterized United States foreign policy since September 11, 2001, few may
have been as consequential as the failure to improve relations with Iran.
Had the George W Bush administration responded to repeated overtures from
Tehran, it might have cemented a powerful ally against al-Qaeda, given the US
an easier time pacifying Iraq and reduced Iranian motivation to oppose
Unlike the reaction in many Arab states, where people saw 9/11 as punishment of
the US for its pro-Israeli policies, in Iran both government officials and
ordinary citizens expressed genuine
sympathy for the victims.
The government of then president Mohammad Khatami - with the backing of Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - strongly supported US efforts to topple the
Taliban government and create a new administration for Afghanistan. Its reward:
being labeled a member of an "axis of evil" along with Saddam Hussein's Iraq
and North Korea.
Iranian efforts to reconcile with the US persisted despite this diplomatic
slap. There were monthly one-on-one talks in Europe between fairly senior
Iranian and US diplomats from the autumn of 2001 until May 2003 that dealt with
Afghanistan and the looming US invasion of Iraq.
James Dobbins, a special US envoy for Afghanistan after 9/11, recalls a
remarkable overture in March 2002 - two months after the "axis of evil" comment
by Bush - when an Iranian general offered his country's assistance in training
20,000 members of a new Afghan army.
Dobbins, in an article last year in the Washington Quarterly, wrote that
secretary of state Colin Powell called the proposal "very interesting" and told
him to talk to then national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. Rice put the
offer on the agenda at a meeting of National Security Council principals,
including then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"When we came to that item on the agenda, I again recounted my conversation
with the Iranians," Dobbins wrote. "Rumsfeld did not look up from the papers he
was perusing. When I finished, he made no comment and asked no questions.
Neither did anyone else. After a long pause, seeing no one ready to take up the
issue, Rice moved the meeting onto the next item on her agenda."
Dobbins told Inter Press Service (IPS) that the Iranian offer would likely have
been scaled back and Afghanistan's other neighbors and interested parties such
as Pakistan and India would also have to have been included. Still, he regards
the lack of a US counter-proposal as a major missed opportunity. The Iranians,
he said, "were making it clear that they had a broader agenda [of
reconciliation with the US] in mind."
This pattern of non-response to Iranian overtures persisted. There was no US
reply to an Iranian agenda for comprehensive negotiations sent to the State
Department in May 2003, no answer when Iran offered that year to trade senior
al-Qaeda detainees for members of an Iranian terrorist group in Iraq, and no
response to an admittedly idiosyncratic letter to Bush by new President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad in 2006.
By then, the power dynamics in the region had shifted toward Iran and away from
the United States, which was bogged down in sectarian warfare in Iraq and about
to face a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
Dobbins said that continued Iranian cooperation might not have been decisive in
Afghanistan given the Taliban's stronger links to Pakistan. "In terms of Iraq,
however, it could have made all the difference since at least 50% of the
violence since 2003 has come from Shi'ite militants" who are either backed by
Iran or otherwise susceptible to Iranian pressure, he said.
Those in the Bush administration who opposed rapprochement with Iran feared
that restoring US relations would preserve an authoritarian regime that had
been responsible for acts of terrorism against Americans in the past and that
still supported groups opposed to Israel's existence.
However, improved US-Iran relations under Khatami would likely have
strengthened Iranian reformists and might have even prevented the election of
the neo-conservative Ahmadinejad. US refusal to negotiate with Iran about its
nuclear program - unless Iran first suspended uranium enrichment - certainly
did not stop the program; if anything, it resulted in Iran accelerating
The Barack Obama administration tried to correct course and sought to engage
Iran without preconditions in 2009. However, disputed Iranian presidential
elections and their bloody aftermath so divided the Iranian political elite
that progress on the diplomatic front was impossible.
Since then, both sides have hardened their positions. Iran has continued
support for anti-US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to chase the US from the
region and retaliate for mounting US and international sanctions over the
John Limbert, a former US hostage in Iran who was deputy assistant secretary of
state for Iran in the early part of the Obama administration, blames inertia
for Washington's inability to take "yes" for an answer from Iran.
"We know how to do certain things but not act constructively" with Iran, he
said. "We assume there is a trick whenever they come to us."
Iranians also have difficulty trusting a country that is slowly squeezing the
Iranian economy and anticipating the demise of the Islamic regime. Newly minted
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that another Iranian revolution
was "a matter of time" given the pro-democracy ferment in the neighborhood.
That may well be the case, but talking about it openly is unlikely to help
Iranians bring that about.
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said she doubted
that US policies had impacted Iran's complicated internal dynamics, noting that
Ahmadinejad has gotten no bounce from his occasional efforts to engage
However, she told IPS that allowing the 2001-2003 talks to end was "a fantastic
mistake. The dialogue that existed on Afghanistan was the single unparalleled
opportunity to create a diplomatic process" with Iran since the 1979 Islamic
"It's wholly improbable that we'll see anything like that in the foreseeable
future," she added, "because the political conditions in Iran are so
inappropriate for any meaningful dialogue."
She might have said the same about the United States in a presidential election