Surprised? Friday night (June 13) on the Charlie Rose television program, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out a case for the United States and Iran to work together to fight back ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in Iraq. Saturday, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani publicly announced that Iran would consider joining forces with the United States to combat ISIS in Iraq. Today (June 16), Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is open to “any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together.” Despite the core ideological differences between the two governments and their heated polemics toward each other in recent times this should not be happening, right? Frenemies? Iran and America? But this is not the first time in recent years that the two have worked together. Let me tell you a story.
Quietly begun by the UN in 1997, the so-called Six plus Two talks included Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus the United States and Russia. The purpose of the talks was to quietly discuss dealing with the Taliban’s solidification of power over Afghanistan and the increasing violence among warring factions in that country. Shiite Iran, in particualr, had a deep stake in these talks. The Taliban movement, not to mention Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, were ultrafundamentalist Sunni Muslims who posed a real and present danger to neighboring Iran, with its very long eastern border with Afghanistan. Also, droves of Afghan refugees were fleeing Taliban rule for Iran.
The Iran – U.S. narrative now begins to sound like a John LeCarré novel. Soon after 9/11, Iran, in definitive way through its considerable resources, began helping the CIA and the U.S. military to oust al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan. Iran was a major supporter of the Northern Alliance, a motley group of anti-Taliban forces who were already at war with the Taliban and who now became the chief U.S. ally in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban. A tentative partnership that already existed between Iran and the Northern Alliance was helpful to the U.S. in its own partnership with the NA. Iran also agreed to allow any U.S. pilots who were in distress to land on Iranian soil, if necessary, and it agreed to all the U.S. to perform search-and-rescue missions for downed American pilots on its soil. Iran also increased its troop strength along the long Iran – Afghanistan border and, according to Trita Parsi, it sent a dossier to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan on hundreds of al Qaeda operatives Iran had detained (Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.).
In October or November 2001, the Six plus Two forum had discreetly spun off one on one talks between Tehran and Washington to focus on closer cooperation about Afghanistan. Barbara Slavin writes that more than a dozen secret meetings were held among a small, select group of high-level U.S. and Iranian diplomats until the Bush administration rudely snubbed Iran in May 2003. These secret meetings, she writes, were cordial and professional and alternated between Geneva and Paris, often taking place in a hotel bar where the diplomats would chat over nonalcoholic drinks and potato chips. Parsi notes that the talks were dubbed the Geneva Channel and that the discussions were bilateral and at the highest level between officials of the two countries since the Iran-Contra scandal (Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation). The talks included U.S. ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalizad (both were senior Bush officials) and high-level Iranian diplomats.
Meanwhile, on November 12, 2001, the Six plus Two group happened to be meeting at the UN in New York City when American Airlines flight 587 crashed into a densely populated neighborhood in Queens shortly after taking off from JFK airport. Slavin writes in Bitter Friends that the assembled diplomats at first assumed another terrorist attack. She also reports that Karmal Kharrazi, Iran’s foreign minister, handwrote onto his prepared remarks the following words to a member of the U.S. delegation: “‘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 violent terrorist attacks’.” Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, in New York City attending the annual UN General Assembly meetings, told reporters that he hoped “this bitter event will be the last we will have, and that terrorism and hate will be replaced by coexistence, empathy, logic, and dialogue.”
Iran then proved to be crucial to the success of the Bonn Conference in December 2001, where, under UN auspices, an international delegation met with prominent Afghan leaders to decide on a plan for governing Afghanistan, which had been without a nationally-agreed upon government since 1979. According to Parsi in Treacherous Alliance, Washington and Tehran had laid the groundwork for the conference weeks in advance, and that at the conference it was the Iranian not the U.S. delegation which pointed out that the draft of the Bonn Declaration, which would create the new government, as yet contained no language on democracy. Slavin agrees that Iran played a very supportive role at the Bonn Conference in the diplomatic area. It was Iran, she writes, that suggested that the draft communiqué call for democracy in Afghanistan and declared that the new government should not harbor terrorists.
Parsi concludes that it was Iran’s influence over the Afghans, not America’s threats and promises, that moved the negotiations forward right up to the end of conference. This was a crucial moment because of a final sticking point with the Northern Alliance about the high number of seats it should hold in the new government. This could not be resolved and nearly scuttled reaching a final agreement, Parsi writes, then noting that it was Iran’s lead negotiator, Javad Zarif, who broke the deadlock, but only by taking the Afghan delegate aside and whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later they returned to the table, the Northern Alliance inexplicably having agreed to give up two of the seats it wanted in the new government. (Zarif is now Rouhani’s foreign minister.)
For Iran, its enemy the Taliban had been defeated. For the United States, its relations with Iran had become less adversarial. Both governments had demonstrated to each other how they could benefit from an improved bilateral better relationship. This historic season of cooperation between the two adversaries, which had been taking place in other ways since 1997, did not go unnoticed at the Powell State Department, where it was hoped that the common interests that both countries had shared in Afghanistan could be expanded to other areas.
Then Secretary of State Colin Powell was arguing for this at the White House, against adamant opposition from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The evening of September 11, 2001, for instance, Powell and a team of close advisors had worked through the night to produce a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan. It immediately became central to U.S. plans in its war on terrorism. Parsi writes that the plans included initiating the kind of cooperation with Iran that would be used as a platform for persuading Tehran to move beyond its tactical help into a positive strategic relationship with Washington. Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan after 9/11 had made its strategic help at least something worth talking about with Iran.
With Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan paying off, the Powell State Department pushed for a strategic opening with Iran. Powell, Richard Armitage (Powell’s deputy), and Larry Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff) had been trying to build a proactive policy toward Iran, but, as Slavin writes, the three faced continual ferocious opposition from Rumsfeld, Vice-president Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. President George W. Bush however, would begin to scotch that possibility in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he included “Iran” in his “axis of evil” (with Iraq and North Korea).
In May 2003, the Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz cabal had succeeded in killing the Powell strategy. President Khatami, despite Bush’s axis of evil speech, was still trying to build better relations with the U.S., and he had persuaded the Iranian regime to take a huge risk in the direction. The regime sent a formal diplomatic letter to the Bush administration seeking the start of direct high-level talks on a wider array of issues crucial to improving the bilateral relations.
The unprecedented offer was immediately rebuffed by the Bush White House, and the ultrafundamentalists in Tehran quickly used the snub to undermine the credibility of Khatami, his team, and other reformist politicians who had been sticking their necks out since 1997 for friendlier relations with the United States. And the rest, as they say, is history, beginning with another surprise election, that of the radical and controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June 2005.
“This is where things get into the land of the unbelievable,” Haass admitted to Rose.
“We’re going to be on the same side as Iran helping the Iraqi government…. As crazy as this sounds, the moment may have come.” Or, as that great political prophet Mark Twain once said, “History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.” The question is, What is the end rhyme?
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Stefan Krasowski and Adam_Inglis, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)