Concurrent with the mutual charm offensive from 1997-2003 between Washington and Tehran was the fascinating period of the so-called Six plus Two talks. Tentatively begun by the UN in 1997, Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus the United States and Russia, were quietly meeting to discuss dealing with the Taliban’s solidification of power over Afghanistan and the increasing violence among warring factions in that country. As well, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network had recently been given safe haven there by the Taliban and were now working in various capacities with the Taliban government.
None of this bodes well for Shiite Muslim Iran. The al Qaeda network and the Taliban movement are radical Sunni Muslim Islamists, which meant that Iran had a deep stake in the Six plus Two talks. In 1998, Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban, and more than one million Afghan refugees had fled Taliban rule and were in the safekeeping of Iran, which has a very long eastern border with Afghanistan.
Iran helps the U.S. The Iran – U.S. narrative now begins to sound like a John LeCarré novel. After 9/11, Iran, in definitive ways 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 (NA), a motley group of anti-Taliban forces who were already at war with the Taliban, and through Iran’s help the NA now became the chief U.S. ally in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Iran also agreed to allow any U.S. pilots who were in distress to land on Iranian soil, if necessary, and it agreed to allow 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 (Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation) 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, Slavin 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 (mid-1980s). The talks included high-level Iranian diplomats and U.S. ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalizad (both were senior Bush officials).
Meanwhile, the Six plus Two group happened to be meeting at the UN in New York City just two months after 9/11, when American Airlines flight 587 crashed into a densely populated neighborhood in Queens shortly after taking off from JFK airport. Slavin writes 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, 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 held meetings 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, Washington and Tehran had laid the groundwork for the conference weeks in advance, and 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 this key diplomatic role at the Bonn Conference, writing that Iran suggested that the draft communiqué call for democracy in Afghanistan and also declare that the new government should not harbor terrorists.
Parsi concluded 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, when a crucial moment arose around a final sticking point with the NA about the high number of seats it should hold in the new government. Parsi writes that the issue seemed unresolvable and nearly scuttled reaching a final agreement until Iran’s lead negotiator, Javad Zarif, broke the deadlock by taking the NA delegate aside and whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later they returned to the table, the NA inexplicably having agreed to give up two of the seats it wanted in the new government. (Zarif is currently Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Rouhani.)
For Iran, its enemy the Taliban had been defeated. For the United States, its relations with Iran had become less adversarial. The two governments had demonstrated to each other how they could benefit from improved bilateral relations. Apparently the historic season of cooperation, ongoing since 1997 in various ways, was creating a thaw between the two adversaries. This 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 continued and expanded to other areas. But that would soon be scuttled by the neoconservatives in the George W. Bush White House, despite Powell’s best efforts. We’ll take a look at that part of the history in the next post.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by raffacama & Jeffrey respectively (permission via Creative Commons)