Continued from previous post.
President Khatami of Iran, his foreign ministry, and other high-level reformists in his government had stuck their necks out since 1997 reaching out to the United States and it had been paying off for both nations. Hardline ultrafundmentalists inside the Iranian regime, however, were no fans of Khatami’s foreign policy, which was based on his dialogue of civilizations. Nor were they fans of his reformist domestic policies. The regime’s ideological hardliners fought against Khatami’s pragmatism inside Iran not only via political means but also by oppressing numerous dissidents and intellectuals who supported the president’s domestic reforms. Despite the strong opposition of regime hardliners to his foreign policy with the U.S., Khatami remained steadfast about bringing Iran out of the cold with America. To this, the hardliners acquiesced, biding their time. That time had now come.
From October 2001 to January 2002, Iran had proven itself to be a crucial ally with the U.S. in its war in Afghanistan and the forming of the new Afghan government. Khatami had been preaching to the hardliners inside the Iranian regime that Iran’s support of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan would reap U.S. rewards.
But then, incredibly, President George W. Bush included Iran, with Iraq and North Korea, in his “axis of evil” speech in January 2002. Khatami’s credibility inside the regime immediately tanked. Intentionally or not, the Bush White House handed the hardline ideologues inside the regime the political ammunition they needed to kill Khatami’s foreign policy with the U.S. Demonizing Iran as part of an “axis of evil” became a huge propaganda coup for the hardliners. It appeared that Iran was being hung out to dry by the Americans. The hardliners argued that the Bush administration had merely used Khatami and his reformist advisers.
But bilateral relations, especially between adversaries, are never straightforward, and they become even complicated when a major event, like war, takes place that affects the strategic interests of those nations. Then, you never quite know who is going to decide what or where the relations are headed. And so just when you think events have reached such a pitch that the hardliners inside the White House and inside the Iranian regime can congratulate themselves on defeating the diplomats, no. By late 2002, with the invasion of Iraq appearing increasingly imminent, neither Washington nor Tehran could afford to stop talking to each other. With the looming war, cooperation between the two parties had become too valuable to end.
Iran had at first opposed toppling Saddam Hussein, preferring the regional Iran – Iraq status quo to a pro-Western client government along its border. But when Tehran understood that the Bush administration was set on war with Iraq, it began using the Geneva Channel and other diplomatic tracks to quietly assist U.S. plans in ways that would benefit Iranian interests. Through such help, for instance, Iran would gain at least some degree of insight into what the Americans were going to be doing in Iraq.
But there were perks for Washington, too. Tehran, for instance, held valuable cards, such as its familiarity with Iraq’s leading Shia clerics and the country’s complex Shiite tribal networks. Also, Iran’s intelligence network would have information helpful to the U.S. military once it was in Iraq. Trita Parsi, in Treacherous Alliance, writes that although the Geneva – Paris talks by 2003 “lacked the cooperative spirit they enjoyed during the Afghan war,” they continued out of mutual necessity, focusing on Iraq, until the crude snub of Iran in May 2003 by the Bush White House. With that, the cabal of Cheney–Rumsfeld–Wolfowitz had finally succeeded in killing off the Powell diplomatic strategy with Iran.
I argued for many weeks on this blog, beginning here, about why wisdom and diplomacy are vital for easing adversarial international relations to prevent conflict or war. The Bush snub of Iran in May 2003, in its rejection of entering high-level diplomatic talks with Iran, was not wise. It was largely a result of neoconservative political ideology in the Bush White House and directly implicated in the steep deterioration of U.S. – Iran relations that ensued. We will look at why neoconservatism is implicated in this in a future post.
But there was also a lack of wisdom in the Iranian regime’s response to the Bush snub, both in its domestic policies, which to this day have been terribly costly to the Iranian people, and in its relations with the West, which in recent years have been walking a knife-like edge. In the next post I want us to look at what took place politically in Iran after the snub, as the ultrafundmentalists in the regime, through elections and policies, ensured that Iran took a strong adversarial stance toward the U.S. and greatly re-energized its nuclear program.
This quick historical view will give us important insights into why the U.S., even today, retains its “all options are on the table” (war) policy toward Iran. It also gives us insight into why, if there is war with Iran, the Bush snub may yet go down in history as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States.
<em>©2014 by Charles Strohmer</em>
Image by andresmh (permission via Creative Commons)