Friday, December 22, 2006

Spurning Iran

This piece in today's NY Times by Flynt Leverett is interesting for a couple of reasons. The one that many bloggers have focused on is the zeal with which some in the White House fought to keep this op-ed from seeing the light of day. And it is an intersting story, but it's also well covered by other blogs, and I'd like to take a look at the substance of Leverett's op-ed instead. And what Leverett confirms is what is still, in my opinion, a little-known story about how the Bush administration threw away chance to establish rapprochment with Iran in the months following 9/11: the wake of the 9/11 attacks, senior Iranian diplomats told us that Tehran believed it had a historic opportunity to improve relations with Washington. Iranian leaders offered to help the United States in responding to the attacks without making that help contingent on changes in America’s Iran policy — a condition stipulated in the late 1990s when Tehran rejected the Clinton administration’s offer of dialogue — calculating that cooperation would ultimately prompt fundamental shifts in United States policy.

The argument that Iran helped America in Afghanistan because it was in Tehran’s interest to get rid of the Taliban is misplaced. Iran could have let America remove the Taliban without getting its own hands dirty, as it remained neutral during the 1991 gulf war. Tehran cooperated with United States efforts in Afghanistan primarily because it wanted a better relationship with Washington.

And for it's trouble, what did Iran get in return? Quite simply, rejection:
But Tehran was profoundly disappointed with the United States response. After the 9/11 attacks, xxx xxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xx set the stage for a November 2001 meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and the foreign ministers of Afghanistan’s six neighbors and Russia. xxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx Iran went along, working with the United States to eliminate the Taliban and establish a post-Taliban political order in Afghanistan. [Note to readers: the x's indicate the redacted portions of Levett's essay.]

In December 2001, xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx x Tehran to keep Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the brutal pro-Al Qaeda warlord, from returning to Afghanistan to lead jihadist resistance there. xxxxx xxxxxxx so long as the Bush administration did not criticize it for harboring terrorists. But, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush did just that in labeling Iran part of the “axis of evil.” Unsurprisingly, Mr. Hekmatyar managed to leave Iran in short order after the speech. xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxx the Islamic Republic could not be seen to be harboring terrorists.

xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxx xxx xx xxxxxxx This demonstrated to Afghan warlords that they could not play America and Iran off one another and prompted Tehran to deport hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives who had fled Afghanistan.

So the Bush administration's choice to throw away useful diplomacy to engage in some ideological "war on terror" (useful for winning elections if nothing else, at least until recently) hurt us not only strategically in the long-run, but also in a very specific way and direct way in Afghanistan. Surely Iran knew that freeing hundreds of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants to flee back to Afghanistan would hurt us and the peace process in Afghanistan, and I surely they lost no sleep over that fact, but is it at all possible to argue that had they kept them, even for the purpose of bargaining with us, we wouldn't have used that fact against them politically?

Consequently (and logically) Iran has long since abandoned such an approach, and now deals with us using a different approach, one of confrontation and unilateralism:
Our experience dealing with xxxx xxxx Iranian diplomats over Afghanistan and in more recent private conversations in Europe and elsewhere convince us that Iran will not go down such a dead-end road again. Iran will not help the United States in Iraq because it wants to avoid chaos there; Tehran is well positioned to defend its interests in Iraq unilaterally as America flounders. Similarly, Iran will not accept strategically meaningful limits on its nuclear capabilities for a package of economic and technological goodies.

Iran will only cooperate with the United States, whether in Iraq or on the nuclear issue, as part of a broader rapprochement addressing its core security concerns. This requires extension of a United States security guarantee — effectively, an American commitment not to use force to change the borders or form of government of the Islamic Republic — bolstered by the prospect of lifting United States unilateral sanctions and normalizing bilateral relations. This is something no United States administration has ever offered, and that the Bush administration has explicitly refused to consider.

And so now Iran deals with us from a position of strength, as equals, if not our superiors, in the power politics of the Middle East. Our administration (and the right-wing blogosphere) blusters and threatens, but the Iranians know that thanks to our commitment to the debacle in Iraq, our damaged credibility in the eyes of the Muslim world, and our absurd tendency to choose force over diplomacy (see Lebanon this past summer) we are in no position to threaten serious military action against them. Now they will simply bide their time, meddling in Iraq (a shadowy dagger pointed towards our troops), building their nuclear program, and expanding their influence across the Middle East. We still possess much strength, but not so much that we can undo or deny this reality. The only approach is normalized relations. The Bush administration will refuse (to imagine them switching to a new policy, however sensible, is at this point unimaginable.) But Congress is now occupied by those who think rapprochment is the key to our future in the Middle East, though they only whisper it for now, I'm sure mostly out of fear of being branded as traitors or appeasors by the war-bloggers and hawks whose wise recommendations have produced the catastrophe that is Iraq. But that will change with time, and with the advocacy of those like Leverett and the other truly "wise men" of foreign policy who have been spurned by this administration.

We cannot seek rapprochment with Iran soon enough. It is not the key to solving our problems in Iraq or the Middle East. But it is the only path left to us in which we can exercise influence in such a way that befits our goals of energy security and the destruction of Al Qaeda and militant Islam in general. We simply cannot afford to be willfully blind to this reality any longer.

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