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Post-9/11 Rebuffs Set U.S.-Iran Relations on Downward Spiral

Analysis by Barbara Slavin

WASHINGTON, Sep 7 2011 (IPS) - Of all the mistakes and missed opportunities that have characterised U.S. foreign policy since Sep. 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, had an easier time pacifying Iraq and reduced Iranian motivation to acquire nuclear weapons and oppose Arab-Israeli peace.

Unlike the reaction in many Arab states, where people saw 9-11 as punishment of the United States 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 U.S. 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 United States persisted despite this diplomatic slap. There were monthly one-on-one talks in Europe between fairly senior Iranian and U.S. diplomats from the fall of 2001 until May 2003 that dealt with Afghanistan and the looming U.S. invasion of Iraq.

James Dobbins, a special U.S. envoy for Afghanistan after 9-11, recalls a remarkable overture in March 2002 – two months after the “axis of evil” comment by President 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 defence 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 on to the next item on her agenda.”

Dobbins told IPS that the Iranian offer would likely have been scaled back and Afghanistan’s other neighbours and interested parties such as Pakistan and India would also have to have been included. Still, he regards the lack of a U.S. 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 U.S.] in mind.”

This pattern of non-response to Iranian overtures persisted. There was no U.S. 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 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006.

By then, of course, 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 percent 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-Iran relations under Khatami would likely have strengthened Iranian reformists and might have even prevented the election of the neoconservative Ahmadinejad. U.S. refusal to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear programme – unless Iran first suspended that programme – certainly did not stop the programme; if anything, it resulted in Iran accelerating uranium enrichment.

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-U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq to chase the U.S. from the region and retaliate for mounting U.S. and international sanctions over the nuclear programme.

John Limbert, a former U.S. 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 Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that another Iranian revolution is “a matter of time” given the pro-democracy ferment in the neighbourhood. 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 U.S. policies have impacted Iran’s complicated internal dynamics, noting that Ahmadinejad has gotten no bounce from his occasional efforts to engage Washington.

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 revolution.

“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 year.

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