The Iraq Study Group has added its voice to a burgeoning chorus of commentators, politicians, and former officials calling for a limited, tactical dialogue with Iran regarding Iraq. The Bush administration has indicated a conditional willingness to pursue a similarly compartmented dialogue with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear activities.
Unfortunately, advocates of limited engagement — either for short-term gains on specific issues or to “test” Iran regarding broader rapprochement — do not seem to understand the 20-year history of United States-Iranian cooperation on discrete issues or appreciate the impact of that history on Iran’s strategic outlook. In the current regional context, issue-specific engagement with Iran is bound to fail. The only diplomatic approach that might succeed is a comprehensive one aimed at a “grand bargain” between the United States and the Islamic Republic.
Since the 1980s, cooperation with Iran on specific issues has been tried by successive administrations, but United States policymakers have consistently allowed domestic politics or other foreign policy interests to torpedo such cooperation and any chance for a broader opening. The Reagan administration’s engagement with Iran to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon came to grief in the Iran-contra scandal. The first Bush administration resumed contacts with Tehran to secure release of the last American hostages in Lebanon, but postponed pursuit of broader rapprochement until after the 1992 presidential election.
In 1994, the Clinton administration acquiesced to the shipment of Iranian arms to Bosnian Muslims, but the leak of this activity in 1996 and criticism from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole shut down possibilities for further United States-Iranian cooperation for several years.
These episodes reinforced already considerable suspicion among Iranian leaders about United States intentions toward the Islamic Republic. But, in 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.
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.
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.
Those who argue that Iran did not cause Iraq’s problems and therefore can be of only limited help in dealing with Iraq’s current instability must also acknowledge that Iran did not “cause” Afghanistan’s deterioration into a terrorist-harboring failed state. But, when America and Iran worked together, Afghanistan was much more stable than it is today, Al Qaeda was on the run, the Islamic Republic’s Hezbollah protégé was comparatively restrained, and Tehran was not spinning centrifuges. Still, the Bush administration conveyed no interest in building on these positive trends.
xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx x xxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx x xx x x xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xx xxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xx
From an Iranian perspective, this record shows that Washington will take what it can get from talking to Iran on specific issues but is not prepared for real rapprochement. Yet American proponents of limited engagement anticipate that Tehran will play this fruitless game once more — even after numerous statements by senior administration figures targeting the Islamic Republic for prospective “regime change” and by President Bush himself that attacking Iran’s nuclear and national security infrastructure is “on the table.”
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.
Indeed, no administration would be able to provide a security guarantee unless United States concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities, regional role and support for terrorist organizations were definitively addressed. That is why, at this juncture, resolving any of the significant bilateral differences between the United States and Iran inevitably requires resolving all of them. Implementing the reciprocal commitments entailed in a “grand bargain” would almost certainly play out over time and in phases, but all of the commitments would be agreed up front as a package, so that both sides would know what they were getting.
Unfortunately, the window for pursuing a comprehensive settlement with Iran will not be open indefinitely. The Iranian leadership is more radicalized today, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, than it was three years ago, and could become more radicalized in the future, depending on who ultimately succeeds Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. If President Bush does not move decisively toward strategic engagement with Tehran during his remaining two years in office, his successor will not have the same opportunities that he will have so blithely squandered.