Abtahi served as reformist President Mohammad Khatami's vice president for parliamentary legal affairs from 2001 until 2004. In this interview, he talks about the reformists' overtures to the United States during that period and the U.S. response, particularly President Bush's "strategic and political blunder" in labeling Iran part of an "axis of evil." He is not very hopeful about the future of U.S.-Iranian relations; he notes that the current tense atmosphere is "encouraged and capitalized upon by both leaders" of the two countries. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted through an interpreter on July 29, 2007.
Could you just describe where you were personally when you heard about the attacks on America on Sept. 11, and what were your own reactions to that?
At that moment I was in a meeting with Mr. Hamdan bin Zayed, then foreign minister of the UAE [United Arab Emirates]. We were having a very secret meeting about our countries' disputes, mainly on the issue of the Iranian Persian Gulf islands, which the UAE claims to own. We were both discussing that issue with maps spread before us when suddenly one of his aides stepped in, which was a bit surprising to him, and broke the news to us about this event in the United States.
By the time we switched the TV on, the first tower had been hit by one of the planes and the second crash had not yet taken place. Perhaps the first thing we both wished for was that no Muslim was involved in that action.
So what was the reaction to the attacks from the Iranian government?
I think for the first couple of hours everyone was in a state of shock, not knowing what was going on exactly. I mean, America was our enemy, but making a decision about such a situation was very difficult, precisely because a country was attacked, [and] it was not clear why; there was a cloud of uncertainty hanging over us at first.
But I am very happy that [the former Iranian president] Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami, just a few hours later, issued a statement condemning the acts. It was a very important move for Iran, and for policy-making in Iran, to issue a statement like that so quickly. I knew the circumstances and details relating to that statement. Mr. Khatami personally decided to issue that statement, and in doing so he had not even consulted his closest advisers. He also did not hold any negotiations with other senior officials in the country. It was on the basis of a pure personal belief that drove him to do that so swiftly.
Someone told me that in the few weeks following the attacks, at the Friday Prayers, the slogan of "Death to America" was suspended. Is that correct?
Yes, that was the case. And the reason for suspending the slogans came from a certain vagueness, a sense of uncertainty that had gripped the world as a result of those attacks, and because of the U.S. reaction to those frightful events and the view of the U.S. toward the Middle East and Afghanistan, which is our neighbor. Naturally all these factors led us to be very cautious.
For example, suspending the "Death to America" chants from the Friday Prayer ceremonies, it was quite clear that a decision had been made elsewhere. Friday Prayer [officials] could not make such a decision themselves; it was a political decision made at the highest levels.
Why they did it repeat it again?
Slogan chanting ordinarily occurs at Friday Prayers. The suspension needed a reason, and I told you the reason.
Just quickly on that, because I know Americans are going to wonder -- I mean, the people take that literally, "Death to America," what does that actually mean? Why is it included in the prayers?
First of all, I can only explain them as something having to do with the domestic politics of Iran, not in direct relation with the American people. In Iran, for Iran's leaders, it's important to have enemies, so actually it's much better if they have a powerful enemy such as the United States.
The reformists made great attempts to ban such slogans, I mean to stop slogans that insulted the American people. I clearly remember that in the security meetings presided over by President Khatami, decisions were made to officially ban burning American flags, things that offended the American people, but of course those decisions could not stop the hard-liners.
So he lost that battle, that internal discussion. He was unsuccessful.
No, I don't agree that we lost that battle. We succeeded in putting in place many of the concepts that the hard-liners have now adopted. That was a great success for us. In addition to that, I have not noticed that people have lost interest in what we were saying about such issues. The people didn't change, but they had too many expectations from the reformists.
For that reason, 11 million people failed to go to the ballot box [in 2005]. The gap in votes between the last reformist candidate and Mr. [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad in the presidential election was marginal. Mr. Ahmadinejad came out ahead with only 500,000 votes. It should also be noted that the reformists had internal disagreements, and so the reformist camp was running three candidates in the elections. All this shows that there has not been a change [in what our society wants and thinks].
I know the president was going to New York shortly after Sept. 11. It was postponed because of the event, but then he went in October. I was told by somebody at the State Department that President Khatami requested permission to go to the World Trade Center site [to] light a candle to honor the people who died there, and the State Department said no. Do you have any recollection of that?
Sept. 11 happened a month before the annual meeting of the United Nations in New York, and this crisis affected that meeting. Mr. Khatami wanted to go; that year many world leaders did not attend the meeting. As far as the candlelight vigil goes, I have no information about it.
Why did the government decide to cooperate with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban? What kind of cooperation was given, and what did Iran expect, if anything, in return for that cooperation?
Even if 9/11 had not happened, Iran was opposed to the Taliban. Once even before 9/11, Iran was on the verge of a war with the Taliban and deployed forces to its eastern border.
Historically there have been major differences between Al Qaeda and the Taliban and Iran. And the biggest group fighting the Taliban were the [Afghan] mujahideen that were supported by Iran, and it was the mujahideen that made the biggest effort to topple the Taliban. It was quite natural for Iran to use every opportunity to inflict harm on the Taliban in Afghanistan.
What did Iran expect in return from the U.S. for cooperating with the U.S. efforts there?
The very least expectation we had, at the height of our struggles for real reform, was not to be branded like this. Politically, it was an odd thing to do. We helped overthrow the Taliban -- instead of opening a path for even greater cooperation, they tuned to this slogan -- the "Axis of Evil." That was Mr. Bush's biggest strategic and political blunder.
The main reason for this mistake, I think, is that the Americans don't know about the Middle East. When the Iraq war took place we were confirmed in that belief. They really don't understand the Middle East and our region. After Iraq and Afghanistan, they could have adopted an approach to successfully defeat terrorism in the world. In our region no one liked the Taliban and no one liked Saddam Hussein, but because they didn't understand the region, both cases, which could have been an opportunity to defeat terrorism, led to an expansion of extremism.
Of course the Bush administration, at the time and still now, would say that Iran actually is the sponsor of terrorism and would point to Hamas, Hezbollah, support, they say, for Shi'a militias inside Iraq. How do you respond to that?
First of all, the ability of countries in this region is much different from the ability of the U.S., which has come with all its military power to defeat terrorism. Secondly, I'm not our government spokesman, but I know that the Palestinian issue is one that has been around for a long time.
I consider Israel as the source of many problems in the region and in the world, and basically I think the advice of Israel given to the U.S. was the reason for its defeat in our region. Israeli interests were given priority over American interests. It wasn't in the interest of the U.S. to see extremism expand to such a degree in the region.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Mr. Khatami proposed a plan to have the same democracy there as you find around the world. They should have elections, and everyone, regardless of religion, should participate in the government and to choose their government. Unfortunately, one big concern for us Eastern intellectuals is that when we speak of democracy, our audience asks us why democracy ceases to exist at the Israeli border.
Regarding Iraq, I think all the countries in the region interfered there. One of the big mistakes by the United States was that, if not directly, at least indirectly it implied that the Iraq dossier would not be the last one [to be tackled] in the region; there are other dossiers to put on the table. So it was natural that all the countries in the region did their best to see that the Iraqi case was never resolved, to keep the Iraqi dossier open. This led to the effort of all the countries in the region to interfere in Iraq, to resist the attempts to occupy Iraq, and this led the Iraqi democratic process to be unsuccessful. Saudi Arabia played a part in this regard; Syria had a special role; Turkey had a role. And Iran -- I'll explain why Iran's role was different.
The difference in Iran's case was that Iran is the epicenter of Shi'ism in the world. Iraq also had a Shi'a majority. Naturally there was common ground between the two countries. There were family interrelations, common religious values; Iraqis were in Iran at some point. So the two sides had a lot in common. For a long time after the democratic elections in Iraq, Iran was less often accused of meddling in Iraq, but after the destruction at the Samarra shrine there was a new chapter. Shi'ites took on a new role.
As I said, I'm not speaking as a government spokesman, and I don't know anything about Iranian interference in Iraq, but there were other aspects to the issue of Iraq. For example, the Iranian nuclear issue and other issues [between Iran and the U.S.] transformed Iraq into a good venue for Iran to try to use Iraq to solve its problems with the United States in general.
You mean fight the U.S. there ... through proxies, through third parties?
Rather than fighting, I feel it's more about finding solutions and ways to open a dialogue.
Iraq is a means of solving problems; they can solve Iraq and work together, then it will solve other problems. Is that what you're saying?
I should reiterate, I don't have any concrete intelligence. My analysis is that Iran can use Iraq to solve its problems with the United States.
Going back in the history: May 2003. There have been press reports about discussions behind the scenes between the U.S. and Iran resulting in a fax from the Swiss ambassador here -- some say it came from elements of the Iranian government -- that listed discussion points that the U.S. and Iran could have. This was a proposal faxed to Washington, to the State Department. I know people who have seen it on [a] blank piece of paper. Do you have any knowledge of that proposal, and if so, what was the thinking behind it?
It was not about nuclear energy?
It mentioned nuclear, but it also mentioned terrorism, Iraq. ... It was a comprehensive set of talking points for negotiation.
This news came out in the press in Iran as well. It wasn't something hidden, and it didn't lead to anything.
Was the proposal approved by the Iranian government?
What is certain is that it didn't get anywhere, and that case is now closed.
[We've spoken with high-level officials] in the State Department who see it as a huge mistake that the Bush administration made -- almost equal to, in their eyes, to the "axis of evil" -- because the argument that they made in this film is that this was a high-level offer from Iran that could have begun to solve a lot of outstanding issues between the two countries. …
What others say in America is that: "Oh, it wasn't a serious offer. It was not to be taken seriously, and therefore we shouldn't even be talking about it." So it's important for the history to know whether or not it was real and legitimate.
Look, when this was revealed in Iran, it was a point of contention as to whether it had been agreed upon by all levels of government. That's the reason why I'm reluctant to discuss it, because when this issue came out, its various aspects were not clear; it was not clear whether all levels of leadership were in agreement about it or not.
... Let me ask you about Iraq, just to clarify. I've been told by people in the Bush administration that there were some who wanted to work with Iran in Iraq as they had worked with Iran in Afghanistan, but that other conservatives in Washington said no. Was there a willingness in the Iranian government to somehow work with the U.S. before and immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein?
Among the Saddam opposition groups and the countries opposed to Saddam, obviously Iran and Kuwait were two important countries. A major difference between Iran and Kuwait was that the Iranians believed that Saddam had to be removed without resorting to force, and the Kuwaitis wanted to see Saddam removed by means of a war. If Saddam was to be removed without war, if there was an opportunity to do something from inside or through dialogue or other pressures, we wouldn't have had a lot of the type of crisis that followed. But I'm quite unaware of any special deal or plan between Iran and the U.S. in order to remove Saddam Hussein from power.
… What's your view of the current president's policy toward the U.S.?
As I pointed out earlier, the question of Iran-U.S. relations has always -- not just now -- had an internal element to it and has not been merely an issue of foreign policy. It was important for Iran, which had a revolution and wanted to lead the Islamic world, to have a big and important enemy such as the United States. So that was precisely the reason many of the initiatives put forth to overcome the problems in relations between the two countries were always met by obstacles, because that aim of having an enemy such as the United States could be compromised. And on the other hand, the Americans continued to actively provoke actions against Iran; they violated Iran's rights. These all were effective in a way, but domestic politics had always something to do with relations.
… America has its own problems with Iran -- the hostage crisis, problems that go way back -- so it's very difficult domestically in America for a politician to be friendly toward Iran. … How do we overcome those domestic problems on both sides? Or do you think it's that the two administrations now in power, Bush and Ahmadinejad, are heading toward a conflict that both might actually want?
First of all, I want to start with the last part of your question. My prediction is that there will be no military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran. Both sides know how difficult that is going to be, especially after Iraq. They're not going to move that far forward to engage militarily.
The second point is that at the moment, a negative point is that both in Iran and the United States, leaders in both countries don't see themselves as politicians; they also see themselves as carrying out the work of God. They've left the ground a bit, and that's very dangerous for the world.
And thirdly, considering domestic problems in Iran and the U.S., relations between Iran and America will not improve anytime soon. Because of the current situation, a lack of relations is an issue encouraged and one heavily capitalized upon by both leaders.
I'd like to raise a point. Supporting the Taliban and Al Qaeda was a natural phenomenon in Arab countries; the capacity was there. But in Iran there is no capacity for such support. This is something very important. From various angles, including from a religious perspective -- they are very anti-Shi'a -- and also in terms of language -- they are usually Arab -- and we've had a problem historically with them, and geographically, the Taliban cannot take roots in Iran. This is a very important point and can be a common area to build upon for cooperation against terrorism, or at least Taliban-style terrorism in the region.
What should be [the] relationship between God and politics here in Iran?
That's very difficult to answer. Providing an answer requires covering many areas. There's a practical answer and a philosophical answer. What is clear is that in running the government, we should follow common wisdom, consultation, and we must adhere to accepted worldwide norms of government, in my opinion. Well, we believe that wisdom is a virtue given to humans by God, and when we adhere to wisdom and act based on wisdom, we are on a path not far from God.