Why did Iran go from having an unprecedented cooperative relationship with the U.S. in Afghanistan to being included in President Bush's "axis of evil"? It's one more example of the tumultuous relationship between the two countries since 9/11.
Iranian diplomats have said privately to me that they made a fundamental calculation that 9/11 was, in its way, an opportunity, an opening, for Iran; ... if Iran were seen to be helping us respond to the attacks, that it would ultimately prompt the United States to reconsider its own view of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And that is in fact how the Iranians proceeded. ...
In a way, yeah, although certainly there was a big element of self-interest to that favor. Iran had been at loggerheads with the Taliban for years. Iran had been at loggerheads with Al Qaeda for years. Iran considered itself a victim of Al Qaeda terrorism. And getting rid of Al Qaeda and getting rid of the Taliban was certainly something which Iran would view positively. ... [B]ut I think fundamentally the motive was, this is a way of actually breaking out of the logjam of U.S.-Iranian relations. ...
Reuel Marc Gerecht
... The discussion of cooperation between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan right after 9/11 is exaggerated, I think, by those who want to see some possibility of promise now gone.
The Iranians really didn't have much choice. I mean, once they saw the United States was mad ... and it was going into Afghanistan, the last thing in the world that they wanted to do was to, in any way, get in the way of the United States.
I don't think they really, sincerely helped in any meaningful sense in Afghanistan. I think the intelligence information that they gave, [if] people were to look back at it retrospectively, I think it would seem rather mediocre to say the least. Beyond that, I can't really think of anything that they quote "did." ...
As far as finding a political solution [in Afghanistan], were they helpful?
I don't think they stood in the way. ... I mean, there was no love lost from the Taliban. I think the relationship between the Iranians and the Taliban is a little bit more complicated than is often depicted, but certainly they did not like them. ... The Northern Alliance wasn't terribly fond of the Iranians either, but since they were the only individuals who were seriously helping them, one can't be picky.
And again, I think for the Iranians ... it would have been highly counterproductive for them to in fact be difficult. ... They didn't have means either. Iran simply isn't that strong in Afghanistan. And one thing you can say about the revolutionary elite is that their entire focus has been on the West -- they're not very good elsewhere. They're not very good in central Asia. They're not very good in Afghanistan. They've only had one real foreign policy success story, and that was the radicalization of the Shi'a in Lebanon.
What about the argument that some put forward that the U.S. and Iran worked very closely in the 2001-2002 campaign in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban, and then came a slap in the face from the "axis of evil" speech?
A naïve interpretation. The Iranian government has a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for being nice to foreigners; it smiles, it's polite, it's helpful at international conferences. Iran also has Revolutionary Guard Corps and an intelligence ministry which excels at causing problems for Americans, and indeed, often at arming those who will attack Americans.
Iran is particularly good at simultaneously helping and attacking, and that's what it has done with the United States in Afghanistan, and to some extent what it's done in Iraq. ...
Did Bush's "axis of evil" speech weaken the position of the reformists and strengthen those who want a more confrontational approach with the West, and [with] America in particular?
Yes. See, when we, the reformists, told the world that we were after establishing true democracy in the world, and in our country, one based on our own views and values, we expected the world, and especially American politicians, to somehow support that new dialogue with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Including Iran in the "axis of evil" led the Iranian people to grow increasingly skeptical of American slogans. In another sphere, our political rivals ... attacked us. They said sympathizing with a country that puts us in the "axis of evil" will take you down a dead-end road, and they were actually correct. ...
Bush administration officials ... acknowledged the cooperation in Afghanistan. But they also say that there were members of Al Qaeda who crossed over into Iran. Some of them may have been sent home to their countries, but others were kept here and even allowed to continue operating in some form. What is your response to that claim by former Bush administration officials?
Such an accusation is fundamentally false and baseless. We are a country that has been fighting Al Qaeda for years. We have been hurt by Al Qaeda's operations. How can a country harbor its enemies? And as you said, we sent those arrested people back. To me it seems that such accusations are being used in order to rally world public opinion against us, to say that Iran is an ally of Al Qaeda.
Iran believes Al Qaeda is an inhumane, terrorist organization that is against the world, and it's anti-freedom. How is it possible for us to welcome such people who belong to a terrorist organization?
What some people say is that ... there was the beginnings of what could have been a cooperative relationship beginning in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, but this "axis of evil" speech hurt the so-called moderates in Iran and alienated the regime.
I think it's ridiculous. I think the search for these moderates in Iran is Captain Ahab and the great white whale: It doesn't matter how many times this point is disproven. People are still looking for moderates.
On the issue of the pursuit of nuclear weapons, which is the single most important issue for the United States across the board, bar none, there is no sign that I am aware of that there's any serious disagreement among the Iranian ruling elite that they want a nuclear weapons capability. They may be moderates on the applicability of Shariah law. They may be moderates on questions of dealing with ethnic minorities inside Iran. But I don't know of any real debate between moderates and hard-liners over their desire to have a nuclear weapons capability. And that is the single most important threat from the U.S. point of view.
... The culminating moment of the [Bonn] Conference [to establish a new post-Taliban government in Afghanistan] came in its closing hours. The Bonn Declaration had largely been completed. It provided an interim constitution, but it missed the most essential element, which was identifying who would actually govern Afghanistan -- who would be the head of government and who would head the other ministries in the government. ...
And Lakhdar Brahimi, who was the U.N. chair of the conference -- came to me early in the morning and said, "We're not going to have an agreement. The Northern Alliance representative is insisting on having 18 of the 24 ministries, and that's simply too many." ... So I suggested that we try to find all of the national representatives who were still awake at this point and bring them all to a group session at which we would try jointly to persuade the Northern Alliance representative to modify his position.
This is what time?
This was about 2:00 in the morning. ... We met in Brahimi's suite and spent a couple of hours working over the Northern Alliance representative. ... We made no headway, and finally [Javad] Zarif, the Iranian representative, signaled that he wanted to talk privately with the Northern Alliance delegate. He brought him over to the corner of the room, whispered in his ear for no more than 20, 30 seconds, ... and the Northern Alliance delegate finally came back and said, "All right, I agree. I'll give up two ministries. We'll create two new ministries by dividing other ones." ... And on that basis the meeting concluded.
Is this a sign of the influence that--
Clearly. The Northern Alliance representative was already under ... pressure from the others, but this was the decisive factor. ... So it was indicative of Iranian influence, but it was also indicative that they were collaborating quite constructively with the United States and with the rest of the international community to assure a positive outcome of the conference.
And there were other signals after that. Two weeks later [Hamid] Karzai was inaugurated in Kabul, and the most senior foreign representative there was the Iranian foreign minister. There was some doubt about whether one of the warlords, Ismail Khan, was going to support the new government, and so the Iranian foreign minister stopped his plane in Herat, where Ismail Khan was located, put him on the plane and brought him to the inaugural ceremonies to underscore that he would in fact support that outcome.
Herat being near the border with --
Herat is the city that's closest to the Iranian border, and Ismail Kahn was the warlord who was most closely associated with Iran.
At the Tokyo donors' conference which occurred in January 2002, the Iranians pledged $500 million worth of assistance for Afghanistan, which is a staggering amount for a not-fully-developed country and was in fact about the same amount as the United States pledged at that conference. And they've largely delivered on that assistance, have a better record than most countries in terms of actually providing the assistance that they had promised. ...
Was there a sense that the Americans were coming to Afghanistan no matter what? Was there a concern that they ultimately wanted to do something there, Iran better cooperate, see if ties could be improved in an area where clearly the interest of the two countries coincided?
No. Perhaps ordinary minds would see it that way, but the dominant thought was we were very suspicious of the American invasion of Afghanistan, which is still the case. And we also didn't consider the Taliban a group worthy of our cooperation. We consider them as an American creation. And we have our reasons for this. I can discuss it further, if you like.
Let me add that Americans, after invading Afghanistan, could have easily captured bin Laden and Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri, but they didn't do so. ... Because the Taliban was created by the U.S., with Saudi dollars and military assistance from Pakistan, it was easy to find them, but they didn't want to reach that point. This is just an opinion. After 9/11, Mr. Bush shouted that he wanted bin Laden and Mullah Omar dead or alive, but the two people who escaped unscathed were bin Laden and Mullah Omar. These things are questionable. ...
Initially, we had discussions with Iran right after 9/11 because it was clear that we were going to go into Afghanistan. ... The Al Qaeda were primarily Sunni. They were also troublesome particularly because of the Taliban-Al Qaeda lash-up in drugs. They were troublesome to Iran as well, and the discussions we had with the Iranians made it very clear that although we would be, as they say now, kinetically involved in Afghanistan, that we bore no ill will to Iran and should we -- because of a shootdown of one of our aircraft -- have to go into Iran, we'd go in only far enough to extract our pilots and then leave immediately. And the Iranians accepted this. So initially things were on an even keel. ...
And at Bonn, James Dobbins says they were very helpful.
At Bonn ... they were helpful, and this continued for some time because in Afghanistan we shared a general view that stability in Afghanistan would very much benefit everybody.
The way the Iranians will tell this story is that ... they help in Afghanistan ... and in return they get [included in the] "axis of evil."
We asked some things of them further, such as some of the Taliban and, more specifically, Al Qaeda pitched up in Iran and we asked them to turn these folks over. And for reasons not understood by me, they refused even though our information, we felt, was quite good that these folks did exist in Iran. So their cooperation on Afghanistan was good, but it was somewhat lacking in other areas. ...