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In the aftermath of Sept. 11, relations between the United States and Iran
seemed -- remarkably -- to be warming up, as Iran quietly offered support for
the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. In November, Secretary of State Colin Powell
shook hands with the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, at the U.N.
headquarters in New York City -- a simple yet historic gesture that seemed the
most tantalizing hint of rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran since the
Islamic revolution and the hostage crisis in 1979.
But on Jan. 29, 2002, in his State of the Union address, President George W.
Bush branded Iran and its "terrorist allies" as part of "an axis of evil,
arming to threaten the peace of the world." And on Jan. 31, National Security
Adviser Condoleezza Rice summed up the administration's position on Iran.
"Iran's direct support of regional and global terrorism," she said, "and its
aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, belie any good
intentions it displayed in the days after the world's worst terrorist attacks
Since this dramatic turnabout, press reports have tried to piece together the
trail leading from the Powell-Kharrazi handshake to the "axis of evil" speech.
Whether the revelations of Iranian "mischief" (as Time magazine put it) after
Sept. 11 actually influenced Bush's decision to include Iran in the "axis," or
whether, as some believe, the inclusion was inevitable given Bush's statement
that countries are either "with" the U.S. in its war on terrorism or "against" it,
the fact is that the U.S. has long considered Iran a sponsor of terrorism and a
potentially dangerous adversary in the Middle East.
Rice and Powell have since clarified that the
administration's blunt language does not mean that the U.S. is opposed to
holding direct talks with Iran. In March, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) made a speech in which he invited members of the Iranian Parliament to meet with members of the U.S. Congress. And on April 30, the Financial Times reported that Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, "has quietly authorised the Supreme National Security Council to assess the merits of starting talks with the U.S."
But in a Labor Day speech on May 1, Khamenei denounced the U.S. and dismissed the idea of negotiations. "The Islamic Republic of Iran will never succumb to America's bullying. ... Negotiations will not solve any problem. Negotiations with America are beneficial to the American government." Still, reformist leaders continue to press for an opening up of relations, and it appears that an internal debate within the Iranian government's inner circles over whether and how to engage the U.S. continues, mirroring the debate in Washington over how to engage Iran.
The following is an overview, drawn largely from press reports since Jan. 29,
of the developments in U.S.-Iran relations that led up to Bush's State of the
Union address and continue to loom over the possibility of a new opening
between the two countries.
A Repressive Regime
In April 2002, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights concluded a six-week session
in which it assessed the records of the globe's worst human-rights offenders. By
the time the commission adjourned, its members had voted to defeat a resolution
condemning alleged abuses in Iran and had called home from Tehran its special
after nearly two decades, Iran had managed to clear itself from the U.N.'s list
of worst offenders, leaving behind countries such as Iraq, Myanmar, and Sudan,
An April 24 editorial in the Montreal Gazette referred to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights as a
"kangaroo court," and U.S. officials and human-rights watchdog groups openly
disagreed with its decisions. Just a few weeks before, the U.S. State
Department had issued an 18,000-word report condemning the
Islamic Republic's human-rights abuses:
The government's human rights record remained poor; although efforts within
society to make the government accountable for its human rights policies
continued, serious problems remain. The government significantly restricts
citizens' right to change their government.
In great detail, the State Department chronicled the many accusations of abuse
that have been leveled at the regime in Iran: the mysterious disappearance of
political dissidents, the allegations of torture and arbitrary arrest, and discrimination against religious minorities.
Recently, both Amnesty International
and Human Rights Watch issued
reports similar to the State Department's. Amnesty International reported that
there was an "unprecedented clampdown on freedom of expression and association"
in the Islamic Republic, with at least 34 individuals questioned, detained, and
tried on the basis of "vaguely worded" laws and before courts that "often fall
far short of international standards for fair trial."
According to Human Rights Watch, Supreme Leader Khamenei sanctioned the
clampdown on independent newspapers and magazines. Speaking at Friday prayers
on April 22, 2000, Ayatollah Khamenei characterized the press as a "stronghold
of Western influence" in Iran. He defended the newspaper closures, saying,
"We are trying to stop the enemy from realizing his propaganda conspiracy."
Weapons of Mass Destruction
In a report released on Jan. 30, the CIA found
that "Iran remains one of the most active countries seeking to acquire"
technology from abroad -- primarily from Russia, China, and North Korea -- that
can be used to develop weapons of mass destruction. "In doing so," the
report said, "Tehran is attempting to develop a domestic capability to produce
various types of weapons -- chemical, biological, and nuclear -- and their
Iran denies that it is seeking nuclear weapons, insisting that its nuclear
energy program at Bushehr, which is monitored by the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA), is strictly for peaceful energy-producing purposes (see
FRONTLINE's interview with Mohammad Ali Mousavi, Iran's ambassador to Canada). Former CIA
Director James Woolsey tells FRONTLINE, however, that "there is no
underlying [reason] for one of the greatest oil producers in the world to need
to get into the nuclear [energy] business."
In a widely noted article on Iran's "nuclear ambitions" published in the
Dec. 3, 2001, issue of The New Yorker, Seymour M. Hersh points
out that in 1995 Iran and Russia "signed an eight-hundred-million-dollar
contract under which the Russians would help install a powerful reactor [at
Bushehr], to be run by a Russian-Iranian team. Since then, a vast complex of
buildings has been constructed at the site." Hersh adds, "Intelligence
officials told me, however, that Iran's most important nuclear production
facilities are not at Bushehr ... but scattered throughout the country, at
clandestine sites, under military control. The clandestine facilities have not
been 'declared' -- that is, they are not subject to I.A.E.A. inspection." Still
more troubling, Hersh writes, "it was learned from sensitive sources [in the
late 1990s] that Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, who directed the Pakistani nuclear
program from the nineteen-seventies until his retirement, earlier this year,
made at least one secret visit to an Iranian nuclear facility. ... American
officials believe that he brought no actual materials with him to Iran -- just
his years of hands-on experience in bomb-making."
In its Feb. 18 issue, Newsweek reported that the Bush administration had
expressed concerns over the possibility that Iranian weapons of mass
destruction might get into the hands of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in
Lebanon, believed to have close ties to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas:
"'Iran remains a serious concern because of its across-the-board pursuit of
weapons of mass destruction,' CIA chief George Tenet told a Senate committee
last week. When asked to assess the Iranian threat further, Tenet said that
Iran's 'continued use of Hizbullah and their own surrogates is a very
fundamental challenge to American interests.'"
Iran and the Bomb
Excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with former CIA Director James Woolsey;
Iran's ambassador to Canada, Mohammad Mousavi; nonproliferation expert George
Perkovich; former U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs Thomas
Pickering; and Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for
Afghanistan and Al Qaeda
Despite quiet gestures in support of the U.S. campaign against the Taliban --
which included Iran's giving safe passage to humanitarian aid, agreeing to
conduct search-and-rescue efforts if American pilots were downed in Iranian
territory, and using its influence to secure the Northern Alliance's
cooperation -- U.S. and Afghan officials say Iran has sent food and clothing, as
well as weapons, money, and personnel (including Revolutionary Guard troops) to
western Afghanistan in a bid to exert influence and challenge the U.S.-backed
government in Kabul, which Iran may view as a potential threat to its interests
in the region.
In particular, the Afghan warlord Ismail Khan, who controls the key western
city of Herat, is said to have received Iranian support. According to The
Washington Post on Feb. 1:
[Ismail] Khan's long ties with Iran have led to allegations that he is a
conduit for Iranian arms and influence that could keep Afghanistan unstable.
Khan denies it. ... Yet there are persistent reports of Iranian arms coming to
Herat. One military officer insists that a small private army of 320
Iranian-trained fighters under Khan's personal command called the Sopah
e-Mohammad, or Soldiers of Mohammad, is secreted around three bases in town.
The same article, however, quotes a Western diplomat in Pakistan who says that Khan is
"not an Iranian puppet, and he's aware of the dangers of getting too close to
Time magazine reported in its Feb. 4 issue that an Iranian general,
Sadar Baghwani, "started showing up at Afghan mosques, reportedly telling
Afghans to resist the U.S. presence in their country." And on Feb. 4
The Washington Post noted that Zalmay Khalilzad, the Bush administration's envoy to
Kabul, "reported that Iranian-trained Afghan fighters had been sent to Herat in
western Afghanistan to join the ranks of the local commander, Ismail Khan, and
that some forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Brigade had
joined them. ... 'The Iranians are playing hardball on the ground,' a Pentagon
official said. 'If they're trying to push American influence out, that's a
problem.'" As Time reported, President Bush "issued an ultimatum" in
early January: "'If they in any way, shape or form try to destabilize the
government,' [Bush] said, 'the coalition will deal with them, in diplomatic
In addition, the U.S. says Al Qaeda fugitives may have slipped into Iran, and
that some may have found sanctuary there, including Abu Musaab Zarqawi. The
New York Times reported on March 24 that Zarqawi, "a senior Al Qaeda
leader who fled the western Afghan city of Herat after the American military
campaign began, has turned up in Tehran under the protection of Iranian
security forces, according to senior Israeli and American officials." Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on ABC's This Week in early February, "We
have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit
through their country of Al Qaeda." Iran denies that it has provided any
assistance to Al Qaeda fugitives.
Khobar Towers Bombing
In June 2001, five years after a truck bomb exploded in front of the Khobar
Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. servicemen, a federal
grand jury in the U.S. indicted 13 Saudis and one Lebanese. The 46-count
indictment said that the suspects were part of a shadowy organization known as
Saudi Hezbollah, and that they had been "inspired, supported, and directed by
elements of the Iranian government."
No Iranians were named in the indictment, however. As former National Security
Adviser Sandy R. Berger told Elsa Walsh of The New Yorker: "We know [the
bombing] was done by the Saudi Hezbollah. We know that they were trained in
Iran by Iranians. We know there was Iranian involvement. What has yet to be
established is how substantial the Iranian involvement was."
There has been speculation that the U.S. refrained from naming Iranian
conspirators because of its ally Saudi Arabia's
fragile yet evolving relationship with Iran. According to Walsh's reporting,
the FBI had managed to build what then-Director Louis Freeh contended was a
strong case against Iran. Walsh writes:
On November 9, 1998, Freeh finally got what he had been seeking for two and a
half years. ... The suspects confirmed their involvement in the bombing and
described how the Iranians had ordered, supported, and financed the attack.
Khassab, the cell member who had been turned over by the Syrians, claimed that
he had met directly with Ahad Sherifi, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard official
who had selected the Khobar barracks as a target, and that Sherifi always
announced that he was acting at the behest of Ayatollah Khamenei [Iran's
But Clinton administration officials contended that the evidence was "hearsay"
and would not hold up in court, and no charges against Iran were filed.
The indictment itself, however, was enough to elicit the rancor of Iran's
foreign ministry when it was released last June. "The U.S. judiciary has
leveled charges against Iran which have no legal and judicial basis," said
foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Assefi, according to the state news agency. "The
charges are only supplemental to the ceaseless efforts of the United States to
pressure the Islamic Republic."
A June 22 editorial in The New York Times urged the Bush administration
to forego the desire to soft-pedal the investigation for diplomatic purposes:
There is no statute of limitations on murder. Although bringing charges against
past or present Tehran officials is sure to irritate Iran's reform-minded
elected leaders, there can be no diplomatic justification for not pursuing
Iranian suspects. ... If a provable case can be assembled against Iranian
intelligence officials in the Khobar bombing, Washington should seek further
By December, a month before President Bush's "axis of evil" remarks in his
State of the Union address, the administration was taking a harder line.
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice confirmed what Walsh had reported in The New Yorker, telling the Arabic-language newspaper
Al Hayat on Dec. 20, "When we questioned those who carried out the
explosion in the Khobar complex, they clearly mentioned training and finance
provided by Iran."
Arafat and the Karine A
On Jan. 3, 2002, Israeli commandos seized the Karine A, a ship in the
Red Sea carrying 50 tons of heavy arms and explosives that U.S. and Israeli
intelligence have determined were heading from Iran to the Palestinian
Authority in the West Bank. The U.S. and Israel say that two top aides to
Yasser Arafat met secretly with Iranian officials in Moscow in May 2001, and
that Arafat himself had approved the dealings with Iran.
The shipment was intended, according to Israeli officials quoted by The New
York Times, "to give the Palestinians a quantum leap in firepower and
change the military calculus in the uprising." The Times goes on, "Both
the Palestinians and Iranians deny they are working together, but American and
Israeli officials say they now see the shipment as part of a broader
On Feb. 12, Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress, "[Arafat] wrote me a
letter three days ago on the Karine A, accepting responsibility, not
personal responsibility, but as chairman of the Palestinian Authority." The
Washington Post reported in early February that "the discovery of Iran's
role in smuggling 50 tons of weapons to the Palestinians was a body blow to the
State Department's initiative to engage Iran."
"An Iranian-Palestinian connection is not good news," a U.S. official in the
Middle East told Time magazine in January. According to Time,
"The Israelis say the crew told them the weapons were loaded onto the Karine A
from boats off the Iranian coast in an operation headed by Lebanese Hajj
Bassem, an assistant to the notorious terrorist Imad Mughniya [a leader of the
Lebanese militia Hizballah who has close ties to Iran]."
Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas
The U.S. State Department, in its "Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001" report, calls Iran "the most active state sponsor of terrorism," and names Iran as a
source of support for the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic
Jihad (regarded as a wing of Hezbollah), and Hamas, all three of which the U.S.
has designated foreign terrorist organizations. As the report notes, the U.S.
has long held Hezbollah responsible for terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,
from the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 and
of the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in 1984, to the taking of hostages in
Lebanon in the 1980s, to providing training and assistance to the Saudi
offshoot of Hezbollah in carrying out the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in
Dhahran, which killled 19 U.S. servicemen.
More recently, the U.S. has pointed to Hezbollah's, and by extension Iran's,
efforts to intensify the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the
West Bank. The New York Times reported in March that U.S. and Israeli
intelligence believe that Imad Mughniyah, considered the mastermind of
Hezbollah's terrorist wing (and allegedly responsible for the 1983 attack on the U.S.
Marine barracks in Beirut), was sent by Iran to help the Palestinians shortly
after the beginning of the intifada in September 2000.
"Israeli and American officials believe," The Times reports, "that the
18-year struggle by Hezbollah in Lebanon, backed by tens of millions of dollars
worth of arms from Iran, provided a model for what Tehran would like to
recreate on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 'The strategy is to make the West
Bank another Lebanon,' said one senior American intelligence official."
Iran has emphatically denied the charges that it is involved in
terrorist-related activities. "We never have supported any groups which take
act of terrorism," Mohammad Ali Mousavi, Iran's ambassador to
Canada, tells FRONTLINE. "We have morally supported groups who are fighting for
their independence or for their being out of occupations, like Hezbollah. ...
Terrorism is a menace of this world. We are against terrorism. We differentiate
between terrorist acts [and] those legitimate rights of people who had been or
are under occupation."
Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who was stationed in the Middle East,
says that the U.S. position on Hezbollah is too simple. "I don't agree that
Hezbollah itself is a terrorist organization. It delivers powdered milk; it
takes care of people," says Baer. "It's a social organization; it's a political
organization. It fights corruption." He says that the relationship between
Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad is similar to the relationship between Sinn Fein
and the IRA. "Under the Hezbollah umbrella [is] the Islamic Jihad, which I call
their special security. ... You can paint Hezbollah as a terrorist
organization. You can do that for political reasons, but strictly speaking, it
is many things," says Baer.
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