The FRONTLINE Interview: Ryan Crocker

February 20, 2018
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Ryan Crocker is a longtime diplomat who most recently served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. Crocker has also served as ambassador to Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith on Aug. 10, 2017 for the documentary Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

I want to begin with your time in Beirut, and if you could do your best to put us there. You were a political attaché in Lebanon in 1983 when the attack happened on the embassy.

I was. We talk a lot about intelligence failures, and certainly there are some. But our greatest failures, it’s not intelligence — it’s imagination, that we can’t imagine things like the bombing of the embassy could happen, even though we had seen it happen before.

This was during the Iran-Iraq War, the early-going. The Iranians blew up the Iraqi embassy, so it shouldn’t have taken a lot for us to connect dots that would suggest if they would do that to the Iraqis, they would do it to us. And I was as oblivious as anyone else. But it is an interesting evolution and a case study in unintended consequences.

The building was rocked.

Well, yeah, more than rocked, as you saw. I was in the wing — it was kind of a double-wing building with a central piece right in the middle. I was in the wing that was hit but to the back of the building. At first I thought it had been a rocket attack.

My office had been rocketed a couple of months earlier with me not in it, so that was my frame of reference. When I walked out, I realized I was looking at the Mediterranean Sea — empty space where the station had been. And that’s when I knew it was big time, no rockets here.

How many died?

There were I believe 64 foreign nationals, Lebanese, 17 Americans. One of those 17 was a journalist, so 16 from the embassy complement.

And who did you immediately think of as being responsible?

My immediate thought was that it was a Palestinian faction. I had been in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of 1982. I was there in September of 1982, the infamous Sabra [and] Shatila massacre carried out by the Lebanese forces, militia under Israeli oversight.

I was the one who walked into the camp on the morning of Sept. 18, 1982, and radioed back to the embassy, “There’s been a massacre.” We were broadly blamed for it. And my initial instinct was, “This is Palestinian payback.” And of course I was dead wrong.

You had written — or actually in an interview with FRONTLINE you said: “We, the U.S. and the Israelis, paid dearly for the invasion, the Israeli invasion. We got rid of the PLO, and we got Hezbollah. We got out, and we got our embassy blown up.” You said, “You have to be very careful what you get into.” What was your sense of Iran’s involvement at that time?

Well, what we saw was early indications of a strategic alliance between Syria and the Islamic Republic almost immediately after the revolution. Khomeini issued a fatwa that, again, we should have been attuned to, which he proclaimed the Alawites, the sectarian community that ruled in Damascus, orthodox Shia — he clearly had to hold his nose to do that. But it was a powerful indication of how important that Damascus-Tehran alliance really was.

Was that a surprise to you?

Yes, it was in the sense that we really had no idea what the dynamic was in post-revolution Iran.

People talk now to us about early statements [Khomeini] was making about his intention to export the revolution. Was that something you were hearing?

Yeah. Well, he certainly made a number of statements from Paris, not so much from Najaf. The Iraqis were not prepared to allow that to happen. But so yes, it’s clearly on the record, and it’s what you would expect. I don’t recall any particular specificity to his public comments, certainly never said anything that would suggest the embassy was in peril. And again, a failure of imagination here.

You’re talking about the embassy in Beirut.

Sorry, the embassy in Tehran–

Isfahan. In Tehran.

And indeed, as it’s been pieced together by many after the fact, this was a tactical ploy to take the embassy, to demonstrate revolutionary credentials in the face of the great Satan. We were just a useful tool.

So he used the taking of the embassy in Tehran to secure his credibility as the vanguard of that revolution.

I think, in large part, yes, he would establish credentials that no one else would have. And again, everything is connected to everything else. In so doing, he was, I think, quite intentionally evoking the 1953 CIA-MI6-led coup against Mohammed Mossadegh.

You know, we’re not so great at history in America. When we say, “That’s history,” it’s a pejorative. Well, the rest of the world takes history pretty seriously, and 1953 definitely resonated in 1979. It resonates today. And again, a kind of a failure of imagination or a failure of perception — how history is viewed by the people, in this case, the Iranians, who were actually making it.

Let’s go back to Beirut. You’re sitting in Beirut, and you’re trying to read the signals that are coming out of Tehran as to just what Iran’s intentions are, what Syria’s intentions are. Hezbollah has not taken shape formally at this point. What are you sensing and seeing, and what are you deducing?

Well, of course, it was a different world, almost literally, after the bombing of the embassy than it was before. You know, as the compass needle started pointing more toward Iran and, obviously, with Syrian collusion, it was a pretty stark reminder that the Middle East was no longer what it had been when Iran was under the rule of the shah; that we were going to have to produce a different political calculus to weigh what they might do next as a revolutionary regime. But once again, a failure of imagination.

How soon did you learn that it was Iran?

Oh, I think that we had that probably within days, certainly, that it was not Palestinian.

And so what did you do once you realized that there was collusion between Damascus and Tehran?

As they say, famously, there was no smoking gun. You know, I could not find anything that definitively tied Damascus and indeed Tehran to the bombing. But in the Middle East, and you know it well, things have a way of being known without necessarily having the hard evidence.

And so what did you do?

Did our best to analyze it, to validate these thoughts, and to talk to the Lebanese who would talk to us about what they thought that meant. The Lebanese, of course, were far more fixated on Damascus than they were on Tehran. I remember interlocutors, at that time, talking about the utter ruthlessness of the regime. And they would cite Hama, February 1982, as an example, when–

When the Muslim Brotherhood was–

Annihilated.

—annihilated in Hama.

Yeah, along with about 20,000 innocent Sunni civilians.

So you’re there until when?

Three years.

So during that three years, you’re watching Hezbollah take shape. I’m just curious how you talked about it at the embassy, what you thought you were dealing with, what you thought it meant in the longer term or even the near term. What were the conversations? And what could you do at that point?

Again, looking at this, as we did, from the Lebanese perspective, my view at least was that we would want to work as closely with the Amal Movement as we could or as they would permit; that clearly it would be hugely disadvantageous to us to see Hezbollah dominate the Shia political scene.

Why? What was worrying you about Hezbollah?

Well, it depends on what time frame you mention. The first hostage taking post-invasion was summer of 1982. David Dodge, the acting president of the American University of Beirut, was seized, and as we kind of worked through that, it became clear that the Iranians were behind it, because a demand surfaced that he would be exchanged for several Iranian diplomats who had disappeared some months prior to that. So they made the connection for us. We talked to the Lebanese forces in whose area the disappearance had occurred and were able to confirm that they were probably under a parking lot. That means dead. So again, the Iranian imprint was pretty clear. It wasn’t as though they were trying to hide anything.

So you’re seeing hostage takings, some assassinations, then a bombing of the embassy, and not long after that, the bombing in ’83 of the Marine barracks, 241 Marines killed, and the clear signs are that this is Hezbollah and with the help of Iran.

And Syria.

And Syria.

The supposition, which I still think is correct, is that nothing of large scale would occur in Lebanon that the Syrians didn’t want to have happen; that they may not be behind everything, but that no major attack, certainly not on us or our facilities, would occur without the Syrian seal of approval.

So it was another example of where we were focused, you know, on Syria more than we were on Iran. I mean, it was the wolf closest to the sled.

The Iranians say that they went into Lebanon as they saw Shia trying to pull themselves together, and they came in to help; they came in to help the oppressed. How do you respond to that?

Well, it was clear, even to me, that that was not what they were about. The oppressed were then being represented by Amal and Nabih Berri. They were moving in to undo Amal’s influence, because they had a different approach to it, which would be what we saw with Hezbollah.

And you may recall before the bombing, the Imam Musa Sadr famously disappeared on a trip to Libya. I don’t think the circumstances were ever really figured out, you know? To this day, I would not be surprised if there was not an Iranian hand in his disappearance and murder, because he was allied with Nabih Berri. He was an enormously charismatic figure, had a genuine popular following, exactly what the Iranians did not want to see.

So in your mind, is this the Iranians imposing themselves upon Lebanon, or, as the Iranians have it, is this the Iranians coming in and saying, “This is an opportunity, and we’re going to put in place an effective militia in this, essentially, failed state”?

Here’s how I see it. Iran, under whosever management, has always seen itself as a regional superpower. In the ’70s, we encouraged that. The Nixon Doctrine, borne out of the Vietnamese catastrophe, basically said: “We are not going to be the world’s policemen. In different regions of the world, we are going to select allies. We are going to arm them; we are going to train them; we are going to provide economic assistance, if needed. And we will look to them to keep the peace and maintain stability in their particular area.” The Gulf was a very clear example of the implementation of that doctrine. Iran and Saudi Arabia became the twin pillars of Gulf stability.

And this is — I want to make this point, because we have a piece of conventional wisdom; it may be conventional, it’s certainly not wisdom — that Sunnis and Shia have been fighting each other since the dawn of Islam, and they always will.

Well, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran worked as partners in security. The Iranian government, under the shah, deployed, basically a mechanized infantry brigade into the Arabian Peninsula at the request of the sultan of Oman to put down a Communist revolt in the west of Oman.

Did the Saudis go to red alert? Not at all. They facilitated it. So this has, you know, more to do with power relationships than it does with the sectarianism. And the reason I’m making the point is to say that, while the means changed, the shah and the ayatollahs shared a common worldview, which is it doesn’t matter under whose management Tehran is, whether it was the shah or the ayatollahs. Any Iranian regime will see it as a regional superpower, and it will work to project force beyond its borders.

The shah did it with his conventional forces in Oman. Also, it was the shah’s navy, not the revolutionary navy, that seized those three islands from the United Arab Emirates in the early ’70s. So what the Islamic Republic was doing was pretty much the same thing the monarchy had done, projecting power beyond its borders. But instead of using conventional forces, they relied on proxies that they helped develop in collusion with Syria, such as Hezbollah. But the strategic logic was the same in both cases.

The other argument they make is that the Americans had no right to be in Lebanon, that the occupation of Lebanon by U.S. Marines, U.S. officials like yourself, was something that they set out to reverse.

Again, a very good if specious, argument. Those who followed this knew that there was a huge debate in Washington about the deployment of Marines to Beirut.

Their original mission was, of course, to oversee the evacuation of PLO fighters and provide a guarantee that the Israelis would not murder them all as they tried to board ships. [Secretary of State George] Shultz favored that role, and he favored keeping them there until we could kind of sort out what was likely to happen next.

[Secretary of Defense Caspar] Weinberger disliked the whole thing, tried to block any deployment, but did succeed in a very early withdrawal. They only spent about three weeks there before they pulled out. Then the law of unintended consequences. Bachir Gemayel had been elected president. That crossed a Syrian red line. He was assassinated.

And in the wake of that assassination, Lebanese forces moved into West Beirut, along with the Israelis, and conducted the Sabra-Shatila massacre. We had provided guarantees to the PLO and, of course, the negotiations for their departure, that Palestinian civilians who remained behind would be safe.

So we had a horrible situation in which our assurances were shown to be worthless. We had to do something. Send the Marines back on a mission of presence. What’s a mission of presence? We never quite figured that out. But it’s a real stretch for the Iranians to argue that we were occupying the country and bending it to our will.

The Marines were hunkered down there by the Beirut airport, the worst possible place to be, because you’re overlooked by several mountain ranges. They would do the occasional patrol but certainly didn’t figure into the political process at all. Again, at the time, no one was arguing for a prolonged Marine presence in Lebanon. The guilt over the massacre of civilians, which we had specifically said would not happen, caused us to take this step.

In retrospect, it does seem like a very tempting target for a revolution founded on a slogan of “Death to America.”

Yes, indeed, in part. I mean, the hostage taking, for those involved, and I knew a number of them, was a pretty horrible 440-day experience. But nobody got hurt. And again, a failure of imagination: Will they really go to this extent? Well, yes, they would. Hama rules. But again, not really foreseen by us.

All of this time, the Iran-Iraq War is grinding on, picking up steam, really. And this is a very important piece of Iranian mentality today, the memory of that war in shaping a generation of leadership that’s in power now.

Yeah, Martin. That’s a hugely important point. Very few Americans even remember there was an Iran-Iraq War. No Iraqi or Iranian will ever forget it. It was a vicious, vicious struggle, a little like the Western Front in World War I — murderous trench warfare, use of chemical weapons, mass slaughter on both sides for the sake of a few yards of ground.

You look at who some of the Iranians were that went through that, were shaped by it. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, basically, their external operations element, had been commissioned as a young lieutenant a month or two before the war started in 1980. He went through the whole thing. So you think Qasem Soleimani spends a lot of time thinking about the Iran-Iraq War, in which we were seen by the regime as supporting Iraq against them?

You said once that for Soleimani, the Iran-Iraq War really never ended.

I think that’s true, and not just for Soleimani. ’88 they did conclude the truce, and Khomeini, I think, made the comment, “It is drinking from a poisoned chalice.” They didn’t want a truce; they wanted a victory. And as you look at what they’re doing in Iraq today, and one looks at who is doing it, that same Qasem Soleimani, I see a strategic logic there, that they are finally going to declare victory in the Iran-Iraq War, because they are going to create a set of conditions that we helped tee up for them with these popular mobilization units, to fight–

These Shia militias.

The Iranian state, the Shia militias. The real objective is to ensure that conditions will never again arise when any government in Baghdad can even contemplate an attack on Iran. This was an existential threat to them in 1980. They are determined it won’t be replayed again.

What drove our alliance with Saddam Hussein?

Largely it was a case of my enemy’s enemy. We were still reeling from the hostage crisis, and if it looked like a nice, stable military dictatorship in Iraq could unseat the ayatollahs, we were going to be all for that. And then of course, when the war tipped the other way, toward Iran, I think we felt an even greater imperative to be sure that they did not emerge victorious.

I don’t think those were bad decisions, based on what we knew. Again, to say it’s a complicated region understates it hugely. You’re never going to have all the facts you need for a truly reasoned decision. And time won’t slow down to let you do that. So this is, again, where a perfectly defensible policy led to consequences we never dreamed of.

I mean, there was the hostage crisis, and then there was the aggression in Lebanon, both of which would have contributed to the posture of the United States against Iran.

And there was the bombing of the American Embassy in Kuwait in that same time frame. So yeah, we were pretty pissed off at them. But again, careful what you get into. These are situations that don’t have just third- and fourth-order consequences. They have 30th- and 40th-order consequences.

And you know, we saw it in Lebanon; we’ve seen it in Iraq; we’re looking at Yemen. Those from the shah’s regime would find Iranian policy perfectly logical and explicable. They’re just using unconventional means to accomplish many of the same policy goals that the shah had worked for.

With revolutionary rhetoric.

And all draped in revolutionary rhetoric. But that’s an important point. Yes, it’s important to listen to what folks say, but even more important to just kind of sit down and figure out what they do against which historical backdrop. That will tell you a lot more than the revolutionary rhetoric.

It had also taken on increasing sectarian dimensions. The Iran-Iraq War — people were encouraged to go fight, to avenge the Sunnis from the Battle of Karbala. I mean, these things were used, weren’t they?

Well, they were used after 2003, certainly, when the regime was toppled by us. But at the time–

But during the Iran-Iraq War, I’m talking about.

That’s what I was getting to. You will find the use of these symbols. I mean, there was a whole school of theater that the Shia have promulgated over the years, the reenactment of the murder of Hussein–

At the Battle of Karbala.

–at the Battle of Karbala.

This is central to our thesis, that this is about geopolitics and needs a historical context to understand it. But what I’m driving at is the uses of sectarianism by those in the Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran.

Oh, there is no question. I mean, that’s how governments work, even revolutionary governments. Figure out who your adversary is, and then develop the tactics and the staging to torment him. So if you look at Iraq, the last thing Iran would ever want to see is a reunified Iraq, under whatever banner that would bring Sunnis and Shia back together, and theoretically at least, constitute another threat to Iran.

So how do you be sure that doesn’t happen? These militias and the PMUs [popular mobilization units] are a great device, because they do two things for you: Ensure that the Sunnis are never going to be part of Syria’s governance again, and you factionalize the Shia community itself. For example, I was in Iraq last year. They were already talking about the eventual defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and focused on, “Now what?” And from some Shia, I heard the fear that it would be like Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets.

Could you talk a little bit about those roots of those Shia militia during the Iran-Iraq War?

Yes. The Badr Brigade that Hadi al-Amiri commands was created in Iran. It was used against Iraqi forces during the Iraq-Iran War, and so a huge asset to the Iranians. And it’s kind of a bonus payment that a lot of other Iraqi Shia, including militants, consider the Badr Brigade basically a gang of traitors, because, you know, they fought their own country. And again, that’s all perfectly good for the Iranians. Let ’em kill each other. If it will guarantee that managed instability, that means no existential threat again to Iran.

The 2003 invasion. It seemed that everything that could go wrong went wrong, except for the military operation to remove Saddam and to seize Baghdad. But following on—what do you call them, the Orders, Orders 1 and 2?

Yeah. The disbanding of the Iraqi army and the de-Baathification process. Again, you know, the conventional wisdom that we disbanded the Iraqi army and therefore created the insurgency, you know, that’s not true. I’m no great defender of the policy. I argued against the invasion.

But, you know, when asked to go out and try and put things together, there I was. That’s what you do. Well, I’ll say this, but you’re not going to use it. It’s too insider baseball, but it’s important. The Turks denied the 4th Infantry Division request to have two fronts, to move the division into northern Iraq via Turkey. What that did was allow the Iraqi forces north of Baghdad, when they could see what was coming, they just dropped their guns, took off their uniforms, and just a bunch of good old civilians up here. So had we wanted Saddam’s army, we would have had to reconstitute it. We would have had to take a positive action to bring these guys back.

Sure, but [Coalition Provisional Authority head Gen. L. Paul] Bremer’s order, I think, was that the army would be disbanded, was it not?

The point I’m making is that the army already was disbanded.

I understand. But still, I mean, in terms of the message delivered to many of those officers and servicemen, the message was coming down from Bremer that the army was to be disbanded.

Which they already knew, because again, they were the officers who disbanded the army.

Well, the larger question here is getting at the sectarianism that erupts as a result of these orders.

Well, so here’s the point on that. Because I was out there at the time and something of a student of history, when I could bend my bandwidth to it, I was thinking a lot about the post-World War I period, when the British and the French carved up the Middle East into mandates for their respective countries.

The Brits got Iraq. So they wanted occupation on the cheap. They basically preserved the Ottoman structures, both on the civilian side and the military, Sunni-dominated. What they got was a fatwa from the grand ayatollah of the day forbidding all cooperation with the British forces and calling on right-thinking Iraqis to stand against them.

That kicked off a decade-long insurrection. Had we taken the step of calling Saddam’s officers back and dealing with them as a legitimate army, we would have had a Shia rebellion that would have made the rebellion of the ’20s look like a cakewalk.

We almost got it anyway the next year in Najaf, with Sadr’s guys. So it was pretty clear, if you were on the ground, you couldn’t get the three big pieces all to fit together: Arab Sunni, Arab Shia and Kurd.

You could get two out of three. And I think it would have been madness had we bent over backward to accommodate Saddam’s former officers. Then we would have had a much greater insurgency that we faced anyway. I mean, look, this is a world of no black, no white, no good choices, just least-bad alternatives. And to this day, I think that it would have gone worse for us had we made a different decision.

Had you asked for the army to be reconstituted.

Yeah. I think that would have sent the Shia to the barricades.

But it’s hard to imagine more violence than what erupted eventually by 2005, ’06, ’07.

Yeah. That’s, again, failure of imagination. Things in the Middle East can always be worse than they are. And give it time, and they’ll get there. Was there much to choose between a Sunni rebellion and a Shia rebellion?

It was possible for us during my time out there, not because I had anything to do with it — a lot of brave Iraqis and brave Americans in uniform did — where we could get the situation under control through the “surge.” And it wasn’t by dominating Anbar or other predominantly Sunni areas; it was by cooperating.

Even [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki got that. And in 2007, Iraq passed its first budget supplemental — we taught them a lot of bad things; budget supplementals was one of them — $250 million for the province of Anbar. Now, I mean, basically had to sit on Maliki’s head to get him to do it. But he came to realize that this would be a pretty good investment. And indeed, it did bring a number of Sunnis back into cooperation with the government. So it’s always great to say: “Gee, you know, when I left, everything was going great. I don’t see how those knuckleheads screwed it up afterward.”

But indeed, I left in early 2009. One of my last actions was to go out to Ramadi to see the governor and then to take a walk with Ahmed Abu Risha, the then-head of the Awakening [Anbar Awakening Council]. Even my security guy said, “Why not?” So it had calmed stuff to that extent, meaning what we’re looking at today was not inevitable. We dealt with it then and then decided we didn’t want to do it anymore.

You recommended that we keep a force there.

Oh, yeah, absolutely.

You also were against the initial invasion and predicted that this would unleash a lot of forces.

Yeah. Well, I get a lot of credit I don’t deserve on that. Yes, there was such a paper authored, actually, by people under me that I thought was a very good piece of work. We sent it up the line, where it had absolutely zero effect.

The point wasn’t to try and be predictive. It was trying, again, not to have a failure of imagination, just to lay out what could go wrong. You know, invading another country is a big deal, and you cannot begin to predict what’s going to happen in the months and years to come.

It was kind of a perfect storm. You had neocons who believed that, once the dictator’s boot was lifted from the neck of the Iraqi people, they would naturally tend toward truth, justice, light and democracy. There was, again, an alliance between that point of view and the neorealist viewpoint that “We don’t care what happens after Saddam is gone. Not our problem. This is going to be invasion on the cheap. We’ll hand it over to whomever, and they can do whatever they want. And if something that threatens our interest emerges again, we’ll go knock him off again. In the meantime, we’re not going to bother with it.”

You had the experience of being in Lebanon when you saw the growth and establishment of Hezbollah. What parallels were you drawing at that time about what Iran would be doing in Iraq, given that they had trained Iraqi militias for years? They were just sitting and waiting.

Yeah, I arrived in Baghdad on a hot night in March 2007, and it was as though I had stepped back a quarter of a century into Lebanon of the early ’80s, where Syria and Iran were working together to defeat us in Lebanon and, now, in Iraq; that what they had learned from the early ’80s was that “Cause the Americans enough pain, and they will go.”

It worked for them in Lebanon, and it was working for them at the time I arrived in early 2007. Now the roles were reversed. The Syrians had the dominant role in Lebanon, supported by the Iranians. It was kind of flipped on this side, where the Iranians, by far, were the more powerful actors, but certainly, buttressed by the Syrians, who made their own deal with the devil, as I think is pretty widely known now.

They would facilitate Al Qaeda transit through Syrian territory in exchange for an Al Qaeda commitment that they would not cause trouble in Syria. So it was working out pretty well for them.

So you come with this experience, with this memory. How many of your colleagues in the State Department, back in Washington, understood this?

Within the Near East bureau [Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs], that was pretty well understood that, you know, the bombing and then the withdrawal of the Marines in Lebanon made that point: “Hurt ’em; they’ll go home.” So we talked about, be careful what you get into. Be at least as careful what you propose to get out of.

You were there just after the bombing of the [al-Askari] shrine in Samarra.

About a year later.

But you had seen what that had unleashed. Talk about that.

That was the trigger, the flashpoint, that set off a horrific sectarian conflict that was raging when I got there in early 2007. I remember my first visit to an Iraqi district, Dora, as the surge was starting to get underway, going out there and talking to residents who said: “We’re just trying to survive. We pray that no one gets hurt, because if they do, there is absolutely no possibility of medical treatment. There’s not a single doctor in the district.” I said, “Well, Medical City is right across the river.” And they looked at me, fascinated how anyone could so stupid, and said: “No Sunni would reach that facility alive. The police checkpoints would see to it.” So it was about as bad as you can imagine.

You said at one point when you arrived in March 2007, “Sunnis and Shiites were slaughtering each other with guns and knives and power drills.”

Yes. There was a particularly gruesome style of murder — basically a Shia tool — where it was death by power drill. That’s kind of how you could tell who was the victim. [If] the guy had drill holes in his head, he was probably a Sunni taken by the Shia. I mean, what the Sunnis did was no nicer, but it had sunk to that level. It was a horrible, horrible period.

And who were the Shiites that were doing this?

Well, there was quite a collection. Certainly the Badrs, the Badr Brigade was involved in it.

So Iran is heavily engaged, supporting militias, endorsing these kinds of killings, these kinds of massacres. Saudi Arabia is doing what?

Hard to tell what they were doing. We wanted them to do more, actually. But if you don’t like the Iranian influence, well, then counter it with some Arab Sunni influence.

And they refused to open an embassy.

They did. This was in the time of King Abdullah. [Gen.] Dave Petraeus and I went to Riyadh to meet him. This would’ve been April ’08, right after our second round of congressional testimony. And I’ve been on a lot of interesting meetings in my career. This one is a standout because of the king’s insistence that the so-called Iraqi Shia, they’re all Iranians.

I said, “Well, you know, they’re voting in elections.” He said, “No, they speak Arabic.” He said: “They were taught Arabic in Iran to pass as Iraqis. Nouri al-Maliki’s a Persian; he’s not an Arab.” I realized we were going nowhere fast with Saudi Arabia on that.

And talking to Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, the head of GID [General Intelligence Directorate], others, they would say, “There’s a great logic to what you say; you just have to go convince the king,” knowing that there was no way that was going to happen.

Anything more you can tell me about how that meeting went? I mean, who was there? You were there with Gen. Petraeus?

Dave and I were there together with staff, you know, note takers and so forth. But it was just really hard for me to figure out how to respond to this. I mean, it was so out of the solar orbit. I just didn’t know what to deal with except to say, “Clearly this is not going to work.”

Well, you told him he was wrong.

Yeah. But again, his mind was made up. Don’t confuse him with the facts. And Abdullah, in particular, was still so bitter toward us for having carried out the invasion in the first place.

To destabilize the neighborhood and allow for Iran to move in.

Yeah, and not to heed Saudi counsel, which was, “Don’t do this.”

Because they wanted a buffer between them and Iran, so he saw everybody now that’s running the government in Baghdad as Iranian.

It’s highly irrational in one sense. But when you’re talking about people like Hadi al-Amiri, not a completely invalid point. Again, Badr was created in Iran and was used by the Iranians to fight the Iraqi army.

So what was he doing to counter Iranian influence?

I’m sure he was paying people here and there but without a clear policy objective that we could determine.

Paying whom?

Various Sunni leaders … They were supporting the tribal leaderships … Those were the allegations. I mean, we couldn’t track the movement of money. But basically, there was not that I could discern, any Saudi strategy for dealing with the new Iraq. They were just going to ignore it.

Were they asking you as an American to deal with it?

Although others in the government in Riyadh had basically recovered from 2003, I think [Abdullah] felt that we were actively working against Saudi national security interests, and I think it was his way of saying, “I’m not going to legitimize your miserable mistake of an invasion.”

And what was your belief as to how the money was coming from Saudi Arabia to fund insurgents in Iraq?

You know, there was never any evidence for that.

I understand there was no evidence. But what was your belief?

My belief was that the … Saudis were not funding Al Qaeda directly, by any means. Did some of their largesse get to Al Qaeda? Probably.

I asked Abdullah once when I saw him if he considered that his country was anything like a democracy, and he says, “Well, we’re not a democracy, but we do care about what people think.”

And that is absolutely true. You see the same thing in Oman. The sultan spends three months a year kind of on the road, living in tents with his entourage as he just migrates around meeting with the tribes. Abdullah and Salman, to the extent his health permits, do the same thing. So yeah, that was a very accurate statement King Abdullah made to you. There are more ways than elections to figure out what your population is concerned about.

You made the point early on, I think a very good one, that prior to the 1979 revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia were not engaged in a struggle against one another and that the sectarian dimension is overplayed. It’s a kind of black-and-white kind of thing. It’s not easy for people to get their heads around, so they glom onto that. But by the time we get to 2006, 2007, sectarianism is the order of the day. I mean, people are killing each other because they’re Sunni or because they’re Shia.

Yeah, absolutely.

And Saudi Arabia’s on one side, and Iran’s on the other.

Yes. I would just suggest that, while the idiom was sectarianism, there are deeper issues in play. It’s power. It’s who was going to have influence where? And again, the currency was sectarian conflict and support for sectarian factions.

That requires some more explanation from you, if I could, for my audience, in terms of understanding what you mean by that, because for the man on the street, it was a sectarian war.

Yeah, indeed. And one of the reasons it was as bloody as it was is because of the dynamics of Iraqi society. There was a huge amount of intermarriage, Sunnis marrying Shia and vice versa. Look, until 2005, 2006, there had not been a major sectarian incident in Iraq since the early 19th century.

And indeed, it’s precisely because Iraq was the most intermingled of societies in the Arab world that the fighting became so vicious, that you were literally tearing families apart. Can they get over that? I don’t know. The current course with the popular mobilization units suggest it’s going to be a long time coming.

How was it in the interest of Iran to divide the country along sectarian lines or at least to have intra-Shia — I guess you were talking about conflict, but also to keep the country weak, right? So that’s the dynamic that’s playing out when you arrive?

Very much so. Again, the ultimate Iranian policy goal is a permanently divided and weakened Iraq, and this is a good way to do it. You know, confrontations and violence between communities and within at least the Shia community, that works well for Iran.

And you talked here with The New York Times. “Iran fighting proxy war in Iraq, U.S. envoy says.” That’s you. “Crocker asserted that Iran is engaging in a proxy war with the United States and Iraq, adopting a tactic similar to those it had used to back fighters in Lebanon.”

Yeah, that’s what I meant by my comment that, you know, I was suddenly whisked back a quarter of a century when I arrived in Baghdad to what Beirut was like in the early ’80s.

And you said, “Despite more than a year of talks between the Bush administration” — well, I guess this is the author of the piece saying — “Despite more than a year of talks between the Bush administration and Iran over how to calm Shiite-Sunni tension in Iraq, Crocker said, ‘There has been no substantive change in Iranian behavior.'”

Yeah. Now, that makes an interesting point. So I had worked with the Iranians over Afghanistan, you know, made some not-insignificant progress. You know, I knew the Iraq talks were going to go nowhere.

But you had Iraq talks. You were talking.

Talking to the Iranian ambassador. Unlike the Afghan process — these were sponsored by the Iraqi government. We had our conversations in the prime minister’s offices, and he was present. They limped along and eventually collapsed.

But sometimes a failed negotiation can be better than a successful one. What that process did was convince Maliki that there was no way short of force to defang the militias, the Shia militias, that weren’t under his control. That led to his decision to launch the campaign called Charge of the Knights a few months later. I’m not sure he would have done it if he thought there was any way he could negotiate, or we could negotiate, the Iranians to a better place.

You were negotiating with the Iranians, hoping the Iranians would instruct their militias to pull back.

That they would–

Cease the violence.

Yeah, we pressed them to live up to their rhetoric of support for the central government and just called on them to do what they say they’re already doing, support the central government, which means stop supporting the militias.

What did your Iranian counterpart say in response to that plea–

They denied that they were doing anything but supporting the central government, and these are all lies and allegations spread by the Americans that they’re doing anything else.

Did you have evidence to put on the table?

I didn’t put it on the table. I kind of looked at Maliki, and Maliki looked at me and said, “We know differently.” He would not take a position. I didn’t want him to.

I’m just interested in that moment, when your face is across the table, I assume, with Iranian counterparts, Iranian officials, and you’re saying, “You guys have to stop the support for the militia, sectarian violence,” and they say, “We’re not doing it.”

Yes, and you go through that 10 or 12 times and call it a day. We did notice one thing: that the Iranian ambassador called for a number of breaks in the conversations. He would leave the room. I thought maybe he had a weak bladder. I mean, I didn’t know.

We discovered later he was calling back to Tehran: “The Americans said this. How do I respond?” So this was, you know, nobody cared in Washington what I said or didn’t say, but he was obviously on a very, very short, tight leash.

At one point, I think you were talking to [the journalist] Tom Ricks, said that, “The Shia militias are worse than ISIS.”

Yeah. Yeah, I do believe that.

Even after all the videotaped violence, the [Camp] Speicher massacre [in Tikrit], the beheadings of journalists and others, you think that the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are worse than ISIS?

Sure. ISIS is just about done in Iraq. The Shia militias are ascending. And you could see it back then, that the creation of the PMUs was just, you know, again, part of the Iranian game plan. But what ISIS, or Al Qaeda before it, never could do was permeate the political space, not even in Sunni areas. Well, the militias do.

So how come the Americans keep losing in this region?

The fundamental reason, in my view, is that we’re not always careful what we get into. And then we run out of patience. We get tired of the loss of blood and treasure. We don’t stick with it. Time to move on. This was a big mess. Over the years, in the broader Middle East, our allies have come to fear that and our adversaries to count on it. And we are all too consistent in this. Having a set of bad days with the Americans? Just hunker down; they’ll go. And we do.

It’s hard to think of an intervention of the Americans in the Middle East that’s gone well.

Well, when you look at the Middle East in historical terms, you find very few military interventions by anybody that went well. You can ask the Soviets about Afghanistan–

Except the Iranians. The Iranians now have a foothold in Lebanon. They have a foothold in Iraq. They’re winning in Syria, and they’re trying to bleed the Saudis in Yemen.

Well, Iran is actually part of the Middle East. I’m talking about external interventions.

The Saudis seem to stand by, kind of frozen. Until Yemen, they haven’t really unleashed their big guns.

Yeah. Of all the depressing things that happened in that year, one of the most depressing to me was the Saudi-UAE intervention in Yemen.

In 2015.

In 2015. And the reason why I find that so depressing — the Saudis didn’t consult with us. They told us about 48 hours before they started the campaign. We were the closest of allies in the Middle East. And that decision shows how badly the relationship had unraveled, where they would take a military action, again, without consulting us on it. Basically in their view, we abdicated any kind of leadership role in the Middle East in the Obama years.

Especially with the nuclear deal, in their view.

And again, in my judgment, it isn’t the nuclear deal, per se. It’s the way the administration played it. They could have played it like Reagan in the 1980s. We had several significant arms control agreements with the Soviets.

That didn’t stop him from calling them the Evil Empire. And indeed, it’s exactly what the Iranians are doing. As far as I can tell, they are scrupulously observing the agreement and shoving it to us every other way they can figure. We seem to think it was a treaty of peace and friendship and that it would inaugurate a whole new era of U.S.-Iranian relations. Well, that’s just dumb. The dynamics are not there for that.

It’s a nonproliferation deal.

Yeah, and as far as I can tell, I don’t know anything about nuclear physics, but the nuclear physics folks that I do know say, “You know, it ain’t bad.”

That it’s working.

It ain’t bad–

But it’s not kumbaya.

Yeah, and that’s what really got the Saudis the sense that we were moving away from our traditional alliance with them to cozy up to the Iranians.

So that contributes to their willingness to just go into Yemen, turn their backs on the coalition against ISIS, and go to Yemen.

It does. And not much played in our media. It was and still is quite popular among the Saudis.

The war in Yemen.

The intervention in Yemen, yeah.

To the degree that Mohammed bin Salman, the king in waiting, the crown prince, has to prosecute that war, he has said that it is because Iran is projecting itself into Yemen. How true is that, do you think?

Again, I think the Iranians are just taking advantage of a situation in which they really were only marginally involved. The Yemenis didn’t need any real help from the Iranians to get weapons to fight the government and, by extension, the Saudis standing behind the government.

I remember, at one time, we were shadowing a convoy or something believed to be bringing weapons into Yemen. We might want to look at the traffic going the other way. For all I knew, it could have been the Yemenis sending arms to Iran, because there was no shortage of weaponry in Yemen.

So Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince who’s running this war, in your view, is he overstating the Iranian involvement? And if so, why?

I do believe he’s overstating it, and I think the motive is that plays very well on the Saudi street.

So he’s selling it to the Saudi public and to the other members of the royal court.

Exactly, and to other Arab states in the region that it is Saudi Arabia who is basically standing by Sunni Arab honor here. But then again, we try to put things in such neat categories. Well, neat categories do not exist in the Middle East.

[Former Yemeni President] Ali Abdullah Saleh is a huge supporter of the [rebel] Houthis. He is not Zaidi Shia, he’s Sunni. So this, again, as I tried to convey earlier, you cannot find single-source explanations for anything that happens in the Middle East. It isn’t all sectarian. It isn’t all anything. It’s a whole weave of complex factors, shifting alliances, opportunities of the moment — stuff we really don’t like to get into.

You made this point in an interview with Business Insider. It says Crocker pointed out how dangerous Trump’s “‘America-first’ foreign policy strategy” is for the Middle East, which is “‘unraveling'” as the U.S. is “‘widely considered simply checked out.'”

And I believe I said that well before his first foreign trip, which was to the Middle East.

Interestingly, to Saudi Arabia.

Exactly.

Well, stop there. Let me ask you about that. What’s the significance of the fact that Trump’s first foreign trip is to Saudi Arabia?

Well, what it should have been was an affirmation that America is back, that we have not checked out, that we are going to stand with our traditional allies, because at the time of our transition, our relations with all of our traditional partners were suffering: Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf states, Jordan, Israel, Turkey.

So he had a golden opportunity, and he seized it, to say: “We’ve got vital interests. We’re back. We’re going to work with you.” But the problem is he hasn’t got a policy. You know, this is a photo op. It’s a nice campaign stop, but where’s the beef? And there isn’t any at this point in this administration, not vis-à-vis the Middle East or, as far as I can tell, anywhere else in the world. It’s a series of phone calls, visits. These are good things, but you’ve got to build on them.

He says to tell you what the policy doesn’t help him run the policy, that he has to operate quietly, behind the scenes.

Yeah, and you’ve got to have a staff that can do those things. You know, my old employer at the State Department, just about empty, because the secretary has decided he is not going to fill senior positions until he’s done a top-to-bottom analysis of how the State Department is structured.

Well, even he says that won’t happen before the end of the year, so let’s hope we don’t have a major crisis.

We began this conversation talking about Iran in Lebanon. You’ve, at a number of times, had negotiations with Iran. Where is the U.S.-Iranian relationship now?

Well, it’s hard to tell where U.S. policy is heading anywhere in the world just now. Clearly we are back in a mode of confrontation, and it’s dangerous. Under current management, if there were to be an incident as there was in January of ’16, was it, the two riverine boats that the Iranians grabbed, I think it would not be managed in the same way, let’s say.

Under this administration and this secretary of defense, I don’t think you’re going to see any images of American service members with their hands over their head as Iranians train guns on them. And I hope the Iranians can read that, because some very, very bad things could come of this. The key thing right now is to see if the administration will continue to find Iran in compliance on the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action].

The nuclear deal.

The nuclear deal.

I mean, given the history, is it inevitable that U.S.-Iranian relations be strained as they are?

Well, the regime fostered its legitimacy by confronting the United States, and that goes back, again, to 1953. Whatever your politics may be, if you’re an Iranian, that was a hugely humiliating moment in their history, and the Iranians are not people who like to be humiliated.

You have as much or more experience than any diplomat in this region of the world over the last 30 years.

And an unbroken string of success behind me. Just look at the Middle East today.

There you go. What would you like to see happen?

I would like to see the U.S. re-engage in a serious and systematic way. That doesn’t mean sending in the 101st Airborne, but it does mean saying, in effect: “What happens in this region is directly linked to our own national security. We’re in this for the long haul. We want to hear from you, what you think we should do or should not do and move to a coherent policy based on forging a consensus with those who want to work with us.”

And again, this administration has taken the first step, but I don’t think they’ve got the ability, even if they have the will, to do the next steps, which really are labor-intensive, of hammering out policies that enjoy support from our traditional partners in the region.

I mean, some people listening to you would say, “Why should we have anything to do with a country whose slogan is ‘Death to America’?”

This would be Iran? I would tend to agree with them. I think we can have a better relationship with Iran. We had one before. But I think until we get serious about supporting our friends and confronting our adversaries, the Iranians are just going to keep pushing away.

Remember, what I said was we need to work with our traditional friends and partners out there. That would not be Iran. I would like to see us see if we could come to some agreement, particularly with the Saudis, on what could be an effective regional strategy, backed by the U.S., against Iranian expansionism.

And what would that be?

I don’t know. I would want to talk to them about it. This would not be the moment for the U.S. to concoct policy options in isolation and then impose them on a region.

We did check out in the Obama years. If we’re going to check back in, I think it’s going to be crucial to sit down with regimes that we may not be particularly happy with, such as an Egypt or Turkey. But we don’t have the luxury, frankly, of a choice between democracy and autocracy in the region. That’s not on the table. So we do have a choice between–

They’re all autocrats?

Pretty much, except for Israel and Lebanon, in some weird way. The choice is between order and disorder. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, those are forces of order.

And what ideas would you have, based on your experience, for putting pressure against our adversary, Iran, or for Saudi Arabia to do vis-à-vis Iran?

Well, that’s why you have to have these conversations. You know, I would not suggest a direct targeting of the Iranians — that’s a good way to World War III — but to sit down and say, “OK, what is Iran’s greatest point of vulnerability?”

It will be their economy, even with the infusion of substantial sums as a result of the nuclear agreement. How can we effectively hurt them economically? Well, actually, we’re doing a pretty good job, because the international banking system is scared stiff of going into Iran for fear that we will then sanction them, the European banks.

That’s a good place to be, and it’s a good place to start from, but figuring out steps we can take that will enjoy regional support and be capable of implementation on the ground. And that is going to take a huge effort from this administration that I don’t think they are staffed or willing to make.

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