Iran, Iran, if only we had been friends

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by Neil Godfrey

I don’t know what lies ahead but a study of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) by a Senior Analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at CNA leads me to think that Western voices urging diplomatic support for the moderate political forces in Iran (as opposed to funding terrorist attacks or dropping bombs and missiles on the country) have the wisdom of history on their side.

After 9/11 there was a window of opportunity for mutually beneficial US-Iranian cooperation in getting rid of the Taliban and Al Qaeda then in Afghanistan.

3. See for example, “Khatami Condemns Terrorism, Calls for Global Fight against It,” Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 1 (Tehran) in Persian, September 22, 2001, BBCWM, September 22, 2001.

The 9/11 attacks inspired a rare display of sympathy for the United States across Iran. Spontaneous candlelight vigils from Tehran to Shiraz accompanied statements from President Mohammad Khatami condemning terrorism and the attacks.3 The goodwill was short lived. As Washington began building up a campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iranian pundits warm against any American military action in the Muslim world. A news site connected to the conservative Islamic Propagation Organization warned: “Any unilateral military action against innocent Afghans may help to boost the image of Uncle Sam at home, but it will surely tarnish the US image on the international arena for its flagrant violation of international law.” While condemning the 9/11 attacks, the reformist Aftab-e Yazd newspaper argued that 9/11 “should not become an excuse to make the world insecure and create warlike events.” Yet, as Iran was condemning American aggression, Khatami’s administration was secretly exploring ways in which Iran could assist the effort against the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban. Iran had been actively supporting Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance for years, and had almost gone to war with the Taliban after the murder of eight Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif in 1998. Iran had a vested interst in seeing the Taliban overthrown in favor of its allies in the Northern Alliance.

(Ostovar, p. 160)

President Bush even sent an ambassador, Ryan Crocker, to talk with the Iranians. Crocker found the Iranians very willing to cooperate with the US in Afghanistan:

Soon after 9/11, the Bush administration dispatched Ryan Crocker—then a senior US State Department official—to engage in secret meetings with Iranian diplomats in Geneva and Paris. The two sides discussed potential US operations to uproot the Taliban Afghanistan. According to Seyed Hossein Mousavian, then the head of the SNSC s Foreign Relations Committee, the Iranian delegation was “pursuing two objectives”:

First, we sought ways to unseat the Taliban and eliminate extremist terrorists, namely al-Qaeda. Both of these groups… were arch enemies of Iran. Second, we wanted to look for ways to test cooperation with the Americans, thus decreasing the level of mistrust and tension between us. During these meetings, neither party pursued the subject of Iran-US relations. Nonetheless, we did the groundwork for significant, mutual cooperation on Afghanistan during these meetings, resulting in Iran’s assistance during the attack on the Taliban.

Iran’s delegation consisted of three ambassadors and one anonymous “member of the security establishment responsible for Afghanistan”—likely a member of the IRGC’s Quds Force. . . . The Iranians eagerly shared intelligence on Taliban positions. In one meeting, the lead Iranian negotiator gave Crocker a map that identified Taliban locations. Crocker recounted the exchange in an interview with the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. He recalled the Iranian saying: “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over there. And here’s the logic …” Crocker asked if he could take notes, to which the Iranian diplomat responded: “You can keep the map.” At one point the lead Iranian negotiator told Crocker that Soleimani was “very pleased with our cooperation.” The diplomatic exchanges bore fruit Crocker recalls giving his Iranian counterparts the location of an Al Qaeda operative living in the eastern Iranian city of Mashhad. The Iranians detained the operative and later turned him over to Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government. The IRGC’s help might have also extended to the battlefield. Mousavian writes that through the Quds Force’s close ties with the Northern Alliance (America’s Afghan allies against the Taliban), the IRGC had been “actively involved in organizing” the victory over the Taliban in Herat (western Afghanistan), and Soleimani himself had been “key in organizing” the Northern Alliance’s advance into Kabul.

(Ostovar, p. 161)

But then, alas, there was that “axis of evil” speech.

President Bush’s axis of evil speech in January 2002 ended any budding trust. Crocker, who was stationed at the US embassy in Kabul, met with an incensed Iranian diplomat the next day. “You completely damaged me,” the diplomat told him. “Soleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” Crocker was further told that Soleimani had begun considering a “re-think” of Iran’s relationship with the United States. Mousavian recalls Soleimani telling him that “he had suspected that the US request for our help might have been a tactical move and not intended to lead to long-term cooperation.” Washington’s apparent insincerity left Iranian diplomats and President Khatami feeling “betrayed.”

(Ostovar, pp. 161f)

Recall those scary neo-cons from hell. In those days they looked like a gang that had shot out of left field.

As was the case in the 1990s, there was substantial support within the CIA and the State Department for taking Khatami at his word and attempting to normalize relations with Tehran. The neoconservatives inside and outside of the administration, however, vehemently opposed that idea; they favored getting tough with Iran, and they carried the day with Bush and Cheney. In his State of the Union address in late January 2002, the president rewarded Iran for its cooperation in Afghanistan by including it in the infamous ‘axis of evil.” Moreover, Bush made it clear in the following months that although he was preoccupied with regime change in Iraq, he would eventually turn to Iran and try to topple that government as well.

(Mearsheimer and Walt, p. 303)

But notice how that “betrayal” of Iran weakened the pro-democratic forces and strengthened the clerical dicatatorship. The nazi-style thugs came out to do their dirty work on behalf of the “supreme leader”…

Despite such overtures by Iran—and despite the US intelligence community’s suggestion that Iran could be engaged on the Afghan and potential Iraq wars—the Bush administration rebuffed Tehran’s offers and took an uncompromising line against the Khatami government. The inclusion of Iran in the axis of evil provoked a backlash across Iran’s political spectrum. It also provided hardliners added fodder to criticize Khatami’s pro-Western policies. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei castigated American foreign policy as “the greatest evil” and claimed that he was “proud” that “the most cursed of the world’s satans” placed the Islamic Republic within the axis of evil. An editorial by Hosayn Saffar-Harandi in Kayhan, the leading hardline daily, argued that Bush’s statements were evidence of America’s ingrained antagonism toward Iran and proof that the reformists’ attempts to improve relations with Washington were not only misguided, but detrimental to national security. He charged that since the reformists had also criticized Bush’s statements they implicitly admitted to their naivete and strategic failings. Saffar-Harandi claimed that America’s actions vindicated the conservative and hardliner position vis-à-vis the West, writing:

After five years of misrepresentation and enduring all kinds of insults and accusations, the critics of 2nd Khordad Front now feel vindicated. It has now become clear that as the result of unilateral efforts to make friends with the foreigners and to open a dialogue with them, one cannot close one’s eyes to international realities and to have vain hopes that the satanic nature of America and her allies would change.

By contending that Khatami had misjudged the nature of American foreign policy, hardliners were able to paint themselves as the more realist political camp. Their vocal declarations against a detente with Washington, once seen as ignorant and alarmist by reformists, were now trumpeted as reasonable and informed.

Hardliners used Bush’s comments and the prospect of an American attack as added justification to undercut Khatami and his already weak government. Despite being reelected by an overwhelming majority in the summer of 2001, Khatami was a near-powerless leader. Conservatives continued to control the most important state institutions and used their influence to block all significant attempts of political and social reform initiated by the president. An example of Khatami’s political impotence occurred the day after his re-election when Ansar-e Hezbollah stormed a pro-Khatami celebration. The anti-reform activists arrested many of the president’s supporters and injured numerous bystanders, including BBC journalist John Simpson. Khatamis lack of support within the police (who either participated in the attack or stood aside) evinced his broader alienation from the security services. As the war on terror began to take shape, growing anxiety spawned numerous attacks on pro-Khatami elements and on others with perceived pro-Western biases.

Most dramatic was a string of murders committed by a small group of basijis in 2002. The six basijis—all morality agents—admitted to killing five individuals. They were suspected in thirteen additional murders, all in the Kerman area. Each of the victims had been killed on the basis of “prohibiting vice” and in an attempt to stomp out the “cultural invasion” of Western immorality. A young couple engaged to be married were killed because they had been suspected of having engaged in premarital sex. Another woman was buried up to her chest and stoned to death for suspected adultery. In the subsequent trial the accused justified their killings by claiming the victims were sinners whose immorality was punishable by death under Islamic law (mahdur al-dam). They identified prominent hardline cleric Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi as the religious authority whose guidance on the matter they had followed. The six defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. However, the Supreme Court in Tehran refused to accept the ruling and sent the case back to another regional court in Kerman to be retried. After two more trials and two more guilty verdicts, a fourth trial in 2007 ultimately found the accused not guilty and acquitted them of their crimes. The court agreed with the defendants that the victims had indeed been immoral Muslims whose actions were justifiably punished by death. The Supreme Court accepted the ruling. Because the six had been licensed morality police, they were seen as having carried out their civic duty. The judiciary’s role in acquitting the basijis signaled that right-wing vigilante activism had the tacit support of both state institutions and the supreme leader, whose silence on the rulings was taken as implied support for the defendants.

(Ostovar, p. 163)

Not content with strengthening the hand of the anti-US factions within Iran, the US found ways to further alienate other states and opened the way for furthering Iran’s international influence.

As aggressive US policy encouraged a revival of hardline power in Iran, policies toward other states in the region and globally helped facilitate the expansion of Iranian influence outside its borders. For instance, the antagonistic relationship between the Bush administration and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela opened up the door for Chavez to seek closer ties with other international partners. Irans relationship with Chavez had grown stronger during Khatamis presidency. Ahmadinejad promoted Iranian-Venezuelan relations as a new anti-imperialist front. Strengthening Iranian-Venezuelan relations was more than simple political showmanship, however, as both oil-rich countries increased investment in each other s infrastructure and commercial enterprises. In 2007 the Chavez regime listed Iran as its second largest investor after the United States, with $9.1 billion invested annually. In 2006 Iran’s semi-official Petropars firm was awarded a lucrative contract by Chavez to develop drilling operations in an off-shore Venezuelan oil field. Tehran and Caracas also increased military cooperation which provided the IRGC a limited presence in South America.

(Ostovar, p. 169)

And now, what’s next? who knows.

I guess this is what happens when these sorts of people run the show.

To think how different everything could be.

Ostovar, Afshon. 2016. Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen M. Walt. 2007. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Iran, Iran, if only we had been friends”

  1. Professor Cohen’s recent book ‘The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force’ is an example of this Amerika first delusion.

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