Tactical cooperation was fundamentally positive in character. The Iranians delivered much of what was asked in these talks. But in each case, they hoped that tactical cooperation would lead to rapprochement between the countries. The US decided it could not sustain issue specific negotiations
- Reagan Administration – engagement to secure release of US hostages in Lebanon led to the Iran-Contra scandal. Exposure of scandal led to an end to engagement with Iran.
- The George H.W. Bush administration talked to Iran to secure the release of remaining hostages from Lebanon. The President publicly said that Iran’s help in gaining the release of the hostages would lead to goodwill from the U.S. A senior Iranian diplomat said that this statement created the impression in Tehran that the US would reciprocate, but that never happened. Iranian negotiators in 2001 still pointed to this broken promise. The Bush administration expected that they would do something with Iran after they won the next election, but Clinton won.
- In 1994, the Clinton administration allowed Iranian arms to flow to Bosnian Muslims. But leak of this information shutdown cooperation for several years. This episode showed once again that the U.S. was unwilling or unable to sustain cooperation with Iran even when in America’s own self-interest.
- When Iran offered Conoco a contract, Clinton responded as if this was a provocation. Two executive orders out of the White House to prohibit any meaningful economic interaction followed.
- The next year, the Clinton administration signed the Iran-Libya sanctions act for secondary sanctions against non-American companies.
- In Clinton’s second term, in 1997, Secretary of State Albright proposed an open dialogue with Khatami. She tried to change some import regulations on rugs and pistachios. Iran said this was just symbolic and just a crude attempt to manipulate Iranian internal politics. They wanted all sanctions lifted to begin a dialogue.
- Under George W. Bush, this pattern of abortive tactical engagement continued.
- At UN, I worked on political aspects of Afghanistan with Iran through the 6+2 mechanism (6 of Iran’s neighbors plus the US and Russia). I was able to work effectively with Iran on counternarcotics, Afghan refugees, and the arms embargo on Taliban. Also worked with Iranian counterparts on sanctions against the Taliban.
- I worked with them on foreign ministers meeting for 6+2 before 9/11. China and Pakistan wanted to limit the agenda to not deal with terrorism issue only to work on humanitarian issues.
- On 9/11, I was planning to meet with Iranians about getting terrorism on the agenda of the 6+2 talks. My Iranian counterpart thought that the Iranians would stand with the US against the attacks. He was right -- Iran was one of the first countries to condemn the attack. The Supreme Leader even publicly condemned attacks in the Friday sermon and called it an act of aggression.
- I worked with the Iranians on a framework for cooperation on Afghanistan. Iran said they were prepared to deal with the US unconditionally after September 11th because it was a critical time and an important chance to change relations.
- Before Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, Iran gave permission for American search and rescue missions in Iranian territory.
- The Iranians also proposed geographic areas where the US was not attacking sufficiently in Afghanistan.
- There were early international calls for a humanitarian pause in the bombing. The US was unwilling to do stop bombing to do it. Iran had offered a humanitarian corridor into Afghanistan that would have allowed bombing to continue.
- Iran also offered to help with post-conflict Afghanistan. They were also willing to join a statement of principles that would stop Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven again. They helped to deal with Pakistan and Turkmenistan’s reservations on these issues.
- A November 2001 meeting of foreign ministers at the UN was put in lockdown because of some terrorist threat in NYC. The Iranians wanted to use the opportunity to keep working on counter terrorism.
- When President Khatami came to the UN and he wanted to go to ground zero, but the State Department denied the request. They also offered to bring counter terrorism experts in the delegation to meet with the State Department, but this was declined also. The view was that the system wasn’t ready to deal with the hard Iran issues. There was a view that somehow confidence would be built, things would get better, and we would deal with Iranian issues then.
- In late 2001, at the Bonn conference to stand up Afghanistan government, Iran was able to keep a lot of bad people out of this original government. Iran had better contacts in surrounding states and within Afghanistan including the Northern Alliance.
- The U.S. began having monthly meetings with Iranians on Afghanistan between 2001 and 2003.
- There was a warlord who was anti-Taliban but pro-al-Qaeda who had been given refuge in Iran. The US was worried he would return to Afghanistan. The US asked Iran to keep him in Iran. They agreed to do so as long as the U.S. didn’t use his presence against Iran in state sponsored of terrorism list related issues.
- Two weeks later, President Bush gave his Axis of Evil speech. Then, that warlord “escaped” and returned to Afghanistan
- The U.S. and Iranian officials continued meeting after this speech. The U.S. provided Iran with lists of problematic al-Qaeda figures. Iran picked up over 200 al-Qaeda operatives. Most of these operatives were repatriated. Egypt was not willing to take their citizens and the Saudis would not take all of their people back. The Iranians wanted some US help repatriating the rest of the operatives. Instead, the administration made it a test of how serious the Iranians were about helping us.
- The U.S. was concerned about Afghan refugees in Iran. Some were funded by Iran in militias that would undermine the Taliban. The US was worried that these would be a problem for Karzai’s government or the US. The US got the Iranians to give these forces to the Afghan national military. This did not happen in the Iraq case. Instead, Iranian funded Iraqi militia groups entered Iraq without any mechanism for integration.
- At this point, the talks were getting progressively less productive. The Iranians wanted to improve discussions to deal with impending attack on Iraq and for strategic rapprochement. Secretary Rice rejected this. She made the talks contingent on Iran dealing with the eight al-Qaeda operatives that Iran still had from the earlier round-up. The Iranians said they needed US help with them and they started to doubt that the US wanted to resolve the problem. Further, the Iranians were concerned that US troops would gain control over the MEK as a liberation force against Iran. The MEK had been funded by Iraq’s military. At this time, the US told the Iranians that we would deal with the MEK. Later, Rumsfeld said he didn’t have time or resources to disarm the MEK. The Iraqi government started negotiating about repatriating these people to Iran. The Iranians were willing to put the senior leaders on trial without the death penalty. They were willing to have the ICRC monitor the prisons and the trial. The US rejected this and gave MEK members protected personnel status. In this way, the US as occupying power could prohibit the Iraqi provisional government from sending them to Iran.
- Finally, Iran suggests strategic talks. They realize that this issue specific negotiating isn’t working. They said that every issue could be on the table including its nuclear ambitions, its role in Iraq, and its material support for Hamas and Hezbollah. The Bush administration rejected this offer.
- Two weeks later, the bilateral channel was cut off because Rumsfeld said that operatives in Iran had orchestrated attacks in Riyadh. Nothing I have seen has substantiated this claim.
- In July 2008, there were brief multilateral talks on nuclear program. There were also short, unconditional talks about Iraq in 2007 that went no where.
- From an Iranian perspective, this incremental engagement with the US has been a profound disappointment. Each episode has ended with worse state of relations than when talks began. We should not be surprised that they are unwilling to engage in issue specific talks any more
Drivers of Iran’s national security strategy.
- Much of the Iran debate in the US involves a (sometimes willful) misreading of the Iranian strategy.
- Since 1989, the Islamic Republic has defined its security in terms of national interest. Their concerns are legitimate. They want to be free from threat of attack or intervention in internal affairs. They want their government to be accepted as legitimate. They have acted in instrumentally rational ways to defend and advance these interests.
- We may not like many of their choices in pursuit of their national security interests including support for terrorist groups and acquisition of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. These have worked against US interests. But, they are not irrational.
- Iran pursues an asymmetric national security strategy. Iran has land borders with hostile countries. Iran compensates for lack of strategic depth with unconventional weapons and relationships with regional proxy groups. The Iranians cultivate these ties in neighboring states to prevent those states from being platforms for anti-Iranian activities.
- Washington in the past year has been considering a détente style opening with interest office opening in Tehran. But, this is not an effective strategy for protecting U.S. interests. It would not resolve the fundamental differences in policies. Managing tensions in the Cold War made sense when there was no way to resolve tensions with the Soviet Union.
- The US and SU thought they were roughly at parity in military capabilities. The US is vastly superior to Iran. Iran is incapable of projecting military force beyond its borders. They cannot stop the narco-traffic let alone defend against the US.
- They still think the US goal is overthrow of their regime. So, they will continue to defend their interests in way that are maximally provocative to the US. No U.S. administration can sustain détente with Iran as they continue these policies.
- President Obama cannot achieve any of its Middle East objectives without putting Iranian relations on a more positive trajectory.
A grand bargain that will work to put the US and Iran on a better trajectory.
- Without a strategic understanding of where bilateral relations are going, there will always be reasons to cut off any tactical cooperation with Iran (arms shipments, provocative statements, etc).
- Right before axis of evil speech, there was an arms shipment to Gaza that the Israelis intercepted. Iran publicly said they had not authorized it. These types of things will continue to happen and will continue to stop nascent talks from developing.
- Treating each agenda item on its own means that one party has to surrender important positions. Iranians don’t see this as tenable
- Both sides need to stop making provocative and threatening statements.
- The approach is to start with a definition of a strategic framework for improving relations like the Shanghai Communiqué in the 1970s. Critical points:
- There needs to be something to address US security interests – Iran needs to stop pursuit of WMD, its support to terrorism, and its problematic role in Iraq and Afghanistan
- The US must give security assurances and lift sanctions against Iran.
- They need to develop a cooperative approach to regional security. Right now the opposition to a US-Iranian rapprochement is not just from Israel, but from Gulf Allies.
Question: There are some similarities with US-China relationship - Ideological opposition in terms of world views, tactical talks with China, Chinese fears of encirclement. US gave up on Taiwan which was very important to China. In return the US got some pressure on the Soviets. It was an asymmetric bargain because the US didn’t get a whole lot, but it was a framework for future cooperation. If the stronger party has to make a bolder concession in the first round, what could that be from the US perspective? What is the one thing we could offer to create space?
Answer: Some people worry the US would give up its support for Israel. Reconstruction donors meeting for Gaza excluded Iran. Iran was on the steering committee for Afghanistan meeting. I think we can give Iran a legitimate role in the region. We need to provide security guarantees to Iran. We would be giving up hope of changing the government and legitimating the Islamic government that we have refused to do before. We would be acknowledging and supporting Iran’s role in the region.
Question: What was the Washington reason for turning down the Iranians so many times?
Answer: Dennis Ross concept is to have secret talks with the Iranians. Discrete talks are good sometimes. But we want secret talks because the talks are embarrassing in Washington. Pro-Israel groups would be concerned about these talks. But the problem is that whenever these talks are divulged, they are cut off.
Question: What are Israel’s feelings about talks with Iran? It seems like Israel should have an interest in this situation improving. How dug in is Iran on being supportive of Hamas and against Israel? At what price can their behavior be changed?
Answer: We have not tried to keep our discussions with Iran secret from the Israelis. Sometimes we have had Israelis participate in informal discussions. These have suggested some possibilities. For example, a regional security mechanism that would not require diplomatic relations might work for both sides. Some Iranians worried about this concept leading to human rights issues getting left behind. Some Israelis see Iran as a boogey man which is irrational. For example: In February 2003, IAEA inspections in Iran, the Israelis did not want the IAEA to go in. They were worried it would validate that there was no overt nuclear program. It seems like some Israelis need to have an external threat. For example, Livny said she is with Netanyahu on the Iranian issue. I do think that Israel should see its interest in a rapprochement between the US and Iran.
Question: Why do people oppose opening an interest section in Tehran?
Answer: Opening an interest section is seen as a concession to Iran. The Bush administration saw it as legitimating the government. Now, the Obama administration is waiting to see how the elections go. The temptation with an interest office will be to deal with human rights issue and democracy funding that will be seen as subversive. The core issues are security and an interest section won’t deal with those. In fact, it might make conflict more likely. The 1994 congressional funding of pro-democracy funds are an example of creating a problem between the two countries
Question: How does the grand bargain overcome the power asymmetries that exist between the US and Iran that seem to be at the heart of Iran’s concerns about the US?
Answer: A public pledge of a security guarantee would be the major concession. It would give Iran to de-escalate with the US. It’s hard for the US to step back from that kind of promise.
Question: Who would we negotiate with?
Answer: Iran made a formal offer to negotiate that we could still formally accept if we wanted to get involved on a grand bargain
Question: Why did the Bush administration oppose some of the tactical level talks?
Answer: When Wolfowitz and other DOD types found out about the negotiations with the Iranians, they were furious for ideological reasons. The President finally agreed to allow limited negotiations in spite of these objections.
Question: Are the Iranians just playing for time?
Answer: The Iranians know that they need a strategic rapprochement with the U.S. for their long-term security.
Rapporteur: Miranda Priebe
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2009