Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The United States and Iran - An Orwellian Relationship

The recent news that the United States and Iran are working together to resolve the recent and ongoing crisis in Iraq is somewhat surprising, particularly given that President Bush II made this comment in his post-9/11 speech given on January 29, 2002:

Here's the key line:

"Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom."

Obviously, the intent of the speech was to "rally the troops" and set the groundwork for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

In a discussion with an Iranian friend about the ongoing hostilities in Iraq, he mentioned that Iran had actually supplied the United States with intelligence that assisted in the invasion of Afghanistan.  I can attribute my personal ignorance of this on the filtered news that is supplied to us by the mainstream media, however, it appears that at least one source backs up this revelation.

In a Middle East Policy Council essay by Mir H. Sadat and James P. Hughes from the spring of 2010, there is an interesting expose on the involvement of the United States with its declared arch-nemesis, Iran and why Iran was willing to co-operate after the events of September 2001 given decades of diplomatic silence and downright hostility between the two nations.

Let's start this posting by looking at a bit of history, connecting the dots between Iran, the United States and Afghanistan.

Iran has a long history of involvement with its geographic neighbour, Afghanistan.  Herat, one of Afghanistan's provinces, has historically been under control of various nations, but during the mid-1800s, several groups of Persians that were fighting to regain control of the region that they had previously held, were defeated by the British.  In 1857, Iran and Britain signed the Paris Treaty and it was only then that Iran abandoned its claim on Herat, reserving the right to send forces to Afghanistan if its frontier was violated.  From Afghan independence in 1919 to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, relations between the two nations were peaceful.  After the revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iranian policies on Afghanistan went through four phases:

1.) Iran called for the USSR to withdraw from Iran in the years between 1979 and 1989 and provided aid to Afghani Shiites.  Interestingly, Iran refused to join the United States-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia axis that provided and financed the Afghani Mujahadeen resistance movement, a group of fighters whose members eventually formed the basis of al-Qaeda.

2.) After the Soviet Army withdrew in 1989, Iran helped the non-Peshtun (i.e. non-Afghani) ethnic groups form a united front against the new government.  During Afghanistan's civil war between 1989 and 1996, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia backed different warlords.  In large part, this war was brought about because both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia believed that the new post-Soviet government was too closely aligned with Iranian interests.

3.) When the Taliban seized power in 1996, Iran did not recognize the government and provided military support to the Northern Alliance.  Keep in mind that both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, two of America's supposed "allies" did recognize the Taliban and provided support to them.  We can see that quite early on, Iran was concerned about the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, long before the rest of the world cared or even noticed.  One of Iran's key concerns was the amount of Afghani opium that traveled through Iran on its way to the European marketplace.  Iran's other concern was the two million Afghani civil war refugees that had settled in Iran.  It was during this period that al-Qaeda formed.

4.) Since the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance ended Taliban rule in 2002, Iran has developed friendly relations with the Karzai government and has provided aid to the nation as it rebuilds.  In 2002, Iran committed $560 million to Afghani reconstruction and a further $100 million in 2006.  Most of Iran's reconstruction investments are in the Herat region involving road and bridge construction and a 176 kilometre long railroad that would connect Iran to the city of Herat.  Iran has also upgraded a tax-free trade route that would shorten the distance from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan, reducing the importance of the trade route through Pakistan.

Before the September 11th, 2001 attack, United States Department of State officials were meeting with Iranian diplomats as part of the United Nations six-plus-two (Russia, China, the United States, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) talks over the years between 1997 and 2001.  The goal of these talks, the first of which was convened on September 21, 1998, was to develop a program of regional co-operation on policy issues concerning Afghanistan, particularly dealing with the Taliban which was generally regarded as a strategic menace.   The U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met in September 2000 but the meetings were not "harmonious" because Washington and Tehran had a disagreement over Iran's support for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.  Interestingly, in the end, the United States did provide massive air support for the Northern Alliance once hostilities broke out during Operation Enduring Freedom.

Post- 9/11, both Pakistan and Russia opposed U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan while, surprisingly, Iran supported the U.S. stance.  In October 2001, under the sponsorship of Lakhdar Brahimi, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the United States and Iran began to meet outside of the aforementioned six-plus-two meetings to develop a plan to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban in a series of meetings known as the Geneva Contact Group.  Before hostilities began, Iran provided the point of contact between the Northern Alliance and the United States that allowed the two to develop a plan for attacking the Taliban.  Iran provided the United States with reliable intelligence on the Taliban and arrested and deported hundreds of Taliban and al-Qaeda members that had fled to Iran to seek sanctuary as OEF began.  Iran also increased its troop strength on its shared border with Afghanistan at the request of the United States.  The Iranian government also permitted the off-loading of humanitarian supplies at one of its ports and offered the use of its border airfields to United States transport planes as well as providing search and rescue operations for downed U.S. aircrews.  Interestingly, according to this article, in March 2002, an Iranian general met with U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan, James Dobbins, and offered to provide training, uniforms, equipment and barracks for as many as 20,000 new recruits for the  newly formed Afghani military that would have been under the control of the United States.   It was during this period that there was the greatest diplomatic contact between Iran and the United States since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

As late as December 2001, American and Iranian envoys worked together at the International Conference on Afghanistan held in Bonn, producing the Bonn 2001 or Bonn 1 Agreement; it was at this conference that Hamid Karzai was chosen as leader for the "New Afghanistan" and the interim government was appointed.  

All of this goodwill fell apart when President Bush included Iran as one of the members of the dreaded "Axis of Evil" in early 2002 for reasons that I note below.

Thanks to the Bush II Administration, we have the following viewpoints on Iran:

"It’s been conclusively proven Iran is not going to be talked out of its nuclear program. So to stop them from doing it, we have to massively increase the pressure. . . . And if all else fails, if the choice is between a nuclear-capable Iran and the use of force, then I think we need to look at the use of force."

–John Bolton, former U.S. UN ambassador

"This isn’t an issue of talk to Iranians, don’t talk to Iranians …. It is a question of what price the Iranians are trying to extract for engagement. Are they trying to extract a grand bargain in which Iran is acknowledged as a regional power without having given up the very policies that are destabilizing the region?"

–Condoleezza Rice, Former U.S. Secretary of State

The Bush II Administration strongly believed in a policy of containment with no concessions and no preconditions for Iran.  The thawing of relations that began in the second term of President Clinton and the first years of George W. Bush quickly froze when Israel intercepted the Karine A in the Red Sea, carrying weapons that had been manufactured in Iran which Israel claimed were headed for Palestinian security forces.  That, along with the revelation by the National Council of Resistance of Iran that the country had a nuclear project, was the death knell for diplomacy.

As always, I find the interrelationship between diplomacy, politics and the military fascinating, particularly given the very recent "thawing" of relations between Iran and the United States in the face of an unpalatable future for Iraq.  The fact that a nation can, one day, be our best friend and the next day be our worst enemy is Orwellian at best.  The world is a complex place and evolving geopolitical relationships where "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" becomes the key mantra is a frightening and unsettling reality. 

History has repeatedly proven that everyone has an agenda that is not always clear to all parties involved and the outcome of a given geopolitical strategy is not always what one expects.

1 comment:

  1. I really think the issue is rather straight forward. No country likes to have their internal affairs dictated or molested by outside forces. When we work with other countries (Iran in this case) we can form amiable relations. Iran has nothing against the US other than our constant meddling in their affairs. If we can find a way to avoid telling everyone what to do and what is best for them then we can form workable relations with them. In this case no one wants an ultra radical Sunni terrorist group taking over large parts of Syria or Iraq.