It's time for the U.S. to reconsider its bargaining position toward Iran and Israel. Demands that Iran abandons its nuclear program have not worked, and it's time to try something else.
Deterrence works. Beyond the rhetoric of mutual threat, three-way deterrence is the status quo of the U.S.-Iran-Israel relationship, and it is likely to be more so in the coming years.
Unlike Iraq in 2003, Iran really does have WMDs (as defined to include chemical and, according to some analysts, biological weapons), along with reasonably effective means to deliver them within the region. Iran also has a formidable conventional military, with the ability to cut off oil through the Straits of Hormuz, inflicting serious economic damage on the West.
Iran's development of nuclear capability is thus unlikely to change the balance of power in any substantial way.
It's about time that the public discourse starts to grow up to match that reality. Obama should take the lead, and lead by example. The incoming Administration should not so much seek to change the status quo, as acknowledge it. The nuclear issue can not become a trump card that overrides every other consideration, vetoing a comprehensive regional settlement as negotiations begin.
Assuming that the Democratic ticket is elected, and that is looking more certain every day, the incoming Administration is likely to move quickly toward talks seeking normalization of relations and a "Grand Bargain", a comprehensive regional accord in the Middle East-Persian Gulf areas.
Multi-party negotiations have already begun. Ha'aretz reports that Turkey has already hosted a series of four high-level talks attended by Israel and Syria.
Sources in Turkey told Haaretz on Saturday that peace talks between Israel and Syria will continue as planned with Tzipi Livni in charge of the Kadima Party.
The sources said that they agree with recent assessment printed in a Turkish paper that predicted Israel will not try to freeze the talks. http://www.haaretz.com/...
The future of post-occupation Iraq, as well as of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cannot be settled without the agreement of all regional states and stakeholders on major issues. That includes Iran. There can be no such accord so long as threats of preemptive war continue to hang over Iran, and the region.
All parties need to finally recognize publicly that three-way preemption is the status quo -- deterrence has been effective at preventing direct hostilities -- and deal realistically with that as the basis for mutual security. For all intents and purposes, Iran is a regional superpower, and -- nuclear, or not -- it is counterproductive to pretend otherwise.
Public recognition of the fact of Israel's ability to deter Iran (and vis a versa) is politically difficult, particularly for Israeli politicians and for Americans. Even Barack Obama couches his campaign statements about Iran in highly-qualified threats. He has said in the past that "no options are off the table" to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. The Obama-Biden campaign site states that while he seeks a direct presidential dialogue with Iran without precondition, a comprehensive settlement remains conditional on two issues:
If Iran abandons its nuclear program and support for terrorism, we will offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organization, economic investments, and a move toward normal diplomatic relations. If Iran continues its troubling behavior, we will step up our economic pressure and political isolation. http://www.barackobama.com/...
As this article shows, that policy statement may require further clarification before it can provide the basis for a realistic bargaining position. First, Iran is unlikely to altogether forswear its nuclear program. But, if threats of military attack are lifted, it may agree to suspend aspects of its research that particularly lend themselves to weaponization. Second, as is chronicled in Appendix I below, Iran's actual behavior during the past quarter-century does not support the assertion that it is a state supporter of terrorism, not toward the United States.
While the conventional view is that the United States and Iran are long-term adversaries, the actual relationship of the two countries has been one of substantial cooperation in dealing with recognized mutual security threats. The U.S.-Iran relationship is Janus-faced, and coming to a constructive agreement on ways to build out from bare minimum mutual security guarantees will be difficult. No one should expect that the history of bad feelings between the two, as Appendix II shows, can be instantly put aside. But, we must seize the opportunity, and try.
As opposed to an often hostile rhetoric, the behavior of the U.S. and Iran has been predominantly restrained by a mutual recognition of limits of force and the danger that the use of direct military action or other violence, such as terrorism by proxy, against the other would result in war. On one occasion, at the time of the 1983 Lebanese civil war those limits were transgressed, the U.S. came close to bombing Iran. Iran's behavior since has been marked by restraint and caution. During the past five years of escalating tensions, rhetoric, threats, and provocations by the Bush-Cheney Administration, Tehran's national leadership demonstrated that it is able to retain control over its forces and auxilaries, even while the militaries of the U.S. and coalition countries operated on (and sometimes within) its borders.
The U.S. relationship with Iran is complicated by a hostile Israeli-Iranian confrontation that dates to the 1979 Islamic revolution. However, even that tense relationship is similarly restrained by a quiet cooperation between those two states, and a restraining realism has prevented direct military conflict between them. (1)
Preemptive War Doctrine a Major Threat to U.S.-Iran-Israel Security
The threat of preemptive war to prevent Iran’s manufacture of a nuclear weapon, while not the controlling U.S. doctrine, is forcefully voiced by some American and Israeli policy elites, a message specifically associated with the neoconservatives.
In the case of Iraq, the preemptive war doctrine has been a disaster for the United States.
The preemption doctrine that emerged in the months after 9/11 as a series of pronouncements by the Bush Administration saw no further enactment after the March, 2003 invasion.(2)
U.S. and U.K. policy elites who most aggressively pushed that doctrine into effect before the Iraq invasion were connected with a major disinformation campaign run jointly with several intelligence services and exile groups. Subsequent investigation and prosecutions revealed a failure of intelligence, a failure of counter-intelligence, a failure of counter-proliferation, and a failure of counter-terrorism by American and British officials.(3)
Recently, the same claims continue to be made by the same neoconservative circles that Iran, like Iraq, is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program and is a state-sponsor of terrorism with a hostile intent to attack the United States, one which poses a real threat to U.S. national security. These same voices claim that the Iranian leadership, like that of Saddam Hussein’s regime, is fundamentally irrational and cannot be deterred from such alleged hostile designs. While the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluded in December, 2007 that Iran ceased work on its nuclear weapons program in 2003, some U.S. officials, such as Vice President Cheney, maintain that Iran continues nuclear weapons development, and still charge that "a nuclear-armed Iran would be very destabilizing for the entire (Middle East-Persian Gulf) area."(4)
Preemptive war is a theme echoed by a Pentagon psychological warfare program that has its stated purpose of convincing Iranian elites that the U.S. is prepared to launch a preemptive attack on Iranian facilities unless it abandons its nuclear programs. Iran has acknowledged that it views these threats as propaganda, part of "coercive diplomacy" that major U.S. news sources have described as being directed at Tehran.(5)
Iran has in the past worked to develop nuclear, chemical and possibly biological warfare programs. Contrary to expressions of the preemptive war doctrine, however, the status quo of effective three-way deterrence is unlikely to substantially change if Iran obtains nuclear capability. Rather, mutual security is most directly threatened by radical elites who, if unrestrained, might actually carry out threats of preemptive attack. A related threat is posed by this and similar psywar programs that might actually provoke Iranian radicals or military elements to anticipate such a first-strike with violence of their own.
US-Iran-Israel Deterrence: More Reasonable Than It Looks
Is Iran ready for constructive engagement in the area of mutual security and counter-terrorism? That question might also be phrased, is the United States and Israel ready to constructively engage Iran?
This paper argues that, yes, realists on all sides are ready for a more openly cooperative, less confrontational three-way relationship. In fact, in areas of mutual interest – such as avoidance of direct warfare and deterrence of mass terrorist attacks on each other -- during the last 30 years, actual behaviors of the three governments have been guided by mutually-reinforcing realism amid rhetorical confrontation. Deterrence, and even cooperation, has long been a central part of Iran-US-Israel relations, see, Appendix 1, Chronology of Cooperative U.S.-Iran-Israel Security Measures, Confidence-Building, and Accords
As far as common recognition of essential interests and mutual survival, the reality of Iran-US-Israeli relations has been more rational and cooperative than suggested by hostile political rhetoric of "existential threat" intended for domestic consumption by radical elites. Those radicals, on each side, seek a destabilizing end to that status quo of effective deterrence and mutual restraint that has long prevented the outbreak of actual military conflict among the three states.
Thusfar, the realists have managed to keep the radicals in check, maintaining internal constraints on the direct use of force that might trigger a rapidly escalating three-way war.
In the struggle over Iran policy, American realists have been centered in the uniformed staff of the Joint Chiefs and the upper levels of the CIA, while the radicals have operated out of the offices of the Vice President and former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld. The appointment in late 2006 of Robert Gates to replace Rumsfeld, and the prosecution of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the OVP and Lt. Col. Larry Franklin in the defunct DoD Office of Special Plans (OSP), is a clear signal that the realists have an upper hand over the neocons, at least at the higher levels of the U.S. national security bureaucracy.(6)
Meanwhile in Iran, the most stridently antagonistic public voice reaching the west is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose constituency includes parts of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).(7) However, the office he holds has no official powers over the military and security apparatus. There is little dispute that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is firmly in charge of all state agencies and is the ultimate decider of important issues.(8) Despite his paramount religious office in Shi’a Iran, Khamenei has proven to be a secular ruler whose behavior is generally pragmatic, without Apocalyptic shadings in his public expressions.(9)
Finally, in its official and unofficial pronouncements, Israel condemns Iran as a "terrorist state." (10) As the contemporary world’s primary recipient of bomb and rocket attacks targeted indiscriminately at its civilian population, Israel is understandably acutely sensitive to terrorism. It is the commonplace view among Israeli policymakers and its public that Iran has had some degree of responsibility for many of these attacks. The purpose here is not to judge the specifics and validity of that judgment, but it must be recognized as a fact in itself that shapes Israeli views on security issues, including Iran’s nuclear program, which it views as an "existential threat." This is the context of claims made by Israeli sources that Iran is not subject to the normal rules of nuclear deterrence that restrain rational states from attacking each other with nuclear weapons. It is here that we find the belief system driving the doctrine of preemptive war against Iran. (11)
Is preemptive attack on Iran the actual strategic doctrine of the Israeli Defense Forces? One can say with assurance that it is one alternative doctrine that guides the planning of the military in Israel. The other major doctrine is, of course, deterrence. (12) Which actually dominates Israeli policy, and which will ultimately prevail?
The answer to that question, in large part, depends upon the policies of the United States -- or more specifically, what Israel and Iran understand those policies to be. That is precisely why the mixed messages being broadcast as part of the Bush Administration’s "coercive diplomacy" with Iran, along with the rhetoric of radical elites, such as that of Mr. Cheney, present a danger of inadvertently triggering a U.S.-Iran-Israel war (13)
The worst-case scenario is presented by the example of policy failure toward Iraq, where radical U.S., British and Israeli policy elites fed each others’ mutual desires for actionable intelligence against a third country, disregarding normal intelligence channels and professional military advice. The result was a failed war, discovery of intelligence fraud and espionage among erstwhile allies, severe strains on alliances, a breakdown in policy coherence, and a sense of grievance that effectively brought down the Administrations of all parties involved, at a very high cost to the nation that initiated preemptive war on false pretenses.(14) The policy of preemption against Iraq was a failed policy, and used again as a threat against Iran, it is an irrational and destabilizing one.
That risk factor of the transmission of mixed messages in an already tense three-way relationship of deterrence is unacceptable threat to the national security of the United States and to mutual security with its allies and other states in the region.
The risk of unintended conflict is also based in the troubled history of U.S.-Iranian relations and objective risk factors, such as trade and regional rivalries, that complicate a real commercial and strategic rivalry between the U.S. and Iran. These objective risk factors are reviewed in Appendix 2: Obstacles to a "Grand Bargain with Iraq".
This paper argues several points: 1) that mutual military deterrence between the U.S., Iran and Israel is the status quo that needs to be maintained; 2) that if Iran achieved nuclear capability this would not necessarily upset deterrence or change the existing balance of power; 3) that the greatest threat to mutual security of the U.S., Israel and Iran is not nuclear capability by any of these states, but the possibility of misunderstanding of U.S. policy or the loss of internal constraints on radical elites; and 4), that in some instances, radical elites have been seeking to strengthen the hand of radicals in other states to advance their own internal political fortunes through overthrow of the status quo and cultivation of an environment of heightened threat, crisis and conflict.
(1) See, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States by Trita Parsi. Yale University Press (October 1, 2007). ISBN-10: 0300120575, 384 pages.
(2) See, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, Washington, DC, (Sept. 2002), http://www.whitehouse.gov/... codified as NSPD 17, [National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction (Dec. 2002)], http://www.fas.org/...
(3) An inherent part of safeguards of strategic systems is a robust, independent national intelligence and counter-intelligence capability. The vulnerability of the U.S. and U.K. policy and intelligence processes to coordinated deception campaign involving high-ranking insiders was demonstrated by the WMD deception campaign that paved the way for the disastrous 2003 occupation of Iraq. See, "May 28, 2004 CIA Report on Bio-Weapons Trailers" https://www.cia.gov/... ; "Iraq Survey Group Final Report 10/04", http://www.globalsecurity.org/... cf, W .Patrick Lang, "Drinking the Kool-Aid", Middle East Policy Council Journal, Vol. XI, summer 2004, No. 2, http://www.mepc.org/...
(4) AP, "US Vice President Cheney: Iran may have restarted nuclear weaponization program", March 19, 2008, http://www.iht.com/...
(5) Voice of America News, "Iran Says US Waging Psychological Warfare in Nuclear Dispute" April 9, 2006, http://www.globalsecurity.org/...
"Iran is accusing the United States of waging psychological warfare, following media reports saying the Bush administration is studying options for military strikes to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. . . . In today's Sunday's editions, The Washington Post newspaper quotes current and former U.S. defense officials as saying a Pentagon study of military options is part of a coercive diplomacy to get Iran to end its nuclear fuel program. The report also says no U.S. attack appears likely in the short term."
(6) Robert Gates coauthored a 2004 report with former Carter adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Iran: Time for a New Approach," See, http://www.cfr.org/... Gates remarked at the time, "Greater interaction between Iranians and the rest of the world," he said, "sets the stage for the kind of internal change that we all hope will happen there" http://www.nytimes.com/...
That report recommended a broader opening to Iran, rejected the neocon program of "regime change" as unlikely to succeed, and it concludes that the government of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is "firmly in control" and therefore represents "the country's only authoritative interlocutors."
(7) For a review of the "kaleidoscopic" nature of Iranian politics, see Kenneth M. Pollack, "Iran: Three Alternative Futures", Brookings Institute, The Middle East Review of International Affairs, http://www.brookings.edu/...
(8) According to Clawson and Khalaji, "Khamenei controls the key instruments of national and regime security: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the politically active Basij paramilitary, and the . . . Ministry of Intelligence and Security (charged with security operations both at home and abroad). Nuclear negotiations with the West are conducted by his representative with little or no input from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.", see, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/...
(9) See, Medi Khalaji, "Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy", Washington Institute for Near-East Policy, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/...
(10) See, e.g., Shalom Freedman, "The Iranian Nuclear Threat", NATIV Online, Volume 5, August 2004. http://www.acpr.org.il/...
(11) For a side-by-side articulation of the contending neo-realist and neo-conservative assumptions about the rationality of Iranian strategic doctrine, see, Fareed Zakaria and Norman Podhoretz, The Australian, "Deterrence v pre-emption in collision over Tehran", November 02, 2007 , http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au...
(12) Christopher Layne, The American Conservative, "Iran: The Logic of Deterrence, April 10, 2006, http://www.amconmag.com/... ; The standard articulation of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence is Herman Kahn’s treatises, particularly On Thermonuclear War, and his RAND and Hudson Institute papers. Kahn emphasizes the dangers of misunderstanding of intentions as a primary cause of unintentional nuclear war. See, http://www.rand.org/... ; http://www.hudson.org/...
(13) Sources detailing the causes of the so-called intelligence failure that led up to the invasion of Iraq have been cited above at (3). Also, see, Report on the U.S. Intelligence Community's Prewar Intelligence Assessments on Iraq (July 9, 2004). United States Select Senate Committee on Intelligence. http://intelligence.senate.gov; Part 2 of the 2004 Senate Report into Prewar Intelligence Assessments About Postwar Iraq were long withheld by the GOP Chair and committee votes along partisan lines. See, http://intelligence.senate.gov/... This delay and stonewalling was further compounded by criminal perjury, deception and the withholding of information from investigators. See, Also, see, Murray Waas, "Cheney, Libby Blocked Papers To Senate Intelligence Panel", National Journal, October 27, 2005. http://nationaljournal.com/... The resulting policy failure is implementation in 2003 of a neoconservative Israeli-American doctrine. That doctrine was based in a series of policy papers. See, Thomas Donnelly (Principal Author), et al. (Project for the New American Century), "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century" Project for the New American Century), "Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century", September 2000; See, related, Karen Kwiatkowski, "The New Pentagon Papers: A High-ranking Military Officer Reveals How Defense Department Extremists Suppressed Information and Twisted the Truth to Drive the Country to War"]. This is also closely related to a previous document authored by several key principals in the evolution of the preemptive war doctrine against Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Iran which envisioned a fundamental transformation of the Middle East and the U.S.-Israeli relationships. Its most explicit advance articulation was authored in 1997, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy to Secure the Realm", http://www.iasps.org/... That document, authored for then Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu by a team including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and other prominent American neoconservatives who would later be appointed to manage the Pentagon Office of Special Plans, lays out a grand strategy. The authors called for Israel, with the aid of Turkey and Jordan, to overthrow in rapid succession of the governments of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and finally Iran, the end purpose of which was an establishment of a Greater Israel annexing Palestine and the ceding to Jordan of a renewed Hashemite Empire incorporating parts of Syria and Shi’a Iran. Sunni Iraq would be placed under a Kuwaiti protectorate. This Israeli superstate would operate according to radical Chicago School Free Market economics, and once military dominance had been assured, Israel would assert its own independent foreign policy free of the sort of restrictions and conditions that have been historically imposed by the United States. Much of this preemptive war doctrine originally enunciated by neoconservatives in Israel would find its way into the deceptions and delusions that led to American failure in Iraq.
Chronology of Cooperative U.S.-Iran Security Measures, Confidence-Building, and Accords
There have been many instances of efforts at bilateral U.S.-Iran cooperation and confidence-building measures since 1979. The successes have been, by and large, downplayed in mass media, and are not often acknowledged in the official Washington dialogue:
• The first clause of the 1981 Algiers Accords that ended the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis pledged the U.S. "not to intervene, directly of indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs." By signing that document, the United States recognized the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of Iran, its essential territorial and political integrity, and pledged to avoid hostile acts, such as sponsorship of terrorism, assassination of Iranian officials, or funding of rebellion inside Iran. This little known treaty effectively bans the sort of "regime change" and paramilitary operations still advocated by some Bush-Cheney officials and Congressmen. Some media reports indicate that this type of forbidden operation against Iran has actually been carried out through proxies. See, http://www.parstimes.com/... ; c.f., http://lawofnations.blogspot.com/... ; http://blogs.abcnews.com/...
• (1994-97) As the former Yugoslavia disintegrated, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency worked in tandem with a coalition of Arab and Islamic states, including Iran, to secretly arm, train and reinforce the Muslim Army in the breakaway republic of Bosnia. After a widely-publicized series of massacres of civilians, the U.S. and several EEU states intervened directly to expel Serbian forces from Bosnia. Most Americans remember the NATO intervention, but are unaware that the U.S. and Iran were, in effect, allies in a secret war against Serbia. Many of the details of that covert program remain classified, and as a result, the mass media does not often discuss the subject. http://www.senate.gov/... c.f., http://www.atimes.com/...
• (1997) The U.S. Department of State designated the Mujahadin e-Khalq Organization ("MEK", a.k.a., MKO, National Council of Resistance of Iran, "NCRI") as an "international terrorist organization". In 1992 and ‘93, the MEK had carried out numerous assassinations against ranking officials of the Islamic Republic in 13 countries, and prior to the revolution, had assassinated six American military advisors inside Iran. [Executive Office of the President, 9/12/2002 ; Newsweek, 9/26/2002; US Department of State, 4/30/2003] MEK, which in English means, "People’s Holy Warriors," (Christian Science Monitor, 7/29/2004) is later described by its former members as a cult. Its husband-and-wife leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, exercise absolute control over the group’s rank-and-file. Nonetheless, the MEK still has some supporters on Capitol Hill. France and the UK recently lifted the group from their terrorist lists.
• (11/02/2001) The British government added 25 groups to its list of organizations whose assets it wants to freeze as part of the fight against terrorism. The list included the Mujahedeen-e Khalq Organization (MEK), but not the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an organization that is later tied to MEK and included on the US list of terrorist organizations in August 2004 (see August 15, 2003). (BBC, 11/2/2001)
• (1995 – 09/10/2001) In another now forgotten American alliance with Iran, the two countries armed and supported the faction of the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shahh Massoud in the Afghan Civil War against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, allies with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. On September 10, 2001, Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda, signaling a dramatic escalation in Taliban attacks on the Northern Alliance and Osama bin Laden’s global war against the United States and Iran. (http://www.jamestown.org/terrorism/news/article.php?articleid=2369813) Massoud, who had been receiving some covert CIA assistance for several years, had been slated to be rearmed and employed in a concerted push against al-Qaeda under a plan authored by Richard Clarke tentatively approved by the White House at the Principals Meeting on September 4. On that day, Saudi Ambassador and head of Saudi intelligence Prince al-Turki abruptly departed the U.S. Simultaneously, Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief General Mahmoud Ahmad arrived for a week of consultations on implementation of the Bush Administration’s new, comprehensive counter-terrorism plan that focused on removal of Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies from Afghanistan. (http://www.cooperativeresearch.org/entity.jsp?entity=ahmed_shah_massoud ; http://www.cooperativeresearch.org/... ; http://www.9-11commission.gov/... )
• In October 2001, "as the United States was just beginning its military operations in Afghanistan, State Department and NSC officials began meeting secretly with Iranian diplomats in Paris and Geneva, under the sponsorship of Lakhdar Brahimi, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. (Then NSC staffer Clint) Leverett says these discussions focused on ‘how to effectively unseat the Taliban and once the Taliban was gone, how to stand up an Afghan government’. See, Gareth Porter, http://ipsnews.net/...
• "Northern Alliance Afghan troops, supported primarily by the Iranians, (drove the) Taliban out of Kabul in mid-November. Two weeks later, the Afghan opposition groups were convened in Bonn under United Nations auspices to agree on a successor regime. Ibid.
• "At that meeting, the Northern Alliance was demanding 60 percent of the portfolios in an interim government, which was blocking agreement by other opposition groups. According to U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins, Iran played a ‘decisive role’ in persuading the Northern Alliance delegate to compromise. Dobbins also recalls how the Iranians insisted on including language in the Bonn agreement on the war on terrorism." Id.
• (2002) In the aftermath of 9/11, Iran expelled some 290 Taliban and al-Qaeda figures, many of whom are then captured by the U.S. or its allies. Certain key figures, including one of Osama bin Laden’s sons, were retained in Iranian custody.
• (2002-03) The Islamic Republic of Iran offered concrete concessions to the Bush Administration for a normalization of relations, including a moratorium on its nuclear program, a pledge that it has since honored, and further cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Porter writes: "In March 2002, Iranian official met with Dobbins in Geneva during a U.N. conference on Afghanistan's security needs. Dobbins recalls that the Iranian delegation brought with it the general who had been responsible for military assistance to the Northern Alliance during the long fight against the Taliban. Id.
• "The general offered to provide training, uniforms, equipment and barracks for as many as 20,000 new recruits for the nascent Afghan military. All this was to be done under U.S. leadership, Dobbins recalls, not as part of a separate programme under exclusive Iranian control.
• "’The Iranians later confirmed that they did this as a gesture to the United States,’ says Dobbins.
Dobbins returned to Washington to inform key administration officials of what he regarded as an opportunity for a new level of cooperation in Afghanistan. He briefed then Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Rumsfeld personally. ‘To my knowledge, there was never a response,’ he says." Id.
• (Spring of 2003) The Islamic Republic of Iran offered further concrete concessions to the Bush Administration for a normalization of relations, including a moratorium on its nuclear program and cooperation in Iraq. Tehran offered Washington and London help in stabilizing Shi’a areas and in the setting up of an effective government in Baghdad. This attempt at rapprochement was rebuffed by the Bush Administration, except that U.S. and U.K. commanders in Iraq ultimately agreed to a low-profile role for Iran in advising the Coalition Provisional Authority, and later the Iraqi government, on humanitarian aid, efforts to control factional violence, and reconstruction programs in Shi’a regions of Iraq.
• (July 2005) Progress toward Iraqi self-rule resulted in a series of agreements between Iraqi Prime Minister al-Ja'fari and outgoing Iranian PM Khatemi aimed at "reconstructing Iraq and building a free and independent country. Al-Ja'fari also told journalists that his visit resulted in the establishment of joint councils in the areas of antiterrorism, trade, and the economy." http://www.rferl.org/...
• These areas of Iran-Iraq cooperation became increasingly effective, until the al-Askari Mosque destruction in February 2006. The organization calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq was blamed. Before his death, "Abu Musab al-Zarqawi listed among his goals the incitement of a civil war between Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis. In September 2006, Iraqi officials announced the capture of Hamid Juma Faris Jouri al-Saeedi in connection with the bombing, allegedly done on his orders by Haitham al-Badri. The alleged mastermind of this attack and the later minaret blasts, Haitham al-Badri, was killed in August 2007."
• Until that event, ethnic violence within most mixed Sunni-Shi’a regions of occupied Iraq had been minimal and casualties among occupation forces limited, particularly in the predominantly Shi’a area of southern Iraq. In Basra, the British initially enjoyed long periods of relative amity with the local population. That situation deteriorated dramatically during 2006 amidst a joint U.S.-U.K. offensive against the Sadrist militia, an intensifying civil war across Iraq, and escalating regional tensions. In late July, Israel launched a series of air strikes inside Lebanon against Hezbollah positions, starting an intense four-week border war.
After the UK agreed to withdraw its forces to a base at Basra Airport, that evacuation on July 17, 2007 went off without any reported attacks on British convoys. In September, a contingent of British troops at Basra Airport were redeployed to a base close to the Iranian border on a mission to interdict alleged arms flows from Iran, a move that was viewed as provocative. In March 2007, a British navy frigate launched a boarding party in a disputed area on the Iraq-Iran border near the mouth of the Sha’at al-Arab waterway. The Times (UK),"Report reveals Iran seized British sailors in disputed waters", April 17, 2008, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/...
• 16 British sailors and Marines was intercepted and taken into custody by maritime units of the Iranian Republican Guards; all were released unharmed several days later. The Bush Administration reportedly suggested to the British that coalition warplanes closely overfly IRGC installations, in a show of force. The UK turned down that offer, viewed as further provocation. The ultimate success of diplomacy in resolving that incident significantly improved the atmosphere for a wider resolution of issues over Iraq standing between the U.K. and Iran. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/... ; http://www.independent.co.uk/...
• During the same period, U.S.-Iran relations deteriorated after the arrest in January 2007 of five Iranian diplomats at a newly-opened consular office in Arbil, northern Iraq.
Over the course of the following months, however, all but one of these detainees were released. A number of other Iranian nationals inside Iraq were also seized, accused by American forces of being members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard al-Quuds Brigade. Meanwhile, the Bush White House escalated its rhetorical attacks, accusing Iran of expanding an alleged nuclear weapons program and exporting to Iraq armor-piercing Explosively-Formed Projectiles (EFPs) that had destroyed a number of American tanks and armored personnel carriers. Vice President Cheney hinted meanwhile that the U.S. was prepared to launch a preemptive strike against Iran, a threat that was seconded by figures within the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
• This rapidly escalating confrontation with Iran appears to have been resisted by career American national security officials. The specifics of the most serious accusations made against Iran, that it was developing nuclear weapons and aiding attacks on coalition forces inside Iraq, were countered by the top ranks of the U.S. military and intelligence services. Credible media reports emerged that several members of the Joint Chiefs had threatened to resign over plans for preemptive air strikes against Iran. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, was effectively fired by the White House on October 1 after he publicly contradicted President Bush and Defense Department officials over Iran issues. http://www.leveymg.dailykos.com/...
• Finally, in an astonishing development, on December 3, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency released its latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concluded Iran had, in fact, suspended it nuclear weapons program in 2003. That effectively pulled the rug out from underneath efforts to increase sanctions and provoke a military confrontation with Iran. http://www.dni.gov/...
Major Obstacles to a "Grand Bargain" with Iran
The chronology of events above reflects a larger status quo in U.S.-Iranian relations. The two countries, despite often vitriolic public rhetoric on both sides during a series of confrontations, have managed to peacefully resolve crises, in the process strengthening mutual security through action against third-party security threats.
However, relations have remained unsettled and contacts mostly limited to backchannels since the 1979 Revolution, in large part because there is a fundamental asymmetry in power and relations. There has been a refusal by a series of American Administrations to engage Iran in direct, open negotiations and establish international ties. This is in large part the result of a long stigma attached to Iran, and fear held by American leaders of the negative political consequences of direct, constructive engagement. There has been no great breakthrough in relations, such as those with the former Soviet Union and China, in large part because, until recently, there has been no widespread recognition among American policymakers of a pressing need for normalization. The recent loss of American power and prestige attached to the Iraq War debacle, and the need to negotiate a regional settlement prior to military withdrawal, presents just such an opportunity for what has been referred to as the "Grand Bargain", one long desired by Iran.
Underlying recurrent conflicts in the region are some very real strategic and commercial rivalries, such as the mid-1990s confrontation over the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline, and tensions surrounding the emerging power vacuum in Iraq. In the absence of a Grand Bargain, competition and conflict remain unbuffered by normal diplomatic relations and trade ties among the various players, and present ongoing points of potential regional war. However, the loss of confidence by long-standing American allies including its principal energy-suppliers in the region threaten the traditional American assurance that the U.S. can maintain status quo advantages, such as control over supply routes and discounted energy prices. The erosion of American power and influence, is, in itself, highly destabilizing. This very real threat to the traditional pillars of American trade and hegemony in the region provides pragmatists a strong incentive for policy changes to selectively rebuild its declining regional power and improve relations and access to Iranian markets and exports.
Among the most serious obstacles remains third-party states and groups that have often triggered confrontation. Iran has long been viewed by some U.S. policymakers as a subset of larger strategic challenges by Russia and China over control of energy supplies in Central Asia, while other analysts tend to focus on Iran’s perceived threats to Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, post-9/11 events may have shifted those focuses, and a series of criminal prosecutions of espionage cases – the OSP-AIPAC case, and the Plame-Libby case -- implicating certain American allies in espionage and deception activities shows that official Washington, today, is prepared to reexamine its existing balance of foreign ties.
There remain, nonetheless, key weaknesses in the relationship that have led to a long series of missteps and confrontations, which most view as defining historical milestones:
• The U.S. Embassy occupation and hostage incident of 1979-80.
• The ongoing U.S. embargo on most trade with Iran (1979-present).
• U.S. aid to Iraq during its war with Iran (1981-88)
• The Israeli invasion and partial occupation of Lebanon (1982-2000), and ongoing conflict with Hezbollah. (1993-present).
• The bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon blamed on Iranian proxies (1983).
• The shoot-down of an Iran Air passenger plane by the U.S.S. Vincentes (1988).
• Covert activities and public threats against the Iranian nuclear program (1993-present)
• Conflict over control of energy fields and pipelines in the trans-Caucus and Central Asia (1997-present).
• The declaration by President George W. Bush that Iran is a member of the so-called Axis of Evil (2002).
• Renewed Israeli incursion into Lebanon and fighting with Hezbollah (2006).
• The capture of Iranian diplomats and nationals by U.S. forces inside Iraq (2006-2007).
• U.S. State Department designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard al Quuds Brigade as an International Terrorist organization, and a Senate resolution that seconded that censure (2007).
Furthermore, there has been a series of false-starts (and missteps) toward normalization of relations – beginning with the Iran-Contra scandal -- resulting in massive domestic scandal in the United States and prolonged setback to U.S.-Iran diplomacy. Even where both countries have clearly had parallel interests, as in Iraq, coordination has been hampered by political intrigue and third-country manipulation. Domestic pressure groups, led by AIPAC, have repeatedly organized extensions and expansion of punative trade sanctions against Iran. Saudi resistance to the Iraq Study Group (ISG) plan for a post-Iraq settlement is another powerful obstacle to a comprehensive settlement with Iran by the Bush-Cheney Administration. Meanwhile, Iran has its own element that is vehemently opposed to improved relations.
The prospect of a new President, and recent signs of a shift within the Democratic Party toward a more balanced view of U.S. interests in the Middle East and Persian Gulf region, is promising for a regional settlement including Iran as proposed by the 2005 ISG report. See, http://www.usip.org/... The March 2008 parliamentary elections were essentially an affirmation of the status quo that left President Ahmadinejad in an exposed position. The upcoming presidential election in Iran next year, after the U.S. elections, is a parallel development that offers some cause to hope for constructive change. Lawmakers in both governments should be reminded that the ongoing lack of bi-lateral diplomatic, institutional and trade ties remains a threat to improved relations and stability in the region, one that needs to be addressed as a first-order of business by the next U.S. and Iranian Administrations. A reconsideration and revision of trade and financial sanctions already imposed through the UN and by bi-lateral agreement with Europeans countries by the Bush Administration would be a reasonable place to start the process of strengthening U.S.-Iran relations.
Counter-terrorism remains another area of potential opportunity for the U.S. and Iran to begin developing mutual confidence leading to a more comprehensive regional accord, including negotiation of mutual security guarantees and agreements on Iran’s nuclear program. Compared to other aspects of U.S.-Iranian relations – particularly, fierce competition in the energy sector in south and central Asia, and occasional armed conflict between allies and proxies of the two powers – counter-terrorism has been an area where both sides have generally acted in a pragmatic way to resolve issues and worked in a complementary fashion to contain perceived mutual threats. This relationship can be characterized as de facto cooperation without overt coordination. Security agreements and open cooperation in counter-terrorism seem promising initial avenues toward the necessary trust-building to support nuclear agreements and controls.
Thus far, the U.S.-Iran relationship has been established and maintained largely out of the public view through high-level backchannels negotiations, often conducted through third-country intermediaries, such as Israel. Excessive secrecy, inflammatory rhetoric arising from substantial differences over other issues, and the sometimes malicious intervention of third-parties and factions within both governments have resulted in severe complications in U.S.- Iran counterterrorism cooperation, to the serious detriment of both states and to global security, in general.
For bi-lateral confidence-building to work, it needs to come out of the shadows of secret diplomacy. This would require public acknowledgment by both sides that each has a legitimate role in regional security and joint action against terrorist threats. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is an obvious issue that requires bi-lateral coordination as well as broader international coordination.
The need for cooperation was made plain in July 2007, when al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi threatened that his Sunni fighters were preparing to wage a war against Shia-dominated Iran. U.S. forces had previously believed that they had killed al-Baghdadi. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been responsible for some of the most horrific terrorist attacks inside Iraq, including the destruction of the Shi’a Golden Mosque along with a series of bombings in public marketplaces in Shi’a and Kurdish areas, slaughtering large numbers of civilians. See, http://english.aljazeera.net/...
Further potential build-out points for U.S.-Iran counterterrorism cooperation are identified in the following reports:
• Specific proposals for open coordination of U.S., Iran and other countries in the region toward stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq are contained in the 2005 Iraq Study Group document. Id. The ISG proposal for such a "Grand Bargain" is reviewed by Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Asia Times, "A door opens for US-Iran cooperation" http://www.atimes.com/... ;
• The contending voices seeking to determine the outcome of efforts to reconcile the U.S. and Iran were aired by a Hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Relations, see, Andrew Kian Clayton, "Committee Hearing Underscores Differences on Iranian Role in Iraq", July 18, 2007, http://www.niacouncil.org/...
• There are two important accounts of the origins of th Grand Bargain Offer, and the specific opportunities for coordinated action against al Qaeda and the Taliban rejected by the Bush Administration. The first. is this Washington Post article by Barton Gellman and Daffna Linzer, originally published October 22, 2004. http://www.washingtonpost.com/... ; see, also, Gareth Porter, American Prospect, "Burnt Offerings", May 21, 2006, http://www.prospect.org/...
• David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Weisel Foundation for Humanity, offers a series of recommendations centered on what he believes should be done with the MEK. Counsel on Foreign Relations, "The War on Terror as a Tool for U.S.-Iran Diplomacy", January 5, 2004,
http://www.cfr.org/... macy.html ; the MEK, amazingly, still has its enthusiasts on Capitol Hill, and in February 2008 there is a renewed effort to remove that group from the State Department terrorist list, see, http://www.niacouncil.org/... for a good introduction to the history of the MEK, see,
• An article laying out the case for coordinated U.S.-Iran counter-terrorism campaign against al-Qaida was authored by Prof. R.K. Ramazani, National Iranian-American Council, NIAC Memo: Might the U.S., Iran Cooperate on Al-Qaida, June 22, 2007, http://www.niacouncil.org/... ; Also, see, Dr. Anthony McRoy, The Muslims Weekly , "US-Iran Co-operation: Iraq and Sunni-Shia peace"