Mar 9, 2007

A Short History of Covert U.S./Iranian Contacts

On the eve of tomorrow's Baghdad meeting between representatives of Iraq, the surrounding countries (primus inter pares, Iran), and key U.N. members (including the U.S.), today's L.A. Times has a piece on the mostly secret relationship between the United States and Iran.

The White House insists that the United States won't talk directly with Iran until Tehran suspends its nuclear program. But U.S. officials have been discreetly meeting their Iranian counterparts one-on-one for more than a decade, often under the auspices of the United Nations.

The little-known history of these contacts between the two nations, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis ended in 1980, is one of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. ...

But whispered dealings between the foes have had a way of going wrong. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration decided to sell weapons to Iran to win its help in securing the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon and diverted the proceeds of the arms sales to Nicaraguan rebels, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal.

In 1994, President Clinton covertly condoned Iran's arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims, at a time when the U.S. had pledged to uphold a U.N. weapons embargo. The policy was revealed in 1996 and met widespread criticism, keeping Iran, headed then by reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and the U.S. from broadening ties.

In 1999, Clinton offered an "authoritative and unconditional" dialogue with Iran, but Tehran insisted that the U.S. lift its sanctions first.

In the end, it was the U.N. that provided a discreet diplomatic safe house in which the two countries could talk.

In 1998, U.N. diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian, created a group called the "6+2" that met in New York to address the conflict in Afghanistan. It consisted of the country's six neighbors: China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, as well as Russia and the United States. ...

In 2001, the U.N. created another forum to facilitate contacts between the U.S. and Iran, called the Geneva Initiative, which included Italy and Germany.

"It was really just a cover to allow the Iranians and the U.S. to meet," Brahimi said. "After a while, I told them, 'We don't have to drag the Italians and Germans in every time you want to talk.' Then when it was just us sitting at the table, I would get up and tell them, 'I will leave you alone.' "

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the two nations had a common enemy in the Taliban: the Sunni rulers of Afghanistan, whom Shiite-majority Iran regarded as a threat and the U.S. considered protectors of Osama bin Laden.

In the days before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, American and Iranian officials held extensive talks to coordinate cooperation between Iranian-backed anti-Taliban warlords and U.S. troops.

The cooperation continued politically as well. Iranian diplomats were particularly helpful during a conference in December 2001 in Bonn that established Afghanistan's interim government.

James Dobbins, who represented the State Department at the time, said the Iranian envoys were "essential" in shaping Afghanistan's government. At one point, the Northern Alliance's Younis Qanooni insisted on controlling 18 of 24 ministries, a demand that would have prevented an agreement.

Dobbins said that after diplomats from several countries "worked him over" through the night, Iran's U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif, took Qanooni aside and whispered into his ear, "This is the best deal you're going to get. You better take it." Qanooni conceded two ministries and the deal was sealed. "It was decisive," Dobbins said.

Iran made it clear it was interested in a broader strategic dialogue with the United States. But the U.S., thinking it had the upper hand, brushed off the overtures, Dobbins said, and then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote to thank every foreign minister who had attended the conference — except Iran.

Six weeks later, in President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address, he named Iran part of an "axis of evil." Iranians had been expecting some sort of diplomatic reward in exchange for their help in Afghanistan, and took it as a slap in the face.

Still, for about a year, Iranian diplomats continued to meet in Kabul with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, usually in Brahimi's U.N. villa, known as Palace No. 7. Khalilzad, an Afghan native who speaks Persian, was at the Bonn conference and would become a key player in the cautious diplomatic connection. Now the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, he will be at the table Saturday in Baghdad.

Later came the 2003 outreach from Iran that was rejected by the United States.

Then Ahmadinejad came to power, giving the U.S. a tangible excuse for refusing to deal (even covertly) with the Islamic Republic.

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