Foreign Policy Iran National Security

Iran’s Strategic Realignment

[digg-reddit-me]Hillary Mann Leverett in Foreign Policy tries to explain one of the biggest foreign policy blunders in the past half-century, how America at the height of it’s post-September 11 influence declined to respond to Iran’s request for comprehensive discussions with the United States on a number of high-profile issues, with the goal of becoming a strategic ally of America in the region:

When I served as director for Iran and Afghanistan affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2003, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice dismissed then President Khatami as a potential diplomatic partner for the United States. Indeed, the erstwhile Sovietologist compared Khatami to Mikhail Gorbachev, arguing that by engaging Khatami, the United States would risk missing the opportunity to find the Islamic Republic’s Boris Yeltsin.

I suppose it’s not fair to lay the blame entirely on Rice – as Barton Gellman also described Cheney as having a role in rebuffing any talks

As America became mired in Iraq (due in part to Iranian meddling and support of Shiia extremists there), Iran has gained regional influence. Iran has been commonly described as the biggest beneficiary of Bush’s War on Terror. Interestingly though, it was only with Iran’s tacit support that the surge was able to succeed – as Iran exerted its influence to hold back the Shiia militias.

As someone directly involved in negotiations with Iran during this period after September 11, Leverett’s analysis is extremely relevant. Leverett also points to Iran’s attempts to capture members of Al Qaeda who fled Afghanistan in the aftermath of our invasion – and to turn them over to the United States:

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Tehran detained literally hundreds of suspected al Qaeda operatives seeking to flee Afghanistan into Iran. Iran repatriated at least 200 of these individuals to the then new government of Hamid Karzai, to Saudi Arabia, and to other countries. The Iranian government documented these actions to the United Nations and the United States in February 2002, including providing copies of each repatriated individual’s passport…

Regrettably, instead of working to establish a framework within which Tehran could have made al Qaeda operatives detained in Iran available to the United States or some international body – as our Iranian interlocutors requested – the Bush administration insisted that Iran detain and deport all al Qaeda figures the United States believed might be in Iran, without any assistance from or reciprocal understandings with the United States

This ham-handed attempt to force our way demonstrates the tragic misunderstanding of the extent of American power of the Bush administration. Leverett points out that:

[I]t was the Bush administration, not Iran, that rebuffed a deal that would have given the United States access to important al Qaeda operatives -including, possibly, Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son.

Blunder upon blunder – all based on the same premise – that America has the power to unilaterally force it’s will and achieve all of our objectives. While America’s power is certainly sufficient to accomplish any number of our objectives – it is not enough to accomplish all of them.

But now opportunity is upon us – and as Leverett suggests, we should:

explicitly posit strategic realignment between Washington and Tehran as the talks’ end goal.

This strategic realignment would re-shape the region – and America’s Wars Against Terrorism. That a high level negotiator believes it is within the realm of possibility (and in this she is far from alone) is yet another reason for hope.