If you follow the Bush administration’s line of thinking (at least the line they have used in their talking points) we have been having trouble with Iran for decades. In fact, it was highly publicized that the recent talks with Iran were the first since a 20 year diplomatic freeze between the two states. According to James Dobbins, who was the Bush administration’s first envoy for Afghanistan after September 11th, that is hardly the case. His insights in a July 22nd Washington Post column shed light on how we have and can continue to engage Iran as a partner for stabilizing the Middle East and fighting al-Qaeda.
“Many believe that in the wake of Sept. 11, the United States formed an international coalition and toppled the Taliban. It would be more accurate to say that the U.S. joined a coalition that had been battling the Taliban for nearly a decade. This coalition – made up of Iran, India, Russia and the Northern Alliance, and aided by massive American airpower – drove the Taliban from power.”
This was not an anxious alliance, Dobbins goes on to emphasize the openness of the talks in 2001 during the U.N. conference in Bonn, Germany. “The Iranian representatives were particularly helpful…then-Secretary of State Colin Powell authorized me to meet anywhere, anytime, on any matter with any Iranian official, as long as our discussions related to Afghanistan.”
Contrast this attitude toward Iran with that of the Bush administration in 2007 when talks on Iraq went into their second, most recent, session. “U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said he also challenged Iran over its suspected support for other radical groups in the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran rejected all of the accusations, he said…. Crocker said there had been several “heated exchanges” in the seven hours of talks, and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari described them as ‘very challenging.’” (Associated Press)
So what happened to our coalition against terrorists? “Only weeks after Hamid Karzai was sworn in as interim leader in Afghanistan, President Bush listed Iran among the ‘axis of evil’ – surprising payback for Tehran’s help in Bonn.” I can’t speculate on the reasoning for this change – I can only condemn it.
If we truly seek a democratic and stable Middle East region we cannot continue on this path. Iraq is a central place to bring our diplomatic relations back into reality. “None of Iraq’s neighbors was eager for the invasion four years ago ….All are now worried that the civil war in Iraq will serve as a breeding ground for terror and violence that will be increasingly exported to their own countries.” (Brookings)
“Iran has the most capability to be a decisive force given its intimate ties to virtually every Shia and Kurdish politician, its geography and its economic connections.” Iran’s influence in Iraq is more than apparent. Their cooperation in the stabilization and re-building of Iraq is essential to creating a workable plan.
The Bush administration would have us believe that staying in Iraq is the only option. Samuel Berger and Bruce Riedel would vehemently disagree. These Brookings scholars believe that Iraq’s neighbors cannot engage with the U.S. diplomatically before we end our occupation. Most notably, Iran fears Iraq becoming a base for the U.S to launch an attack against their country. Why would they cooperate if the feel threatened?
Creating a peaceful region without a permanent U.S. presence should be the number one priority of all involved. The first step toward this end is a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops and cooperation with Iran akin to that of 2001.