commentary

(The Washington Post)

May 6, 2004

Time to Deal With Iran

by James Dobbins

Iranian diplomats have shown up in Baghdad, reportedly at British government urging. London hopes that Iranian intervention can prove helpful in tamping down Shiite resistance to the U.S.-led coalition and in building support for an emerging Iraqi interim government. This must sound odd to American ears, accustomed to hearing the Iranian regime described as a member of the "axis of evil." But this would not be the first time Tehran has come to Washington's aid in the war on terror.

Before there was Operation Iraqi Freedom, there was Operation Enduring Freedom. Americans tend to think of that earlier campaign for the liberation of Afghanistan as a similarly U.S.-initiated and dominated effort. But in fact the war to displace the Taliban had been underway long before the United States became involved. It was being fought by a coalition consisting of Iran, Russia, India and the Northern Alliance. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States joined this coalition and, with the essential addition of U.S. air power, Northern Alliance forces were able to take Kabul and drive the Taliban from power.

Two weeks after the fall of Kabul, all the major elements of the Afghan opposition came together at a U.N.-sponsored conference in Bonn. The objective was to create a broadly based successor government to the Taliban. As the U.S. representative at that gathering, I worked both with the Afghan delegations and with the other national representatives who had the greatest influence among them, which is to say the Iranian, Russian and Indian envoys. All these delegations proved helpful. None was more so than the Iranians. On two occasions Iranian representatives made particularly memorable contributions. The original version of the Bonn agreement, drafted by the United Nations and amended by the Afghans who were present, neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. It was the Iranian representative who spotted these omissions and successfully urged that the newly emerging Afghan government be required to commit to both.

The second was even more decisive. The conference was in its final hours. The German chancellor was due to arrive momentarily for the closing ceremony. Yet we still lacked agreement on the central issue: composition of an interim Afghan government. The Northern Alliance was insisting on 18 of 25 ministerial portfolios, which would have marginalized other opposition groups. From 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. the four key envoys -- those from Washington, Tehran, Moscow and New Delhi -- worked along with the U.N. representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, and our German host to persuade the recalcitrant Northern Alliance delegate to make the necessary compromises.

Two weeks later President Hamid Karzai and his new cabinet were inaugurated in Kabul. The most senior foreign delegation was headed by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, who had stopped in Herat on his way in to pick up the one warlord, Ismail Khan, whose attendance and support for the new government was most in doubt. At the Tokyo donors' conference the following month, Iran pledged $500 million in aid to Afghan reconstruction, by far the largest sum from any neighboring state or developing nation.

In March 2002, donor nations met again in Geneva to address the new Afghan government's needs in the security realm. I met there with the same Iranian diplomats who had proved so helpful at the Bonn conference. On this occasion they had with them the Iranian general who had been overseeing military assistance to the Northern Alliance through its long years of resistance, up to and through its ultimate victory. Responding to a U.S. request that the international community help build a new national Afghan army, the Iranians offered to quarter, clothe and train as many as 20,000 recruits for the new Afghan force, and to construct barracks in Afghanistan.

I expressed reservations, noting that troops trained by the Iranians might employ a different military doctrine from those taught by U.S. instructors. "Don't worry," the Iranian general said, only half jokingly, "we are still using the same manuals you left behind in 1979." I suggested that the Iranian and U.S.-trained units might have divided loyalties. "Well," my interlocutor responded, "we trained, equipped and continue to pay the troops with which you toppled the Taliban and are now rooting out al Qaeda. Are you encountering any problems with their loyalty?" I had to admit that we were not.

These and other Iranian overtures for collaboration in support of the Karzai government and against al Qaeda and other extremists were duly reported to Washington and discussed among Cabinet principals. None was ever taken up. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sent personal letters of thanks to every foreign minister represented at the Bonn conference except the one whose envoy may have been the most helpful, the Iranian. Dialogue with Iranian representatives was confined over the next year to infrequent, low-level and inconclusive exchanges, which, shortly after U.S. forces entered Baghdad, were suspended altogether.

Of course, even as Iranian diplomats and military officers were supporting U.S. efforts to install and sustain a successor government to the Taliban, other Iranians with official connections were, and are, rendering support to radical Palestinian groups such as the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). It was this Iranian support of terrorism directed against Israel, along with the Iranian nuclear program and the refusal of Iran to turn over senior al Qaeda operatives in its custody, that caused Washington to limit and eventually curtail dialogue with Tehran on Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the Balkans in the mid-1990s we learned that it was impossible to put a nation back together if its neighbors were determined to pull it apart. That was why the leaders of Serbia and Croatia, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, who between them shared the principal responsibility for the Bosnian genocide, became the Clinton administration's main partners in negotiating and then implementing the Dayton peace accords. In Afghanistan we learned again that successful nation-building requires strange bedfellows, only to forget the lesson a year later in Iraq.

In recent weeks President Bush has come to accept a central role for the United Nations in Iraq and has proposed an expanded one for NATO, both long-standing British wishes. It is good to see that London has begun to engage Tehran more constructively, and it is desirable that Washington should do likewise. Cooperation on Iraq will be more difficult than it was on Afghanistan, and Iranian policy is likely to be more internally divided in its cooperation with the United States. But there is no good reason not to be talking to those in Iran who seek to democratically reform their own theocracy and have no desire to see one emerge in Iraq.

James Dobbins was the Bush administration's first special envoy for Afghanistan. He is director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on May 6, 2004.