The most fundamental strategic error of the George W. Bush administration following the September 11, 2001, attacks was launching a “Global War on Terrorism” that failed to distinguish properly between those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and other US adversaries. This hubristic and grandiose agenda weakened US focus, alienated allies, and deprived the United States of opportunities to lessen hostility with historic foes. It put the United States on a path toward unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, culminating in humiliating withdrawals from both.
Among the most consequential losses following the 9/11 attacks were dashed opportunities with Iran. Iranians showed sympathy to the United States after 9/11 holding candlelight vigils on the streets of Tehran. The Iranian government cooperated indirectly with the US military to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and worked openly with the State Department to stabilize a new government in Kabul. It was Javad Zarif, then deputy minister for legal and international affairs of Iran, who procured a commitment from that new Afghan government to hold democratic elections and combat international terrorism. US officials have since acknowledged that Iranian pressure on the Afghan Northern Alliance allowed Hamid Karzai to become the first post-Taliban president of Afghanistan.
At the same time, Iran and the United States held a series of backchannel talks in Geneva and Paris that dealt with Afghanistan and rolling up al-Qaeda members fleeing into Iran from Afghanistan. These talks were interrupted when Bush, in his State of the Union address in 2002, included Iran, along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as part of an “axis of evil.” The Iranians—no strangers to bellicose rhetoric—resumed backchannel talks with the United States after a month. However, the Bush administration showed no interest in building upon those talks to improve ties with Tehran, even ignoring Iranian warnings about the consequences of invading Iraq and subsequent overtures for broader dialogue in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion. The Bush administration reneged on a promise to turn over leaders of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, a militant Iranian opposition group that had been harbored by Saddam and was at the time a US-designated foreign terrorist organization, in return for al-Qaeda figures detained in Iran. Bush also proclaimed a “Freedom Agenda” seemingly threatening Iran with regime change following similar US-engineered overthrows in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After 9/11, neoconservatives and hawks in the United States, led by the then US vice president Dick Cheney and deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, harbored illusions that the US invasion of Iraq would boost democracy proponents throughout the Middle East and that the Islamic Republic of Iran would be the next “terrorist-sponsoring” domino to fall. Instead, Iraq turned into a quagmire and Iran, with long-standing ties to Iraqi Shi’ites and deep knowledge of the physical and political terrain, implanted itself in Iraq—where it remains to this day.
Of course, it is impossible to know whether a real improvement in relations between the United States and Iran would have been possible after 2003. The Bush administration, full of hubris after the quick overthrow of the Taliban and Saddam, didn’t respond to Iran’s proposal for a “grand bargain” written by Iran’s then ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi; edited by Zarif; and transmitted to Washington by the Swiss. The Bush administration left it to the Europeans to talk to Iran about its burgeoning nuclear program and sat down with the Iranians only in the last months of Bush’s second term. Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in Bush’s first term, told me in 2006 that even if the United States had engaged with Iran more seriously, “the demands on the US side, because of the divisions in the [Bush] administration, were so excessive that I don’t think we would have been able to make the compromises necessary” to improve relations with Iran.
Iran has other options now: most importantly, China. After forty-two years of estrangement, the United States and Iran seem farther apart than ever. A boneheaded US response to 9/11 is at least partly to blame.
Republicans are not the only ones responsible for blowing opportunities at better relations with Iran. In 1993, then US president Bill Clinton embraced “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq in his first term, effectively lumping two very different adversaries together, and signed into law the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act of 1996—the first “secondary” sanctions targeted at non-US companies doing business with Iran. Clinton tried to undo some of the damage in his second term; by then, Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s president at the time, had already been undermined by his domestic rivals.
The Obama administration, seeking to rectify the errors of the Bush administration, reached out to Iran from its inception in 2009 and successfully concluded the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that limited Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief. However, Obama’s successor, Donald J. Trump, withdrew from the deal in May 2018 despite Iran’s compliance with the agreement. Trump imposed a policy of “maximum pressure” and undermined Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif, and other Iranians who supported diplomacy—just as Bush had done to Khatami and his reformist administration after 9/11.
In an unfortunate echo of the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s just-inaugurated president, Ebrahim Raisi, is a gloomy hardliner who had a hand in the summary execution of five thousand political prisoners in the 1980s and the persecution of dissidents in more recent times. It’s hard to expect much good coming from his administration.
Iran is a proud, ancient nation of eighty million people at the cusp of the Middle East and Asia. Its history is replete with grievances inflicted against it by outside powers, and destabilizing and repressive policies at home and abroad. There are no guarantees that the United States and Iran would be in a productive relationship now if US policies had been radically different after 9/11. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fears the “soft power” of Western culture more than the hard power of US bombs. But it is clear that opportunities were squandered after 9/11. In diplomacy, as in life, you get only so many chances, especially in a world where the United States is no longer the dominant, indispensable nation. Iran has other options now: most importantly, China. After forty-two years of estrangement, the United States and Iran seem farther apart than ever. A boneheaded US response to 9/11 is at least partly to blame.
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Barbara Slavin is the Director of the Future of Iran Initiative and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a lecturer in international affairs at George Washington University. A career journalist, Slavin previously served as assistant managing editor for world and national security of the Washington Times, senior diplomatic reporter for USA TODAY, Cairo correspondent for the Economist, and as an editor at the New York Times Week in Review. The author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (2007), she is a regular commentator on US foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, and C-SPAN. She has covered such key foreign policy issues as the US-led war on terrorism, policy toward “rogue” states, the Iran-Iraq war, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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