Even though US President George W. Bush included Iran in the "axis of evil," Iranian and US diplomats have held periodic exchanges since the September 11 terrorism tragedy. The meetings reflect the reality that the United States needs Iran's assistance as the Bush administration wages its war on terrorism. At the same time, the exchanges are unlikely to result in the normalization of US-Iranian relations.
Shortly before the United States opened its campaign to oust Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein, senior US officials found themselves in a déjà vu moment: meeting in secret once again with Iranian leaders as the US military prepared to strike one of Tehran's neighbors. In 2002, the meeting concerned Afghanistan, this year the subject was Iraq.
According to published reports, White House special envoy to the Iraqi opposition Zalmay Khalilzad asked Iranian officials in Geneva to pledge Tehran's assistance for any American pilots downed in Iranian territory. Khalilzad also sought assurances that Iran's armed forces would not join the fighting at any time. According to Iranian sources familiar with the meeting, Tehran agreed to both, but asked for a promise of its own: that the United States would not set its sights on Iran after the US army toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. American officials reportedly equivocated, though Britain has quietly reassured Iran that the Bush administration has no intention of exerting military pressure against Tehran.
Tehran and Washington share a few common enemies in the war on terrorism. They include: the Taliban (Shi'a Iran regularly quarreled with the Sunni extremists on their border); Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (Iran fought a brutal eight year war with Iraq after Saddam invaded Iran in 1980); and even al Qaeda (Iran has called them "a menace" and Osama bin Laden's Sunni extremism turned off virtually all political factions in Iran, even if his politics attracted Iran's hard-liners).
Iran has staked out a position of "active neutrality" in the Iraq conflict, quietly cooperating with the United States where possible, seeking to secure its own legitimate interests in a post-Saddam Iraq, and loudly protesting what some Iranian officials have described as a US desire to control Iraqi oil resources. This double game quiet assistance coupled with public denunciations is partly a reflection of Tehran's fear that it will become Washington's next target. Another factor is Iran's perceived need to actively safeguard its own interests against US ambitions to remake the Middle East's geopolitical landscape. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Still, despite having common enemies, the quiet cooperation, and the growing need for ad hoc face-to-face diplomatic and intelligence meetings, a breakthrough in the often prickly US-Iranian relationship is unlikely in the foreseeable future, political analysts and diplomats say. The possibility of military confrontation also cannot be ruled out, they add.
As one American official put it: "These meetings are important because they help us forestall any misunderstandings. But they should not be construed as anything other than preventive measures meetings. Our differences are still too far apart on several issues."
Washington usually points to Iran's alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its support for terrorist organizations, especially Hezbollah and Hamas, as key impediments to diplomatic normalization. In two recent speeches, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice pointed to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program as a serious looming threat.
Iran denies it is pursuing nuclear weapons, consistently calling for regional nuclear disarmament, including Israel. For its part, Iran regularly accuses Washington of seeking to damage Iran's economy through its attempts to sanction foreign companies that do business in Iran under the Congressionally-mandated Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. Tehran also complains about US opposition to Iran's entry to the World Trade Organization and regular resistance to World Bank loans. Washington describes sanctions as a legitimate form of protest of Iranian policies.
In recent public comments, US Secretary of State Colin Powell turned up the heat on Iran, telling a packed audience at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual meeting that "the entire international community must insist that Iran end its support for terrorism." A day earlier, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned Iran to rein in Iraqi forces affiliated to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shi'a opposition group based in southern Iran.
Nasser Hadian, a well-regarded political science professor from Tehran University, who is currently monitoring US-Iran relations from Columbia University in New York, told EurasiaNet that the Bush administration appears to be trying to build "a security consensus" among senior American policy makers that Iran poses a threat to US national security.
Hadian points to stepped-up official rhetoric implicating Iran with terrorism and official focus on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. "They seem to feel that they need to build this security consensus as insurance in case they feel the need to set their sights on Iran next," he said.
Many analysts say the issue that most bitterly divides the United States and Iran is Israel. Washington accuses Iran of supporting terrorist groups that attack Israel, while Tehran accuses the United States of "blind support" for Israel at the expense of other regional countries. In fact, according to several analysts, the Israel-Iran rivalry will most probably drive Iran-US relations for the foreseeable future.
Israel regularly criticizes Iran for its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and has expressed concern with what it portrays as Iran's nuclear weapons program. Iran blames Israel for the breakdown in Arab-Israeli talks and regularly accuses Tel Aviv of "instigation" through its continued building of settlements in The West Bank and Gaza. Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Javad Zarif, regularly points out that Hezbollah and Hamas "need no outside inspiration" to fuel their anger at Israel.
Behrooz Ghamari Tabrizi, an Iran observer at Georgia State University, notes that "Iran is more worried about an Israeli attack than an American one, and the current state of hostility between Iran and Israel prevents any sort of warming between Iran and the United States."
John Calabrese, a regional specialist at the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an insightful paper on the effects of the Iraq war on Iran entitled "Iran Between the Python and the Scorpion," notes that "a preemptive American or even Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear installations during, or some time after, war in Iraq cannot be ruled out." The Guardian newspaper reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has just such a plan on his desk awaiting signature. An Israeli strike on an Iranian installation would, most probably, provoke an Iranian response through Hezbollah, potentially leading to a cycle of events that could spiral out of control, possibly sucking the United States into conflict with Iran. Against this background of heightened tensions, the most likely scenario for US-Iranian relations for the next couple of years will be a cold, fragile peace.
Afshin Molavi, a Washington-based writer, travels regularly to Iran, where he reports for a variety Western publications.