These tensions have boiled over on numerous occasions, and Iran and the United States have nearly gone to war three times since June 2019. During the most recent incident last January, when the United States assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian major general who commanded Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force, Iran responded with ballistic missile attacks from its own territory—a first for Tehran—injuring 109 U.S. soldiers. Additional attacks by Iranian-backed proxies against U.S. personnel in Iraq throughout the spring and summer have become all too frequent, and a disclosure in September that Iran is allegedly weighing the assassination of the U.S. ambassador to South Africa has made it apparent that, in contrast to statements by Trump administration and U.S. military officials, Iran has not been deterred.
It is quite possible that further Iranian reprisals or provocations by either party could occur before the end of the year. Indeed, it is likely that tensions increase further if Trump is reelected on November 3, as Tehran will have no way to extricate itself from his maximum pressure stranglehold without capitulating, and Iran’s restraint thus far suggests that it is hedging its bets on a Democratic victory in November that will return the United States to the internationally-sanctioned diplomatic route. If that gamble falters, all bets are off.
To avoid a direct clash between Washington and Tehran in the Middle East, it is urgent that the United States rethink its Iran policy. Washington must recognize that Iran, far from being the resolute foe its staunchest critics contend, often exhibits political flexibility in addressing national security threats and has regularly sought dialogue with the United States. An examination of the post-9/11 era reveals that U.S.-Iranian cooperation has yielded valuable, yet imperfect, results when mutual national security interests coincided, even though both Washington and Tehran failed to leverage these moments to jumpstart a broader reconciliation. To make the Middle East safer, Washington must talk with Iran.
THERE IS a long history of turmoil between Iran and America, especially this century. Iran’s persistent support for terrorism and general anti-Americanism made it no friend of the George W. Bush White House. However, the administration’s posture was initially unfocused: rhetorically hostile, but politically ambivalent. The 9/11 terror attacks changed that; a young administration found its calling, and Iran became relevant to the Pentagon’s budding crusade to root out terror threats emanating from the Middle East.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan vouchsafed Iran an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate its foe in Kandahar. Throughout the 1990s, Tehran and the Sunni Taliban had sparred over the latter’s persecution of Afghanistan’s Shia minority and rampant drug smuggling that was imperiling Iran’s eastern provinces. In 1998, Tehran had nearly invaded Afghanistan after the Taliban killed nine Iranian diplomats in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran and America were both out for Taliban blood.
In an interview with The New Yorker, veteran U.S. diplomat Ryan Crocker remembershow, in the months after the 9/11 attacks, he flew to Geneva, Switzerland, and Paris, France as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs for a series of discrete meetings with Iranian diplomats. With Qassim Suleimani’s consent, the Iranians eagerly assisted the U.S. campaign by, Brookings scholar Suzanne Maloney details, permitting the United States to transit Iranian airspace, helping Washington establish logistical supply lines, and leveraging its well-established contacts with the Taliban’s chief Afghan opponent, the Northern Alliance. Crocker recalls that Iranian negotiators disclosed the locations of Taliban military forces and even handed over an Al Qaeda operative who had been hiding in Iran. Although Iran would later refuse to turn over a handful of senior Al Qaeda members to the United States, Hillary Mann Leverett, a U.S. foreign service officer who joined Crocker in those meetings, testified to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2007 that Iran deported “hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban figures seeking to flee Afghanistan to or through Iran” back to their countries of origin.
Crocker was not the only U.S. contact who met with Iranians on Afghanistan. In early December 2001, U.S. special representative to the Afghan opposition James F. Dobbins and Zalmay Khalilzad, a native Afghan who was then the U.S. presidential envoy to Afghanistan, also spoke to Iranian diplomats in Bonn, Germany during the UN conference to form Afghanistan’s transitional government. As Khalilzad reports in his 2016 book, The Envoy: From Kabul To The White House, My Journey Through A Turbulent World, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s current foreign minister who was then the deputy foreign minister, reached out to Dobbins to discuss the forthcoming accord. After an initial meeting, the two U.S. diplomats began having a daily coffee with Zarif and Muhammad Ibrahim Taherian, the Iranian ambassador to the Northern Alliance. The sessions were rewarding, both in building rapport between Khalilzad and Zarif that would bear fruit in America’s incipient invasion of Iraq, and in attaining essential Iranian support for an interim government led by future Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Dobbins later praised Iranian participation in the United States Institute for Peace’s Iran Primer, describing Iran’s “major contribution” in overcoming the final hurdle to the Bonn Agreement’s adoption, and its “highly constructive role” in writing the first draft of the Afghan interim constitution—where Tehran unexpectedly requested that democratic elections be codified in writing and Afghans commit to fighting international terrorism.
On November 13, 2001, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell and the Iranian foreign minister shook hands at UN headquarters in New York for the first time, lending fleeting credibility to a façade of warming U.S-Iran ties. But it was not to last. The Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda,” which imbued Washington with a yearning for forceful democratic proselytizing, regarded Iran disdainfully, and existing regional disagreements such as Israel-Palestine soured relations. President Bush soon branded Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, engendering a furious reaction from a slighted Iranian nation and leading Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to label America “the devil incarnate” for the first time. Crocker asserts that Bush’s speech discredited the idea of a broader rapprochement with Washington among Iranian hardliners, lamenting that Suleimani’s prior musing that “maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans” died that day on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. “One word in one speech changed history,” he said. Nonetheless, negotiations endured, which, Maloney observed, proved that Iran had “demonstrated its capacity to prioritize interests over outrage or ideology.” Mutual security concerns trumped political enmity; Iran and America’s unhappy marriage persevered.
DISCLOSURES ABOUT Iran’s clandestine nuclear program in August 2002 sent tremors through the Bush White House, but the United States neither interrupted consultations with Iran over Afghanistan nor prevented the talks’ extension to Iraq. By the spring of 2003, it had become apparent that the Bush administration was preparing to topple Saddam Hussein, and Crocker and Khalilzad worked in tandem to parley with Iran, Hussein’s stalwart enemy, about the future of post-Baathist Iraq. As Khalilzad recounts in his engrossing memoir, The Envoy, he soon spoke to Zarif, his former Iranian interlocutor, once again. Zarif, now UN ambassador, was, like many Iranians, concerned that Iran was next on the Pentagon’s short list. Khalilzad told Zarif that the United States had no plans to topple the Iranian government, but Washington wanted assurances that U.S. aircraft that strayed into Iranian airspace would not be fired upon. Further, Khalilzad wanted Tehran’s appraisal of how Iraqis would react to Saddam’s deposal. Zarif gave him both and more: Tehran accepted the request for deconfliction but warned that a U.S. occupation of Iraq would be unacceptable and produce significant instability, which was somewhat inevitable following Hussein’s ouster. The talks continued through the U.S. invasion, only reaching an impasse when the Bush administration refused Tehran’s proposal to swap the Iraqi-based leadership of Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, for Al Qaeda members residing in Iran. This standoff essentially froze what had become an effective bilateral diplomatic channel.
Washington’s nascent reconciliation with Tehran collapsed after a May 12 terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia, which killed thirty-five people, including eight Americans, was linked to Iran-based Al Qaeda. It could not have come at a worse time. A week earlier, Swiss ambassador to Tehran Tim Guldimann, whose embassy represents the United States in the Islamic Republic, had faxed a two-page document to the U.S. State Department outlining a potential “grand bargain” between the United States and Iran. Everything was on the table, Guldimann wrote, from Iran’s nuclear program to stances on Israel and proxy groups—with the purported backing of Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Based on interviews with key Bush administration officials that were conducted by PBS Frontline in 2007, skepticism abounded over the document’s backchannel transmission and its discordancy with the kind of Iranian behavior—such as growing support for anti-American proxies in Iraq—that the White House was seeing at that time. Therefore, senior officials disagreed on the right course of action: Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, and Senior Director for Middle East Affairs at the NSC Flynt Leverett cautiously favored engagement, but Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and UN Ambassador John Bolton rejected negotiations—and the letter—out of hand. With the bombing in Saudi Arabia occurring soon after, the administration’s hawks felt further emboldened. President Bush not only rebuffed the overture and gave no response, but also halted the dialogue with Iran over Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the letter’s veracity continues to be debated today, Iran expert Vali Nasr has offered a discerning assessment:
We forget that this offer came after Iran made its boldest cooperation with the United States over Afghanistan, only to be put on the “axis of evil” list afterwards … So as the [Mohammad] Khatami government, the reformist government, is making one last effort to make a pitch to the U.S., it is running a risk. And I assume that their hope was that the U.S. would test the proposal by coming back, which then would have made a signal to the Iranian leadership that the U.S. was interested, and then you could see whether the Iranians would come back with something more concrete. The Iranians were testing, and the test came back negative.
AFTER THE Bush administration aborted negotiations, Washington and Tehran would not attempt to reopen bilateral discussions on Iraq until 2006. The past three years had seen Iraq slide into anarchy: De-Baathification had deeply aggravated resentment within the Sunni community, which—despite being a minority—had become accustomed to wielding disproportionate political power under Saddam Hussein. Unemployed and now living under a Shia-dominated political system, some Sunnis embraced violence as Shia militias, bankrolled by Iran, and disaffected former Baathists, aided by Syria, also took up arms. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorists only made matters worse by carrying out vicious sectarian killings; a resilient insurgency had taken root.
Appointed U.S. ambassador in 2005, Khalilzad moved aggressively to stabilize Iraq. His writings in The Envoy specify how, as he engaged all sides of Iraq’s broken polity, he deduced that attaining political reconciliation and reducing violence would be easier with Iranian buy-in, since Tehran had a financial “stranglehold” on Iraq’s Shia Arabs, influence with the Kurds, and was callously exploiting violence to manipulate Iraq and bog down U.S. forces. Outgunned and politically constrained in this financial contest, Khalilzad appealed to President Bush to confront Iran over militia attacks on U.S. forces, the Quds Force’s political assassinations and its distribution of explosively formed projectiles—a deadly roadside bomb that would eventually kill and maim hundreds of U.S. troops—and Tehran’s tolerance of AQI members transiting its territory. His pleas failed; the White House was wary of expanding the conflict.
By 2006, the Bush administration’s Iran policy was contradictory and troubled. The White House persistently refused direct negotiations with Iran without preconditions even as U.S. diplomats were crafting an incentive package alongside the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese to curtail Iran’s uranium enrichment program. However, after some debate, Bush authorized Khalilzad to open discussions with Iran, and senior Iraqi politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim traveled to Tehran with a U.S. olive branch. Hakim returned with good news: Iran was interested in engaging, and Khamenei had “put together a team from across the Iranian foreign and security departments” to talk about “all the issues dividing the United States and Iran.” Yet, in a regrettable about-face, the Bush administration abruptly pulled Khalilzad from the talks.
America and Iran would not officially speak again until the following year, when Bush reversed course again and directed Crocker, then U.S. ambassador to Iraq, to attend “circumscribed” talks with Hassan Kazemi Qumi, a veteran Quds Force officer who was Iran’s ambassador to Baghdad. Crocker would tell The New York Times in May 2007 that there was “good congruence” between the two nations on the contours of a future free Iraq, but that they disagreed on how Iran’s support for Iraqi militias was affecting internal violence. The militias’ role in attacking U.S. troops would become a sticking point, leading Crocker to complain that Iran’s offer to establish a “trilateral mechanism” for “militias, Al Qaeda and border security” was stalled and violence was escalating. The meetings buckled in August, in part due to, a senior Iraqi intelligence official later told U.S. Army general David Petraeus, America dealing with the wrong interlocutor—only Iran’s viceroy for Iraq, Qassim Suleimani, could reduce the violence. Thus, Iran’s reported desire for these discussions to be a launchpad for “higher-level talks” went nowhere. The United States was evidently unwilling to accept that, for its Middle East security objectives to succeed, it must deal directly with Suleimani and the IRGC Quds Force.
WHILE IT’S debatable whether U.S.-Iran negotiations failed because the Bush administration was, as Khalilzad asserts, unwilling to combine “diplomatic engagement with forcible actions” to “take on Iranian activities in Iraq,” it is clear that the region—and the United States—would have benefitted from their success. Indeed, when Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, he hoped that his own brand of “aggressive personal diplomacy,” he told The New York Times, could produce dividends. The eventual success of Obama’s sanctions diplomacy, which culminated in the JCPOA, is often contrasted with his missteps on Iraq, where his most infamous decision, the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, is still blamed for producing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the words of James F. Jeffrey, a career diplomat currently serving as President Trump’s special envoy to Syria, that criticism is “hogwash,” but the U.S. military’s departure did leave Iraq increasingly vulnerable to a still-festering political-security fracas that Washington had created in 2003. Neither the Americans nor Iraqis had been able to fill this power vacuum, but the Iranians—and Al Qaeda—were keen to exploit it. This struggle for power in Baghdad exposed Iraqis’ deep-rooted but previously dormant sectarian tensions and laid the groundwork for AQI terrorists to transmogrify into ISIS. No realistic amount of U.S. troops or occupation timetable could have stitched Iraqi society back together, but U.S.—and Iranian—troops would be critical to destroying this global terrorist menace.
Since Iranian influence and military assets were pervasive in both Iraq and Syria, the United States knew that Iran could be a pivotal force against ISIS. However, the JCPOA’s adoption had already perturbed many U.S. Middle East allies, and the Obama administration was loath to alienate them further by offering unprecedented military assistance to Tehran. This context helps explain the events surrounding President Obama’s missive to Iranian supreme leader Khamenei in October 2014, when the U.S. president made a contingent proposal for cooperation against ISIS if the two nations could first reach a nuclear deal. When the letter was later uncovered by The Wall Street Journal, Obama denied this linkage in a November 9 interview with CBS’ Face the Nationand further clarified that he only wanted deconfliction with Iran, rather than “coordination or [a] common battle plan” against “our shared enemy.” ISIS took a backseat to nuclear diplomacy; it was not the priority.
Fraught domestic politics made—and continue to make—extraordinary overtures to Iran difficult, and much of America’s diplomatic bandwidth was then focused on finalizing the JCPOA. However, geopolitics was also driving U.S. and Iranian ISIS policies in Syria and Iraq, and there was only modest agreement in between them. For example, even as the Obama administration told Iran it was uninterested in forcibly ousting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, leaked remarks made by former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry in 2016 clarify that the United States had been “watching” ISIS’ Syrian rise and intended to “manage” it to compel Assad to negotiate a political transition. Thus, despite Kerry speaking with Iranian foreign minister Zarif about ISIS on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations in 2014, and the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy citing the “persistent threat” of both ISIS and Al Qaeda before either Russia or China were even mentioned, the White House did not adjust its regional policies in any dramatic fashion to prioritize that threat. Rather than endeavor to use the anti-ISIS fight as an opportunity to jumpstart regional cooperation against extremism—as Russia did by arranging a joint intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran, and Syria in 2015—Washington and Tehran fiercely competed in Syria and quietly used one another in Iraq.
After ISIS emerged, Washington and Tehran’s mutual hatred of ISIS fostered the conditions for a de facto collaborative military campaign throughout Iraq, despite that both Iran and America preferred to go it alone. For instance, as Baghdad began to rely on militias for its security after the collapse of the Iraqi Army in 2014, Washington had to recognize that the Shia-majority Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), the umbrella name for Iraq’s militia network, was the most decisive anti-ISIS force in Iraq—in no small part due to extensive Iranian support. The U.S. military strived to fight ISIS without directly aiding these forces—as demonstrated by the Pentagon’s demand that Iranian-aligned militias withdraw from Tikrit before U.S. warplanes would assist the Iraqi government’s assault—but U.S. arms routinely found their way to into their hands, and different PMF factions regularly benefitted from U.S. air support.
Over time, U.S. redlines would prove more flexible: preparations in the lead-up to the Mosul campaign, the Los Angeles Times revealed, saw the U.S. military train some PMF groups that had previous ties to Iran. The Pentagon also frequently communicated with the Iranians through, The New York Times found in 2014, “a single Iraqi officer” to deconflict Iraq’s busy airspace, while the Obama administration passed messages to Tehran via Baghdad. Notably, U.S. and Iranian anti-ISIS military strategy complemented one another perfectly: U.S. fighter jets bombarded ISIS positions while Iranian IRGC officers—including Qassim Suleimani—advised, equipped, and led Iraqi militia forces on the ground. Fighting in close proximity to one another against shared targets, teamwork became inevitable, and Iran responded to this reality by instructing its proxies to avoid targeting the small number of U.S. military troops still deployed on Iraqi soil. Michael Weiss and Michael Pregent asserted in Foreign Policy that the United States somewhat tolerated this arrangement, tacitly enabling Iran’s campaign by having U.S. military aircraft bomb targets that had been selected and passed on to Iraq’s Defense Ministry by IRGC Quds Force agents and their allied militia commanders. “Iranian intelligence operatives,” the authors wrote, had become “America’s eyes on the ground.”
U.S.-IRANIAN relations have once again plunged to a historic low since President Trump came to the White House. Yet, with the 2020 presidential elections nearly upon us, it appears prudent to offer lessons from the aforementioned experiences that would be useful to whoever holds the Oval Office in 2021.
The supreme leader is Iran. Despite the existence of real Iranian elections with contested politicking, Iran is indeed a dictatorship when it comes to national security policy. With this in mind, analysts Ariane Tabatabai and Henry Rome correctly argue that the next U.S. president should not expect Iran’s 2021 presidential election to fundamentally change Tehran’s behavior vis-à-vis the United States. Instead, the inchoate effort to replace Iran’s octogenarian supreme leader, who is in purportedly poor health, will be far more decisive in shaping the trajectory of U.S.-Iranian relations. If at all possible, it is this transition that the United States should seek to affect, though that ship has likely already sailed.
Yet this is not to say that personalities are irrelevant. Well-placed Iranians, such as Qassim Suleimani and Mohammed Javad Zarif, can give Washington critical insight into Tehran’s opaque decisionmaking process and influence Iran’s internal affairs. Remembering that it was Zarif’s established rapport with John Kerry that helped defuse an imminent confrontation in 2016 after U.S. Navy sailors were seized by IRGC personnel, the next U.S. president should look to leverage this affinity to support U.S. objectives, particularly as it relates to America’s return to the JCPOA. However, additional progress with Iran will be difficult as Tehran responds to Trump’s assassination of Suleimani, one of Khamenei’s most senior advisors, and demands that the United States both re-enter the nuclear deal and “compensate” it for the harm caused by Trump’s sanctions policy. In these troubled times, engagement and personal diplomacy will matter.
Iran’s security forces are not a monolith. In recognizing that the supreme leader directs Iranian policy, the United States should not assume that Iran’s hardliners, or its security forces, are implacably opposed to dialogue. In fact, the IRGC’s common staffing of and participation in Iranian diplomatic initiatives—as illustrated by Suleimani’s 2007 offer to Khalilzad to open a bilateral diplomatic channel via the Quds Force months before Crocker and a veteran IRGC officer-turned-diplomat met in Baghdad—show that there is less daylight between Iran’s security and diplomatic forces than is commonly believed. Furthermore, as Johns Hopkins University professor Narges Bajoghli described in a 2018 piece titled “Iran Will Never Trust America Again,” some of the regime’s most steadfast adherents had been eager for engagement with the West, at least before Trump’s repudiation of the JCPOA reverted relations back to hostility.
In light of this, the United States should seek to engage both Iranian hardliners and moderates with the goal of buttressing advocates of diplomacy and reform. Unfortunately, Trump’s Iran policies, which have explicitly sought to diminish Iran’s regional aggression, have undermined that objective by launching a counterproductive two-front war on Iran’s reformist and pro-engagement camps. As Trump’s JCPOA withdrawal became, in the words of journalist Rohollah Faghihi, a “death knell” for Iran’s political reformist movement, the president’s 2019 decision to designate the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization provoked and empowered anti-American sentiment within Iran’s security services. This occurred even as the White House’s reinstatement of sanctions made the Iranian economy ever-more dependent on the IRGC’s extensive black market enterprises. A more cognizant U.S. Iran policy should seek to reverse these trends, especially since Iran’s support for foreign terrorist and proxy groups—behavior which was not addressed by the JCPOA and continues to concern U.S. allies—has never been contingent on Tehran’s access to financial resources.
Cooperate when you can, compete when you can’t. Just like how President Richard Nixon restored U.S. relations with Syria in 1974, despite Damascus’ recent war on Israel and its status as a Soviet client, the United States must learn to simultaneously cooperate and compete with Iran. This strategy worked out well for the Obama administration: U.S. diplomats concluded a nuclear deal and the U.S. military engaged in “coopetition” with Iran in Iraq’s anti-ISIS tussle, despite that the two nations were fighting on different sides of Syria’s civil war. It will not be easy to bridge the U.S.-Iranian political gap on Israel, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria, but Washington and Tehran need not so carelessly clash that Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro considers hosting Iranian missiles on his territory, potentially sparking a lesser twenty-first-century Cuban Missile Crisis.
PRIOR TO Trump’s 2018 JCPOA abrogation, Iran repeatedly insisted on negotiations with the United States without preconditions to test Washington’s willingness to engage and make concessions for improved relations. While the Bush administration’s responses to the 2003 Guldimann memorandum and Khamenei’s 2007 overtures made it clear that Washington was not yet prepared to redefine the U.S.-Iranian relationship, the Obama administration was able to employ focused sanctions to achieve progress on the critical nuclear issue without allowing ongoing disagreements—even violent ones—to stymie limited bilateral progress in other areas. Iran may currently reject talking with Trump, but it has made its penchant for diplomacy well-known. Iran knows that it must talk with the United States, since Washington is the preeminent hindrance to its foreign policy and threat to its national security. Has the United States recognized that Iran, too, can be either a useful interlocutor or an implacable spoiler for its regional policies? It will not be easy for the United States to create a new Middle Eastern paradigm that accepts Iran as a pillar of regional security, but to give up before it even tries is to condemn America to further decades of regional conflict. It’s time for a change.
Adam Lammon is assistant managing editor at The National Interest. He received his MA in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University in 2017. Follow him on Twitter @AdamLammon.