In President Bush's press conference on Iran today, he said the turning point in recent U.S.-Iranian relations was the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the summer of 2005. I beg to differ. Let's review Iranian actions up until that election. After 9/11, the Ayatollah condemned the attacks and candlelit vigils broke out in Tehran. After the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan toppled the Taliban government, American and Iranian diplomats met together in Bonn, with a handful of representatives from other UN members, to form a new government and constitution for Kabul. "None was more [helpful] than the Iranians," said James Dobbins, the American special envoy to Afghanistan at the time, writing in the Washington Post . "The original version of the Bonn agreement ... 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."
Iran also cooperated with the United Nations to repatriate nearly one million Afghan refugees residing on its soil and--working with United States, Russia, and India--provided support to the Northern Alliance. As Flynt Leverett of the Brookings Institution told the Council on Foreign Relations, "I think at least some Iranian officials were hoping [this] could get leveraged into a broader strategic dialogue, but that channel was effectively foreclosed when President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address labeled Iran as part of the 'Axis of Evil.'"
An overture from Iran for comprehensive bilateral talks, reportedly signed off at the highest levels of government, was offered to U.S. officials in May 2003 shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Some experts say the proposal, conveyed via a Swiss emissary, amounted to a "grand bargain" that would have included offers of negotiations over Iran's support for terrorist organizations and recognizing Israel's right to exist. During recent congressional hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she did not "remember ever seeing any such thing" as national security adviser, her position at the time of the overture. But former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage recently told Newsweek that it appeared at the time that the Iranians "were trying to put too much on the table" for serious negotiations to occur.
In other words, contrary to President Bush's claim, the White House rebuffed Iran's advances pre-Ahmadinejad to let bygones be bygones and, like Libya, start a new relationship based on cooperation rather than conflict. The question is: Why? And did Bush's "axis of evil" speech and subsequent rebuff of Iranian hand maybe hasten the election of a hardliner like Ahmadinejad? We may never know. But interestingly, the following year, outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, in November at an international conference on Iraq at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Nothing of substance was reportedly discussed as Powell was seen by the Iranians as a lame duck with no real power. Yet Powell predicted then that normal U.S.-Iranian relations would be restored "in due course." Not so long as this administration continues to manipulate intelligence and fashion its foreign policy based on hyped-up predictions of a nuclear-armed Iran bent on terrorizing the rest of the world.
Though maybe Powell was onto something. Iran by no means is a saint but it has apparently reduced its supply of deadly roadside bombs to Shiite militias in Iraq and it does see itself as a cosmopolitan country that, according to the National Intelligence Estimate, responds to diplomatic pressure using a "cost-benefit" calculus, much like Libya, North Korea, or any state for that matter. Who knows? Maybe it's not too late for Tehran, like Tripoli, to forswear its nuclear aspirations and get on Washington's good graces. At least then we could move on to more pressing issues, like resolving the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.