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Published on December 19th, 2009 | by Eli Clifton


James Dobbins: The Passed Up Opportunities for Rapprochement

By Eli Clifton

With the recent passage of HR 2194–the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA)–and the likelihood of a breakthrough in negotiations with Tehran before the informal end of the year deadline fading, it’s worth re-examining how the U.S. got to the point we’re at today, how Iranian-U.S. relations could have turned out differently, and how the U.S. and Iran may still share some strategic goals.

Former Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Ambassador James Dobbins, has written an excellent article in the latest edition of The Washington Quarterly which highlights the missed opportunities for engagement with Iran between the years 2001 and 2003. At think tanks around Washington, Dobbins, Washington’s chief diplomatic fireman for hotspots around the globe from the mid-1990’s through the Afghan campaign, has made this argument before, but not quite so cogently in written form.

He writes:

“As the United States conducts bilateral and multiparty negotiations with Iran, it is worth recalling the last, and perhaps only, occasion when the U.S. and revolutionary Iranian governments cooperated closely and effectively. It was almost eight years ago, immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks. There is a popular perception that the United States spent that fall forming a broad international coalition and overthrowing the Taliban. It would be more accurate to state that, prompted by the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the United States moved to join an existing coalition that had been trying to overthrow the Taliban since the mid-1990s. That coalition consisted of India, Iran, and Russia, and within Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance insurgency.”

Dobbins details instances where—after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan—he was personally approached by Iranian officials who were eager to assist the U.S. in its attempts to pull together an interim Afghan government and train soldiers for Afghanistan’s army.

Although discussed before, it deserves repeating that in November, 2001, Iran, under Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, played a crucial role at negotiations in Bonn, Germany to convince Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance to make concessions pivotal to the creation of Afghanistan’s interim administration, headed by Hamid Karzai.

Dobbins–who worked with Iranian negotiators in Bonn–also reminds us that at a donors conference in Tokyo, in January, 2002, Iran pledged $540 million in assistance to Afghanistan compared to only $290 million pledged by the U.S.

In addition, Dobbins recounts how he was approached at a subsequent Tokyo conference by an Iranian representative who emphasized that Iran hoped to continue to cooperate with the U.S. in Afghanistan.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was also given a message—via Japan’s development assistance agency—that the Iranians would like to open a dialogue with Washington to discuss all issues which divided the U.S. and Iran.

Dobbins writes:

“On returning to Washington, O’Neill and I reported these conversations, he to then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice and his cabinet level colleagues, and I to the Middle Eastern Bureau at the Department of State (DOS). No one evinced any interest. The Iranians received no private reply. Instead, they received a very public answer. One week later, in his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, an “axis of evil.” How arch-enemies Iran and Iraq could form any axis, evil or otherwise, was never explained. His remarks raised the prospect of preemptive military action against all three states to halt the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. There was no mention whatsoever of Iran’s support for the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.”

The full article (PDF) can be read here.

About the Author


Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. Eli previously reported for the American Independent New Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.

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