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.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. Thank you for this piece. I wrote about these missed opportunities (albeit in more general terms) three years ago. I wasn’t able to quote anyone like Dobbins; instead I had to infer from what there was on the public record. I was right, but at the time hardly a soul (among the few thousand people who read what I wrote) accepted my thesis. So thanks again for this!

  2. It is well known that neo-cons never let mere facts stand in their way of making the world safe for Israel the only way they know how to. Remember John Bolton writing in an article in the Financial Times that Iran is a supporter of Al Qaeda!? What is disturbing at the moment is that Hillary Clinton saying such things as Iran is a sponsor of international terrorism, echoing George Bush before a costly misadventure only a few years back.

  3. Isn’t the record pretty clear that the Iranian regime has indeed sponsered acts of terrorism? Are we to believe its hands are 100% clean in this regard? I don’t think so. . .

    I don’t believe Secy. Clinton’s remarks presage an American attack on Iran. There’s no evidence that the U.S. is preparing for such a move. I’m not saying it’ll never happen, but certainly nothing of the kind is currently being contemplated. We need to guard against going overboard (in our thinking, and rhetorically) simply because we oppose U.S. policy toward Iran.

  4. Paul Craig Roberts has a good article leading Counterpunch today depicting America as headed for tyranny. He cites Britain’s inquiry into Tony Blair’s activities. Remarkably TB may face war crimes charges.

    PCR never wonders if this might bring Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld under legal scrutiny but laments Americans unconcern with casting aside FISA, Habeas Corpus, and endorsing Torture.

    Tiger Woods sins are taken more seriously than these attacks on our American principles and ideals. Why on Earth would anyone dare attack Iran, essentially throwing the slouching American empire over the precipice.

    It’s our indifference that’s allowing this. They invade because they can. They will get million dollar kickbacks for burning billions with the bodies of Arabs or whatever Iranians are, brown, burnt bodies all smell the same.

  5. Iranians are Iranians, an Indo-European people. Arabs are a Semitic people (these terms have to do with language origins, and are not, as I use them here, “racial”). Islam is what the two peoples have in common.

    In my opinion America IS headed toward a form of tyranny. African-Americans, women, and homosexuals have experienced important steps forward in recent decades, true. And I applaud this. But these social advances have to be put beside the increasing power of government, and particularly the federal government, as against the rights of the people. The increasing involvement of government in the economy since 1913, and above all the founding of the national security state in 1947, have led to a stripping away of freedoms our forefathers took for granted. Surveillance of individuals by the state has been increasing since the FBI became a federal police force back in the 1930s. The creation of the CIA, NSA, DEA, etc. further exacerbated the problem, and of course the reign of Bush II witnessed a virtual abandonment of constitutional principles. I don’t see Obama doing much to strip away the overweening power of government over the individual citizen.

    The government doesn’t simply regulate the economy, it acts together with big finance and corporate lobbyists to restrict the economic freedom of individuals and small businesses. The same forces support our worldwide interventionism — the empire that is bleeding the American people both literally and figuratively. Annual defense spending exceeds $600 billion — why? What overwhelming threat to the American people exists out there?

    I don’t advocate using drugs, but no drugs were illegal in this country until 1906. Criminalization has led to an explosion in drug use, widespread violent crime, prison overcrowding, and widespread misery — misery that has spread beyond our borders (the terrible situation in Mexico is caused by the U.S. demand for illegal drugs). All of this would go away if we treated drugs as we do alcohol and tobacco, but the government prefers to retain its power in this area, despite the palpable failure of the War on Drugs and the hideous costs this “war” has imposed on each and every one of us.

    Government, Reagan said, is the problem and not the solution. A simplistic formulation, and one that I cannot agree with 100% — yet it contains more than a grain of truth.

Comments are closed.