A History Worth Remembering – a short review of Iranian engagements

International news outlets bolstered the recent round of 5+1 negotiations in Geneva, with the BBC reporting an “upbeat mood” and CNN and Reuters speaking of “cautions optimism”, calling the talks “serious.” President Barack Obama has just urged Congress to halt new sanctions on Iran and an Iranian official pledged a “new approach” to the long-stalled talks. President Rouhani, a thirty-five-year veteran of the Islamic regime’s national security, is now the master of a new form of Iranian engagement that is gradually being adopted by both the United Nations and the White House. Is this a new era? Or is it perhaps a repeat of a forgotten one? There is a pattern to the way of the Mullahs. A brief review of history can shed some light on the recent Iranian rhetoric.

Following 9/11, as America was considering taking action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic regime faced a dilemma. On the one hand, they didn’t want to see American soldiers marching at their borders, but on the other, they wanted to see an end to the Taliban. According to Dexter Filkins, who researched these episodes for the New Yorker, It was then that Iran defaulted to diplomacy. At one point, the lead Iranian negotiator handed the American representative, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.”

It might seem quite surprising that the Islamic regime would help the Americans find Taliban targets, but for Iran this was a risk-free, win-win strategy. They demonstrated goodwill and scored points with the U.S. while advancing their own strategic interests in the process, not to mention winning an indirect advocate in no other than Ambassador Crocker. Fast forward to March 2003. U.S. forces are now in Iraq and Iranian officials are scared to death that they are next on President Bush’s list. Fortunately for them, the map they gave Ambassador Crocker can now be used to their advantage.

Ambassador Crocker is dispatched to Baghdad to organize the Iraqi Governing Council. He realizes that many of the Iraqi politicians are in constant consultation with Iran, flying back and forth between Baghdad and Tehran to strengthen the Shi’a core. Instead of putting a stop to this, Crocker sees this as an “enormous opportunity” that might “flip an enemy into a friend.” According to Filkins, Crocker gives “the names of prospective Shiite candidates” to the head of the Islamic regime’s notorious Quds force, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, and he “abandons candidates whom Suleimani finds especially objectionable.”  In Ambassador Crocker’s own words, “the formation of the governing council was in its essence a negotiation between Tehran and Washington.”

After the formation of the governing council the situation begins to deteriorate. “Everything collapsed,” Crocker admitted to Filkins. As the American occupation faltered, Suleimani (read: Islamic Regime) began an aggressive campaign of sabotage. According to Americans and Iraqis interviewed by Filkins, when the fear of an American invasion began to recede, the Iranians became aggressive and started using tactics such a sectarian violence, road bombs, bribery, intimidation and assassination in order to solidify their position in Iraq and weaken the American one.

Moving on to the end of the decade, In 2010, Ayad Alawii, a pro-West secular politician, wins the majority seat in the Iraqi parliament. But, an Iranian-supported campaign of bribery and intimidation makes it impossible for him to form a government. On December 2010, James Jeffrey, the American Ambassador to Iraq, and General Lloyd Austin, the top American commander, congratulated the Iraqi people on a new government with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at its head. What they didn’t mention, writes Filkins, “was that the crucial deal that brought the Iraqi government together was made not by them but by Suleimani.”

The Mullahs, through Suleimani, had done it again. With their position of power, the Iranians imposed two conditions on Iraq. One, that Jalal Talabani, a longtime friend of the Iranian regime, must become President. Two, that Maliki and his coalition partners must insist that all American troops leave the country. From being terrified of being next on the American hit list, Iran managed to come out ahead by taking advantage of American diplomats who naively saw “opportunities for cooperation” and were eager to “improve relations and avoid conflict.”

Fast forward to 2013. Diplomacy prevails yet again and the Iranians come to the negotiating table with smiles and open arms, reassuring every one of their good intentions. President Rouhani announces a prisoner release but forgot to mention the 125 Iranians who were executed since he took office and the record 50 individuals he had executed just last month. Sound familiar?

The regime in Iran will not change overnight, especially not while the Mullahs continue to have control. There is a bloody history worth remembering here. And those choosing to engage with Iran must beware.

Those who forget do so at everyone’s detriment, not just their own.

Dr. Nir Boms is a co-founder of CyberDissidensts.org. Shayan Arya is an expert on Iran and a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran (Liberal Democrat).

2 responses to “A History Worth Remembering – a short review of Iranian engagements”

  1. Sheila Raviv says:

    Thank you for explaining and reminding us of the history of post-Shah Iran’s engagements with the West.
    How strong is the younger generations desire for change and how able are they to express their wish for relations with the West?

  2. Nir Boms says:

    We have seen the new generation of Iran calling for change and we know that many would like to see a different life for them and for their county. They could use some encouragement, of course, and to begin with much stronger support for the Iranian dissidents who raise their voice and are put behind bars.

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