The Magazine

On to Iran!

Checkmating the clerics.

Feb 18, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 22 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Nevertheless, the State Department saw the Afghan war as an excellent opportunity to build a bridge to the clerical regime, since the enemy (the Iranians) of my enemy (the Taliban) ought to be my friend. With the department's Policy Planning boss Richard Haass in the lead, State began sending signals to Tehran, and to Congress, that Iran was being helpful to America's antiterrorist coalition. U.S. officials were favorably impressed with Iran's promise to undertake search-and-rescue missions for any American pilot downed over Iranian territory. Ditto with the Iranian military aid program to Ismail Khan, the Afghan warlord whom the Taliban in 1995 chased from the western provincial capital of Herat. In Washington, some U.S. officials spoke with hushed awe of the intelligence Tehran provided about the whereabouts of Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden. And the clerics didn't sabotage the Bonn conference on Afghanistan's political future. All in all, according to Ambassador Haass, the Iranians were playing a "constructive" role in Afghanistan.

This was nonsense. The "pro-American drift" (Washington Post) of the Iranian government during the Afghan war was an illusion--Persian realpolitik, as fear of American airpower dovetailed with Western hopefulness and gullibility. The clerics in Tehran, attentive students of history who keenly understand the anti-American ideological underpinnings of their regime, knew that the American enemy of a Muslim foe must remain the enemy. In the war against the Taliban, the clerics actually gave us little to nothing. Allowing U.S. warplanes and helicopter crews overflight and search-and-rescue rights in Iranian airspace would have been something; offering to aid a hypothetically downed pilot was not. (The Iranians probably would have returned any stranded U.S. pilot--B-52s and smart bombs concentrate the mind--but it might not have been the quickest homeward voyage.) And Tehran's providing information about the whereabouts of senior Taliban and al Qaeda officials isn't particularly compelling evidence of friendly intentions. Whatever they gave us obviously wasn't top-drawer stuff since most of the leadership of the Taliban and al Qaeda appear to have escaped. Also, if the clerics could get Americans to bomb Taliban leaders they hate, this again seems most sensible and sound--a bit like getting Washington to give you anti-tank missiles in exchange for liberating American hostages whom your foreign proxies kidnapped. Tehran's arming of Ismail Khan, as we can now clearly see, is a double-edged affair, since with the strategic city of Herat back in the Iranian orbit, the clerics can once again become players in Afghanistan's hardball internecine politics.

Which is, of course, why the Iranians had no need to complicate the Bonn conference. The facts on the ground, not any arrangements in Germany, will decide Afghanistan's fate. All the Iranians really needed from the conference was the assurance that the exiled Afghan king, Zahir Shah, wasn't immediately going home. The clerics, who understandably felt uncomfortable with the image of a shah returning to unify his nation, found all the discussion of the king's return frightfully loathsome. Since the return of Zahir Shah is a troublesome issue for the Afghans themselves, the Iranians need not have worried. Tehran now just has to bide its time, hoping that the Americans--whom the clerics fear far more than the Afghan-meddling Pakistanis--don't have the perseverance to long remain a force in Afghan politics. Given America's post-Vietnam aversion to nation-building, and since Washington hasn't even yet opened a U.S. consulate in Herat, it's probably a good bet.