US foreign policy

Washington and Tehran’s costly dance

Ghassan Charbel

Published: Updated:

States bordering Afghanistan are preparing to co-exist with either a devastating civil war in the country following the withdrawal of US troops or the fall of Afghanistan into the grip of the Taliban. Though it might take a few months, there are no indications that Kabul will be unattainable for the movement. President Joe Biden’s decision to send strategic launchers to hinder Taliban attacks on the capital cities of Afghani governorates may delay their fall into the movement’s hands, but it cannot stop it. The unrest of the US-trained Afghani government reflects its fear of losing grip. Interpreters scrambling to catch departing US flights is almost an omen that the Taliban’s control may be delayed for some time but is inevitable.

Iran, for its part, has been lucky. When the Taliban was controlling Afghanistan, skirmishes erupted on the borders between the two countries. Iran had no winning cards. Any extension of conflicts would have led to a Sunni-Shia conflict that would have inevitably involved Pakistan. Then came 9/11, one of the best gifts Iran could have received: the US Army advanced and uprooted the anti-Tehran government in Kabul. As if the Afghani gift was not enough, the US went on to give Iran the gift of a lifetime a few years later by uprooting Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had been obstructing the flow of Iranian influence to Iraq and the rest of the region, in a ravaging war.

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Despite the two gifts, Iran pursued its policy of expelling the US from the region, particularly from those countries where Tehran dreamt of having a foothold and control. Betting on the Americans’ eventual exhaustion and departure, Tehran played, deceived, and tricked Washington.

In this context, I cannot but remember what former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told me in his memoir: “Once, in this very house (Talabani’s residence), Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told me: ‘Ask your friend the US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (then-US Ambassador to Baghdad) what the US wants from us. We supported Iraq’s liberation from Saddam. We supported the Governing Council and the election of a president. We supported this new status quo that Americans established in Iraq. We have supported everything the US did, so ask your friend: What more do they want?’ When I relayed this message to Khalilzad, he told me: ‘We want stability and security in Iraq.’”

Talabani added: “We tried, in vain, to bring together Khalilzad and Mottaki. We had reached a preliminary agreement from both sides, but then the Iranians backtracked when Condoleezza Rice went to Congress and hinted at this supposedly secret meeting.”

Tehran wanted to avoid direct confrontation with the US troops stationed along its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan, so it informed Talabani that Iran is willing to negotiate with Washington over the whole region, from Afghanistan to Lebanon, as long as the US shows the needed level of realism. Iraq was a testing ground for another thorny tug of war between Iran and the US. Former Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says that US officials spoke with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva on several occasions before the war and discussed practical and technical issues, the atmosphere in the region, and border issues. He affirms that these meetings continued until after Saddam’s fall, and it was the US who cut off this relation. “When we asked them why,” Zebari says, “they said some wanted persons from al-Qaeda are inside Iran and the latter refuses to extradite them.”

Iran was communicating in two languages and two manners. While Mottaki was asking what more Americans want from them, Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani was orchestrating a war against US presence in Iraq under fake names. In response to a question on whether Iran helped kill Americans in Iraq, Zebari says: “Certainly, but it did not support al-Qaeda, as is rumored. Rather, it supported some special groups. For instance, a special Mahdi Army group was trained and instructed to carry out operations [against US troops]. Syria certainly helped as well in the killing of Americans and the execution of car bombings. Syria launched an open war against us that practically led to the murder of dozens of thousands of Iraqis.”

Iran was feigning willingness to negotiate, demanding that Washington follow realistic policies. What was meant by realistic policies was for the Great Satan to admit that Iran could be its biggest partner in the Middle East. However, the other side of Iranian policy was based on attempts to undermine US military presence and influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In parallel with the diplomatic statements Tehran pronounced or encouraged friends to pronounce, Iran was pursuing the policy of fending off enemies by backing or creating organizations that scream their hatred for the US and Israel.

After two decades of tussle, maneuvers, and hits, it is no secret that the US is fatigued by its costly military interventions around the world. Realistically, the US policy seems to have lost some of its stability and clarity along the path of successive administrations and advisors.

The result is clear in more than one place. Through its proxies in Iraq, Iran has a quasi-veto against any decision taken by Iraqi authorities. The same applies in Lebanon. The Iranian influence in Syria needs no proof since its militias helped rescue the regime. A cease-fire in Yemen is not possible without Tehran’s approval. Thus, in the countries under Iran’s influence, President Ebrahim Raissi seems to be stronger than local presidents.

Has Washington tired of the Iran issue and thus seeks to float the nuclear deal under the excuse of focusing on confronting China’s rise? Is the Biden administration about to give yet another gift to Tehran, which never fails to remind the world of its ability to heat things up on several fronts in the region and to hinder maritime traffic in key straits and passages?

As Afghan capital cities fall like dominoes into Taliban’s hands, the people of the Middle East cannot but remember Washington and Tehran’s long and costly dance, for which many Arab states paid dearly.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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