Cooperation into Conflict: the United States and Iran in the Invasion of Afghanistan
By Anonymous | Summer 2023
In October of 2001, the United States found itself on a war footing. Al-Qaeda was undeniably responsible for the horrific attacks on September 11th, and the Bush Administration had issued an ultimatum to the Taliban: turn over Osama bin Laden and his allies or share their fate. Following the Taliban’s summary rejection, the United States was at a de facto state of war with Afghanistan. The only problem was that America had incredibly limited resources in the foreboding mountainous nation known as the “graveyard of empires.” Since the Afghan Civil War, there had been no official U.S. presence in-country, and very few intelligence officers had stepped foot in Afghanistan. How then, would Bush and his deputies overcome this sizeable obstacle to a successful invasion?
The solution they came up with was as surprising as it was unorthodox. The State Department quietly dispatched seasoned diplomat Ryan Crocker to Geneva.1 Crocker met with Iranian representatives through a process called the Geneva Initiative, which consisted of Germany, Italy, Iran, and the United States. Prior to 9/11, the backchannel was a low priority item, but after the attacks, it was used to “put the U.S. and Iran in the same room on an issue of common concern.”1 The Iranian delegates made it very clear to Crocker that “they viewed the United States as a strategic partner for Iran, not an adversary. ‘We needed to work our way through our multiplicity of differences, and let’s start with Afghanistan.’”2
The Iranian regime had been involved in a proxy conflict with the Taliban since the mid 1990s; they viewed the fundamentalist Sunni government as a major national security threat. Furthermore, the Taliban had engaged in brutal repression bordering on ethnic cleansing of the Shia minority in northern Afghanistan. Iran has long seen itself as the protector of the Shia community and took major offense at these transgressions against their brethren. As such, then-President Khatami recognized that the United States would need help in their upcoming invasion, and that his country could be invaluable to the shared goal of ousting Mullah Omar and the Taliban. Since the early 1990s, Iranian intelligence had been cultivating relationships with anti-Taliban leaders, simultaneously supporting their insurgency and collecting military and political intelligence on the Afghan regime. The time had come for the Islamic Republic to deploy the assets and information they had been developing, in furtherance of shared American and Iranian goals.
Pursuant to the two nations’ shared interests, the talks were immediately productive. The Iranian diplomats did not show up to meetings with platitudes or talking points. Instead, they came armed with maps, battle plans, and intelligence reports. The Iranians were ostensibly under the direction of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, a man deeply familiar with the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.3,4 The Iranians’ intelligence and information was invaluable to American tactical planning; the CIA only had a handful of linguists and political analysts who knew much about the country. Conversely, Iran had been involved in the creation of the Northern Alliance and provided a steady stream of military aid to various factions.
Shortly after the meetings between Crocker and his Iranian counterparts began, U.S. paramilitary forces began entrance into Northern Alliance territory. It does not take much supposition to say that Iranian assistance was essential to those initial forays; they facilitated contact with various Norther Alliance commanders and provided the requisite military intelligence for those initial offensives to be successful. In fact, upon the CIA Alpha Team’s arrival in Afghanistan, they met with Northern Alliance Commander General Dostum to plan their imminent offensive and found themselves sitting across from a Quds Force officer.5 The Americans ultimately asked the officer to leave, but the Iranian’s presence tells a story in itself. The Iranians wanted to ensure that America’s offensives were successful and pulled away any obstructions to that goal. In fact, the Iranian delegates to the Geneva Initiative were reported to have gotten frustrated with the Americans on several occasions, demanding that they get on with the invasion and stop dragging their heels.1,3
Following the fall of Kabul and collapse of the Taliban’s regime, the United States, Iran, NATO allies, and Afghan parties organized a conference to establish an interim Afghan authority. The meeting was held in Bonn, Germany, the site of the Allied Commission for Germany after World War II. The Bush Administration dispatched career foreign service officer James Dobbins to the conference.6 Dobbins was sent with a mandate to “get almost any agreement… so long as it resulted in an Afghan government that could replace the Taliban, unite the opposition, secure international support, cooperate in hunting down al-Qaeda remnants, and relieve the United States of the need to occupy the country.”7
The official talks were exclusively attended by Afghan representatives, so the outside parties had to work behind the scenes in sideline talks with various factions.7 Dobbins met daily with his Iranian counterparts, and they came to many of the same conclusions regarding an interim government’s structure and their mutual desire for Hamid Karzai to head that government.8 Dobbins established a productive working relationship with Javad Zarif, a western-educated Iranian diplomat with considerable influence in both Tehran and Afghanistan. When a draft of the conference’s agreements was released, Zarif jokingly asked Dobbins “don’t you think the new Afghan regime should be committed to hold democratic elections [and] cooperate in combating… terrorism?”7
As the conference drew to a close, a major issue had yet to be settled: who would lead the interim government? One faction wanted the exiled King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, to head the new government — something the Northern Alliance flatly rejected.2 The impasse threatened to derail the entire conference, with multiple subgroups of the Northern Alliance threatening to break away over the disagreement. The American and Iranian delegations worked in concert to secure Hamid Karzai’s nomination and support from all sides, eventually securing his position at the head of Afghanistan’s interim authority.2
The Bonn Conference was a curious event if the observer operates under the assumption that Iran hoped to avoid American influence in post-war Afghanistan. Iranian delegates supported the nomination of Hamid Karzai as head of the interim authority, even though he was a heavily pro-American commander who had fought alongside U.S. Special Forces during their invasion. Furthermore, their diplomats seemed just as committed as the Americans to ensuring a viable, ethnically representative government was formed in Kabul, as well as to tracking down the remnants of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
In reality, American and Iranian goals at the Bonn Conference and beyond were direct parallels to each other; both nations wanted a stable, non-radical Afghanistan to form as soon as possible and to avoid deploying large contingents of their armed forces to oversee the nation-building process. Ryan Crocker continued his parallel conversations with Iranian representatives once he reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The two parties collaborated on maintaining a balance of power between the Northern Alliance factions, hoping to stop the war from devolving into another civil conflict among warring militias.2 And while many Al-Qaeda commanders had fled to Iran, hoping the Iranian government would permit them to stay in hiding, the Iranian government held dozens of al-Qaeda affiliates in custody. This included putting members of the Bin Laden family under house arrest in a hotel owned by an IRGC subsidiary, overseen by Qassem Soleimani.4*
While diplomats and special forces alike were reaping the benefits of cooperation with Iran, a different tone was becoming more prevalent in Washington. Following the success of the Afghan invasion at a relatively low cost, Donald Rumsfeld and the Department of Defense had gained greater influence over U.S. strategy in the Middle East. He and his deputies stood firmly against cooperation with Iran, viewing them as the overarching American enemy in the region. As the new Afghan government took power, President Bush delivered his now-infamous 2002 State of the Union address. Included in his remarks was a provocative statement: he branded Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as members of an Axis of Evil, sponsoring terrorism and pursuing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in violation of international law.9 As Afghanistan seemed to have stabilized, Rumsfeld’s argument in favor of deposing America’s old regional foe, Saddam Hussein, gained traction.
The statement came as a total surprise to the State Department and the CIA, who were understandably angered at being blindsided by Bush’s accusations. The Iranians suspended official talks for several months following the speech and made it very clear that they were not pleased to have been included in the list of threats to world peace.1 In response to the accusation, Iran released militia commander Bulbuddin Hekmatyar back into Afghanistan, where he became an important anti-U.S. militia leader. Iranian representatives made it clear to their American interlocutors that “they had put their necks out to talk to [them] and that they were taking big risks with their careers and their families and their lives.”10
Despite the public animosities between the United States and Iran following the “Axis of Evil” speech, Khatami still hoped to find points of cooperation between the two countries. Iran and Iraq also have a sordid history; nearly a million Iranians lost their lives at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s forces between 1980 and 1988.11 In theory, deposing Saddam was very attractive to Iranian officials, and they hoped to build a cooperation system like the one in Afghanistan. Iranian representatives offered to furnish the U.S. military with intelligence, allow American planes to use their airspace to fly sorties into Iraq, and provide aid in the case of a possible refugee crisis resulting from the conflict.2
After weeks of deliberation in Washington, the Bush administration chose to reject Iran’s offer of assistance in Iraq, stating that American representatives would “continue to meet with Iranian Government representative in multilateral settings when it serves U.S. interests,” but that would be the extent of the two governments’ contact going forward.2 Three months later, U.S. forces invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, effectively ticking off the second Middle East country in their crosshairs.
Several weeks after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, a curious document was faxed to the State Department from the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who looked after American interests in-country. The document appeared to be an offer for a grand bargain between Iran and the United States; it succinctly laid out what Iran understood to be America’s main issues with Iranian conduct, while presenting in “mutual respect” Iran’s goals from an overarching dialogue.12 The document put everything on the table, from ceasing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, to reforming Hezbollah as a solely political entity and ceasing material support to Palestinian resistance groups. It also laid out a system by which the two nations could work together to establish a post-Saddam Iraqi democracy. The author of the bargain was a senior Iranian diplomat, who had met with various important players in Tehran, including the Supreme Leader. They had all approved the offer.
The bargain met mixed reviews in Washington. The National Security Council’s Middle East desk saw it as an unprecedented strategic opportunity for an opening between the two countries, akin to President Nixon’s trip to China in the 1970s.12 The State Department was suspicious of the offer; they thought the Swiss Ambassador may have been taking liberties with what the Iranians had promised, and that it was unlikely more conservative members of the Islamic Republic had approved the document. Despite his staff’s misgivings, Secretary of State Powell agreed with the NSC that it was an opportunity worth pursuing. When they tried to initiate a conversation regarding the document with President Bush, however, Powell and members of the NSC were stopped by Don Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney.13 The two idealistic stalwarts of “we don’t talk to evil” stopped the document from ever reaching the President’s desk, and the Iranians never received a response.
In actuality, the document was a test more than anything. Khamenei had signed off on the communique as an opportunity to test whether the Americans actually had any interest in easing tensions between the two countries. America’s silence was answer enough for them, and Khamenei decided that, following a successful invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military would set its sights on Tehran.
Iran’s decision to send special forces to Iraq and build Shia resistance militias was the final nail in the coffin of U.S.-Iranian cooperation in the War on Terror. It quickly became apparent that the Iranians were training and supplying regional militias who were inflicting major American casualties.2 Iran still had considerable contact with Shia communities living under Saddam’s rule, largely because of their efforts to build a domestic resistance during the Iran-Iraq War. Iranian intelligence agencies’ preexisting infrastructure in Iraq made the creation of an anti-American force all the easier.2
In early 2003, the former president of Iran proclaimed that the United States was “stuck in the mud of Iraq, and they know that if Iran wanted to, it could make their problems even worse.”2 Despite the success of their cooperation and the possibility of a generational change in bilateral relations, U.S.-Iranian relations had returned to their decades old pattern of overt hostile rhetoric, coupled with covert action intended to limit each other’s influence in the Middle East.