One of the interesting things about Russia’s move to bolster the Assad regime by launching hundreds of airstrikes from Moscow’s new air base at Latakia is that it allowed Iran to be more transparent about the role it plays in Syria. To be sure, Tehran has long supported the regime both militarily and financially, but by June, IRGC commanders had apparently become fed up with SAA incompetence, which prompted Qassem Soleimani to visit Putin and explain that if Russia didn’t intervene quickly, Damascus would be lost to rebels backed by the West and its regional allies.
Putin, sensing an opportunity to supplant Washington as Mid-East puppet master, agreed to intervene and having thus procured the superpower stamp of approval, Iran suddenly ceased trying to hide its overt military support for Assad. First, reports of an increased Iranian troop presence began to surface. Next, the entire world woke up to what it meant that Hezbollah is fighting alongside Assad (i.e. the public suddenly came to understand that Hezbollah = Iran). Finally, on the eve of the assault on Aleppo, Soleimani was on the frontlines taking selfies with Shiite militiamen he called up from Iraq. In other words, Iran is no longer making any secret of its efforts to fight Sunni extremism in Syria in support of Assad.
The interesting thing about this is that Iran was prepared to play a similar role in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 only instead of aiding Russia, Tehran was prepared to support the US in the battle against the Taliban and subsequently against Saddam. Predictably, American incompetence screwed the pooch when George Bush, presumably unaware of the realities on the ground, named Iran as a member of his infamous “Axis Of Evil.” Consider the following account from The New Yorker:
In the chaotic days after the attacks of September 11th, Ryan Crocker, then a senior State Department official, flew discreetly to Geneva to meet a group of Iranian diplomats. “I’d fly out on a Friday and then back on Sunday, so nobody in the office knew where I’d been,” Crocker told me. “We’d stay up all night in those meetings.” It seemed clear to Crocker that the Iranians were answering to Suleimani, whom they referred to as “Haji Qassem,” and that they were eager to help the United States destroy their mutual enemy, the Taliban.
Before the bombing began, Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban. At a meeting in early October, 2001, the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. “If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!” he shouted. “When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.”
The coöperation between the two countries lasted through the initial phase of the war. At one point, the lead negotiator handed Crocker a map detailing the disposition of Taliban forces. “Here’s our advice: hit them here first, and then hit them over here. And here’s the logic.” Stunned, Crocker asked, “Can I take notes?” The negotiator replied, “You can keep the map.”
The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”
Apparently, that assessment is shared by CIA Director John Brennan, who you’ll recall had his e-mail hacked this month by a 13-year old belonging to a group called “Crackas With Attitude.”
In the wake of the hack (which we documented here), Wikileaks has published a series of documents, one of which is entitled “The Conundrum of Iran.” In it, Brennan outlines his reservations about US policy vis-a-vis Tehran noting that the US needs to “tone down the rhetoric” and seek constructive dialogue even as he chides Tehran for its role in promoting international terrorism. Here are some notable excerpts:
Iran will be a major player on the world stage in the decades ahead, and its actions and behavior will have a major and enduring impact on near- and long-term U.S. interests on a wide variety of regional and global issues.
The United States has no choice but to find a way to coexist—and to come to terms—with whatever government holds power in Tehran.
An unfortunate hallmark of U.S.-Iranian relations since 2001 has been growing divide between Washington and Tehran, chronicled by bombastic rhetorical broadsides that have been hurled publicly by each side against the other.
The tragedy of the al-Qa’ida launched terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland in September 2001 prompted the U.S. Administration to engage in a far-reaching campaign to eradicate the sources of terrorism, and Iran, understandably—but regrettably—was swept up in the emotionally charged rhetoric that emanated from Washington under the seemingly all-encompassing rubric of “The Global War on Terrorism.”
The gratuitous labeling of Iran as part of a worldwide “axis of evil” by President Bush combined with strong U.S. criticisms of Iran’s nascent nuclear program and its meddling in Iraq led Tehran to the view that Washington had embarked on a course of confrontation in the region that would soon set a kinetic focus on Iran. Even Iran’s positive engagement in helping repair the post Taliban political environment in Afghanistan was met with indifference by Washington.
According to James Dobbins, the Bush Administration’s first U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Iranian diplomats made important contributions to the success of U.N. sponsored negotiations that resulted in the inauguration of the Karzai Government in Kabul. But unlike the foreign ministers of other nations involved in those negotiations, Iran’s foreign minister did not receive a personal note of thanks from his U.S. counterpart, despite, according to Dobbins, the fact that he “may have been the most helpful.”
In other words, Iran played a major role in helping the US fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda and was probably more than willing to engage with Washington in Iraq as well, but the US couldn't even be bothered to send Tehran a thank you note and on top of that, The White House branded the Iranians "evil" even as they were providing the Pentagon with critical intelligence in Afghanistan.
Now, in Syria, we've come full circle. The US and its regional allies are sponsoring the very same terrorists (al-Qaeda in the form of al-Nusra) they were battling in Afghanistan and Iran is fighting alongside the Russians to eradicate the group along with a bevy of other rebel factions. In other words, this is just a rerun of the Soviet-Afghan war only this time, the outcome will likely be far different thanks in no small part to Iran's ground operations. Tehran is of course also battling Sunni extremists in Iraq.
The question going forward is whether America has learned anything from the "Axis of Evil" debacle or whether Washington will continue to insist that Tehran is the largest state sponsor of terror on the planet even as the IRGC commits soldiers to fight all of the terrorist groups operating in Syria that are directly or indirectly supported by the country which, if we we're being honest, is actually the lead sponsor of global terrorism: the US.