The quiet dialogue between the U.S., Iran
By Maggie Farley, Times Staff Writer
5:16 PM PST, March 8, 2007


UNITED NATIONS -- The White House insists that the United States will not talk directly with Iran until Tehran suspends its nuclear program. But U.S. officials have been discreetly meeting their Iranian counterparts one-on-one for more than a decade, often under the auspices of the United Nations.

The little-known history of the contacts between the nations, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis 27 years ago, is one of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Budding cooperation on Afghanistan, Iraq and rooting out al-Qaida has led to increased distrust and frustration instead of warmer ties -- a record that makes a summit both countries plan to attend this weekend in Baghdad all the more fraught.

David Satterfield, the top adviser on Iraq to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, said Thursday that he would confront Iran about its suspected provision of materiel and training for Iraqi attacks on U.S. troops. He added that he would not seek out Iranian diplomats, but said, "If we are approached over orange juice ... we are not going to turn and walk away."

Despite decades of enduring tensions, the continuing conversations reveal a slender swathe of common ground upon which Washington and Tehran have built a delicate bridge: The two share an interest in the region's security and resources.

"The point is that we think the Iranians can do a lot that will be conducive to peace in the region and good for them and good for their people," White House spokesman Tony Snow said last week. "We're going to continue doing whatever we can to encourage them to do it. And if they want to have bilateral relations, it is up to them."

Whispered dealings between the longtime foes have had a way of going wrong. Secret negotiations by the Reagan administration for Iran's help securing the release of American hostages in Lebanon in exchange for sending arms to Nicaraguan rebels produced the "Iran-Contra scandal."

In 1994, President Clinton covertly condoned Iran's arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims, but criticism after it was revealed in 1996 kept Iran and the U.S. from broadening ties. In 1999, Clinton tried to bring the talks out in the open, offering an "authoritative and unconditional" dialogue with Iran, but Tehran insisted that the U.S. lift its sanctions first.

In the end, it was the U.N. that provided a discreet diplomatic safe house in which the two countries could talk.

In 1998, a U.N. diplomat from Algeria named Lakhdar Brahimi created a group called the "6(plus)2" that met in New York about resolving the conflict in Afghanistan. It consisted of the country's six neighbors: China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, plus Russia and the U.S.

"I remember the Iranian diplomats and the Americans saying that this was the first time they were in the same small room together," Brahimi said in an interview. In 2001, the U.N. created another forum to ease contacts between the U.S. and Iran, called the Geneva Initiative, which included Italy and Germany.

"It was really just a cover to allow the Iranians and the U.S. to meet," Brahimi said. "After a while, I told them, 'We don't have to drag the Italians and Germans in every time you want to talk.' Then when it just us sitting at the table, I would get up and tell them, 'I will leave you alone.' "

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Iran and the U.S. suddenly had a common enemy in the Taliban: the Sunni rulers of Afghanistan, whom Iran regarded as a threat and the U.S. considered the protectors of Osama bin Laden. In the days before the United States' Oct. 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan, officials from Iran and the U.S. met intensively through the U.N. in Geneva to coordinate the Iran-backed anti-Taliban warlords with U.S. forces.

The cooperation continued politically as well. Iranian diplomats were particularly helpful during a conference in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001 that established Afghanistan's interim government.

James Dobbins, who represented the State Department at the time, said the Iranian diplomats were "essential" in shaping Afghanistan's new government. At one turning point, the representative of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Yunus Qanooni, insisted on controlling 18 of 24 ministries, a demand that would cause the whole agreement to crumble.

Dobbins said that after diplomats from several countries "worked him over" through the night, Iran's U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif, took him aside and whispered in his ear, "This is the best deal you're going to get. You better take it." Qanooni conceded two ministries and the deal was sealed. "It was decisive," Dobbins said.

Iran made clear it was interested in a broader strategic dialogue with the United States. But the U.S., sensing it had the upper hand, brushed off the overtures, Dobbins said. Then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote to thank every foreign minister who had attended the conference -- except Iran.

Six weeks later, President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address dubbed Iran part of the "Axis of Evil." Iranians had been expecting some sort of diplomatic reward in exchange for the help in Afghanistan, and took it as a slap in the face.

Still, Iranian diplomats continued to meet in Kabul with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, for about another year, usually in Brahimi's U.N. villa, known as Palace No. 7. The Afghan-born Khalilzad was at the Bonn conference and would become a key player in the cautious diplomatic connection. He spoke Farsi. He went on to become the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has been nominated as the U.N. ambassador, and will be at the table Saturday in Baghdad.

The talks about Afghanistan broadened to include other strategic issues.

"They certainly talked about al-Qaida and Iraq," Brahimi said. "But I don't how much they discussed wider issues, such as the resumption of diplomatic relations. They certainly did not when we were around."

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