Following my bewilderment
over Dr. Ali Ansari’s reference to the apparently essential help provided by Iran to the coalition in liberating Afghanistan from the Taliban, TAE wrote to Dr. Ansari to enquire about just what he meant. Dr. Ansari, who is employed at the University of St. Andrews in addition to being affiliated with Chatham House, was gracious enough to respond, and we exchanged a couple of e-mails. He explained that:
Iran provided the Northern Alliance, as well as logistical support. It is suspected though not confirmed that airspace was used for flights, and publicly Iran offered to assist any Coalition pilots that may be shot down. It is generally acknowledged that Afghanistan would not have been so swift or indeed easy had the Iranians not been on board both during and after - in the Bonn Talks. There was a palpable sense of detente at the time, to be deflected in good time by the discovery of the Karine A, which was used as a justification by the Bush administration to include Iran in the axis of evil, although if Pollack is to be believed, Iran's inclusion was something of an afterthought! Bizarre if that's true because the consequences in Iran were devastating.
He also pointed out:
Opportunities were missed on both sides of course. I wouldn't want the impression to be given that Iran was reasonable while the US was unreasonable. My contention is (as will be discussed in my forthcoming book), that both sides have been unreasonable at the most unfortunate times!
When asked where one might find references to public offers of Iranian assistance to any downed coalition pilots (TAE did several google searches, but was unable to find anything) Dr. Ansari said that he had such references, but couldn’t dig them out at the moment.
TAE also pointed out several quotations
of Iranian officials from the fall of 2001 condemning the US operation in Afghanistan, and asked Dr. Ansari how such rhetoric might be explained if Iran was in fact providing essential assistance to the very same operation. He said:
This is just normal public/private diplomacy at work Iranian style (though I should say not exclusive to Iran!). The Islamic Republic could not appear to condone an attack on another Muslim country, but privately, as they were with Saddam, there was barely disguised glee. Iran had almost gone to war with the Taleban in 1998, mobilising some 200,000 troops after the Taleban had massacred Shia's in Mazar e Sharif including 9 Iranian diplomats. There is no love lost between the hard line Sunnis and the Shia. Moreover, Iran had been fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal and the US action (as in Iraq) would open the way up for Iranian gains, as they have been doing methodically since. The great paradox of US-Iran relations is that the animosity disguises a massive coincidence of interests!
It is worth pointing out here that Dr. Ansari’s original point in the BBC interview was that the west (ie the US) had essentially snubbed Iran with the “axis of evil” label after it had provided crucial assistance during the Afghanistan campaign, and that this resulted in a squandered “opportunity” to engage Iran diplomatically over its nuclear ambitions.
…people have long memories in Iran and they say, “Well, we offered them opportunities and they didn’t take them.”
It is difficult for me to understand exactly how Iranian pursuit of a long-held strategic ambition – the demise of the Taliban – by privately cheering on the US as it did the heavy lifting, all the while publicly demonizing the US for domestic political reasons, represents some sort of “offer” of goodwill at all, much less one upon which an attempt to thwart Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons might have been built.
Also of interest is Dr. Ansari’s mention of the Karine A incident. Recall that, in early January 2002
(after Afghanistan and before Bush’s “axis of evil” speech), a Palestinian ship bound for Gaza was intercepted by Israeli commandos, and it was subsequently revealed that the ship contained $15 million worth of illicit Iranian weapons. Dr. Ansari says that this incident, coming at a time characterized by “a palpable sense of détente” between Iran and the US, was “used as a justification by the Bush administration to include Iran in the axis of evil…”
Perhaps, but Dr. Ansari ignores the more fundamental question of whether shipping $15 million worth of weapons to terrorists in Palestine does indeed
justify inclusion in the axis of evil, and, if so, just which party, Iran or the US, was actually responsible for the demise of this détente.
In any event, many thanks Dr. Ansari for taking the time to respond, and for clarifying his position for TAE.