By Michel R. Gordon, The New York Times
Sunday, 6 March 2016
WASHINGTON — Senior American officials held confidential talks with Iran about Iraq’s future in advance of the United States-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, and secured a promise that the Iranian military would not fire at United States warplanes that strayed into Iranian airspace, according to a new book by a ranking Bush administration official.
The previously undisclosed meetings, which were held in Geneva with Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations and future foreign minister, continued even after American troops seized Baghdad in April 2003.
“We wanted a commitment that Iran would not fire on U.S. aircraft if they accidentally flew over Iranian territory,” Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Nations, wrote in the “The Envoy,” being published this month by St. Martin’s Press.
But the Americans and Iranians had major differences over how to form a new Iraqi government and deal with Tehran’s support for terrorism. In May 2003, the Bush administration halted the dialogue after it accused Iran of harboring leaders of Al Qaeda who were blamed for a terrorist attack that killed eight Americans in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
More than a decade later, Mr. Khalilzad considers the failure to keep open a continuous channel to Iran one of the great what-ifs of the Iraq war.
“When the issue of terrorism was on the table in a May 2003 meeting, Mr. Zarif asked the United States to hand over leaders of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian opposition group known as the MEK, whom Hussein had given refuge in Iraq.”
“I am convinced that if we had combined diplomatic engagement with forcible actions, we could have shaped Iran’s conduct,” he wrote.
The book is being published as heated debate continues over the Obama administration’s policy toward Tehran, including the terms of the nuclear accord the United States and five other world powers negotiated with Iran.
The book by Mr. Khalilzad, a naturalized American who was born in Afghanistan and earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago, offers new insight into the debate over policy toward Iran within the Bush administration.
Whether there was real potential for a constructive dialogue with Iran about Iraq during the Bush years has been much debated. Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran diplomat, said that while officials from the two nations had productive consultations over Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the prospects for a similar discussion on postwar Iraq were greatly diminished after President George W. Bush described Iran as a member of the “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address.
“The chance for a serious dialogue that might actually have led somewhere pretty much ended with ‘axis of evil,’ ” said Mr. Crocker, who served as an American envoy to Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries in the region.
But Mr. Khalilzad was eager to see if the United States could elicit cooperation from Iran before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the White House authorized him to meet with Mr. Zarif.
Accompanied by Mr. Crocker, Mr. Khalilzad informed Mr. Zarif that the Bush administration wanted to establish a democratic government in Baghdad that would be at peace with its neighbors — a formulation that was intended to signal that the United States did not plan to expand its military operations into Iranian territory.
Mr. Zarif, however, had his own ideas on how postwar Iraq should be governed. He favored a quick handover to Iraqi exiles, argued that Iraqi security institutions should be rebuilt from the ground up, called for the extensive purging of former members of Hussein’s Baath Party and opposed an American occupation, Mr. Khalilzad wrote.
That approach, which appeared designed to magnify Iran’s influence inside Iraq, differed radically from Mr. Khalilzad’s strategy to form an interim Iraqi government that included Iraqis who had remained in the country during Hussein’s rule, and not just leaders in exile. Nor did Mr. Khalilzad favor sweeping purges of Baath Party members.
When the issue of terrorism was on the table in a May 2003 meeting, Mr. Zarif asked the United States to hand over leaders of the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian opposition group known as the MEK, whom Hussein had given refuge in Iraq. Mr. Khalilzad, in turn, complained that Iran was harboring Qaeda officials, including Osama bin Laden’s son.
That prompted the Iranians to “air the possibility of a direct exchange — MEK leaders for Al Qaeda leaders,” Mr. Khalilzad wrote. The Bush administration rejected the notion and then shut down the diplomatic channel that month after it linked the terrorist attack in Riyadh to Qaeda leaders in Iran.
Mr. Zarif did not respond to emails seeking comment.
After being named ambassador to Iraq in 2005, Mr. Khalilzad continued to argue privately for opening a channel to Iran.
Iraqi officials who traveled to Tehran told the American envoy that Iran was open to talking, and there was an occasion in 2006 during which American and Iranian policies appeared to overlap, Mr. Khalilzad asserts: Both countries concluded that the ineffectual Ibrahim al-Jaafari needed to be replaced as prime minister. Mr. Khalilzad wrote that Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds force, secretly traveled to Baghdad to deliver the message that Mr. Jaafari had to go.
Mr. Khalilzad wrote that during a meeting of the National Security Council, he persuaded Mr. Bush that he should be authorized to open a dialogue with the Iranians.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of a Shiite party with close ties to Tehran, traveled to Iran and urged Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to resume the talks. The Iranian leader agreed, and the Iranians assembled a team drawn from their Foreign Ministry and security agencies for the Baghdad-based talks, which an Iranian official publicly said Iran would attend.
Despite the high-profile nature of the Iranian delegation, Mr. Khalilzad said, he planned to focus on Iraq and ignore Iranian efforts to draw him into a discussion of a broader foreign policy agenda.
“For reasons that remain unclear to me, Washington did an about-face and canceled the meeting at the last minute,” Mr. Khalilzad wrote. “Khamenei, Hakim informed me, concluded from the incident that the Americans could not be trusted.”
Eventually, Mr. Khalilzad notes, the administration authorized “carefully circumscribed talks on Iraq,” which he and later Mr. Crocker pursued in Baghdad, but the discussions were not productive.
Philip D. Zelikow, who served as the State Department counselor at the time, said he was not aware of the National Security Council meeting that Mr. Khalilzad cited, but argued that the conditions in 2006 were not propitious for successful talks.
By 2005, State Department officials were becoming increasingly concerned that Iran was supplying Shiite militias with powerful improvised explosives and other weapons to attack American troops.
Mr. Zelikow argued that it would have made little sense to open talks with Iran until the United States was prepared to mount a serious crackdown on the Shiite militias and the Iranian network that was supporting them. That did not happen until 2007, when Mr. Bush authorized an increase of American troops and Gen. David H. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker were sent to Baghdad, he added.
“Until then, why bother talking to the Iranians about this issue if there was no muscle behind it?” Mr. Zelikow said.
But Mr. Khalilzad insists in his book that he favored tougher action against Iran in parallel with diplomacy, which led to the detention of a senior Iranian Quds force officer in Baghdad in December 2006, three months before Mr. Khalilzad wound up his tour there as ambassador.
The Bush administration, he wrote, “never authorized the kind of continuous engagement that might have shaped Iran’s conduct.”