The redacted Iran op-ed revealed
Ron Brynaert and Michael Roston
Friday December 22, 2006
The New York Times has taken the unusual step of publishing an op-ed in which parts of the contents have been "redacted" or blacked out by government censors, who believe that its contents would reveal "sensitive" information that the White House wants to withold. Below is RAW STORY's best informed guess at what might hide behind the redactions.
In addition to the redacted op-ed, the Times published an explanatory note from its authors, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann. Leverett served in the Bush National Security Council under Condoleezza Rice, and is now affiliated with the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution. Hillary Mann is an ex-foreign service officer who participated in US dialogue with Iran from 2001 to 2003.
Leverett and Mann made available a set of publicly-available sources of information which they had "provided...to the board to demonstrate that all of the material the White House objected to is already in the public domain." However, as they noted, "to make sense of much of our Op-Ed article, readers will have to read the citations for themselves."
RAW STORY has examined these sources and has attempted to connect the previously published materials to the redacted paragraphs in the op-ed. What the information reveals is a series of events in which US-Iran dialogue broke down. In the aftermath of 9/11, the cooperative spirit around the world sparked by America's victimhood encouraged Iran to collaborate with the United States in its effort to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the goodwill that might have been sustained by those early negotiations was undermined by a series of disputes between the US and Iran.
The matters that particularly undermined US-Iran dialogue involved the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq(MEK) -- an anti-Tehran militia that had been given safe harbor by Saddam Hussein in Iraq and had surrendered to the US -- as well as US allegations that Iran was giving safe haven to al Qaeda terrorists who had fled Afghanistan.
As the disputes over these issues deepened, and worries about Iran's nuclear ambitions spread, the conflict between the two states became more intractable. Leverett and Mann warn in their op-ed that negotiations between the two states on improving Iraq's stability will suffer as a consequence of this history of tumult. They write that "issue-specific engagement with Iran is bound to fail," because "resolving any of the significant bilateral differences between the United States and Iran inevitably requires resolving all of them."
The explanation will proceed redaction by redaction and include materials from the sources provided by the authors of the op-ed which RAW STORY believes might shed light on the removed portions of the article.
Leverett and Mann write:
But Tehran was profoundly disappointed with the United States response. After the 9/11 attacks, xxx xxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xx set the stage for a November 2001 meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and the foreign ministers of Afghanistan's six neighbors and Russia. xxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxx xx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx Iran went along, working with the United States to eliminate the Taliban and establish a post-Taliban political order in Afghanistan.
Secretary of State Powell in a press briefing en route to Moscow, December 9, 2001:
On Iran, setting aside pipelines. I am open to explore opportunities. We have been in discussions with the Iranians on a variety of levels and in some new ways since September 11. Jim Dobbins spoke with Iranians in Bonn as we put together the new interim administration in Afghanistan, and I had a brief handshake and discussion with the Iranian Prime Minister in the UN."
Flynt Leverett in an earlier New York Times op-ed on January 24, 2006:
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tehran offered to help Washington overthrow the Taliban and establish a new political order in Afghanistan.
James Dobbins in a May 6, 2004 Washington Post editorial:
Two weeks after the fall of Kabul, all the major elements of the Afghan opposition came together at a U.N.-sponsored conference in Bonn. The objective was to create a broadly based successor government to the Taliban. As the U.S. representative at that gathering, I worked both with the Afghan delegations and with the other national representatives who had the greatest influence among them, which is to say the Iranian, Russian and Indian envoys. All these delegations proved helpful. None was more so than the Iranians. On two occasions Iranian representatives made particularly memorable contributions. The original version of the Bonn agreement, drafted by the United Nations and amended by the Afghans who were present, neglected to mention either democracy or the war on terrorism. It was the Iranian representative who spotted these omissions and successfully urged that the newly emerging Afghan government be required to commit to both.
Next, Leverett and Mann write:
In December 2001, xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx x Tehran to keep Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the brutal pro-Al Qaeda warlord, from returning to Afghanistan to lead jihadist resistance there. xxxxx xxxxxxx so long as the Bush administration did not criticize it for harboring terrorists. But, in his January 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush did just that in labeling Iran part of the "axis of evil." Unsurprisingly, Mr. Hekmatyar managed to leave Iran in short order after the speech. xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxx the Islamic Republic could not be seen to be harboring terrorists.
From a February 2002 Time Magazine article by Tony Karon and Azadeh Moaeveni:
Not surprisingly, the U.S. wants Iran to end Hekmatyar's activities. And Iran's reformist elected government appears inclined to comply. They shut down his offices two weeks ago and the country's top foreign policy body, the Supreme National Security Council, voted last week to expel Hekmatyar from Iran. But Iranian media reports suggested the delay in implementing that decision resulted from urgent appeals from Washington and Kabul to hold off on expelling him. The Iranian daily Qods recently quoted an official source saying that "Karzai has asked Tehran to keep Hekmatyar in Iran so that Kabul is always informed about his whereabouts and activities."
One possible reason for requesting the delay: Following the closure of his offices, Hekmatyar warned that he would return to Afghanistan if forced to leave Iran. According to a spokesperson, the State Department hasn't sent any direct messages to Tehran about Hekmatyar. But Washington's preference is clear: "We're not looking for him to go back to Afghanistan," says the spokesperson. Iran would have liked him gone sooner, but according to Foreign Minister Kharrazi: "The reason Hekmatyar is still in Iran is because our friends and those outside the region have requested it, but he is free to leave the country."
Leverett and Mann write:
xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxx xxx xx xxxxxxx This demonstrated to Afghan warlords that they could not play America and Iran off one another and prompted Tehran to deport hundreds of suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives who had fled Afghanistan.
From the Washington Post on October 29, 2003 by Glenn Kessler:
The Bush administration has urged Iran to turn over al Qaeda members. Armitage in his testimony linked Iran's cooperation on al Qaeda to better relations with the United States, saying "resolution of this issue would be an important step in U.S.-Iranian relations." But he told reporters that it is not a prerequisite to restarting the talks.
Iran has privately suggested to the administration that it will turn over al Qaeda members in exchange for captured members of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group that had operated out of Iraq.
Armitage ruled out such a deal yesterday, "because we can't be sure of the way they'd be treated," referring to the MEK members. He said officials were questioning MEK members to determine who had terrorist connections. "In my understanding, a certain number of those do," he said, adding that they will face charges.
Under questioning, Armitage said it was a mistake for the U.S. military to have arranged a cease-fire agreement with the MEK during the war, a decision that alarmed Iran. "We shouldn't have been signing a cease-fire with a foreign terrorist organization," he said.
From Glenn Kessler in the Washington Post on May 25, 2003:
Until the Saudi bombings, some officials said, Iran had been relatively cooperative on al Qaeda. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Iran has turned over al Qaeda officials to Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. In talks, U.S. officials had repeatedly warned Iranian officials that if any al Qaeda operatives in Iran are implicated in attacks against Americans, it would have serious consequences for relations between the two countries.
Those talks, however, were held with representatives of Iran's foreign ministry. Other parts of the Iranian government are controlled not by elected reformers, but by conservative mullahs.
A senior administration official who is skeptical of the Pentagon's arguments said most of the al Qaeda members -- fewer than a dozen -- appear to be located in an isolated area of northeastern Iran, near the border with Afghanistan. He described the area as a drug-smuggling terrorist haven that is tolerated by key members of the Revolutionary Guards in part because they skim money off some of the activities there. It is not clear how much control the central Iranian government has over this area, he said.
"I don't think the elected government knows much about it," he said. "Why should you punish the rest of Iran," he asked, just because the government cannot act in this area?
The MEK soon became caught up in the policy struggle between the State Department and the Pentagon.
After the camps were bombed, the U.S. military arranged a cease-fire with the group, infuriating the Iranians. Some Pentagon officials, impressed by the military discipline and equipment of the thousands of MEK troops, began to envision them as a potential military force for use against Tehran, much like the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.
But the MEK is also listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department. Under pressure from State, the White House earlier this month ordered the Pentagon to disarm the MEK troops -- a decision that was secretly conveyed by U.S. officials to Iranian representatives at a meeting in Geneva on May 3.
Nine days later, the suicide bombers struck in Saudi Arabia.
From Flynt Leverett in a paper he wrote for The Century Foundation:
In the course of the U.S.-Iranian dialogue over Afghanistan, U.S. officials exhorted their Iranian counterparts to take steps to prevent al Qaeda and Taliban operatives from seeking sanctuary in Iran. In response, Iran deployed additional security forces to its border with Afghanistan and took several hundred fugitives into custody; the identities of these individuals were documented to the United Nations. In 2002, a number of these individuals, of Afghan origin, were repatriated to the new, post-Taliban Afghan government; others, of Saudi origin, were repatriated to Saudi Arabia. In the same year, a group of senior al Qaeda figures managed to find their way from Afghanistan into Iran, most likely via longstanding smuggling and human trafficking routes into Iran's Baluchistan province. In response to U.S. concerns, Tehran eventually took these individuals into custody and, in the spring of 2003, offered to exchange them for a small group of senior commanders among the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) cadres in Iraq. Even though the MEK has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. Department of State, the administration refused to consider any such exchange.
Leverett and Mann write:
xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx x xxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxxx xxx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx x xx x x xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xx xxxx xxxxx xxxxx xx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xx xxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxxxxxxx xx
Barbara Slavin in USA Today on May 11, 2003:
Iran's Islamic government is debating re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States for the first time in 23 years and is holding secret talks with U.S. diplomats in Geneva on a range of issues, including the shape of a new government in Iraq, U.S. and Iranian diplomats say.
Barbara Slavin in USA Today on May 21, 2003:
A fledgling dialogue between Iran and the United States has broken down over mutual accusations of support for terrorism, U.S. and Iranian officials said Wednesday.
White House officials confirmed a report in the Los Angeles Times that the United States had canceled a meeting scheduled in Geneva on Wednesday because of U.S. assertions that Iran is harboring al-Qaeda leaders implicated in suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia last week that killed 34 people, including eight Americans.
A senior Iranian diplomat denied the charges, however, and said the cancellation was mutual. He said Iran was angry over the U.S. failure to disarm an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, that is on a U.S. State Department list of terrorist groups. "Our information is that you have not disarmed the Mujahedin, and it is the height of hypocrisy for the United States to be criticizing Iran, which has captured more al-Qaeda than any other country," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A State Department official, who also asked not to be named, said the opposition group was being forced to give up its weapons, although it was unclear what would happen to the group's 3,500 members. "We want the Iranians to fulfill their obligations concerning terrorism just as we do," he said.
An op-ed from Flynt Leverett in the New York Times on January 24, 2006:
In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.
Finally, in October 2003, the Europeans got Iran to agree to suspend enrichment in order to pursue talks that might lead to an economic, nuclear and strategic deal. But the Bush administration refused to join the European initiative, ensuring that the talks failed.
Last, RAW STORY believes that this passage from Flynt Leverett's Century Foundation paper ("Dealing with Tehran," pp. 11-13, pdf link), bears relevance to the matters covered in the op-ed that was blocked by the White House:
To be sure, for a year and a half after September 11, the administration pursued a limited tactical engagement with Iran with regard to Afghanistan. Well before President Bush took office in January 2001, the United States had joined the United Nations' "6+2" framework for Afghanistan. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration used the cover of the "6+2" process to stand up what was effectively a freestanding bilateral channel with Iran, with regular (for the most part, monthly) meetings between U.S. and Iranian diplomats.
U.S. engagement with Tehran over Afghanistan provided significant and tangible benefits for the American position during the early stages of the war on terror. At a minimum, U.S. engagement with Tehran helped to neutralize the threat of Iranian actions on the ground, either by Afghan proxies or by Iranian intelligence and paramilitary assets, which could have made prosecution of Operation Enduring Freedom and subsequent post-conflict stabilization more difficult. More positively, engagement elicited crucial diplomatic cooperation from Iran, both during the war and afterwards. Over years, Iran had cultivated extensive relationships with key players on the Afghan political scene, including important warlords in northern and western Afghanistan. Iranian influence was critical for arming and managing these players during the U.S.-led coalition's military operations. After the war, Iranian influence induced these players to support the political settlement enshrined at the Bonn Conference in December 2001, when the Afghan Interim Authority under Hamid Karzai was established.
Tehran appeared to have a variety of motives for cooperating with Bush administration on Afghanistan. At a minimum, Iranian policymakers -- well aware of the State Department's longstanding description of the Islamic Republic as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism -- wanted to avoid getting caught on the downside of the administration's self-declared "global war on terror." But Iran also seemed to sense a potential strategic opportunity. Iranian diplomats involved in the bilateral channel on Afghanistan indicated to their U.S. counterparts that the discussions were being closely followed at the highest levels of the Iranian power structure and that there was considerable interest in Tehran in the possibility of a wider diplomatic opening. Certainly, from an Iranian perspective, the platform had been created for exploring such an opening.
However, in his January 2002 State of the Union address (just six weeks after the Bonn Conference), President Bush placed the Islamic Republic in the "axis of evil," along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.22 Iranian representatives missed the next monthly meeting with U.S. diplomats in protest, but -- in a telling indication of Tehran's seriousness about exploring a diplomatic opening to the United States -- resumed participation in the discussions the following month. The bilateral channel on Afghanistan continued for another year, until the eve of the Iraq war, but it became clear the Bush administration was not interested in a broader, strategic dialogue with Iran. Indeed, the administration terminated the channel in May 2003, on the basis of unproven and never pursued allegations of the involvement of Iran-based al Qaeda figures in the May 12, 2003, bomb attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
On the nuclear issue, the administration refused to consider direct negotiations with Tehran for nearly four years after the revelations of Iran's efforts to develop a uranium enrichment capability. In the spring of 2003, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent, via Swiss diplomatic channels, a proposal for negotiations aimed at resolving all outstanding bilateral differences between Tehran and Washington, including the nuclear issue. The proposal was described as having been endorsed by all the major power centers in Iran, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The administration's response was to complain to the Swiss Foreign Ministry that the Swiss ambassador in Tehran had exceeded his brief by passing such a paper. It is worth noting that the Iranian message came to Washington shortly after the conclusion of major combat operations in Iraq and well before the emergence of the insurgency there�in other words, the Iranian offer was extended at a time when U.S. standing in the region appeared to be at its height. It is also worth recalling that, when the Iranian offer was made, the Islamic Republic was not spinning centrifuges or enriching uranium and the reformist Mohammad Khatami was still president.