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U.S. and Iran have been talking, but very quietly

Times Staff Writer

The White House insists that the United States won’t 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 these contacts between the two nations, which have not had formal diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis ended in 1980, is one of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. Budding cooperation on Afghanistan, Iraq and Al Qaeda has led to increased distrust and frustration instead of warmer ties -- a record that adds to tensions as representatives of both countries prepare to attend a regional summit this weekend in Baghdad.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 10, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 10, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S.-Iranian relations: An article in Friday’s Section A said that Washington and Tehran had not had formal diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis ended in 1980. Relations did break off that year, but the crisis ended in 1981.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 14, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Iran: An article Friday in Section A on U.S.-Iranian diplomatic contacts said that Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, helped convey to the White House a copy of a secret Iranian offer for talks. Parsi was working for then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) at the time, but it was Ney who delivered the memo to the White House.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s top Iraq advisor, David Satterfield, said Thursday that he would confront Iran about its alleged provision of materiel and training for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. 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 tension, the continuing conversations reveal a slender swath of common ground upon which Washington and Tehran have built a delicate bridge: an interest in the region’s security and resources.

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“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 Press Secretary 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.”

But whispered dealings between the foes have had a way of going wrong. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration decided to sell weapons to Iran to win its help in securing the release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon and diverted the proceeds of the arms sales to Nicaraguan rebels, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal.

In 1994, President Clinton covertly condoned Iran’s arms shipments to Bosnian Muslims, at a time when the U.S. had pledged to uphold a U.N. weapons embargo. The policy was revealed in 1996 and met widespread criticism, keeping Iran, headed then by reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and the U.S. from broadening ties.

In 1999, Clinton offered an “authoritative and unconditional” dialogue with Iran, but Tehran insisted that the U.S. lift its sanctions first.

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

In 1998, U.N. diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian, created a group called the “6+2" that met in New York to address the conflict in Afghanistan. It consisted of the country’s six neighbors: China, Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, as well as Russia and the United States.

“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 facilitate contacts between the U.S. and Iran, called the Geneva Initiative, which included Italy and Germany.

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“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 was just us sitting at the table, I would get up and tell them, ‘I will leave you alone.’ ”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the two nations had a common enemy in the Taliban: the Sunni rulers of Afghanistan, whom Shiite-majority Iran regarded as a threat and the U.S. considered protectors of Osama bin Laden.

In the days before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, American and Iranian officials held extensive talks to coordinate cooperation between Iranian-backed anti-Taliban warlords and U.S. troops.

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

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James Dobbins, who represented the State Department at the time, said the Iranian envoys were “essential” in shaping Afghanistan’s government. At one point, the Northern Alliance’s Younis Qanooni insisted on controlling 18 of 24 ministries, a demand that would have prevented an agreement.

Dobbins said that after diplomats from several countries “worked him over” through the night, Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Javad Zarif, took Qanooni aside and whispered into 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 it clear it was interested in a broader strategic dialogue with the United States. But the U.S., thinking it had the upper hand, brushed off the overtures, Dobbins said, and then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell wrote to thank every foreign minister who had attended the conference -- except Iran.

Six weeks later, in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, he named Iran part of an “axis of evil.” Iranians had been expecting some sort of diplomatic reward in exchange for their help in Afghanistan, and took it as a slap in the face.

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Still, for about a year, Iranian diplomats continued to meet in Kabul with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, usually in Brahimi’s U.N. villa, known as Palace No. 7. Khalilzad, an Afghan native who speaks Persian, was at the Bonn conference and would become a key player in the cautious diplomatic connection. Now the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, he will be at the table Saturday in Baghdad.

The talks about Afghanistan broadened to include other strategic issues.

“They certainly talked about Al Qaeda 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.”

But Iran was becoming emboldened. In May 2003, a two-page fax arrived at the State Department: a “road map” to normalized relations, sent through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Ostensibly endorsed by Iran’s senior political and religious leaders, it addressed all the outstanding differences between the U.S. and Iran, including concerns about Tehran’s nuclear program.

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Secretary of State Rice, then director of the National Security Council, says she never saw the memo, and the president has not acknowledged it. Instead, the administration scolded the Swiss ambassador for overstepping his bounds, said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, who helped convey another copy of the memo to the White House.

The U.S. was at the height of its power in the region: Its army was in Iraq, Iran had yet to begin enriching uranium, and the reformist Khatami was still president. It didn’t seem like Washington’s last, best chance to stop Iran’s nuclear program and change the direction of its relationship with Tehran.

But the fortunes of the two countries began to shift. Iranians elected a populist firebrand, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as their president, and Tehran forged ahead in its uranium enrichment program in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Iran’s influence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon has boosted Tehran’s regional standing and in turn raised the cost of winning its cooperation.

In January 2006, the U.S. asked Iran for talks on Iraq, said Zarif, the Iranian ambassador. Khalilzad had permission to arrange meetings with Iranian counterparts -- but then there was a change of heart in the White House.

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“The U.S. sends out these trial balloons, as soon as Iran responds positively, the interagency talks begin in Washington, and the results are always negative,” Zarif said in an interview last year.

Some analysts say the White House continues to send a mixed message to Iran.

“At the same time we’re beating them up in the Security Council trying to get them under sanctions, we’re trying to get them to help us in Iraq,” said Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst and Middle East expert at the State Department, now at the New American Foundation. “Why should they be helpful?

John R. Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and a staunch advocate of “regime change” for Iran, said that the convergence of interests wasn’t as tidy as it had been in Afghanistan.

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“Whether they will perform a similar ‘useful’ role here remains to be seen. I wouldn’t count on it,” Bolton said in an interview. “It’s not like we’re going to give them a pass on their nuclear program if they stop interfering in Iraq.”

Dobbins said that among the lessons learned from Afghanistan, was that Iran can make or break the situation.

“If we can’t get Iranian help in stabilizing the situation, it’s not going to get stabilized,” he said. “In the end, the only country with significant influence and capacity for good and evil is Iran.”

maggie.farley@latimes.com

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