Commentary Magazine


Ryan Crocker, Diplomacy, and the Iranian Elephant

Ryan Crocker has an op-ed in the New York Times today arguing that talking with Iran works. He bases his argument on his experience in Afghanistan, where in the days after 9/11, he took part in negotiations with Iran over that country’s fate. As Crocker writes:

The Iranians were constructive, pragmatic and focused, at one point they even produced an extremely valuable map showing the Taliban’s order of battle just before American military action began.  They were also strong proponents of taking action in Afghanistan. We met through the remaining months of 2001 in different locations, and Iranian-American agreement at the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan was central to establishing the Afghan Interim Authority, headed by Hamid Karzai, now the president of Afghanistan.

I continued to hold talks with the Iranians in Kabul when I was sent to reopen the United States Embassy there. We forged agreements on various security issues and coordinated approaches to reconstruction. And then, suddenly, it all came to an end when President George W. Bush gave his famous “Axis of Evil” speech in early 2002. The Iranian leadership concluded that in spite of their cooperation with the American war effort, the United States remained implacably hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Crocker is wrong. Never mind the fact that Iranian rhetoric toward the United States is ten times worse on a normal day. It’s important to consider what Crocker leaves out: In the months before President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, Bush received word—intelligence about which Crocker was unaware—that Iran was creating a secret enrichment facility at Natanz. At the same time, after a hard-won ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Iran was busy seeking to smuggle in 50 tons of weaponry into the Gaza Strip. In effect, Crocker is like the blind man describing the elephant, willing to amplify the description of one aspect of Iranian behavior into wide-ranging conclusions, seemingly unaware that honest description of other parts of the beast suggested the opposite.

Nor does Crocker consider why Iran did cooperate in even a limited fashion in Afghanistan. Prior to 2001, Iran embraced a strategy of ethnic and Shiite solidarity in Afghanistan, in effect concentrating its efforts on the west, center, and north of the country. After 9/11, it decided it could exert its influence through the entirety of the country, in effect out-competing the United States.

Crocker cherry picks as well with regard to Iraq. He suggests that he held productive talks with Iran over Iraqi security in 2007, but never mentions that he had also held talks with Iran in 2003. The Iranians had at that time agreed to prevent the infiltration of the IRGC and IRGC-trained militias into Iraq. The Iranians—including Mohammad Javad Zarif, Crocker’s negotiating partner who is now Foreign Minister—lied. And as for 2007? In all likelihood, it was the surge which convinced Iran that their strategy would backfire rather than Crocker’s sweet words.

Crocker is an honorable man who has served well under the most difficult circumstances. But his policy judgment does not always match his reputation for wisdom. He has a long history of somewhat misguided faith in diplomacy. He has, after all, after retiring, testified in Congress in favor of talking to Hezbollah–a policy which would be counterproductive on any number of levels. Contrary to Crocker in the New York Times, talking does not always work. But for a diplomat to admit that would be to acknowledge that diplomacy is not the panacea so many diplomats which it to be.