Journalists and many diplomats who give President Barack Obama credit for his willingness to engage with Iran often forget that two decades before Obama asked Iranian leaders to unclench their fist, George H.W. Bush was as enthusiastic for a breakthrough. Just six months into Bush’s presidency, Iran’s revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died. Journalists and diplomats saw Khomeini’s successor, former President Ali Khamenei as a moderate. As Khamenei took the leadership, he was replaced as president by the clerical businessman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who, the day after taking office, suggested that “reasonable, prudent solutions” could free the hostages that Iranian proxies in Lebanon still held.
In an episode I detail in my book about the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, Rafsanjani privately told intermediaries that U.S. gestures might catalyze their release. American diplomats smelled a process—an allure that few diplomats can resist. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler voiced her belief that “Iran is genuinely engaged.” Bush issued a national security directive saying that the United States should prepare for “a normal relationship with Iran on the basis of strict reciprocity,” and he asked UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar to serve as an intermediary between the national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and Iran’s new president. Pérez de Cuéllar sent Giandomenico Picco, a career UN bureaucrat, to Tehran and met Rafsanjani, where he got a surprise: Rafsanjani dismissed the idea of negotiating the release of hostages out of hand: to talk would be to admit culpability in taking hostages in the first place. Within the Iranian context, there’s a huge difference between projecting the image of moderations and actually being will to act moderately. Coming clean is not something the Iranian government is willing to do.
Hence, it has been the case with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. The irony of those who seize upon the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to argue that Iran doesn’t have any military nuclear program is that the 2007 NIE acknowledged that Iran had earlier had just that: after all, experimenting within nuclear weapons triggers is not part and parcel of the energy cycle. And yet, rather than hold Iran to account and, at a minimum demand that Iran comes clean, the Obama administration seems willing to allow Iran simply to sweep its earlier cheating under the rug. If a nuclear agreement is meant to be a fresh start, however, there is no reason why Iran should not come clean fully. At the very least, intelligence can gauge their sincerity by comparing Iranian admissions with what the Central Intelligence Agency believes it knows through its own sources and methods.
The same failure to demand accountability occurs with regard to continued Iranian involvement in terrorism. That the Islamic Republic facilitated the 9/11 attacks was revealed by none other than the 9/11 Commission. The latest revelations that the documents seized from the Bin Laden compound show continued Iranian complacency with Al Qaeda come as little surprise to Iran watchers, but do raise questions about the Obama administration’s efforts to cover up that fact behind a barrier of classification and a simple refusal to release those documents found in the Abbottabad compound.
While those Al Qaeda documents might now be in the headlines thanks to the dogged work of terrorism expert Thomas Jocelyn, there are other aspects of Iran’s terror sponsorship that requires as much exposure and explanation. Take the latest reported in the pan-Arab daily Ash-Sharq al-Awsat:
Iran has been coordinating with Al-Qaeda and its affiliates since 2007 with the aim of carrying out terror attacks against US targets in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, informed sources have told Asharq Al-Awsat. Speaking under condition of anonymity, the sources said coordination between Iran and the global terrorist organization was mainly taking place through Saudi citizen Saleh Al-Qarawi, a senior member of the organization who is on the Kingdom’s most-wanted lists and is the founder of Al-Qaeda affiliate the Abdullah Al-Azzam Brigades. The sources contend Qarawi is the main Al-Qaeda figure coordinating operations from inside Iran, where they say he has been moving freely for a number of years and from where he has been recruiting other Saudi citizens for the organization and coordinating their movement into Iran from the Kingdom. Along with Abdul Mohsen Al-Sharikh, another senior Saudi member of the organization—and also on the Kingdom’s most-wanted lists—the sources accuse Qarawi of planning a terror attack in Saudi Arabia aiming to abduct US citizens residing in the country. The plan eventually failed but the sources say Qarawi and Iran have been coordinating on several other operations, including a planned attack in 2007 against a US army base in Jordan which was foiled by the Jordanian authorities. Qarawi and Iran have also coordinated on another failed operation, the sources said, which planned to attack the US embassy [sic- should be consulate] in Dubai using either a drone aircraft loaded with missiles and bombs or by having a pilot fly a small aircraft used for flight instruction into the embassy building.
It’s admirable to want to bring an end to the enmity which exists between Iran and the United States. But to do it when Tehran seems so unwilling to come clean and stop its efforts to kill Americans does not advance peace; it only emboldens an already overconfident adversary. If Iran wants peace, let them come clean, change their behavior, and make amends. But under no circumstances should the Obama administration or its senior diplomats and officials give Tehran a free pass.