Dexter Filkins is a good reporter and an honest man, but he’s been gulled by an American diplomat. He’s bought into one of the silly myths that unfortunately define the way American policy makers and intellectuals think about Iran.
In his long essay about Quds Force commander General Suleimani in the New Yorker, Mr. Filkins quotes Ryan Crocker, one of our better diplomats, about dealing with Iran. Crocker had been meeting with Suleimani on the eve of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, shortly after 9/11.
“Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban,” Filkins tells us. Actually, it wasn’t too hard to sense their mood, since “the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. ‘If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!’ he shouted. ‘When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.’ He stomped out of the room. ‘It was a great moment,’ Crocker said.”
If you say so. A bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but great moments are in the eyes of the beholder. Anyway, Filkins-citing-Crocker tells us that we were getting along well with the Iranians (we were swapping “information”) until the cowboy in the White House wrecked everything:
The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”
Diplomats, like intellectuals, take words very seriously, and Crocker was furious that Bush had called out the Iranians. But then, presidents take words seriously too, and Crocker might have understood the moment better if he’d asked himself if perhaps the president knew something that the dips didn’t. He could have asked me, too, because this was one of the few occasions on which I actually knew something that most of the world, evidently including distinguished men like Crocker, did not: that the Iranians were busily sending killers into Afghanistan with orders to assassinate American troops there.
I knew it because I had participated in briefly secret meetings in Rome with some knowledgeable Iranians. One of them provided us with details on some would-be assassins, indeed so many details that when they were passed on to our special-forces commanders, they were able to locate the killers and make sure they didn’t kill any of our guys.
A lot of nonsense has been written about the Rome meetings–the CIA station chief in Rome dispatched an angry cable to Langley full of errors (he wasn’t at the meetings, and only learned about them after the fact)–but the bottom line for me was that we’d obtained information that saved American lives. And it shows you a few things about the Iranians. For starters, that they are quite capable of acting like your best ally at the very moment they’re trying to kill your soldiers. Second, that story about “reformers” inside the Iranian regime has to be taken with a lot of salt. If the Iranians really wanted to change their relationship to the United States, they wouldn’t be killing us. Third, that if a rapprochement between Iran and the United States can be blown up by two words in a speech, it isn’t likely to work well even if the diplomatic censors remove the offensive language.
Keep that in mind as Rouhani and Zarif wage their charm offensive. And keep digging for the truth about Iranian activities. General Suleimani is no friend of ours; he wants us dead or dominated. That bit about his reconsidering everything about the United States is unworthy of a serious analyst.