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An Opportunity for America and Iran to Cooperate

Author: David L. Phillips, Executive Director, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity
October 26, 2001
International Herald Tribune

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In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States, global realignment is creating a new opportunity for detente between America and Iran. The West hopes that Iran will join the global coalition against terror. But more than traditional diplomacy will be needed to overcome decades of enmity and mistrust.

At this point, the United States should assist Iran to meet the needs of Afghan refugees. In so doing, the process of re-establishing comity would be advanced.

In accordance with Islamic principles as well as international law, Iran has provided asylum to more than 1.5 million Afghans fleeing starvation, persecution and war. Iran is, in fact, host to more refugees than any other country, with the possible exception now of Pakistan.

But it is increasingly hard-pressed to provide for the huge influx of new refugees from Afghanistan. The situation has grown so acute that it has decided to seal its border.

With stocks of aid provisions increasingly depleted, Iran is appealing to the international community for cash and commodities. The United States contributes by sponsoring the overland transport of supplies by the World Food Program from Iran to Afghanistan. But there are no arrangements for bilateral humanitarian cooperation.

Nor is there a procedure for collaboration between nongovernmental organizations on joint programs, such as emergency shelter for the winter or essential health services.

The reordering of international affairs after the terrorist attacks on the United States makes such cooperation far more realizable than before. And the intersection of humanitarian and political interests presents an opportunity.

On the surface, it might seem as if Iran and the West are natural allies in the current conflict. Shiite leaders in Iran have a deeply rooted animosity toward the fundamentalist Sunnis who dominate the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Iran supports the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which includes traditional tribal allies of Iran.

But rapprochement is complicated by hard-liners committed to Iran's anti-Western stance. Iranian mullahs refused to dissociate Islamic teachings from acts of terror. Iran supported a recent resolution of the Organization of Islamic Conference condemning U.S. and British air strikes. And thousands of Iranian demonstrators have participated in officially sanctioned protests against the bombing of Afghanistan.

The deep distrust runs both ways. In August, George W. Bush extended the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act by five years, citing "serious concerns" over Iran's "support for terrorism, opposition to the Middle East peace process and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction."

In addition, American officials allege that elements of the Iranian government inspired, supported and supervised the Khobar towers terrorist attack against the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

While Washington has recently muted its criticism of Iran's support for terrorism, it maintains economic sanctions and recently blocked Tehran's membership in the World Trade Organization.

This pattern of accusation and recrimination is all too familiar. But Sept. 11 has fundamentally changed the world, and the United States is making extra efforts to establish common ground with the Muslim world.

In a dramatic departure, Mr. Bush indicated that former state sponsors of terrorism would be welcomed into the family of nations if they joined the campaign against terror. To prove the point, the United States rewarded Syria for its promised cooperation by not opposing Syria's election to the UN Security Council.

In the case of Iran, with which the United States has no diplomatic relations, alternative instruments are needed to advance contact and cooperation. To this end, "track two" activities should be developed with nongovernmental actors engaged in unofficial activities. While track two is not a substitute for official diplomacy, it can serve as a vital channel for governments to exchange information. It also tends to create a more conducive atmosphere for diplomatic initiatives.

America should maintain a steely-eyed realism as it seeks to expand humanitarian and diplomatic ties with Iran. It would be naive to expect a dramatic policy shift or overnight transformation. But emphasizing humanitarian cooperation would address the immediate suffering of displaced Afghans and help catalyze rapprochement between America and Iran.

The campaign against terror underscores the urgency of improving relations among rivals.


David L. Phillips, deputy director of the Center for Preventive Action at the

Council on Foreign Relations, contributed this comment to the International

Herald Tribune.

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