At the Center for a New American Security’s annual conference yesterday, the respected former ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, Ryan Crocker, made a point of saying that the rhetorical antagonization of Iran in 2002 had a real operational impact on the Afghanistan war. Including Iran in President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” during the 2002 State of the Union didn’t end a U.S.-Iranian diplomatic channel that Crocker personally participated in. But it did provoke the Iranians to release one of the most notorious guerrillas of Afghanistan’s decades of war from Iranian house arrest: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of al-Qaeda, whose Hezb-e-Islami organization went on to kill numerous U.S. troops and Afghan civilians.
Here’s what Crocker said yesterday:
That [diplomatic channel over Afghanistan with Iran in 2001] actually did produce some modest results. More importantly, it was the beginning of a process of sitting down away from the klieg lights and bounce things back and forth. I was in Kabul at the time of the ‘Axis of Evil’ [speech] and I can tell you it was a very interesting meeting in [U.N. official] Lakhdar Brahimi’s office after that with my Iranian counterpart.
It did not end the channel. But it certainly changed the tone. And the key Iranian response to the ‘Axis of Evil’ was to send Gulbuddin Hekmatyar back into Afghanistan. We had been talking to the Iranians up to that point about the possibility of Hekmatyar, who was under house arrest, being transferred to the Karzai government.
So in response to one rhetorical move — co-authored by David Frum, no less — that created an arbitrary category for Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea, the Iranian leadership hedged its bets on cooperating with with the U.S. on post-Taliban Afghanistan and released a murderer back into the war zone.
Crocker, as best I can tell, has told this story before, to Newsweek, but it hasn’t gotten much attention. He told the CNAS crowd that he thinks there’s still a chance for re-engagement with Iran over Afghanistan, but it will take the auspices of a United Nations process to restart that channel. And that’s with a far more hardline Iranian government in power and new U.N.-approved sanctions on the regime. “A lot of blood is under the bridge for both of us,” Crocker said.