Learning from the Past

Memorandum from the US National Security Council regarding a briefing for President Clinton on US–Iranian relations. SOURCE: George Washington University/National Security Archive Memorandum from the US National Security Council regarding a briefing for President Clinton on US–Iranian relations. SOURCE: George Washington University/National Security Archive

Memorandum from the US National Security Council regarding a briefing for President Clinton on US–Iranian relations. SOURCE: George Washington University/National Security Archive

Throughout the second half of 1999, a remarkable exchange took place between the US and Iranian governments that formed an early basis for a US–Iran rapprochement. According to documents released through the National Security Archive, a non-profit organization based out of George Washington University that uses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to declassify US national security documents, in September 1999 a potential thaw in US–Iranian relations ran aground due to US concerns about Iranian complicity in the bombing of the Khobar tower complex near Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in June 1996 that resulted in the deaths of nineteen US servicemen and the wounding nearly 400 others.

The opening began around June 1999, when the US uncovered “credible evidence” that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), along with members of Lebanese and Saudi Hezbollah (it has since been suggested that Al-Qaeda was also involved), were directly involved in the “planning and execution” of the Khobar tower bombing.

This information prompted the Clinton administration to send the Iranian leadership a message that not only outlined the new information, but to also hinted that a shift had taken place in US policy toward Iran with the coming to power of moderate forces led by Mohammad Khatami. “We acknowledge that the [Khobar] bombing occurred prior to your election” and “the positive steps you have taken to seeing that those Iranians involved in corruption, drugs, domestic terrorism and international criminal activities are called to account for their actions.” The letter goes on to state in unequivocal terms: “The United States has no hostile intentions toward the Islamic Republic of Iran and seeks good relations with your government” and that the US wants to “lay a sound basis for better relations between our countries.”

However, the letter also identifies a clear sticking point: Iranian involvement in terrorist activity. The US message warned Khatami that the “IRGC may be involved in planning for further terrorist attacks against American citizens” and that its involvement “in terrorist planning and activity abroad remains a cause of deep concern for us.” In light of this, the Clinton administration indicated that it “cannot allow the murder of US citizens to pass unaddressed” and asked for “a clear commitment from you that you will ensure an end to Iranian involvement in terrorist activity, particularly threats to American citizens, and will bring those in Iran responsible for the bombing to justice.”

The subtle tack in US policy toward Iran can be explained by the election of Khatami as president of Iran on 2 August 1997. Khatami’s election was significant because he was widely perceived as a moderate reformer who intended to build upon the policies of his predecessor Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In addition, Khatami also appeared to have the support of the Iranian people, having captured nearly 70 percent of the vote. To officials in Washington, he represented an ideal candidate to seek a thaw in the frosty US–Iran relationship.

It was not until September 1999 that the Iranian government responded to the US message. Upon receipt, officials from the NSC staff drafted a cover letter outlining their general assessment of the message’s language, which appeared to be “the product of the entire Iranian leadership, rather than just Khatami.”

The Iranian letter argued that the allegations contained within President Clinton’s message were “inaccurate and unacceptable” and based on “biased information.” It went on to deny that any “agency of or entity connected with the Islamic Republic of Iran had any part, whatsoever, in the planning, logistics or execution of the [Khobar] incident.” The Iranians then turned the US arguments around by pointing out that the US had also “failed to prosecute or extradite the readily identifiable American citizens responsible for the downing of [an] Iranian civilian airliner,” a reference to the downing of Iran Air 655 in July 1988 by a US naval vessel during the Iran–Iraq war.

Like the Clinton message, the Iranian response included a brief hint at an olive branch: “The Islamic Republic of Iran bears no hostile intentions toward Americans and the Iranian people not only harbor no enmity, but indeed have respect for the great American people.” But this gesture was brief and quickly turned back to the stronger tone that permeates the entire message: “At the same time, [Iran] shall vigilantly and resolutely defend [its] independence, sovereignty and legitimate rights against any threat.”

It is clear from this exchange that the issue of Iran’s alleged involvement in the Khobar tower bombings was the sticking point that prevented a US–Iran rapprochement in late 1999. It also seems clear that hardliners prevailed in the debate within the Iranian government and managed to hijack its response. This shows that while the Clinton administration was willing to open to the Khatami government and seek ways to improve US–Iranian relations, the dominance of the hardliners inside Iran was the primary obstacle.

But the US did not appear to follow up on this initial exchange or to communicate directly with Khatami in alternative forums, like at the UNGA. In short, the Clinton administration took a chance, but failed to follow through when it received a harsh response. Instead, US officials feared that Iranians would leak the original message, when in reality a better move would have been to leak both the message and the Iranian response. Had they done that, it would have undermined the hardliners in Iran and emboldened those wishing to seek rapprochement. Further, it would have ensured that Khatami received the message unvarnished.

In many ways, this situation is reflective of the same challenges that the Obama administration faces today should it wish to proceed with a similar rapprochement. If there is one lesson to learn from this exchange it is this: do not let the hardliners hijack efforts at rapprochement and if they try, seek ways to undermine them. The fact is that a thaw in US–Iranian relations is in the best interests of everyone: Iran, the US, Israel, Iraq, the GCC, and the global economy.


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