Terra incognita: The secret history of Iran and John Kerry

Everything you could want to know about the Middle East’s current situation was foretold during a Davos panel discussion in 2007.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pose for a photograph before resuming talks over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne March 16, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif pose for a photograph before resuming talks over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne March 16, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Everything you could want to know about the Middle East’s current situation was foretold at a 2007 panel discussion in Davos, Switzerland called, “The Future of the Middle East.” I remember watching it at the time and being struck by how John Kerry, then a former US presidential candidate, sat next to Mohammed Khatami, the former president of Iran (1997- 2005) and coddled Iran’s policy in Iraq.
Khatami was candid; as usual with Iranian leaders he was all smiles, knowing that his country was on the march to victory. He spoke about how “extremism” threatened Iraq, and warned that the “reformists are being deserted.” Reformists? Iran supports “reformists” in Iraq, while suppressing its own? Of course, what he meant was “our reformists” in Iraq, those extending Iranian influence.
“We were wishing for a stable Iraq,” he claimed, referring to the period just after the US invasion of 2003. But by 2007, with the Iraqi insurgency in high gear, sectarian fighting in the country and the US troop surge allying with Sunni “awakening councils,” Iran realized it would need to step up its influence in Baghdad through its proxy Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq from 2006 to 2014 who did Iran’s bidding and was very likely an Iranian plant. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called him such in 2009 in a meeting with a US counter-terrorism adviser.
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Khatami, now more pragmatic than smiling, admitted at Davos, “The overthrow of Saddam Hussein was a great fortune for us.”
Saddam had operated as a shield for the Arab world against the Iranian Revolution in the 1980s. In those days Iran first tried to project its revolutionary fervor through the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, but Saddam extracted a heavy price in blood from the ayatollahs in his eight-year war with them. For Khatami at Davos in 2007 it was not just a “fortune” but a “great fortune,” as if to say, “America was doing our work for us.” Khatami then claimed that “outside intervention” was spreading instability in Iraq and that terrorism and violence would increase. But the answer was “we have one destiny and we must be together hand in hand without intervention.”
In other words, he admitted outright that Iran was basically seeking the conquest of Iraq. That’s what he meant by a “shared destiny.” And what’s more he claimed, “We wanted to solve the problem of Saddam Hussein ourselves, as we did in Afghanistan, and it was a bit successful, and we worked with the Bush administration.”
Let’s rewind that tape for a second. Iran worked with the Bush administration in Afghanistan and was able to extend its influence there, and wanted a repeat in Iraq? To understand his comment we have to go back to late 2001. That was when the US worked with Iran against the Taliban. We know Khatami was referring to this period because he referenced the “axis of evil” remark in the 2002 State of the Union speech by president George W. Bush.
“The US administration said they would do it alone, and they occupied Iraq alone,” Khatami claimed. Which implies there was an Iranian plan in place to occupy it “together”? This was probably one of the most interesting speeches ever given by an Iranian leader about the current situation in Iraq.
Yet it has been ignored. What we see here is an entirely open blueprint for the Iranian conquest of Iraq which is playing itself out today as Iranian generals openly conduct the offensive against Islamic State.
What is fascinating is we not only see the groundwork laid for Iran’s move into Iraq, but also for the current US stance on Iran that reversed decades of US policy and has established a “Persian opening” in US diplomacy.
At a time when Iran was adopting a “forward policy” of extending its influence over its “near abroad” or neighboring states, the US administration was tinkering with a radical policy change of transferring regional dominance from the Arab Sunni elites to the Iranians. There is a clear shift from “the Arabists” who conducted US policy through the 1990s to “the Persianists” who wield influence today.
The break came with the neo-conservative agenda under Bush to extend democracy through pre-emptive invasion of Iraq; an agenda that didn’t make the Middle East a spring of democracy, but rather a wasteland of chaotic sectarian forces. All Iran needed in 2007 was a US administration amenable to its interests.
JOHN KERRY, speaking after Khatami, admitted that the US had mismanaged its policy in the region and become an “international pariah.” Kerry claimed, “When we don’t live up to our own rhetoric and standards, we set a terrible message of duplicity and hypocrisy.” But he didn’t stop there – he claimed that the US had never been so isolated and that America must learn from cultures and history in the region and not repeat the “unfortunate habit” of seeing the region “exclusively through an American lens.”
Iranian diplomats and experts in Tehran were watching this Davos speech and they saw that this policy would be borne out only if a new administration came to power.
Kerry said he was speaking “as a Democrat” and this perked up the ears of Iranian policy- makers. Here was a high-ranking US politician admitting his country was at fault, opening a pandora’s pox in the Middle East.
“I think you have to have a new security agreement for the Middle East and to reduce the US troop presence [in Iraq] as fast as possible,” Kerry concluded.
Khatami was not in power, but here was a former Iranian president admitting the secret long-term goals of Iran – and here was a US political leader agreeing almost completely that his country was to blame, and saying it could learn from Iran and should enact a “new security agreement” and reduce the US presence in Iraq. You don’t need to read between the lines to see the shadow of Davos today.
Consider what Davos really tells us in context. Let’s look at the Wikileaks documentation.
In 2004 Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan had told Iran’s Khatami that Iran must remove its barriers isolating itself from the world. “When it becomes a full EU member, Turkey will become Iran’s gate to the Western world,” Erdogan said. Iran was seeking to expand in the region and Turkey was willing to be a conduit. We see a continuation of this Turkish opening to Iran with the Sunday announcement by Erdogan that he will visit Iran in the wake of Kerry’s deal. The deal is exactly the kind of removal of a barrier of isolation that Erdogan had mentioned.
Most other states in the region were reticent about Iranian expansion. In a February 20, 2009 meeting between Kerry and Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora, a cable from the US embassy notes that “Siniora assessed that the 1979 Iranian revolution began a period where Iran ‘hijacked’ the causes of the region, portraying itself as the only defender of the weak in the name of Islam. This effort to export the revolution, he claimed, has led to radicalization across the region.”
According to a confidential cable from the US Embassy in Damascus on February 27, 2009, Syria’s Bashar Assad met with John Kerry, who broached the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. “Assad responded by saying there should be a mechanism for monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities; states do not operate on trust.” This is Bashar Assad, Iran’s closest ally today, telling the Americans, “Do not trust them...states do not operate on trust.”
And as if to hammer home the point, what was Kerry told on that same trip in Beirut according to a leaked cable? Sa’ad Hariri, son of the prime minister assassinated by Hezbollah (likely with the knowledge of Iran) said, “Engage with your allies before engaging with your foes.” Yes, that’s a Sunni Arab leader talking to the United States.
They were begging. Save us from the octopus taking over our country. Engage with your allies. You have friends in the region, they were emphasizing. And no one listened, just like no one listened at Davos.
Follow the author on Twitter @Sfrantzman