A Triangle of Realpolitik
On August 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, the equations of power and calculations of interest in the Middle East underwent a sea change. Operation Desert Storm produced a mixed blessing for Iran. The destruction of Iraq's offensive capability was cause for relief in Teheran, but the subsequent US pre-eminence in the region became a source of humiliation for the ruling clerics. Nevertheless, during the 1990s, although disturbed about the US military presence in the Persian Gulf region, Iran was a clear beneficiary of US determination to contain Saddam Hussein. Another irony of Desert Storm, as sweet for Iran as it was bitter for Iraq, occurred when Iraq sought refuge for its fighter planes in Iran to avoid US missile attacks. Teheran authorities welcomed the move and lost no time in appropriating them as partial payment of reparations for the 1980-88 war with Iraq.
After the Gulf War, Washington chose to replace its pro-Saddam, or balance-of-power, approach to Iran and Iraq with a "dual containment" policy, intended to prevent the hegemony of either country in the region. President Clinton abandoned this policy at the beginning of his second term and tried to engage Iran in dialogue. Iran was in the process of normalizing its relations with European and Arab states (except Iraq) and thus could have been open to official contact with Washington, but US officials' focus on reformist President Mohammad Khatami, as distinguished from the clerical regime, and their repeated references to factional rivalry in Iran so displeased the Islamic Republic's real power-holders that they decided to reject Clinton's conciliatory gestures as interference in Iran's internal affairs.
Before September 11, 2001, Iran's rulers expected the Bush Administration to discard the Clinton/Albright fixation on President Khatami and adopt a more flexible attitude toward the theocratic regime. They thought US oil companies, which long to return to Iran, could persuade the oilman in the White House to make peace with the Islamic Republic. They were also encouraged by the fact that Dick Cheney, before becoming Bush's running mate, had characterized unilateral sanctions on Iran as harmful to US interests. Cheney pointed out that foreign oil and gas companies ignore the sanctions, while US firms are barred from competing for lucrative contracts. Moreover, soon after Bush's inauguration, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi sent some signals to each other about the possibility of improving relations between the two countries.
In a January 2001 press conference in Rome, Kharrazi suggested that "the transition of power in the White House has presented an opportunity for the new Administration to make changes in the failed US policies toward Iran." He asked Washington to stop "meddling in Iran's internal affairs" and allow US firms to invest in Iran. In return, he continued, "Iran can play a crucial role in creating peace, security and economic prosperity in the region."
On the day of 9/11, President Khatami sent his condolences to Washington, and Powell described Khatami's message as "positive signals" from Iran. Powell said the Iranians, too, "are shocked by what happened, they tell us. And so it seems to me that is an opening worth exploring." Thus it seemed that Iran and the United States were moving toward ending their bitter estrangement through a common desire to oust the Taliban and support Afghanistan's opposition forces, which had received military and financial assistance from Iran after their abandonment by Washington following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The "axis of evil" bombshell changed the perceptions of the players. Iran's rulers felt confused when President Bush put them in the company of Iraq and North Korea. They could not make sense of the move, because they were known to be against both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Indeed, they had opposed the Taliban long before Washington did and almost fought a war with them in August 1998. When the US bombardment of Afghanistan began, in October 2001, Iran went so far as preparing to aid in rescuing US pilots if the need arose. It also played a constructive role in the December 2001 Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan and pledged a significant amount of aid for the renewal of the country. The new Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, visited Teheran and met with all the leading ayatollahs. Six months later, Iranian President Khatami went to Kabul and reiterated Iran's support for Karzai and his efforts to unify Afghanistan.