In the aftermath of the unthinkable, almost anything seemed possible – even, however briefly, the unlikely possibility that the worst terrorist attack in American history might somehow heal the breach between the United States and the regime it had repeatedly labeled as the world’s foremost sponsor of terror, the Islamic Republic of Iran. In the aftermath of the attacks, the Iranian public responded with sympathy and their government with something resembling prudence. Tehran was the scene of spontaneous candlelight vigils by ordinary Iranians and a temporary suspension of the weekly chants of “death to America” by its official clergy. An array of Iranian officials, many with reformist political leanings, offered seemingly heartfelt condolences to the American people, and even the hardest-line elements of Iran’s leadership briefly summoned the moral decency to denounce Al Qaeda and the use of terrorism against Americans. Over the course of subsequent weeks and months, Tehran provided crucial logistical assistance to the U.S. campaign against the Taliban and cooperated closely with Washington in establishing a new Afghan government. For a short time, a pathway for resolving the bitter estrangement between the two countries and for Iran’s return to the community of nations seemed for the first time within sight.
A decade later, any such optimism has been rather emphatically scuttled. The post-attack spirit of reconciliation between Tehran and Washington proved predictably fleeting. The early inroads at cooperation foundered and mutual mistrust and antagonism intensified. Iran’s internal politics regressed ever further into paranoia and repression, even as Washington saw a shift in partisan dominance and, more importantly, in the tone if not as much in the substance of its approach to Tehran. This was only the most recent missed opportunity in more than three decades of fruitless efforts to resolve an estrangement that has riven the Middle East and raised the prospects of another military conflict in a perennially turbulent region. The September 11 attacks truly changed everything for Washington; this was a transformative event whose imprint on American politics, bureaucracy, economy and view of the world continues to be felt. And yet, in many ways, the U.S.-Iranian relationship, and the dynamics that govern it, remains very much the same as it ever was, a seemingly perpetual low-intensity conflict whose prospects for resolution appear worse today than even a decade before. This article examines the forces that conspired to keep Washington and Tehran trapped in conflict, and offers a forecast on the future evolution of the standoff in the wake of epic change unfolding across the Middle East.