The death of Osama bin Laden highlights what a difference a decade makes, even for a country as seemingly unchanging as the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ten years ago, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Iranians and their government responded with sympathetic outrage. 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, its leader Bin Laden 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, the prospects for ending the bitter estrangement between the two countries and for Iran’s return to the community of nations seemed for the first-time truly conceivable.
In fact, the post-attack spirit of reconciliation between Tehran and Washington proved predictably fleeting – cooperation foundered, mistrust intensified, and Iran’s internal politics regressed into paranoia and repression. And nearly ten years later, Tehran greeted this week’s news that U.S. forces had killed bin Laden with far more cynicism than sympathy. The Foreign Ministry opined in a frosty tone that bin Laden’s death vitiates any need for U.S. presence in the broader Middle East, and used the news as an opportunity tocall on Washington to remove all its troops from the region. A number of other Iranian officials and press outlets indulged in the crass conspiracy theories promulgated most infamously by their current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose hateful repertoire includes calling the 9/11 attacks a “big fabrication” and accusing the U.S. government of complicity in them. Rather than creating new traction for bilateral cooperation on an area of common interest such as Afghanistan, the death of bin Laden only highlights the durability and mutual hostility remnant in the standoff between Washington and Tehran.
The American-Iranian drama need not have devolved in this fashion. Both sides bear culpability in the failure to build on the early cooperation over Afghanistan during the aftermath of 9/11. The Bush administration was too confident in the inevitability of the Islamic Republic’s demise, while Iran’s leaders were too divided and too locked in their own defiance to permit any real evolution in their approach to the Great Satan. As bilateral tensions mounted, the slow but tangible liberalization of Iran’s internal politics was derailed by the regime’s deep-seated paranoia – a precedent that should temper any optimism that a more democratic, pro-American outcome is inevitable in other ongoing transitions in the region.
In spite of past failures and the inauspicious political environment in Tehran, the death of Bin Laden should prompt reconsideration in both capitals about the possibility of reviving direct talks on Afghanistan. To date, Washington has been hesitant on this front, for fear of undercutting its diplomatic efforts to forestall Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This tunnel vision is short-sighted. Washington’s long-sought success in the campaign against al Qaeda only further strengthens the administration’s position in dealing with an intransigent Iran. Now is the ideal time to test whether it is possible to exploit the regime’s well-honed instincts for survival and opportunism in order to achieve a more stable outcome in Afghanistan, and potentially revive the prospects for any constructive direct diplomacy between the United States and Iran.
Iranian security forces are beginning to close the space for both activism and analytical inquiry.