Atlantic Council:

In an administration short on diplomatic talent, Zalmay Khalilzad stands out.

His title is US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation and he is charged with extricating the United States’ military presence in that country. Tangentially, Khalilzad’s deep background as a multilingual former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations—and his nature as an inveterate schmoozer—have put him in a position to revive US diplomatic engagement with Iran and to help de-escalate what had been a dangerous rise in tensions.

Recently, under United Nations (UN) auspices, there was a meeting of something called the “Six Plus Two.” Created after the Taliban seized control of most of Afghanistan in 1996, this format brings together the six neighbors of Afghanistan, Russia, and the United States to discuss how to stabilize Afghanistan.

In a digital chat with the Atlantic Council on May 20, Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Undersecretary General for Political and Peace-building Affairs, confirmed that Khalilzad had been present at a recent virtual Six Plus Two meeting, along with diplomats from Russia, Iran, and Afghanistan’s neighbors. She noted that this was a “unique” convening of American and Iranian officials at a time when other direct channels appear shut.

In the late 1990s, this format was an important venue for US-Iran interaction in the absence of formal diplomatic relations. Both countries used the meetings to send signals to each other and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even attended a session in 1998, hoping to encounter her Iranian counterpart. She eventually did in 2000.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the multilateral meetings morphed into unadvertised bilateral US-Iran talks about how to stabilize Afghanistan, deal with al-Qaeda detainees, and, finally, discuss the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq. More than a dozen meetings were held from the fall of 2001 to May 2003 over potato chips and non-alcoholic drinks at hotels in Geneva and Paris. Ryan Crocker, a veteran US diplomat, led the sessions before Khalilzad, a senior director on the White House National Security Council, at the time, took over. His Iranian counterpart was Mohammad Javad Zarif, a deputy foreign minister who was soon to become Iran’s ambassador to the UN, and who is now Iran’s foreign minister.

Khalilzad, an Afghan native who went on to become the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the UN, has used his fluent Dari—a close cousin of Persian—to chat with Iranian counterparts in a variety of settings. He recognized then. as now, that Iran has enormous capacity to help or hinder the political stability of its neighbors and, thus, advance or retard US interests in the Middle East.

One of the many flaws of the Trump administration’s heavy-handed approach toward Tehran is that it has sacrificed the interests of Iran’s neighbors in the pursuit of “maximum pressure.” Countries, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, need to trade with their large neighbor in order to be successful. Consequently, sanctions reimposed by the US—after they quit the Iran nuclear deal two years ago—have hurt Iran’s neighbors and complicated their relations with the United States.

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