Iran Secretly Helped U.S. Bomb Taliban Units, Find Al Qaeda
Leverett said that in December 2002, after the U.S. gave Tehran the names of five al Qaeda suspects it believed were in Iran, the regime found two, which they delivered to the U.S. air base at Baghram, in Afghanistan.
But the budding relationship died on the vine.
Hardliners in the Bush administration prohibited Mann and Ryan Crocker, two of the principal diplomats dealing with the Iranians, from building on the contacts to pursue al Qaeda.
And then a month later, President Bush labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil," lumping it with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
But even then, Leverett said, Tehran continued to provide Washington with intelligence on al Qaeda and expel them from Iran.
"They deported hundreds of [al Qaeda] people," she said.
At the same time, Bush officials were accusing Iran of harboring al Qaeda terrorists - a claim they and their allies continued to make until the end of the administration.
But Leverett, backed up by other officials, tells an entirely different story.
"The foreign ministry took the evidence - passports, vital information - and gave us pages and even a chart showing the disposition or what they'd done with each person," broken down by "those who had been turned away at the border, or been detained or deported," she said.
At one point the Iranian foreign ministry asked the Americans to help it set up "a mechanism" to help it deport Egyptian suspects to Cairo, with which it had no diplomatic relations, Leverett said Thursday by telephone.
But White House hardliners rejected the idea of helping Iran in any way, she said.
"We said, 'Too bad, you're evil. You'll be a target yourself if you don't just get rid of them.'"
Richard N. Haass, the State Department's chief of planning at the time, was also frustrated that Bush officials were scuttling Iranian attempts at rapprochement, which he and others believed might have led to a "grand bargain" on other thorny issues.
" They specifically told me time and again that they were doing this because they understood the impact of this attack on the U.S., and they thought that if they helped us unconditionally, that would be the way to change the dynamic for the first time in twenty- five years," Leverett said. New York Times Bush officials have refused to discuss the issue. When Leverett submitted a piece she had written for the blacked out about her U.S.- Iran contacts to administration censors, swaths were . ( The Times printed it that way .) " They said it was classified," she said by telephone Thursday. " But nothing had ever been written down."
"We couldn't get support from the NSC, the Pentagon, from the Vice president's office. And in every case we ran up against this belief in regime change," Haass said in a BBC documentary that aired in the U.K. in February.
"Iran and the West" has yet to be televised here, and a spokesperson for PBS, the usual venue for such fare, said the public broadcasting network has no plans to pick it up.
In the third segment of the three-part documentary, Leverett described the Iranians' secret offer to help the American bombers destroy Taliban units in the fall of 2001.
"The Iranians were willing to do whatever was necessary to help ensure that the U.S. military campaign [against the Taliban] could succeed," Leverett told the BBC.
She had previously described some of the back channel meetings with Iran in an October 2007 story by John H. Richardson in Esquire magazine.
But neither that nor the BBC's "Iran and the West" documentary has elicited detectable news media interest here, despite its incessant descriptions of Iran as an uncompromising, implacable foe.
Iran's hardliners, led by "Holocaust-denying, Israel-hating, America-bashing" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appear to hold the upper hand now, but things could change in elections two weeks from now.
Iran's president in 2001, Mohammad Khatami, sought to get around the hardliners and establish better relations with Washington.
"He had sought reconciliation with America (before), but his political opponents stopped him," the BBC reported. "With America poised to attack the Taliban, he had a chance to win the argument in the parliament."
"The Taliban was our enemy," Khatami explains on the program. "America thought the Taliban was their enemy too. If they toppled the Taliban, it would serve the interests of Iran."
Iran had discreetly offered help to Washington right after the 9/11 attacks, Leverett and other officials say.
But nothing happened until November.
American heavy bombers had been pounding Taliban units for weeks, but the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance rebels were still bottled up.
One of the Iranians Leverett was meeting with lost his temper over the stalemate, she says. He began pounding the table.
"And then he took out a map, and he unfurled the map on the table, and started to point at targets that the U.S. needed to focus on, particularly in the north," Mann said. "We took the map to CENTCOM, the US Central Command, and certainly that became the US military strategy."
Said Colin Powell, Secretary of State at the time: "We took a fourth-world force, the Northern Alliance, riding horses, walking, living off the land, and married them up with a first world air force. And it worked."
Leverett told Esquire that Khatami's representatives believed that helping the U.S. defeat the Taliban - and al Qaeda - would help bridge a quarter-century long estrangement marked by hostage taking, terrorism, name calling and outrage over Iran's clandestine nuclear program.
Obviously, any chance was lost.