President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address fueled an extended political pre-game show that almost rivaled the chatter ahead of the Super Bowl. Every network fielded experts to assess what the president might say, why he would say it, and what could happen next.
On the afternoon of the speech, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell was deep in conversation with MSNBC political director Chuck Todd and Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza. The three agreed that despite the hype, these speeches deliver few surprises. But Mitchell said in her mind, the great exception came in 2002 when President George W. Bush named Iran, North Korea and Iraq as part of "an axis of evil."
"Up until that moment, Iran was cooperating with the United States on the border of Afghanistan," Mitchell, MSNBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, said. "Post 9/11, Iran was more or less an American ally. By being included in the axis of evil, it turned the Iranian government in a completely different direction. It was a turning point in American politics and in foreign policy."
To say Iran and American ally in the same breath drew ridicule from the conservative community. The website Townhall.com wrote of Mitchell’s stunning "historical ignorance." Breitbart.com called her claim "a delusion."
For this fact-check, we go to the record to assess whether in January 2002 Iran qualifies as "more or less an American ally."
A tortured relationship
Ties between the U.S. and Iran have been troubled for over 50 years. With the help of the CIA and the British, a coup toppled Iran’s elected leader in 1953 and led to the autocratic control by the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. An Islamic fundamentalist revolution displaced the Shah in 1979, producing the famous hostage crisis with American embassy staff. The U.S. has had no embassy in Iran since.
Over the decades, there have been episodes when tensions between the two countries eased, but the dominant climate has been one of profound distrust if not outright hostility. The U.S. backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. Iran supported the Hezbollah in Lebanon as a military surrogate to strike at Israel.
In recent years, the desire to shut down Iran’s nuclear program has defined American policy toward the Middle Eastern nation.
With that background, it would come as a surprise to ever characterize Iran as anything approaching a partner of the United States. But if there was such a moment, it was immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks on American soil.
The enemy of my enemy
Iranian and American interests dovetailed in Afghanistan, which lies along Iran’s eastern border. Iran viewed the Taliban as a threat.
"For many, many years, the Iranians backed the Northern Alliance, the opponents to the Taliban," said Hossein Askari, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
The Northern Alliance became America’s wedge into Afghanistan in an offensive that overthrew the Taliban in a matter of weeks. Askari said Iran had boots on the ground in those attacks.
"Iran had its military advisers within the Northern Alliance forces," Askari said. "I was told they fought side by side."
To block a resurgent Taliban, both Iran and the U.S. wanted to establish a strong centralized government in Afghanistan. This required a partnership between two ethnic groups, the Tajik leaders of the Northern Alliance and the Pashtuns of Hamid Karzai. But the Northern Alliance was not interested. According to a RAND report prepared for U.S. Marine Corps, Iran brought the two sides together.
"Iranian political pressure on Northern Alliance leaders during negotiations in Bonn, Germany, persuaded them to reach a compromise and agree to the formation of the new government," the RAND report said.
Soon after Sept. 11, Iran also helped the U.S. with al-Qaida. This also fit with Iran’s interests. Al-Qaida is on the other side of the religious divide that splits the Arab world. Al-Qaida is Sunni while Iran is Shia. Iran gave no harbor to members of the terrorist organization.
"They turned al-Qaida operatives out of their country," Askari said.
A former Bush administration official told the Associated Press that Iran copied the passports of about 300 of those operatives and sent them to the United Nations where they were handed over to the Americans.
Temporary partners, not allies
While all of these moves put Iran and the U.S. on the same side, Askari would not goes as far as Mitchell suggested.
"I totally disagree that they were allies," Askari said. "Their interests merged on this one issue, the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Iran wanted to have a say in what happened in Afghanistan. But on other issues, they kept their distance."
As an historical note, Askari believes the Iranians became most interested in a new relationship with the U.S. only when American forces rapidly drove Saddam Hussein out of power.
"They were shaking in their boots," Askari said. "They really thought that if the U.S. could do that to Saddam Hussein so quickly, they could be next."
But whatever overtures Iran made at that moment were met with no response from the Bush administration.
Mitchell said that in 2002, Iran was almost an ally of the United States. While Iran provided critical assistance in the military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan and helped undermine al-Qaida, this cooperation did not reflect deeper ties. It was a moment when both countries sought similar goals in one country.
Mitchell’s point was the Bush administration squandered an opportunity. That might have merit, but there is no fact-checking a hypothetical situation. What we can assess is the degree to which Iran was "more or less" an ally.
With due regard for the ambiguity in Mitchell’s words, we rate the claim Half True.