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Burnt Offering

How a 2003 secret overture from Tehran might have led to a deal on Iran’s nuclear capacity -- if the Bush administration hadn’t rebuffed it.

By Gareth Porter

06/06/06 "
The American Prospect" -- -- Iran’s “mad mullahs” want nuclear weapons to destroy Israel and can only be stopped by the threat or use of military force. That’s what the Bush administration would have the public believe, as it pushes toward a confrontation with Iran over that country’s nuclear program. A key link in the argument is that Tehran has shown no interest in negotiating over the nuclear issue. As State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters last January, the administration didn’t then see “anything that indicates the Iranians are willing to engage in a serious diplomatic process” on the nuclear issue.

In the woeful history of falsehoods about the targets of potential U.S. force, however, this one is particularly egregious. In the spring of 2003, the Islamic Republic of Iran not only proposed to negotiate with the Bush administration on its nuclear program and its support for terrorists but also offered concrete concessions that went very far toward meeting U.S. concerns

The story of that Iranian negotiating proposal and the U.S. failure to respond, which has never been covered by major U.S. media, reveals the underlying pragmatism driving Iranian policy toward an agreement with the United States. It also reveals a fierce struggle between realists who wanted to engage Iran diplomatically and the inner circle of advisers who were determined to avoid it. The stubborn rejection by President Bush and his neoconservative advisers of normal diplomatic practice in their dealings with Iran, detailed for the first time here, raises grave questions about the Bush administration’s real motives as it maneuvers through the present crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.

The Post–9-11 Opportunity With Iran

Almost from the beginning of Bush’s presidency, two groups in the administration were waging an intense struggle over Iran, while the U.S. government went month after month without an official policy. Those officials who wanted to try diplomacy had a champion in Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage, a close confidante of Secretary of State Colin Powell. Armitage had lived in Tehran for several months in 1975 as part of a Pentagon team trying to restrain the shah’s arms purchases, and he was “very interested” in Iran, according to Powell’s chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson. One of the reasons Armitage brought Middle East specialist Richard Haass into the department as head of the Office of Policy Planning, Wilkerson says, was to work on a new policy toward Iran.

Haass, for four years the senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council under the first President Bush, began in the summer of 2001 to explore the possibilities for engaging Iran diplomatically, first through the easing of economic sanctions imposed in 1996 under the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. But by the time the State Department was focused on the problem, it was already too late: The bill re-imposing those sanctions had been introduced in the House on January 3, 2001, even before Bush’s inauguration, and had no fewer than 250 co-sponsors. A source who worked on the issue at the time says the American Israel Public Affairs Committee had been focusing on the legislation for months. The bill passed overwhelmingly in July 2001.

The September 11 attacks created an entirely new strategic context for engagement with Iran. The evening of 9-11, Flynt Leverett, a career CIA analyst who was then at the State Department as a counter-terrorism expert, and a small group of officials met with Powell. It was the beginning of work on a diplomatic strategy in support of the U.S. effort to destroy the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda network it had harbored. The main aim was to gain the cooperation of states that were considered sponsors of terrorism.

“The United States was about to mount a global war on terrorism with complete legitimacy from the United Nations,” recalls Leverett, “and these states didn’t want to get on the downside of it.” Within weeks, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Sudan all approached the United States through various channels to offer their help in the fight against al-Qaeda. “The Iranians said we don’t like al-Qaeda any better than you, and we have assets in Afghanistan that could be useful,” Leverett recalls.

It was the beginning of a period of extraordinary strategic cooperation between Iran and the United States. As America began preparing for the military operation in Afghanistan, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ryan Crocker held a series of secret meetings with Iranian officials in Geneva. In those meetings, Iran offered search-and-rescue help, humanitarian assistance, and even advice on which targets to bomb in Afghanistan, according to one former administration official. The Iranians, who had been working for years with the main anti-Taliban coalition, the Northern Alliance, also advised the Americans about how to negotiate the major ethnic and political fault lines in the country.

The Iranian-U.S. strategic rapprochement continued to gain momentum in November and December 2001. In early December, at a conference in Bonn to set up a post-Taliban Afghan government, Iran pressed its allies in the Northern Alliance to limit their demands for ministerial seats and even made sure antiterrorism language was included in the agreement, according to U.S. Special Envoy James Dobbins. Leverett agrees. “The Bonn Conference would not have been successful without [Iran’s] cooperation,” he says. “They had real contacts with the players on the ground in Afghanistan, and they proposed to use that influence in continuing coordination with the United States.”

The Office of Policy Planning had written a paper in late November arguing that the United States had “a real opportunity” to work more closely with Iran on al-Qaeda. It proposed exchanges of information and coordinated border sweeps, requiring no more than sharing tactical intelligence on al-Qaeda with Iran, with the expectation that even more valuable intelligence would come from the Iranians. That proposal was supported by the CIA as well as from the White House coordinator on counterterrorism, Wayne Downing.

The strategy advocated by Haass and Leverett, with the encouragement of Armitage and Powell, was to use the new desire of states still listed as sponsors of terrorism -- especially Iran and Syria -- to cooperate with the United States to press for larger changes in policy. The idea, Leverett recalls, was to “have broader conversations with them about support for terrorist groups and say, ‘We will take you off the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list if you do the following.’”

With Iran, such discussions would also have to cover the country’s nuclear program. The Policy Planning staff had been putting together options that would revolve around different levels of incentives, ranging from modest benefits such as support for Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization to a more comprehensive offer that would include security guarantees, according to a source familiar with the proposal. Wilkerson describes the resulting plan for a dialogue with Iran as having “quite a lot of detail.”

Neoconservatives Strike Back

The post-9-11 period was the most promising moment for a U.S. opening to Iran since the two countries cut their relations in 1979. But neoconservatives had no intention of letting the engagement initiative get off the ground, and they were well-positioned to ensure that it didn’t.

The main drama around Iran policy in late 2001 was played out in the White House, where the drafting of the State of the Union message was under way and where the neoconservatives held sway. The inclusion of Iran in the “axis of evil” was at first opposed by then–National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, because, as Hadley told journalist Bob Woodward, Iran, unlike Iraq or North Korea, had a “complicated political structure with a democratically elected president.” But Bush had already made up his mind; regime change was the goal.

A stronger, more self-confident national security adviser would have insisted that an ill-informed President consider the pros and cons of making such a far-reaching foreign-policy decision on the basis of a half-baked concept, and perhaps insist on intelligence advice on the matter. But Rice had already earned a reputation among national security officials for always staying in Bush’s good graces by taking whatever position she believed he would favor. “She would guess which way the President would go and make sure that’s where she came out,” says Wilkerson, who watched her operate for four years. “She would be an advocate up to a point, but her advocacy would cease as soon as she sniffed the President’s position.”

Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld led the neoconservative push for regime change. But it was Douglas Feith, the abrasive and aggressively pro-Israel undersecretary of defense for policy, who was responsible for developing the details of the policy. Feith had two staff members, Larry Franklin and Harold Rhode, who spoke Farsi, and a third, William Luti, whom one former U.S. official recalls being “downright irrational” on anything having to do with Iran. A former intelligence official who worked on the Middle East said, “I’ve had a couple of Israeli generals tell me off the record that they think Luti is insane.”

In December 2001, Feith secretly dispatched Franklin and Rhode to Rome to meet with Manucher Ghorbanifar, the shady Iranian arms dealer in the Iran-Contra affair, and other Iranians. Administration officials later told Warren P. Strobel of the Knight Ridder media chain that they had learned that among those Iranians were representatives of the Mujahadeen e Khalq (MEK), a paramilitary organization Saddam had used for acts of terror against non-Sunni Iraqis and Iran.

In December, the question of policy toward the state sponsors of terrorism was taken up by the “deputies committee” made up of Hadley, who served as chairman, Armitage, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and a deputy to CIA Director George Tenet. The outcome was already foretold. “It was decided that to engage with these states was a concession to terrorism, a reward for bad behavior,” Leverett recalls. In rules for dealing with Iran and Syria, referred to informally as the “Hadley Rules,” the committee further decreed that there could be no sharing of intelligence information or any other cooperation on al-Qaeda, although the states in question could be asked to provide information or other cooperation unilaterally. The new rules put U.S. policy toward Iran in a straitjacket requiring that Iran could never be treated as a sovereign equal on any issue.

It was clear to State Department officials that no progress could be made toward engaging Iran without a formal Iran policy that would supersede the Hadley Rules. In early 2002, Leverett worked on a draft National Security Presidential Decision (NSPD) calling for diplomatic engagement. But Feith’s staff came up with their own revised version of the draft, which turned into a policy of regime change, according to Leverett. The engagement group wanted Rice to hold an interagency meeting and force the issue, but she failed to do it, according to both Leverett and Wilkerson. The neoconservatives had prevailed through a costly policy default on Iran.

The Iranians Try For A Grand Bargain

Bush’s axis-of-evil speech was followed by public charges and press leaks from the administration that Iran was deliberately “harboring” al-Qaeda cadres who had fled from Afghanistan. In fact, the Iranians had made a serious effort to cooperate with Washington on al-Qaeda, according to Leverett. When the administration requested that the Iranian government send more guards to the Afghan border to intercept al-Qaeda cadres, Iran did so. And when Washington asked Iran to look out for specific al-Qaeda leaders who had entered Iran, Iran put a hold on their visas.

The effect of the Bush administration’s signals of hostility was to discredit the idea of cooperation with Washington as a means of obtaining U.S. concessions to Iranian interests. Reflecting the mood in Tehran, in May 2002, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the idea of negotiations with the United States as useless.

But Iranian calculations were dramatically altered by the impending U.S. attack on Iraq. In late 2002, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad met with Iranian officials in Geneva, asked for assistance for any American pilots downed in Iranian territory, and requested that Iran refrain from putting forces into Iraq. Journalist Afshin Molavi was told by Iranian sources that the Iranians agreed to both requests but insisted on a pledge by the United States not to attack Iran after it had removed Saddam, to which Khalilzad gave an equivocal answer.

Iranian national security officials were convinced that the Bush administration intended to move against their country once the United States had consolidated its position in Iraq. Trita Parsi, a specialist on Iranian foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies who has had extensive interviews with officials of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council as well as the Foreign Ministry, says, “They believed if they didn’t do something, Iran would be next.”

The only way Iranian officials could head off that threat was to offer Washington things it needed in return for things that Iran needed. In early 2003, the Iranians believed they had three new sources of bargaining leverage with Washington: the huge potential influence in a post-Saddam Iraq of the Iranian-trained and anti-American Iraqi Shiite political parties and military organizations in exile in Iran; the Bush administration’s growing concern about Iran’s nuclear program; and the U.S. desire to interrogate the al-Qaeda leaders Iran had captured in 2002.

As the United States was beginning its military occupation of Iraq in April, the Iranians were at work on a bold and concrete proposal to negotiate with the United States on the full range of issues in the U.S.-Iran conflict. Iran’s then-ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, the nephew of then–Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, drafted the document, which was approved by the highest authorities in the Iranian system, including the Supreme National Security Council and Supreme Leader Khamenei himself, according to a letter accompanying the document from the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, who served as an intermediary. Parsi says senior Iranian national security officials confirmed in interviews in August 2004 that Khamenei was “directly involved in the document.”

The proposal, a copy of which is in the author’s possession, offered a dramatic set of specific policy concessions Tehran was prepared to make in the framework of an overall bargain on its nuclear program, its policy toward Israel, and al-Qaeda. It also proposed the establishment of three parallel working groups to negotiate “road maps” on the three main areas of contention -- weapons of mass destruction, “terrorism and regional security,” and “economic cooperation.”

The document was sent to Washington just in time for a meeting between Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif and Khalilzad in Geneva on May 2, 2003. One copy arrived at the State Department by fax, and a second copy was taken to State in person by an American intermediary, according to a source who has discussed the letter with the intermediary.

The proposal offered “decisive action against any terrorists (above all, al-Qaeda) in Iranian territory” and “full cooperation and exchange of all relevant information.” It also indicated, however, that Iran wanted from the United States the “pursuit of anti-Iranian terrorists, above all MKO” -- the Iranian acronym for the Mujihedeen e Khalq (MEK), which had fought alongside Iraqi troops in the war against Iran and was on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations -- “and support for repatriation of their members in Iraq” as well as actions against the organization in the United States.

At the May 2 meeting in Geneva, a separate proposal involving exchange of information about al-Qaeda detainees and the MEK was spelled out by Ambassador Zarif. According to Leverett, Zarif informed Khalilzad that Iran would hand over the names of senior al-Qaeda cadres detained in Iran in return for the names of the MEK cadres and troops who had been captured by U.S. forces in Iraq.

To meet the U.S. concern about an Iranian nuclear weapons program, the document offered to accept much tighter controls by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in exchange for “full access to peaceful nuclear technology.” It proposed “full transparency for security [assurance] that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD” and “full cooperation with IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols).” That was a reference to new IAEA protocols that would guarantee the IAEA access to any facility, whether declared or undeclared, on short notice -- something Iran had been urged to adopt but was resisting in the hope of getting something in return. The adoption of those protocols would have made it significantly more difficult for Iran to carry on a secret nuclear program without the risk of being caught.

The Iranian proposal also offered a sweeping reorientation of Iranian policy toward Israel. In the past, Iran had attacked those Arab governments that had supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Tehran had supported armed groups that opposed it. But the document offered “acceptance of the Arab League Beirut declaration (Saudi initiative, two-states approach).” The March 2002 declaration had embraced the land-for-peace principle and a comprehensive peace with Israel in return for Israel’s withdrawal to 1967 lines. That position would have aligned Iran’s policy with that of the moderate Arab regimes.

The document also offered a “stop of any material support to Palestinian opposition groups (Hamas, Jihad, etc.) from Iranian territory” and “pressure on these organizations to stop violent actions against civilians within borders of 1967.” Finally it proposed “action on Hizbollah to become a mere political organization within Lebanon.” That package of proposals was a clear bid for removal of Iran from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The document appears to have assumed that the United States would be dependent on Iran’s help in stabilizing Iraq. It offered “coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a nonreligious government.” In return, the Iranians wanted “democratic and fully representative government in Iraq” (meaning a government chosen by popular election, which would allow its Shiite allies to gain power) and “support for Iranian claims for Iraqi reparations,” referring to Iranian claims against Iraq for having started the Iran-Iraq War.

Finally, its aims included “respect for Iranian national interests in Iraq and religious links to Najaf/Karbal.” Those references suggested that Tehran wanted some formal acknowledgement of its legitimate interests in Iraq as next-door neighbor, and of the historically close relations between the Shiite clergy in Iran and in those Iraqi Shiite centers.

The list of Iranian aims also included an end to U.S. “hostile behavior and rectification of status of Iran in the U.S.,” including its removal from the “axis of evil” and the “terrorism list,” and an end to all economic sanctions against Iran. But it also asked for “[r]ecognition of Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region with according [appropriate] defense capacity.” According to knowledgeable observers of Iranian policy making, the ambition to be recognized as a legitimate power in the Persian Gulf, with a seat at the table in any regional discussions, has been a major motivation for many years for the Iranian national security establishment to reach an agreement with the United States.

Bush Administration Brush-Off

Iran’s historic proposal for a broad diplomatic agreement should have prompted high-level discussions over the details of an American response. In fact, however, the issue was quickly closed to further discussion. Leverett believes the document was a “respectable effort” to provide a basis for negotiations. Yet he recalls that there was no interagency meeting to discuss it. “The State Department knew it had no chance at the interagency level of arguing the case for it successfully,” he says. “They weren’t going to waste Powell’s rapidly diminishing capital on something that unlikely.”

The outcome of discussion among the principals -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell -- was that State was instructed to ignore the proposal and to reprimand Guldimann for having passed it on. “It was literally a few days,” Leverett recalls, between the arrival of the Iranian proposal and the dispatch of the message of displeasure with the Swiss ambassador.

The offer of a narrower deal over al-Qaeda and the anti-Iranian terrorist group touched off a brief period of intensive maneuvering by both sides in the administration over U.S. policy toward the MEK. When the proposed al-Qaeda–MEK exchange of information was discussed at a White House meeting, proponents of regime change sought to differentiate MEK from al-Qaeda. Bush is said to have responded, “But we say there is no such thing as a good terrorist,” according to Leverett.

Although Bush did not approve an al-Qaeda–MEK deal, he did approve the disarming of the MEK who had surrendered to U.S. troops in Iraq, as the State Department requested, and allowed State to continue the talks in Geneva.

But on May 12, 2003, a terrorist bombing in Ryadh killed eight Americans and 26 Saudis. Rumsfeld and Feith seized the occasion to regain the initiative on Iran. Three days later, Rumsfeld declared, “We know there are senior al-Qaeda in Iran … presumably not an ungoverned area.” The following day someone obviously reflecting Rumsfeld’s views gave David Martin of CBS News an exclusive story. “U.S. officials say they have evidence the bombings in Saudi Arabia and other attacks still in the works were planned and directed by senior al-Qaeda operatives who have found safe haven in Iran,” Martin reported.

But in fact U.S. intelligence had no evidence that the Iranian government was intentionally allowing al-Qaeda to remain on Iranian soil. Contrary to Rumsfeld’s disingenuous statement, U.S. intelligence did not conclude that the government knew where the al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan were located in Iran. “The Iran experts agreed that, even if al-Qaeda had come in and out of Iran, it didn’t mean the Iranian government was complicit,” recalls Wilkerson. “There were parts of Iran where the government would not know what was going on.”

Nevertheless, within a few days, Rumsfeld and Cheney had persuaded Bush to cancel the May 21 meeting with Iranian officials. In a masterstroke, Rumsfeld and Cheney had shut down the only diplomatic avenue available for communicating with Iran and convinced Bush that Iran was on the same side as al-Qaeda.

The Nuclear Issue Grows

The neoconservatives had hopes of taking advantage of this break to advance the plan developed by Feith and his staff for regime change in Iran. It called for a covert operation in Iran using the MEK (reconstituted under a new name) for armed forays into Iran. But Bush seems to have balked at getting in bed with the MEK. Seeing an opening, Powell became personally involved in heading off the use of the MEK against Iran. Powell pursued the MEK issue with both Rice and Rumsfeld “on a number of occasions,” according to Wilkerson. When he learned that Rumsfeld had prevailed on the military in May to leave the MEK with most of its arms and to allow it to move freely in and out of its camp north of Baghdad, Powell wrote a stiff letter to Rumsfeld reminding him that the MEK were U.S. “captives, not allies.”

But the U.S. stance toward Iran was still stuck in an imperial mode of making unilateral demands on Tehran for further cooperation on al-Qaeda as a condition for further talks. In October 2003, Armitage said in congressional testimony that the United States would be open to a wide-ranging dialogue, but only after Iran had agreed to “turn over or share intelligence about all al-Qaeda members and leaders.” Meanwhile, the State Department cracked down on the MEK in the United States as a terrorist organization, but it could offer no information to Tehran on the MEK in return for such intelligence cooperation, as Iran had proposed. It was still constrained by the Hadley Rules from engaging in any reciprocity with Iran. And in the end, Rumsfeld and Cheney succeeded in getting the U.S. proconsul in Baghdad, Jerry Bremer, to countermand a decision by the heavily Shiite Iraqi Governing Council to repatriate the MEK to Iran.

By the second half of 2003, American Iran policy had already begun to shift toward the issue of nuclear weapons, on which the neoconservative John Bolton, then the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, played the lead role. The policy was to put pressure on Iran to force it to completely give up its nuclear fuel cycle by getting the IAEA to vote to take Iran’s case to the U.N. Security Council.

Iran began negotiating on the nuclear issue with the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in September 2003 to avoid the Security Council and the prospect of sanctions, and possibly even U.S. warplanes. But Mohammed El Baradei, the chief of the IAEA, who had been meeting with Iranian officials about their nuclear program for months, knew that the essence of the problem was Iran’s unfulfilled need to negotiate a settlement with the United States. According to an account in Newsday earlier this year, El Baradei met with Powell in January 2004 to appeal to him for serious U.S. involvement in the negotiations, warning that negotiations were the only way the issue could be resolved. But Powell wouldn’t respond.

Iran’s Continuing Quest For Negotiations

Three years after Iran’s 2003 negotiating initiative, the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is still being played out in the shadow of the U.S. refusal to respond to Iranian national security officials. After the negotiations with the three European states failed to provide security commitments, Iran said it was no longer bound by its voluntary suspension of enrichment-related activities, which it had agreed to in conjunction with the negotiations.

When the IAEA voted in February to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council due to concerns over its nuclear program, Iran responded by resuming uranium enrichment and, in April, announced progress in enrichment -- all in defiance of U.S. military threats. But analysts familiar with Iranian thinking believe that the enrichment is not for the purpose of acquiring nuclear weapons but to force the United States to negotiate a settlement with Iran. Najmeh Bozorgmehr, an Iranian journalist who has covered Iran policy for several years, says Iranian leaders are now convinced that they had to show the United States “we can give you a hard time” to induce the administration to negotiate. Bozorgmehr says the enrichment is “producing facts on the ground” that Iran hopes will lead to negotiations. Trita Parsi says senior national security officials he interviewed in 2004 indicated that the rejection of Iran’s 2003 proposals had tilted the internal debate toward that view. “If the United States had engaged Iran in 2003,” Parsi says, “Iran would not be enriching now.”

Iran is still after a settlement of the nuclear issue in the framework of a broader agreement with the United States such as Iran proposed in 2003. A new diplomatic campaign for that objective began in earnest on March 6, when Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said, “If America abandons its threats and creates a positive atmosphere in which it does not seek to influence the process of negotiations by imposing preconditions, then there will be no impediment to negotiations.” In April 24 press conference remarks, even the ultraconservative Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is hardly an enthusiast of negotiations with the United States, expressed a willingness to talk under certain unidentified conditions. On April 30, spokesman Asefi said Iran would negotiate on “large-scale enrichment” and that a Russian proposal aimed at breaking the international deadlock by enriching the fuel in Russia and shipping it to Iran is “still on the table.”

The Bush administration has thus far resisted any suggestion of negotiations with Iran. But it is coming under increasing pressure from its European allies and from the leading senators on the Foreign Relations Committee to alter that dangerous attitude. Congress and the media should start to examine and discuss the real reasons for this stubborn rejection of diplomacy, which is rooted in the administration’s aggressive political-military aims toward Iran and the broader Middle East.

Gareth Porter, a historian and journalist, writes regularly on U.S. policy in Iran and Iraq for Inter Press Service. His most recent book is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005).

2006 by The American Prospect, Inc.

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