Talking to Iran

TALKING TO IRAN….What should we do about Iran? I have a suggestion, but first I need to relate a story that’s gotten suprisingly little attention from the press. Perhaps they’re too bored to pick up on it.

It started on May 6, 2003, shortly after George Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. On that day the Associated Press reported without elaboration that Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman had confirmed that “Iran has exchanged messages with U.S. officials about Iraq through the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran. He declined to give details.”

What was that all about? Last January, Flynt Leverett, who worked for Condoleezza Rice on the National Security Council, provided some initial clues:

In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran’s power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration’s response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.

In February, Newsday picked up the story:

The fax was one of a series of informal soundings that emanated from Tehran in the months after the United States invasion of Iraq. Iran’s envoys to Sweden and Britain also began sending signals that the regime was ready to negotiate a deal, according to a former Western diplomat closely familiar with the messages. Iran was sending messages through other back-channels as well, according to Paul Pillar, who served as the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.

….”No one at a senior level was willing to push Iran on diplomacy,” said Leverett. “Was there at least a chance that we could have gotten something going? Yes, there was a chance.”

Three weeks ago, Gareth Porter added some more details:

Realists, led by Powell and his Deputy Richard Armitage, were inclined to respond positively to the Iranian offer. Nevertheless, within a few days of its receipt, the State Department had rebuked the Swiss ambassador for having passed on the offer.

Exactly how the decision was made is not known. “As with many of these issues of national security decision-making, there are no fingerprints,” [Lawrence] Wilkerson told IPS. “But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W. Bush.”

As Wilkerson observes, however, the mysterious death of what became known among Iran specialists as Iran’s “grand bargain” initiative was a result of the administration’s inability to agree on a policy toward Tehran.

A draft National Security Policy Directive (NSPD) on Iran calling for diplomatic engagement had been in the process of interagency coordination for more than a year, according to a source who asks to remain unidentified.

But it was impossible to get formal agreement on the NSPD, the source recalls, because officials in Cheney’s office and in Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans wanted a policy of regime change and kept trying to amend it.

With that as background, here’s my suggestion: quit letting Cheney’s crackpots run foreign policy and talk to Iran. After all, the administration’s ideologues killed an opportunity to ratchet down tensions three years ago, and since then things have only gotten worse: Iran has elected a wingnut president, they’ve made progress on nuclear enrichment, gained considerable influence in Iraq, and increased their global economic leverage as oil supplies have gotten tighter. So why blow another chance? If the talks fail, then they fail. But what possible reason can there be to refuse to even discuss things with Iran ? unless you’re trying to leave no alternative to war?

That may well be the Bush administration’s strategy, but ordinary horse sense suggests it shouldn’t be anyone else’s.