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Iranian peace overtures in 2003 and mysterious non-reaction


The now public 2003 Iranian letter offering a wide-ranging settlement with the US and Israel , should have provoked a positive reaction in Washington, but it didn't. The continued low key revelations of the existence of this letter since 2003, and especially in 2006, and Washington's non-reaction, should have provoked a media response, but they didn't do that either. Why does this remain "non-news?" Even abortive and insincere peace efforts of the Confederate States of America in the US Civil War were treated more seriously and given more attention.

We can now piece together a bit more of the story of this missed opportunity. According to a February 2006 Newsday story, the letter itself was written by by Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's ambassador to France and nephew of Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi and passed on by the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Tim Guldimann. Apparently, the Iranians were impressed by US sucesses in the Iraqi war, and wanted to strike a deal before their own position deteriorated. A deal with the USA, which would have lifted economic sanctions, would also have solidified the position of the regime at home and quelled unrest. A second letter, the text of which is unavailable was sent through an intermediary.

The Iranian peace overtures have in fact been public knowledge since 2003. A Financial Times article of July 15, 2003 (no longer on the Web and reproduced below) pointed out that Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian ambassador to the UN, had been making such proposals, as had others. The story was followed up in 2004, with at least one more article, also reproduced below.

Playing at "what if" is a dangerous game, but it is very tempting to speculate that if the US had engaged Iran in dialogue at the time, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would not have been elected President, and the US would have at least a tacit ally against the Iraq insurrection instead of another hostile country. Syria would have been totally isolated in that case as well.

What could have been keeping the US from trying to make a deal?

Without the text of the actual letter that is now available, it was possible to cast these overtures as attempts to lure the US into legitimizing Iran with no quid pro quo. Given the clear "road map" laid out in the letter sent by Iran in 2003, however, it is likely the people who made these proposals were sincerely interested in pursuing detente or peace with the US.

Another possibility is that the US regime views the Iran regime in the same way as the allies viewed the Nazi regime in World War II. In the case of the Nazis, all attempts at "peace" overtures without surrender were doomed from the start because the allies were determined to obtain unconditional surrender. As the U.S. and Iran are not at war, it would be absurd for the US to consider Iran in that light. However, this approach fits the neoconservative mentality that insists on "victory." This approach is expressed in the Financial Times article of March, 16, 2004, which comments;

For Mr Bush, who has no personal experience of Iran, it is a moral question. In speeches on the Middle East, he has said that consorting with tyrants such as the Shah of Iran or his religious successors has rebounded on America.

If that were really true, we would be unable to explain the rapprochement between the United States and the Libyan regime of Muammar Qaddafi. There is nothing one can name that makes the Iranian regime worse than Libya other than its extrem enimity to the US and Israel, is there?

A third possibility is that the US considered that those proposing the negotiations did not speak for the regime. Since some of the proposals came from Ayatollah Rafanjani, as well as from the Iranian ambassadors to France and the UN, it was very likely that the overtures made in 2003 were a coordinated Iranian diplomatic effort, and equally likely that US officials understood it to be so. Even if it had resulted in nothing, it was certainly worth pursuing.

A fourth possibility, and perhaps the key factor, is that Iran was unwilling in any case to give up its nuclear development program, and announced this in advance. The letter of 2003 states as an Iranian aim, among others:

Full access to peaceful nuclear technology, biotechnology and chemical technology

Given that Iran had tried to cheat the IAEA and develop a clandestine enrichment program, it is unlikely that the US would find credible renewed Iranian "guarantees" that it would abide by non-proliferation safeguards.

Another possibility is that the US understood quite well that a deal between Iran and the US would consolidate the internal standing of the current Iranian regime, and the US is not interested at all in that outcome. It is a legitimate position from the point of view of competition between states, though not necessarily "moral." Morality and foreign policy don't mix very well.

Evidently, Iran is so intent on developing nuclear technology that it is willing to give up, or say that it is giving up, many of the supposedly sacred tenets of its revolution, including the struggle against the "Great Satan" (USA) and against Zionism.

This brings us to the second, equal and opposite mysterious question concerning the Iranian dialog or peace overtures: Why are they so stubbornly insistent on developing nuclear technology? Iran has announced repeatedly that no incentives offered by the international community will make it give up its nuclear development program. In 2003, as we saw, they were willing to sacrifice the centerpieces of their foreign policy, enmity to the US and Israel, in order to save their nuclear development porject. They are risking confrontation with the UN and even sanctions to enrich uranium. What is so important about this program? But that, after all, is the original mystery of the Iran crisis. Iran cannot use nuclear weapons against Israel, because of the risk of destroying the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem as well as killing millions of Palestinian Arabs. Iran does not need nuclear energy urgently for production of electricity as it has about 200 years' worth of proven fossil fuel reserves.

It should be evident that Iran is intent on developing nuclear technology as a way to achieve status as a regional power. This is implicit in many things the Iranian government has said, and in the letter itself, which states as a goal:

Recognition of Iran's legitimate security interests in the region with according defense capacity.

In this vision, Iran would achieve, perhaps, the status and position of Turkey with respect to the US and Israel, while at the same time becoming a leader of the Arab/Muslim world. Iran would have an increasing say in the affairs of the Gulf region. These goals are not incompatible with US interests as such, or with Israeli interests, but they would probably be viewed with alarm by neighboring countries in the Gulf region and by Egypt.

Those who insist that the "Israel Lobby" dictates all of United States foreign policy must consider that in this instance at least, the possibility of acceptance of Israel by Iran was apparently sacrificed to the interests of Arab allies of the United States. The "Israel Lobby" was apparently not in sight, and was not even consulted.

Ami Isseroff

Copyright 2003 The Financial Times Limited
Financial Times (London,England)

July 15, 2003 Tuesday
London Edition 2


LENGTH: 606 words

HEADLINE: US rejects Iran's offer for talks on nuclear programme




Iran has communicated to the US its readiness to open direct talks
about its nuclear programme as a first step towards tackling other
issues, such as terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but US
officials say the Bush administration is keeping the door closed.

Tehran's overtures have been conducted mainly through Mohammad Javad
Zarif, its ambassador to the United Nations in New York, in
discussions with Americans in close contact with the Bush
administration, including at least one former senior official.

That Iran's leadership was ready to open a dialogue with the US was
also conveyed by Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, in a
recent visit to Washington. Switzerland represents US interests in

But although the US is seeking a dialogue with North Korea, a member
of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil", and is engaged in talks
with other "rogue states", such as Libya and Syria, US officials say
there is little appetite for negotiations with Iran.

"We are not reaching out at this point," said a State Department
official, adding that the matter was still under review.

Within the Bush administration some officials advocate "regime change"
as its Iran policy, while a minority proposes engagement. But the
prevailing view is that the US has been effective in working with the

Union and Japan to put economic pressure on Iran.

How soon Iran can develop nuclear weapons is a question that troubles
the US intelligence community. Some officials in Washington think that
could take several years. But Daniel Ayalon, Israeli ambassador to
Washington, says Israel has shortened its estimate.

"The point of no return - where they are on the verge or on the way to
get nuclear capabilities - is much, much smaller now, could be even a
matter of a year or so," he told NBC television last week.

Iran insists its comprehensive nuclear programme is for civilian
purposes only, but it has refused to sign an agreement with the
International Atomic Energy Agency that would open up all its
facilities for inspection.

Mr Zarif has indicated that Tehran would be willing to sign in
exchange for certain guarantees from the US.

The power struggle among Iran's ruling clerics prevented Tehran from
responding coherently to initiatives in the last year of the Clinton
administration. But events since, particularly the US occupation of
Afghanistan and Iraq - Iran's immediate neighbours - combined with
signs of mounting domestic unrest, have led to a rethink in Tehran.

Sources in Tehran and Washington close to the Iranian government said
Mr Zarif did not have the authority to propose a grand strategy of
engagement with the ultimate aim of restoring diplomatic relations.
But he is thought to have high-level backing for negotiations that
would cut deals on an issue-by-issue basis, starting with the nuclear

A much bolder proposal of a strategic realignment of US-Iranian
relations was made by Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of Iran's
Revolutionary Guards, on the sidelines of a Middle East conference in
Athens in early May. But Mr Rezaei, it has since emerged, was not
speaking on behalf of the Iranian government.

The question of who speaks with authority for the Islamic republic is
one that continues to trouble Washington.

Mr Zarif publicly addressed Iran's willingness to be engaged on the
issues of nuclear weapons and the reconstruction of Iraq and
Afghanistan in a commentary in the International Herald Tribune on May
12. But as one US official pointed out, "it was not good timing". On
that day, al-Qaeda suicide bombers killed more than 30 people,
including six Americans, in Saudi Arabia.

LOAD-DATE: July 14, 2003

Washington hardliners wary of engaging with Iran

Financial Times
By Guy Dinmore in Washington
Published: March 16 2004 21:57 | Last Updated: March 16 2004 21:57

Iran's proposal of a road map leading to the restoration of relations with the US did not come as a complete surprise to the Bush administration, but it has intensified a fierce internal debate between "realists" and "neo-conservatives" over ambitious plans to remake the wider Middle East.

Signs of an overture from Tehran had been picked up by Washington a year before the invasion of Iraq, as Iran's faction-riven clerical rulers struggled to reach a consensus over how to respond to the threat inherent in the "Axis of Evil" speech by President George W. Bush in January 2002.

Even before May last year when the road map proposal arrived from Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador representing US interests in Iran, a suggestion had been aired by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president.

Mr Rafsanjani, a powerful figure central to several abortive bids over the past 18 years to strike deals with the US, suggested the question of Iran-US relations could be put to a referendum, a move almost sure to secure approval for rapprochement.

His remarks were published in Tehran soon after the fall of Baghdad. But instead of replying to Tehran, an official said the State Department rebuked the Swiss foreign ministry for overstepping its diplomatic mandate. Mr Guldimann told the Financial Times he never commented on such matters.

According to the US side, the Iranian offer mentioned cutting off support to the militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and converting Lebanon's Hizbollah into a purely socio-political organisation. Iran also indicated it could recognise Israel and a separate Palestinian state.

But it was not clear whether Iran was prepared to abandon its development of the nuclear fuel cycle programme, including uranium enrichment that can be used to run reactors or make bombs.

The offer was said to come from a senior Iranian official designated two years ago by Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, to co-ordinate a special committee on US relations. The Bush administration did not question the authenticity of the proposal, a US official said.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, followed up with a commentary in the International Herald Tribune on May 12 suggesting talks with the US on Iraq and the nuclear issue.

Mr Zarif played an important role in mediating with Lebanese groups in the early 1990s to secure the release of western hostages in Beirut. Mr Rafsanjani was then president.

Important figures on the US side then, and still wielding influence now, are Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under Mr Bush's father, and Thomas Pickering, then US ambassador to the UN. Now in the private sector, both encourage engagement. Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, backs Mr Scowcroft's talks with Mr Zarif.

Fellow realists inside the administration include Colin Powell, the secretary of state, and his deputy, Richard Armitage.

Last October, Mr Armitage told a congressional hearing that pursuit of regime change was not official US policy and that change should come from within. His statement had not been cleared with all other departments.

Another believed to favour engagement is Robert Blackwill, strategic planner for the Middle East under Ms Rice. He was quoted as telling a meeting of European diplomats that "Bush has a vision for the Greater Middle East but not a strategy. My job is to make sure that gap doesn't cost him an election."

But for US hardliners and neo-conservatives, their experience of Iran is dominated by events a decade earlier - the morass of Lebanon and the Iran-Contra debacle when Ronald Reagan, then US president, tried to trade guns for hostages.

For Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, Iran and its creation Hizbollah cannot be forgiven for the retreat of US forces from Lebanon in 1983 after 241 Marines were killed by a bomb.

For many in the Bush administration, that humiliation, followed by no meaningful retaliation, created an image of American weakness in the Arab world that ultimately encouraged the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001.

US officials concede that the blood spilt in Beirut and the 444-day Tehran embassy hostage crisis have left baggage far weightier than Libya's destruction of the Pan Am flight over Scotland or the Korean war half a century ago.

A bargain can be struck with Muammer Gadaffi of Libya or Kim Jong-il of North Korea because there is no internal opposition or alternative, officials say. But in Iran, US hardliners see an alternative to bargaining: a mass of discontented people who are ready to revolt, perhaps with US help.

In May Mr Rumsfeld responded to Iran's overtures by fighting for regime change to be made official US policy, though not necessarily through military means. He attacked Iran publicly, accusing it of being unhelpful over Iraq. He told the Council on Foreign Relations that getting into a close, intimate relationship with Iran would give its clerics the legitimacy they craved and discourage Iranians who sought change.

The neo-conservatives believe the Iranian regime will collapse sooner rather than later. The realists are not so sure. For Mr Bush, who has no personal experience of Iran, it is a moral question. In speeches on the Middle East, he has said that consorting with tyrants such as the Shah of Iran or his religious successors has rebounded on America.

Reuel Gerecht, an Iran expert at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, says the realist school sees a silver lining in the conservatives' rigging of last month's elections that ended four years of reformist majority.

Writing in the Weekly Standard, he said the realists (his political rivals) believed the "pragmatic conservatives are the men to cut a deal" over Iran's weapons of mass destruction. "The realist temptation in the American foreign policy establishment is always powerful, principally because it is the path of least resistance and least action and it dovetails nicely with the status quo reflexes of the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the military brass at the Pentagon," he wrote.

Senator John Kerry, the Democrats' challenger to Mr Bush in this year's election, appears to have embraced the realist cause.

US officials admit the Bush administration's dysfunctional policy on Iran has resulted in confused signals such as the sizeable relief effort for the quake-stricken city of Bam, a moderate, European-led approach on the nuclear issue within the International Atomic Energy Agency, and indecision over how to deal with a growing Iranian presence in Iraq.

Mr Gerecht expresses the concern of neo-conservatives that Mr Bush is "going soft" because of the sobering US experience in Iraq. The administration is urged to take a tougher approach on Iran, especially in response to its suspected sheltering of al-Qaeda fugitives.

Much more than Iran is at stake. What neo-conservatives foresee as a generational struggle with the Islamic world could start or finish with the regime in Tehran.

As Mr Gerecht concluded: "If the Bush administration is serious about transforming the Muslim Middle East - and the jury is still out on whether it is - it will inevitably unsettle, if not alienate, every single pro-American king, emir and dictator in the region."


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Replies: 2 comments

Of course, at that point in time, the US government appears to have thought they could build a stable democracy in Iraq, which would act as a model for others in the region and thus destabilise regimes like Iran's (after the Eastern European paradigm).

That or they had a plan for regime change by military force.

Either scenario would make negotiations with the Iranian government pointless at best, counterproductive at worst.

Since then of course the US has found "nation-building" to be a little harder than anticipated, so the Iranian offer looks a lot better in hindsight.

Posted by Chris @ 05/30/2006 03:31 PM CST

Dear Ami

You forget to mention that although their is no that the Israeli lobby was consulted the letter was rejected in a matter of days. There is no evidenc to suggest that the Israeli lobby wasn't consulted or did not lobby the U.S.. If there is already a strategy or policy in dealing with supported by the Israeli Lobby then politicians might be well aware and don't need to consult with lobbyists. According to Micheal Messing the way the Israeli lobby works might not indicate consulting with lobbiest actually take place:


Based on your veiws the Israeli lobby was not taken into regard in the situation but what if Iran recognizes Israel will Americans feel the need to protect Israel? Will they still need to give the amount of aid the US does now? An Israeli Lobby might veiw that as being dangerous to Israeli interest. Iran and the Arab world making peace overtures to Israel may weaken the argument of "being surrouned by enemies". American support helps Israel be a dominent player in the Middle East. If the reason to give strong support to Israel may start to fade especailly if Israel is seen as not willing to push for peace when its neighbors seem willing. I could see an Israeli lobby not willing to allow for such peace moves.

Also even if Iran does become a regional power it would come at Israel's losing a bit of its power. After all if Iran attains nuclear weapons it could force influence of the Arab countries away from Israel.

Lastly if Iran makes peace with America combined with the troubles of Iraq may convince Americans to stop interfering with the Middle East. U.S. losing influence in the region's politics may not be in the U.S.'s best interests.

Conflict may be better for both Israeli lobbyiests and the U.S. government. With conflict comes influence. Without conflict the rational for strong American support for Israel or American influence in the Middle East starts to weaken which may not be in Israeli or American interest.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 05/31/2006 01:58 AM CST

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