Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A Missed Opportunity With Iran

Islamic country said to have notified U.S. in '03 of willingness to negotiate over WMDs, but ex-officials say Bush team didn't want to deal
By Gregory Beals, Special to Newsday
Long Island Newsday
February 19, 2006

In May 2003, shortly after the U.S. military destroyed the army of Saddam Hussein, a fax arrived at the State Department with an Iranian offer to open talks that would include a discussion of weapons of mass destruction.

The one-page document was written 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, who represented U.S. interests in Iran, a former administration official said.

The official, who saw the document, said it indicated that Iran wanted to negotiate a grand political bargain with the United States that would include everything from Iran's nuclear program to its support for groups that Washington regards as terrorist.

"The Iranians acknowledged that WMD and support for terror were serious causes of concern for us, and they were willing to negotiate," said Flynt Leverett, a former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council who said he read the document. "The message had been approved by all the highest levels of authority. They wanted us to deal with sanctions, security guarantees, normalization of relations, and support for integration of Iran into the World Trade Organization."

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.

"There were several other informed intellectuals who visited Iran at the time," he said. "They were being used to receive and deliver similar sorts of messages. There was an interest in Tehran in engaging and talking."

But the Bush administration was in no mood for conversation or grand political bargains, the former officials said. According to Leverett, who left government in mid-2003, the administration rejected the Iranian probe and instead sent a complaint to Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldimann, saying he had overstepped his role as an intermediary by passing it on in the first place.

Critics, including the two former Bush administration officials, European diplomats, and policy experts, say the United States may have squandered an opportunity to negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear program by not talking with Tehran. According to both Leverett and Pillar, the administration's priority was to avoid negotiations with the regime, out of concern it would imply acceptance of its continuation in office. Since then, Iran's government has become even more conservative, making the prospect of further negotiations more problematic.

"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."

The State Department disputes that there was ever a prospect for credible direct negotiations with Iran. "The presumption that the regime in Iran is going to change its stripes is specious," said a department spokesman who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Was there a credible approach from the Iranian government with an offer that made any kind of sense? Never at any time ... "

A White House spokesman declined to address the issues surrounding Iran's overtures in 2003. He said, however, Iran had "for years been deceiving the international community and now must live up to their responsibilities under the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] and NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty)]."

Since those overtures, U.S. relations with Iran have sharply deteriorated. Last June, Iranians elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad president, replacing the more moderate Mohammed Khatami, and the new government has resumed the enrichment of uranium. Next month, the confrontation moves to the UN Security Council, with the United States asserting that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and Iran asserting that the program is for peaceful purposes.

The administration's reluctance to enter into new talks with Iran was displayed by the president's State of the Union address in January 2002, where he labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea members of an "axis of evil." The administration set the goal of establishing a reformist democracy in Iran to replace the mullahs as well as to roll back Tehran's nuclear program.

Bush has now stepped up his campaign for reformist democracy in Iran. During his last State of the Union address, he appealed to the people of Iran to "win their own freedom" and promised "one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran." Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced an $85 million program to promote political change in Iran by subsidizing dissident groups and outside radio broadcasts.

U.S. intelligence experts, however, believe that the administration has been mistaken in its belief that the current regime in Iran is short-lived.

"The consensus analytic view was that there was a lot of dissatisfaction but that it didn't translate into a pre-revolutionary situation," said Pillar. "Iran doesn't have the appetite for making another revolution. I think there has probably been more faith among the policy-makers in the prospects of true regime change than most of the analysts believe."

Leverett and others say the administration refused to pursue a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear program because it meant acknowledging a regime they viewed as fundamentally illegitimate. "They believed that just a little pushing from us and it would be over," said the former Western diplomat. "They were wrong."

The man in charge of nuclear proliferation policy when the offer came in from Iran was John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Bolton, a hardline conservative who is currently U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, would not comment for this story. Testifying to Congress on June 4, 2003, Bolton argued that Iran could build "over 80 nuclear weapons" if it had access to a secure supply of nuclear fuel. That same month, the White House refused to rule out a military option in dealing with Iran after Iran failed to report "certain nuclear materials and activities" to the IAEA. Later that year, Bolton urged that Iran be brought before the UN Security Council for violating its commitments not to pursue nuclear weapons program.

Some experts saw Iran's desire to reach an agreement as a sign of strategic weakness. "In the immediate aftermath of the war, the Iranians were desperately afraid that they were next on the list and desperately trying to find a way to be accommodating to the U.S.," said Gary Saymore, a non-proliferation expert at the MacArthur foundation, an independent grant-making institution. "The suspension on uranium enrichment that the Europeans got came because Iran was afraid of the U.S. colossus next door."

"What we took was exactly the wrong approach," said one U.S. military official with extensive knowledge of U.S. relations with Iran. "Our military had made the point to everyone in the region. If Iran is ready to come to the table, then you come to the table. Do it with distrust but get them to the table and get them engaged. We wasted an opportunity."

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