Watchdog Blog

Bob Giles: The Press Has Missed Out on Important Iranian Overtures

Posted at 4:19 pm, February 14th, 2007
Bob Giles Mug

The news that North Korea has agreed to a grand bargain of dismantling its nuclear weapons program in exchange for new international relationships and fuel can be seen in stark contrast to the U.S. handling of the prospect of diplomatic engagement with Iran.

So, too, does the news coverage offer a similar contrast.

The press has tracked the shifting directions of talks with North Korea for more than a decade. The reportage has tended to be thorough and nuanced.

Over the past three years, however, the U.S. press has passed on the opportunity to provide enterprising coverage of possible openings for diplomatic engagement with both Iran and Syria.

Diplomacy is only one part of the larger story in the Middle East and is overshadowed by the war in Iraq and America’s increasingly bellicose attitude toward Iran. But it is an important story, nevertheless, that has the potential to influence public attitudes, and eventually U.S. policy, toward these two countries.

Last week, during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked whether the Bush Administration missed an opportunity to improve relations with Iran in 2003 after the Swiss Embassy faxed a message to the State Department calling for a broad dialogue with the United States.

The Iranian document contained a series of points for discussion, including the ending of sanctions, acceptance of Israel, termination of Iranian support for Palestinian militant groups, full access to peaceful nuclear technology and cooperation on nuclear safeguards and economic matters.

Secretary Rice, who was National Security Advisor at the time, testified that she never saw such a document. “I think I would have noticed if the Iranians had said, ‘We’re ready to recognize Israel…’” she said.

Former members of the administration have been quoted as saying, however, that they were familiar with the initiative, which was sent just after the occupation of Baghdad by U.S. forces. These sources said the proposal was reviewed and quickly rejected by the Bush administration.

In the current issue of Vanity Fair, writer Craig Unger reports that the proposal reflected the fear among Iranians that they “would be next in the crosshairs.”

“To stave off that possibility, Iran’s leadership, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Al Khamenei, began to assemble a negotiating package.”

“It was a comprehensive proposal, which diplomats took to calling “the grand bargain,” according to Unger. “It was sent to Washington on May 2, 2003.”

“To be sure, Iran’s proposal was only a first step,” Unger explains. “There were countless unanswered questions, and many reasons not to trust the Islamic Republic. Given the initiative’s historic scope, however, it was somewhat surprising when the Bush administration simply declined to respond…”

Unger identifies Tim Guldimann, formerly the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, as the intermediary who sent the proposal on to Washington. A few days later, the White House had the State Department send Guldimann a message reprimanding him for “exceeding his diplomatic mandate.”

It is not clear whether this information was made available to the press at the time, whether it was leaked, whether journalists had the story but didn’t write it or whether they didn’t discover it until some time later.

The Washington Post wrote about the communiqué last June, three years after the initiative was received at the State Department.

The Post story credited the newspaper Newsday as being among the first news organizations to report on the development.

The matter received little further notice in the U.S. press until last month, when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff observed in his op-ed column that the U.S. “could have taken another route” than one of “raising the pressure on Iran.”

Referring to the 2003 communiqué, he wrote, “Obviously, Iran’s offer might have led nowhere. But it’s plain where rejection of the offer has taken us: more Americans are dying in Iraq, and some experts worry about clashes with Iran itself.”

The Kristoff column was written in the aftermath of the report, released in early December by the Iraq Study Committee, which had been authorized by Congress to conduct an independent assessment of the current and prospective situation on the ground in Iraq.

In its report to Congress, the Iraq Study Group recommended a “New Diplomatic Offensive.” The Study Group said that “all key issues in the Middle East–the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, the need for political and economic reforms, and extremism and terrorism–are inextricably linked.”

It acknowledged that dealing with Iran and Syria is controversial. “Nevertheless, it is our view that in diplomacy, a nation can and should engage its adversaries and enemies to try to resolve conflicts and differences consistent with its own interests.”

Its recommendation emphasized that discussions should begin without preconditions and should leave the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to be dealt with by the United Nations Security Council.

The Study Group acknowledged that engaging Iran is “problematic,” yet, it noted that the U.S. and Iran cooperated in Afghanistan and suggested that this might be a model that could be replicated for discussions about Iraq.

Turning to Syria, the report characterized U.S.-Syrian relationship as being at a low point, but noted that both countries have important interests in the Arab-Israeli dispute and in Iraq that can be served through discussions.

The Iraq Study Group’s proposal for diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria was found about half-way through its 84-page report.

The larger story from the report, of course, was its harsh characterization of the bleak prospects for success in Iraq and the speculation as to how the Bush administration would react.

News coverage during the following days and weeks zeroed in on these themes, and give little attention to the suggestions for negotiations.

Between the 2003 offer of a diplomatic opening to the United States and the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation for a diplomatic offensive, Iran has been very much in the news.

The range of stories have included Iran’s nuclear ambitions, discussions among members of the Security Council on means to force the Iranians to give up their plan to build a nuclear bomb, the looming prospect that the United States would take military action to damage Iran’s nuclear program, and how the country’s economy was benefiting from the rising price of oil.

Also widely reported were the election of a new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his aggressive public posturing against the United States, evidence of Iran’s support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, whether Iran is helping Shiite insurgents in Iraq, and public unease and the seeds of mutiny in parliament over the combative nature of its nuclear diplomacy.

A story last May reported that President Ahmadinejad had sent President Bush a letter—again through the Swiss government, which serves as a diplomatic channel for communications between Tehran and Washington— proposing “new solutions for getting out of international problems and the current fragile situation in the world.”

The BBC said that it was the first letter from an Iranian president to a U.S. leader since the Iranian revolution in 1979. The letter did not get much serious attention from the administration or the press.

More recently, on Feb. 14th, 2007, the Washington Post reported that in a cover page to his 2003 fax, Swiss ambassador Guldimann wrote that the overture to the U.S. had been approved by Iran’s chief religious and political leaders. The Post said this information had not previously been disclosed, and had been provided by a source who felt the message had been “mischaracterized by State Department officials.”

The grist for good stories remains. Americans should be given a clear sense of how diplomacy might work and where discussions between the U.S. government and Iran might lead. The consequences of policies in which the administration refuses to talk to regimes it doesn’t like should be examined. Here are questions the press might have asked and might still ask?

To begin, what is the history of U.S.-Iranian cooperation since the mid-1980s and what is the impact on Iran’s current strategic outlook of back-channel cooperation during that period?

Why have U.S, policymakers allowed U.S. foreign policy imperatives or domestic politics to deter efforts toward a constructive opening with Iran?

What might the Iranians be willing to do in Iraq?

What would they want in return?

What incentives might persuade Syria to reconsider its support of Hezbollah?

Why does the United States insist that adversaries agree to pre-conditions, such as the recognition of Israel, as the price of beginning diplomatic discussions?

Why is our policy, rather, not one of meeting adversaries as equals and seeing what talking can produce?

In an interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Feb. 11, Barack Obama was asked if he, as president, would be open to negotiations with Syria and Iran. “Of course,” he said.

He recalled that President Reagan may have referred to our adversaries as the “Evil Empire,” but he wanted to know what those governments were thinking and he was always willing to talk to them.

Therein lies a new story for the press to explore—probing Obama’s ideas for talking with Iran and Syria and drawing out the other candidates in both parties on the same question.

2 Responses to “The Press Has Missed Out on Important Iranian Overtures”

  1. Al says:

    President Ahmadinejad’s views are summarized on this website:

  2. Ken in Tennessee says:

    I posted this as part of a larger piece on another site yesterday, precisely what Giles is talking about. I looked fruitlessly in the WaPo, NYT and LATimes today for a follow-up, but nothing:

    Today was the day that an unnamed top Iranian official claiming to speak for Iran’s religious leadership appeared to float a major trial balloon. Speaking with one of the region’s most trusted and knowledgeable correspondents, Christianne Amanpour of CNN, the official essentially said it was time to dial back the rhetoric, drop the threats of war and begin face-to-face negotiations aimed at reducing tensions.

    See the story here:

    For those who understand the pecking order in Iran, the clear message is that the country’s religious leaders do not necessarily back the intransigent, confrontational policies of Ahmadinejad, or perhaps they realize it is time for them to change their tone. And since the Iranian mullahs can trump anything Ahmadinejad does, the message is doubly significant that Iran may be ready to change course. Even the choice of Amanpour as the messenger here makes it clear that this is a story the Iranian clerics want heard in the United States.

    Claiming to reflect the thinking at the highest levels of the Iranian religious leadership, including specifically Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the unnamed officlal said the first step was to take measures to avoid war.

    And to bring the discussion full circle, he repeatedly referenced a recent column by none other than Thomas Friedman saying that the U.S. and Iran should be “natural allies” in the fight against al Qaeda. Watch how this one develops in the coming days if Condi Rice and others are smart enough to pick up this unmistakable signal.

Comments are closed.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.