America’s Botched 2003 Iran Diplomacy: No Talks with Evil People in the “Axis”


What follows is an email sent to me by former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson.
Col. Wilkerson has given me permission to share publicly:

In fact, in a speech I gave on Iran recently, I stated bluntly that we needed to open a strategic dialogue, we needed to send high-level representation to that dialogue, and only if and when that completely failed should we even be considering “other options”.
I also outlined for my audience all the times — some when we had maximum leverage — that we refused such dialogue over the past four years. The default decision by the cabal — after it had flummoxed the statutory process — was achieved: no talks with evil people, particularly those occupying prominent positions in “the axis”.

From the time of Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech and many, many years before — it was clear that Iran’s behavior was high on the roster of key U.S. national security priorities. We knew that Iran was a big nation, a key player in the Middle East, a financier of terrorist activity beyond its borders, and aspired to regional and international greatness, and that many factions inside Iran yearned for normalization of relations with America. It is a nation full of dramatic contradictions — but it s a nation that needs to be dealt with, not ignored.
Ignoring Iran’s self-initiated diplomatic effort in 2003 is exactly what President Bush, under the influence of Rumsfeld and Cheney, did.
Here is a segment from a fascinating article by Gareth Porter that reflects some of Wilkerson’s insights as well as important commentary from Brookings Scholar and former NSC Senior Director for Middle East Affairs Flynt Leverett:

Lawrence Wilkerson, then chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell, said the failure to adopt a formal Iran policy in 2002-03 was the result of obstruction by a “secret cabal” of neo-conservatives in the administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney.
“The secret cabal got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran,” Wilkerson wrote in an e-mail to Inter Press Service (IPS).
The Iranian negotiating offer, transmitted to the State Department in early May 2003 by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, acknowledged that Iran would have to address US concerns about its nuclear program, although it made no specific concession in advance of the talks, according to Flynt Leverett, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Middle East Affairs.
Iran’s offer also raised the possibility of cutting off Iran’s support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and converting Hezbollah into a purely socio-political organization, according to Leverett. That was an explicit response to Powell’s demand in late March that Iran “end its support for terrorism”.
In return, Leverett recalls, the Iranians wanted the US to address security questions, the lifting of economic sanctions and normalization of relations, including support for Iran’s integration into the global economic order.
Leverett also recalls that the Iranian offer was drafted with the blessing of all the major political players in the Iranian regime, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.
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,” Wilkerson told IPS. “But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W Bush.”

In corners of the Pentagon, CIA, State Department and National Security Agency — as well as in the Office of the President and Vice President, employees of our government — supported by taxpayers — are considering bombing and other hard shock scenarios to preempt Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. The truth is that we should always have back up plans, hard and soft scenarios, diplomacy backed by resolve. . .all of that.
But it’s a real travesty when diplomacy is never really attempted — and when the force that Cheney’s wing of the foreign policy establishment wants applied actually wrecks American objectives, undermines our goals and interests, and frequently gives the thugs that we are trying to confront the legitimacy they need to grow stronger.
— Steve Clemons