More on the Provenance of the Spring 2003 Iran Proposal for Comprehensive Negotiations with the U.S.


(Iran Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and former Swiss Ambassador to Iran Tim Guldimann)
Imagine dealing with Iran when few Americans had heard of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Imagine the kind of “Nixon Goes to China” move that would have ‘possibly’ taken America’s engagement in the Middle East in a new, constructive direction rather than towards the precipitous decline in perceived power it’s facing now.
It might have been a ruse by Iran — or by Europeans carrying their message who wanted to nudge Iran and the U.S. closer together. . .
Or, it might have been real, and this blogger has reason to suspect that the initiative was not only quite authentic by Iran, but was actually a response to a previously undisclosed secret initiative by some State Department officials — that was “cloaked in deniability.”
There may have been a radically different future with Iran — if there had been serious ‘experimentation’ with an Iranian proposal to change the contours of US-Iran relations — on subjects ranging from Iran’s support of terrorism to recognizing the State of Israel to America to America’s de facto protection of the Iranian mullah-harassing MEK.
The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler has a very important article, “Memo Says Iran’s Leaders Backed Talks,” appearing in tomorrow’s paper that provides valuable new information from the stakeholders in the 2003 Iranian initiative.
Wednesday morning in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, former National Security Council and CIA official Flynt Leverett and former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson will be addressing some of these same “provenance issues.”
Glenn Kessler opens with:

The Swiss ambassador to Iran informed U.S. officials in 2003 that an Iranian proposal for comprehensive talks with the United States had been reviewed and approved by Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, then-President Mohammad Khatami and then-foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi, according to a copy of the cover letter to the Iranian document.

Kessler goes further into the details of the Iranian proposal which was carried by a Swiss emissary:

“I got the clear impression that there is a strong will of the (Iranian) regime to tackle the problem with the U.S. now and to try it with this initiative,” wrote Tim Guldimann, the ambassador, in a cover letter that was faxed to the State Department in May 2003. Guldimann attached a one-page Iranian document labeled “Roadmap” that listed U.S. and Iranian aims for potential negotiations, putting on the table such issues as an end to Iran’s support for anti-Israeli militants, action against terrorist
groups on Iranian soil and acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
The cover letter, which had not previously been disclosed, was provided by a source who felt its contents were mischaracterized by State Department officials. Switzerland serves as a diplomatic channel for communications between Tehran and Washington because the two countries broke off relations after the 1979 seizure of U.S. embassy personnel.
Guldimann’s two-page fax prompted a debate among foreign-policy professionals on whether the Bush administration missed an opportunity four years ago to strike a “grand bargain” with Iran at a time when Washington appeared at the height of its power after the invasion of Iraq and Iran had not mastered uranium enrichment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was questioned about the document on Capitol Hill last week. She said she did not recall seeing it when she was national security adviser. “I just don’t remember ever seeing any such thing,” she said.

Here is a pdf of the actual “Roadmap” faxed by Guldimann.
There were a number of interactions between Swiss Ambassador to Iran Tim Guldimann and America’s official foreign policy Iran-watchers, but what is intriguing is the date of the two-page fax that Guldimann faxed on May 4, 2003.
Look what Glenn Kessler wrote on May 7, 2003 in a seemingly unrelated Washington Post article, “Plan for North Korea Will Mix Diplomacy and Pressure”:

The Bush administration plans to adjust its policy toward North Korea by adopting a two-track approach that would combine new talks with pressure on the communist state by targeting its illegal drug and counterfeiting trade and possibly its missile sales, U.S. and Asian officials said yesterday.
The emerging consensus, which will be refined today at a meeting of President Bush’s top foreign policy advisers, would bridge a gap that has emerged within the administration since North Korea declared it possesses nuclear weapons at talks last month between U.S., North Korean and Chinese representatives in China.
Administration officials have sought to resolve their policy differences, which pit those pushing for confrontation with the Pyongyang government against those advocating further talks, in advance of next week’s visit to Washington by South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo Hyun.
Adding to the sense of urgency, U.S. sources said yesterday, intelligence analysts within the past 48 hours have seen increasing signs that North Korea has begun reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods to provide plutonium for weapons. North Korea said it had begun the processing at the three-way talks in Beijing last month, but it had not been detected by U.S. intelligence until now. The spent fuel would provide North Korea with enough nuclear material to build two to three additional nuclear bombs within a few months.
In its developing posture toward North Korea, the administration plans to insist that any new talks include Japan and South Korea in addition to China, officials said. They also will hold out the prospect of a policy that, as two officials put it, would “tighten the screws” against North Korea’s lucrative illicit trade practices.
The continued talks were sought by the State Department, while increasing pressure on Pyongyang was a key objective of the Defense Department and other administration advocates of a tougher approach.

The timing is uncanny between the Guldimann initiative and the revelation by Glenn Kessler of “Colin Powell’s big inter-agency victory in the Korea wars.”
Kessler’s two essays also confirm independent information that this blogger has received from others close to the Iran-US diplomatic game suggesting that not only Cheney’s office quashed a positive reaction to Iran’s proposal but that Powell and his team did.
Powell essentially “traded” progress in North Korea for a regressive stance on Iran that Cheney’s gang ws dominating.
Powell did not want to antagonize Cheney with negotiations initiatives at the same time with not just one “Axis of Evil” nation — but TWO. That was the deal made nearly four years ago.
It is ironic that just yesterday, serious progress was logged in the US-North Korea nuclear standoff, while Cheney’s team continues to dominate the rhetoric and approach to dealing with Iran.
We are not suggesting here that Powell’s choice was the “wrong choice” given the political realities at the time — but it is odd and frankly disturbing that serious strategists felt they had to make any choice at all.
— Steve Clemons


11 comments on “More on the Provenance of the Spring 2003 Iran Proposal for Comprehensive Negotiations with the U.S.

  1. konrad Streuli says:

    The elephant in the room is whether the US can be the policeman of the world. My guess is that it can’t (without addressing whether it would be a good thing which then again may be the same question). 9/11, Afghanistan and a resurgent Taliban and Iraq support seem to support my “guess”.
    It’s clear that Cheney-Bush think that it can and that it can at the same time pursue policies which are pretty much driven by the narrow interests of the US (e.g permanent military bases in the Middle East to control access to reasonably priced oil and protect our “lifestyle”).
    Those who believe in a US Policeman can’t afford to negotiate except in the context of military power because the likely out put of the negotiation, absent the military threat, would never achieve the goals of the Policeman. The US response to the 2003 Iran opportunity, if it really existed, would be consistent with this thinking.
    The danger is that 9/11 and nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan are only the beginning. Ironically with the US hell bent on maintaining absolute military dominance partly at least through enormous investment in military technnolog, nuclear and other wise, it may in fact be providing terrorists and rogue states with the tools and infrastructure which will eventually let them generate a level of chaos which will make our current predicaments seem insignificant by comparison.
    In my view what we should be doing, admittedly not wthout some risk and probably huge short term costs from the point of view of those enjoying the world’s leading standard of living, is use every excuse and opportunity we have to build up the world’s consensus building inrastructure.


  2. bob h says:

    I’ve always suspected that the Axis of Evil list was put together on ecumenical grounds: include North Korea so Muslims don’t feel singled out, include Iran so Arabs don’t feel unduly picked on.


  3. Robert Naiman says:

    I think a lot of the commentary on this story is missing the most important point going forward: what does it say about the possibilities of talking to Iran *now*? Khamenei – who, according to this story was fully behind the Iranian initiative – is *still* the Supreme Leader of Iran. That doesn’t prove that the deal on the table in 2003 is still possible – but it suggests that it might be, and that for the Administration not to explore that possibility is just as much of a mistake now as it was in 2003. If we can negotiate with North Korea, we can negotiate with Iran.


  4. Ajaz says:

    It is unfortunate that this Administration has allowed things to drift this far because of Bsus & Cheney’s antagonistic attitude. Things could have been resolved with Iran a long time ago had direct negotiations started. But then there would have been no excuse to start a war and all those billions that some favorite companies can make!


  5. Ajaz says:

    It is unfortunate that this Administration has allowed things to drift this far because of Bsus & Cheney’s antagonistic attitude. Things could have been resolved with Iran a long time ago had direct negotiations started. But then there would have been no excuse to start a war and all those billions that some favorite companies can make!


  6. Zathras says:

    This is an interesting commentary on how badly 9/11 skewed the administration’s view of America’s world position.
    Bush and Cheney in particular clearly felt embattled. Yet from the Iranian point of view the Americans had swept aside the Taliban in a matter of weeks and had just finished shattering Saddam Hussein’s regime. Tehran didn’t know what Washington would, or could, do next. We, not the Iranians, held most of the high cards at that time.
    It’s little more than a truism that the time to negotiate is when things are going your way, which they were for the United States in the spring of 2003. Bush in particular, who was badly frightened by 9/11 and stayed badly frightened afterward, couldn’t see this. Whether or not Cheney could have may be a moot point, since negotiations with Iran would have had to be conducted by Powell’s State Department, which Cheney distrusted. At any rate the opportunity was lost, quite probably because it was not recognized as an opportunity by an administration convinced the country was under siege.


  7. Al says:

    President Ahmadinejad’s real views are summarized on this website:


  8. kim says:

    Say to me that the WH didn’t want to move away from the Saudis toward Iran, and that they were well aware of the instability that the war could create.


  9. rich says:

    >>”In April, Seymour Hersh reported in The New Yorker that U.S. troops were already on the ground in Iran, negotiating alliances with the Azerbaijanis in the North, the Kurds in the Northeast, and the Baluchis in the Southeast. In September, Time reported that a U.S. campaign to wipe out Iran’s nuclear program could entail bombing up to 1,500 targets. More recently, Paul Craig Roberts, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan, asserted in the Baltimore Chronicle that Bush “will attack Iran with tactical nuclear weapons, because it is the only way the neocons believe they can rescue their goal of U.S. (and Israeli) hegemony in the Middle East.” “<<


  10. Marcia says:

    This Iraq escalation is another bone they have thrown to Congress while they occupy themselves with what they now consider serious matters, Iran. Observe how they managed to draw out and scuttle motions in the Senate. They need time!
    We are all sinking in a “slush pit,” (for those who have never seen one it is a pond of black oily waste from oil wells, rather like quicksand.)
    Congress had better wake up!


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