Why did the U.S. ignore Iran’s 2003 offer for talks? Why is it pushing for tougher sanctions now?

Here are extended excerpts from a radio interview with a former Congressional aide who says he knew in 2003 about the offer made from Tehran, through the diplomatic channel of the Swiss Goverment, to the U.S. administration:


Amy Goodman: Trita Parsi joins me now from Washington, D.C. He is president of the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iran American organization in the United States. His forthcoming book is called Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. Welcome to Democracy Now!

Trita Parsi: Thank you for having me, Amy.

Amy Goodman: Explain exactly what this memo, this proposal was, coming from Iran, and how you say it made its way to the highest levels of the US government.

Trita Parsi: Well, this is back in May 2003. The United States had just defeated Saddam in less than three weeks, and I think there were a lot of feelings inside Iran that they needed to present some sort of a negotiation deal with the United States. But what they presented was quite similar to many things that they had communicated verbally to the United States over the last couple of years. Basically, they said the United States has a couple of aims, Iran has a couple of aims, and there is a process to be able to proceed with the negotiations.

And what the Iranians agreed to discuss as a framework of the negotiations was how to disarm the Hezbollah, how to end support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, how to open up the nuclear program, how to help the United States stabilize Iraq, and, in short, that the government there would not along sectarian lines, and also how to sign onto the Beirut Declaration, which is basically a former recognition of the two-state solution. These are far-reaching compromises that Iran potentially would have agreed to in the negotiations, but the Bush administration, as you reported, decided simply not to respond to the proposal.

Amy Goodman: Can you explain how it made its way from Iran to the US government?

Trita Parsi: The United States, back in 1991, established the Swiss embassy in Iran as a go-between between the United States and Iran. The US needed a channel of communication, a reliable channel of communication between the two countries just to ensure that the war in Iraq back in 1991 would not cause any misunderstandings between Iran and the United States that could be dangerous. That channel was then afterwards in existence, and the Swiss ambassador to Iran is a person that usually visits the US every six months and gives a report to the United States to State Department, sometimes to Congress, about what the situation in Iran is, mindful of the fact that the US itself does not have any diplomats in Iran. So this channel has been used on numerous occasions by the United States and by Iran to be able to send messages to each other.

And this time around, the Iranians gave a proposal to the Swiss ambassador that he then sent to the Swiss foreign ministry in Bern, who faxed it onto the State Department, but the Swiss ambassador also made a personal visit to Washington, D.C. to brief the State Department about the proposal, and he also made sure that he met with Congressman Ney, who has been a longtime advocate for negotiations and dialogue between the United States and Iran, and he handed him the proposal, as well.

Amy Goodman: Now, the Swiss ambassador was Tim Guldimann?

Trita Parsi: Correct.

Amy Goodman: And he then got this proposal to the man you worked for, Congressmember Ney?

Trita Parsi: Exactly. I was an advisor to Bob Ney at the time. And Tim met with Bob and handed over the proposal to him. And Bob afterwards sent it to be hand-delivered to the White House to Karl Rove, and Karl Rove called back within two hours, and they had a brief discussion about the proposal.

Amy Goodman: And what did Karl Rove say?

Trita Parsi: Well, he basically said that it was an intriguing proposal. He first wanted to know if it authentic, and the congressman assured him that it was, according to what the Swiss ambassador had said. And we have to remember, the Swiss ambassador would not be handing over proposals to the United States unless they were authentic. The Swiss ambassador’s work has been requested by the US, not by the Iranians. So he is basically fulfilling a mission that has been given to him by the United States.

Amy Goodman: We are talking to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, largest Iranian American group in the United States, author of the forthcoming book, Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States, saying that the Bush administration, Karl Rove, received a memo in 2003 that Iranian leaders backed comprehensive negotiations with the United States. Now, Trita Parsi, Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, was questioned about this document several weeks ago on Capitol Hill. She said she didn’t recall seeing it when she was National Security Advisor. “I just don’t remember ever seeing any such thing,” she said. Your response?

Trita Parsi: Well, I think part of the reason why the Secretary of State currently is using the terminology of saying that she doesn’t recall seeing it may be because the Bush administration senses that it may be forced to negotiate with Iran down the road, particularly if this surge policy is a failure, which a lot of people predict that it will be. And as a result, they don’t want the negotiations, the potential future negotiations, with Iran to be compared to what they could have achieved with Iran back in 2003, because clearly the United States is in a much weaker position today than it was back then. And I think it would look bad for the administration to come to a deal with Iran now that would be substantially worse than the deal they could have achieved back in 2003. And I think they want to avoid that type of a comparison.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about this proposal that came to the US? You have Karl Rove who knew, the very close relationship between – well, it was Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice who went with President Bush to South Korea, just them together. Do you have any awareness or knowledge of President Bush knowing about this?

Trita Parsi: Well, according to many people that I have interviewed in the Bush administration, they did have a discussion about this at the highest level in the Bush administration, and basically the hard line of the Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld basically ensured that they would not proceed with the negotiations. In fact, they actually reprimanded the Swiss ambassador for having delivered it.

And the argument by the hardliners, the hawks in the Washington – in the White House at the time was basically that Iran is weak and it’s giving this proposal precisely because of the fact that it is fearful of the United States and that the US can achieve more by taking on the Iranian regime and just removing it than by negotiating. So we had this situation in which, back then, because of America’s strength, the Bush administration argued that it could not negotiate.

And we have the opposite situation right now. Now, the Bush administration is saying that because it’s weak, it cannot negotiate. But if you can’t negotiate when you’re strong, because you’re strong, and you can’t negotiate when you’re weak, because you’re weak, that basically means that you’re not interested in negotiations at all.

Amy Goodman: I wanted to read you a clip by Gareth Porter, “Rove Said to Have Received 2003 Iranian Proposal.” And it says that “the identification of Rove as a recipient of the secret Iranian proposal throws new light on the question of who in the Bush administration was aware of the Iranian proposal at the time. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied in Congressional testimony [last week] that she had seen the Iranian offer in 2003 and even chastised former State Department, National Security Council and [Central Intelligence Agency] official Flynt Leverett for having failed to bring it to her attention at the time.

“At a Capital Hill conference on U.S.-Iran relations Wednesday, sponsored by the New America Foundation and [your organization, Trita Parsi] NIAC, Leverett responded to Rice’s criticism by saying it was ‘unthinkable that it would not have been brought to her attention’ and [demanding] an apology from her.”

Trita Parsi: Well, I would agree that it is absolutely unthinkable that a proposal of this importance would not have reached the Secretary of State or at the time the National Security Advisor, particularly mindful of the fact that Flynt Leverett, who was at the NSC at the time, did see it – his wife Hillary Mann, who was also at the NSC, did see it – who had a discussion with Colin Powell about it, according to his testimony at our conference two weeks ago. So I find it highly unlikely that they did not see it. I frankly believe that it’s beyond unlikely that they didn’t see.

But, again, I think it’s partly because of the fact that they’re fearful that if there are going to be any negotiations down the road, not negotiations that they themselves choose to have, but they’re basically forced to have, that they don’t want the result of those negotiations to be compared to what they could have achieved back in 2003.

Amy Goodman: What has Ney said about this – I mean, now disgraced, involved with the Abramoff scandal, in jail – what are his comments?

Trita Parsi: Well, I can’t speak for him, but I think there may be some indications from him in which he will come out with his side of the story, as well.

But let me say one thing about the impact that this has had on the Iranians, because I was in Iran back in 2004, doing interviews for my book, which has a lot of details about this proposal. And what was really interesting is that when the Iranians put this on the table and they were basically offering significant policy modifications in the hope that this would be able to open up a new chapter in the relationship with the United States, when the United States, when the Bush administration did not even respond to it, that left Tehran with the impression that the US does not necessarily have problems with Iranian policies. What the US’s problem lies is with Iran’s power. So if you can’t give any concessions to the Bush administration that would be able to change the nature of this relationship, then why give concessions to begin with? And that is part of the reason why Iran’s position has strengthened and hardened so much over the last couple of years. It’s mainly because of the failure of the Iranian government to be able to reach an understanding with the United States by offering concessions. So now they’re trying to do the same by playing it very, very tough.

Amy Goodman: Trita Parsi, why come out with these documents right now? This is years later. This is, what, some three, four years later.

Trita Parsi: Well, I was holding this document for quite some time. I did not come out with it until I saw that Flynt Leverett had, because Flynt was in the White House at the time, and I was basically someone who was an advisor to a congressman and I happened to see it. Part of the reason why I decided to come out, speak about it and also provide a document to a lot of journalists was because I was very fearful last year that the Bush administration was getting very close to military conflict with Iran and that the talk in town was that the Iranians are not interested in a deal, that the Iranians would never negotiate, a lot of these false assumptions about Iran that I felt was just helping hawks being able to bring this situation closer to closer to war. And I wanted to make sure that people knew that there have been substantial negotiation proposals, negotiation proposals that could be pursued once more in order to be able to find a peaceful solution to what is taking place between the United States and Iran. And I did so, mindful of the fact that there seems to be a lot of people in the White House that have the military option as their first option, not as their last option.

Amy Goodman: Trita Parsi, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council and is author of the forthcoming book, Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.”

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