Most Americans are unaware that in May 2003, the Iranian regime formally reached out to the United States to hold high-level talks. That serious and detailed offer was immediately and soundly rebuffed by the George W. Bush White House. The magnitude of opportunity to alter U.S. – Iran relations for the better was lost. We have been seeing consequences of the snub playing out in Iran’s nuclear program, which every American is aware of – an issue that may take the wisdom of Solomon to prevent from becoming an international disaster.
In this series of posts I want to explore why the Bush administration’s snub of Iran was uncalled-for, and why I believe that the West’s negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program must succeed if the snub is not going to down as the worst foreign policy decision in U.S. history. This topic is of great significance to the broader issues of stabilizing and improving relations between Western and Middle East nations. This topic has been of particular interest to me over many years because it goes to fundamental issues in the region of war and peace and diplomacy, which are crucial to The Wisdom Project.
Well-known among the foreign policy establishments of the West and the Middle East, the story of the ill-advised decision remains ignored by the media. I wrote a few paragraphs about it here. When I have talked publicly about it, people have been surprised to discover that the depiction of U.S. – Iran relations that is typically in the media and on the lips of many politicians is misleading. Here’s that story in depth. Knowing it puts us in a better position to judge what is wise or foolish policy toward Iran.
Let’s start with early 2003. Although not so long ago, it may seem like very long ago, if not referring to a different universe, when I say that at the time America and the George W. Bush White House were flying high. For a year and a half, team Bush had been greatly impressing much of the world. It had ridden the crest of its swift victory in Afghanistan into Iraq, and on May 1, after less than a month of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, the bannered motto “Mission Accomplished” hung unashamedly across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, while President Bush signaled to all the world America’s precise, speedy, and bold defeat of the largest military in the Middle East.
A huge upside for Washington was finding itself breathing the air most envied and unobtainable by world capitals: extraordinary diplomatic negotiating power with capitals of the Muslim Middle East. Tehran was one of those capitals. In January 2002, in his State of the Union address, Bush included Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his “axis of evil.” Bush had now knocked off Iraq. Would Iran be next? If so, when? Was the regime in Tehran nervous? Whether or not it was, it reached out to Washington diplomatically. Since there has been no embassy-level relations between the U.S. and Iran since 1979, Iran sent a formal letter to the Bush administration through the Swiss embassy, requesting high-level talks. In the letter it named what it deemed the most pressing issues for both parties. It then awaited a response.
The offer to talk was not a low-level trial balloon, easily dismissed as such by the White House. For it to be taken seriously, the letter would have to have been endorsed by Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, who holds tremendous authority over Iran’s major state institutions and has final say in Iran’s foreign policy. The letter was signed by Khamenei.
It was taken by Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, and Condoleezza Rice to the president just days after he landed on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. Suddenly and unexpectedly faced with an exemplary moment in which to act on the humbler American foreign policy that he had promised the world in his pre-election campaign speeches, what would Bush do?
In the next post we will look the amazing contents of the letter and why Bush chose not to start talks.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by ali reza parsi (permission via Creative Commons)