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)
This is a really important lost opportunity in the US-Iran relationship. Thank you for pointing this out: https://wagingwisdom.com/2014/10/15/snubbing-iran-was-it-the-worst-foreign-policy-decision-in-the-history-of-the-united-states/.
BTW you might be interested in a post I wrote about the US-Iran relationship:
Please take a look also at the links in that article. I hope you like the post.
Greetings. And thank you for taking time to reach out with first contact. I’ve spent some time on your site and I really appreciate your emphases on cultural diplomacy. You share a lot of important links with stories that need to be made well known but which are, sadly, not covered by media, at least not here in America, where the media are organized around a terrible journalistic principle: If it bleeds, it leads! Many of us here wish they would stop doing that and focus instead on all the stories of people that are making a difference — and there are countless stories like that. So, again, thank you for your efforts at being part of this much needed peaceable approach to cross-cultural relations.
I’m very covered up on some deadlines just now, but next week I hope to be able to find time write a post in which I will also raise awareness of your helpful site: http://theotheriran.com/. My name is Charles, btw. Maybe we could continue some conversation occasionally. My blog is still a bit new, and still experimental, but my work on The Wisdom Project, of which this blog is a recent addition, has been going on for a long time: http://www.charlesstrohmer.com/the-wisdom-project/
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PS: A professional travel guy in the States, Rick Steves, has a cool video of the trip he took to Iran a few years ago: https://www.ricksteves.com/watch-read-listen/video/tv-show/tv-specials/iran/iran-pledge-special.
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Thank you for your warm words and congratulations for independence day in the US. Feel free to approach me anytime for a conversation. I would really love to have a change in the relationship of Iran and the US. Unfortunately a big part of the media is only good at copy and pasting old rhetoric, and repeat unverified and often politically motivated statements of some politicians and even state news agencies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In Iran we learned as kids to not trust the media and factually everyone has access to satellite TV hence people have quite some knowledge about Americans. It might be distorted by TV stereotypes, but it is quite positive: http://theotheriran.com/category/usa/
If Americans would have a similar knowledge about Iranians, lazy journalists could not print or broadcast what it does without making a fool of themselves. Hence, with theotheriran.com I try to give a non political view on regular Iranians and also some interesting personalities, to open the dark wall around Iran to people outside of Iran. This way people can see that Iranians are interested in the rest of the world hosting art exhibitions on American artists or conferences on Shakespeare, … . The absolute majority is not self centered and fanatically religious but actually very open and interested in the world. I will follow your great work at your blog and on the wisdom project.
Great to hear from you. I agree with you about the need to improve the relationship between Iran and the US. President Obama, as you know, reached out with Nowruz greetings not long after he first got into the White House 2009, and not long afterward he reached out to to ME in general during his his Cairo speech. Many people here in the States applauded him for this, but he also caught a lot of criticism from many politicians and media talking heads. But the big issue remained: engaging in the kind of state-to-state diplomacy between Washington and Tehran that would actually start improving these busted bilateral relations. If the nuclear deal should get signed and implemented, I hope that becomes a big step for two capitals to improve relations in other crucial areas. I know that may be a long shot, and that it will be resisted by hardliners in both countries. I wonder what your take is on the possibilities.
I also echo your comments on the problems with the media. Thank you for saying what it’s like there. Very enlightening. We need to know! Here in the States, there seems to be two main views of the media, at least as I see it. A large consensus tends to trust most of what the media reports, albeit with some exceptions, about Iran and the ME in general. I think that they tend to trust it chiefly because they don’t know where to go for other POVs, such as ME or European outlets, or they don’t have the time, or want to take the time to read some of the good journalism, in books or articles, that has come out in the past 10 years.
Another consensus — smaller but growing — tends not to trust the media, especially as they come to understand how badly much of our “mainstream” media (including respected outlets such as New York Times and TV news corporations such as NBC, CBS, NBC, and NPR) let us down, big time, when they were reporting on the lead-up to President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I started writing about this stuff as best I could back then and in following years. This has included traveling to Washington a bunch of times for some significant interviews and meetings, which I still do occasionally. My blog, wagingwisdom.com, is, in many ways, an attempt to share some of the research, findings, and insight publicly. From what I have discovered so far on your blog, theotheriran.com, I think you are doing something similar from your own passions and interests. Keep going, man!