Iranian schoolboysIn this current series of posts, begun last time, we are exploring the broad arena of U.S. – Iran relations by calling attention to its narrower areas. By looking at the narrower questions, problems, and decisions we gain wisdom and insight for understanding the larger context. Following this method has given me a much different, and I hope a wiser, perspective of U.S. – Iran relations than the one I had many years ago.

I’ve chosen to begin the exploration by looking at the George W. Bush administration’s  uncalled-for diplomatic snub of Iran in May 2003. I said last time why this might one day be known as the worst foreign policy decision in the history of the United States. Why do I say that? Partly because of what was in the Iranian proposal. That’s a crucial question I want us to consider here. It wasn’t just a cordial letter from Tehran asking after the President’s health, and by the way, How’s the first lady?

A copy of the letter has been helpfully included by Trita Parsi as an Appendix in his book Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S. Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, writes that the Iranians had prepared a comprehensive proposal. It had been drafted and known only to a closed circle of decision-makers in Tehran and approved by the highest levels of clerical and political authorities, especially Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state.

Apart from Khamanei’s imprimatur, the proposal would not be taken seriously by the Bush White House. Most significantly, then, the proposal was authoritative. Thus the Americans, Parsi writes, were stunned by the proposal, which called for a dialogue of “mutual respect” and listed major points of contention that Iran was willing to discuss with the U.S. When you think about how highly volatile U.S. – Iran relations were during the Ahmadinejad presidency (2005-2013), it seems unbelievable what Iran actually put on the table in May 2003. In the letter, Iran declared itself willing to:

  • talk about its nuclear program;
  • increase its cooperation with the U.S. on al Qaeda;
  • help stabilize Iraq;
  • end Iranian “material support to Palestinian opposition groups” (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, et al.) and pressure them “to stop violent action against civilians”;
  • lean on Hezbollah “to become a mere political organization within Lebanon”;
  • accept the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration for a two-state solution.

Of course bilateral negotiations are a two-way street, so the proposal also spelled out what Iran would like to see on the table in return from the U.S.:

  • the removal of Iran from the “axis of evil”;
  • an end of sanctions and impediments to international trade;
  • “full access to peaceful nuclear technology”;
  • recognition of “Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region”;
  • U.S. help against anti-Iranian terrorists.

The letter closed by suggesting mutual next steps, including public statements, the establishment of parallel working groups, and hammering out a timetable for implementation. Given that Washington and Tehran had had no embassy-level bilateral relations for a quarter of a century, the offer was unprecedented. How would the Bush administration respond?

Let’s think about this for a minute. As with all initial foreign policy proposals, this one was but a starting point. Both sides would know that the proposal was not set in stone. It was merely the potential beginning of the international game of give-and-take and of eventually getting to Yes. But first the waters needed to be tested by both parties. If they liked the temperature, then some next steps would include discussing the items. If the process continued, long story short, many items and issues in the original proposal would probably hit the cutting room floor, with the potential that remaining items might then be taken to an agreement, years down the road.

Iranian boyBut my point here, given the unprecedented nature of the proposal, is that it would be an exceptionally irrational move if the recipient did not engage with the sender to at least test the waters, perhaps by eliminating two or three items or issues while emphasizing one or two others that it was willing to consider as talking points.

The ball would then be in the other’s court. What would it think about the modifications? How would it reply? And so on. If the two parties kept at it, the history of foreign policy negotiations tells us that solid linkages would likely be forged on one or two issues. Somewhere around this point in a long tedious process, if an appropriate framework were found whereby the parties could sit down to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement, then seriously formal talks could begin toward signing an agreement.

This may seem like the wrong kind of compromise to some, but it is simply fundamental to successful foreign policy negotiations. Further, it would not be unusual to see the items and issues that made it through to Yes become, over time, ground for trust to increase between the parties, perhaps leading to the start of talks about new important items or about some on the cutting room floor. The Iranian proposal, in fact, seems to have been sent in such a spirit, having these words tucked into the middle of the letter: “We have always been ready for direct and authoritative talks with the US/with Iran in good faith and with the aim of discussing – in mutual respect – our common interests and our mutual concerns based on merits and objective realities….”

All of this the Bush White House knew. Yet it refused to test the waters. “An opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted,” Parsi concluded. Larry Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the time, believed the mistake was huge. According to BBC News security correspondent Gordon Corera, Wilkerson afterward said, “In my mind, it was one of those things” about which you say “I can’t believe we did this,” especially at a time when Iranian vulnerability was at its greatest and Washington at its most triumphalist.

In a future post we will look at the battle of rivals in the Bush White House that led to the decision to snub Iran. But that battle must be seen in the larger context of U.S. – Iran relations that had been gingerly improving and becoming slightly more cooperative in the years preceding the snub. That fascinating story will be subject of the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by & Original Normal Boy respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)

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