red and green building patternThe history of U.S. – Iran relations has traveled rough and tumble roads since 1979, when direct bilateral diplomatic relations ended with the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But between 1997 and 2003, those relations were becoming a bit smoother. Unknown to most Americans, U.S. – Iran relations had been quietly, albeit gingerly, becoming slightly more cooperative during the closing years of the Clinton presidency when Madeleine Albright was U.S. Secretary of State.

This cautiously improving context was the one in which the George W. Bush White House snubbed the Iranian diplomatic reachout to the U.S. in May 2003. It soon became commonplace to blame that decision on the strong neoconservative element in the Bush administration. That seems right, and I want to explain why in a future post. But many people do not see the snub as foolish, largely, I think, because they are unaware that beginning in 1997 certain events and decisions taken by the U.S. and Iran were starting to thaw their relations. So I want us to look at that larger context here. We’ll return to the neoconservatives afterward.

Before there was the ranting sixth president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there was the peaceable reformist politician and fifth president, Seyyed Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005). A surprise landslide election (70% of the vote) carried him into office and changed the tenor of Iranian politics.

Dialogue of civilizations. Khatami shaped a foreign policy around a remarkable initiative that he called “a dialogue of civilizations” and reached out regionally to the Sunni Arab world. As that began to lessen tensions between Shiite Persian Iran and Arab states, Khatami then too his dialogue farther afield and reached out to Europe and America. EU – Iranian relations improved, and a number of public speeches and warm comments from Khatami about the United States were reciprocated by President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright.

The signals being sent by both states were noteworthy, even if they indicated only the possibilities of a new beginning. But small practical steps ensued, although, as diplomatic correspondent Barbara Slavin puts it, Iran and the U.S. remained out of sync. In her book Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies Slavin discusses this wobbly dance between the U.S. and Iran during the Clinton – Khatami years.

Early in 1998, when he was unveiling his dialogue of civilizations, Khatami, in a major interview with Iranian-born CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, proposed cultural exchanges with the U.S. to chip away at what he called “the bulky wall of mistrust” between the two nations. In response, writes Slavin, the Clinton administration gave visas to Iranian filmmakers and university professors, and, wrestling being a popular sport in Iran, a team of U.S. wrestlers and their coaches flew to Tehran to compete in an international competition.

autumn cathedralIn September 1998, when Khatami was visiting America for the first time, attending the annual UN General Assembly, he praised President Clinton and got everyone’s attention when he said that the Iranian government would not carry out the death sentence (issued nearly ten years earlier by Ayatollah Khomeini) against Salman Rushdie. The Rushdie affair, he said, should be regarded as “completely finished.” Some commentators questioned why Khatami, as president, did not rescind the fatwa, or religious order, until they learned that since Khomenei had issued the fatwa only he could rescind it, and he had died shortly after he had issued it.

In 1999, the Clinton administration softened some U.S. sanctions on Iran, and on St. Patrick’s Day 2000, four days before the Persian New Year, Secretary Albright stunned the Iranians in a major speech in which she apologized for the role of the CIA in overthrowing Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and reinstalling the shah. She also said that U.S. support for Saddam Hussein [in the Iran – Iraq war, 1980-1989] had been “regrettably short-sighted,” and she hinted at a further easing of sanctions.

Albright also listed areas of mutual interest to the United States and Iran and hoped that the two nations could put aside their differences and “plant the seeds for anew and better future.” Although Albright also carefully include U.S. grievances against Iran, the speech, as Slavin writes, was “a major attempt to turn” Khatami’s dialogue of civilizations between America and Iran “into a true reconciliation.”

A number of Iranian gestures toward America ensued. Tehran stopped helping Baghdad smuggle oil in violation of UN sanctions. It toned down its anti-Israel rhetoric. It agreed to accept whatever final agreement the Palestinian leadership hammered out with Israel. The latter item was huge. By implying that it would in principle recognize a two-state solution, should that be the case, Khatami’s government was indirectly granting Israel recognition. Slavin recounts a conversation in which Javad Zarif, Iran’s then UN ambassador, and currently Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Rouhani, affirmed that very point. Zarif said that although Iran does not officially recognize Israel, “We believe that that position is not incompatible with accepting whatever solution the Palestinians come up with.”

Ever hear the media or the pundits on talk radio discussing this stuff? I didn’t think so. I don’t want to give the impression that the picture turned rosy. Many thorny issues remained. But the progress was noteworthy enough that the gingerly improving bilateral relations, believe it or not, continued with President George W. Bush. We will pick up that part of this fascinating wobbly dance in the next post.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Ars Electronica & Nick Kenrick respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)


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)


Iran architecture (ali reza parsi)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)


Surprised? Friday night (June 13) on the Charlie Rose television program, Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, laid out a case for the United States and Iran to work together to fight back ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) in Iraq. Saturday, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani publicly announced that Iran would consider joining forces with the United States to combat ISIS in Iraq. Today (June 16), Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is open to “any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together.” Despite the core ideological differences between the two governments and their heated polemics toward each other in recent times this should not be happening, right? Frenemies? Iran and America? But this is not the first time in recent years that the two have worked together. Let me tell you a story.

Iran governemt buildingQuietly begun by the UN in 1997, the so-called Six plus Two talks included Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, plus the United States and Russia. The purpose of the talks was to quietly discuss dealing with the Taliban’s solidification of power over Afghanistan and the increasing violence among warring factions in that country. Shiite Iran, in particualr, had a deep stake in these talks. The Taliban movement, not to mention Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network in Afghanistan, were ultrafundamentalist Sunni Muslims who posed a real and present danger to neighboring Iran, with its very long eastern border with Afghanistan. Also,  droves of Afghan refugees were fleeing Taliban rule for Iran.

The Iran – U.S. narrative now begins to sound like a John LeCarré novel. Soon after 9/11, Iran, in definitive way through its considerable resources, began helping the CIA and the U.S. military to oust al Qaeda and the Taliban from Afghanistan. Iran was a major supporter of the Northern Alliance, a motley group of anti-Taliban forces who were already at war with the Taliban and who now became the chief U.S. ally in Afghanistan against al Qaeda and the Taliban. A tentative partnership that already existed between Iran and the Northern Alliance was helpful to the U.S. in its own partnership with the NA. Iran also agreed to allow any U.S. pilots who were in distress to land on Iranian soil, if necessary, and it agreed to all the U.S. to perform search-and-rescue missions for downed American pilots on its soil. Iran also increased its troop strength along the long Iran – Afghanistan border and, according to Trita Parsi, it sent a dossier to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan on hundreds of al Qaeda operatives Iran had detained (Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.).

In October or November 2001, the Six plus Two forum had discreetly spun off one on one talks between Tehran and Washington to focus on closer cooperation about Afghanistan. Barbara Slavin writes that more than a dozen secret meetings were held among a small, select group of high-level U.S. and Iranian diplomats until the Bush administration rudely snubbed Iran in May 2003. These secret meetings, she writes, were cordial and professional and alternated between Geneva and Paris, often taking place in a hotel bar where the diplomats would chat over nonalcoholic drinks and potato chips. Parsi notes that the talks were dubbed the Geneva Channel and that the discussions were bilateral and at the highest level between officials of the two countries since the Iran-Contra scandal (Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation). The talks included U.S. ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalizad (both were senior Bush officials) and high-level Iranian diplomats.

Meanwhile, on November 12, 2001, the Six plus Two group happened to be meeting at the UN in New York City when American Airlines flight 587 crashed into a densely populated neighborhood in Queens shortly after taking off from JFK airport. Slavin writes in Bitter Friends that the assembled diplomats at first assumed another terrorist attack. She also reports that Karmal Kharrazi, Iran’s foreign minister, handwrote onto his prepared remarks the following words to a member of the U.S. delegation: “‘The United States should know that the Iranian people and the Iranian government stand with the United States in its time of need and absolutely condemn these violent terrorist attacks’.” Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, in New York City attending the annual UN General Assembly meetings, told reporters that he hoped “this bitter event will be the last we will have, and that terrorism and hate will be replaced by coexistence, empathy, logic, and dialogue.”

Iran then proved to be crucial to the success of the Bonn Conference in December 2001, where, under UN auspices, an international delegation met with prominent Afghan leaders to decide on a plan for governing Afghanistan, which had been without a nationally-agreed upon government since 1979. According to Parsi in Treacherous Alliance, Washington and Tehran had laid the groundwork for the conference weeks in advance, and that at the conference it was the Iranian not the U.S. delegation which pointed out that the draft of the Bonn Declaration, which would create the new government, as yet contained no language on democracy. Slavin agrees that Iran played a very supportive role at the Bonn Conference in the diplomatic area. It was Iran, she writes, that suggested that the draft communiqué call for democracy in Afghanistan and declared that the new government should not harbor terrorists.

Parsi concludes that it was Iran’s influence over the Afghans, not America’s threats and promises, that moved the negotiations forward right up to the end of conference. This was a crucial moment because of a final sticking point with the Northern Alliance about the high number of seats it should hold in the new government. This could not be resolved and nearly scuttled reaching a final agreement, Parsi writes, then noting that it was Iran’s lead negotiator, Javad Zarif, who broke the deadlock, but only by taking the Afghan delegate aside and whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later they returned to the table, the Northern Alliance inexplicably having agreed to give up two of the seats it wanted in the new government. (Zarif is now Rouhani’s foreign minister.)

the white houseFor Iran, its enemy the Taliban had been defeated. For the United States, its relations with Iran had become less adversarial. Both governments had demonstrated to each other how they could benefit from an improved bilateral better relationship. This historic season of cooperation between the two adversaries, which had been taking place in other ways since 1997, did not go unnoticed at the Powell State Department, where it was hoped that the common interests that both countries had shared in Afghanistan could be expanded to other areas.

Then Secretary of State Colin Powell was arguing for this at the White House, against adamant opposition from then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The evening of September 11, 2001, for instance, Powell and a team of close advisors had worked through the night to produce a diplomatic strategy for Afghanistan. It immediately became central to U.S. plans in its war on terrorism. Parsi writes that the plans included initiating the kind of cooperation with Iran that would be used as a platform for persuading Tehran to move beyond its tactical help into a positive strategic relationship with Washington. Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan after 9/11 had made its strategic help at least something worth talking about with Iran.

With Iran’s tactical help in Afghanistan paying off, the Powell State Department pushed for a strategic opening with Iran. Powell, Richard Armitage (Powell’s deputy), and Larry Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff) had been trying to build a proactive policy toward Iran, but, as Slavin writes, the three faced continual ferocious opposition from Rumsfeld, Vice-president Dick Cheney, and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. President George W. Bush however, would begin to scotch that possibility in his 2002 State of the Union address, when he included “Iran” in his “axis of evil” (with Iraq and North Korea).

In May 2003, the Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz cabal had succeeded in killing the Powell strategy. President Khatami, despite Bush’s axis of evil speech, was still trying to build better relations with the U.S., and he had persuaded the Iranian regime to take a huge risk in the direction. The regime sent a formal diplomatic letter to the Bush administration seeking the start of direct high-level talks on a wider array of issues crucial to improving the bilateral relations.

The unprecedented offer was immediately rebuffed by the Bush White House, and the ultrafundamentalists in Tehran quickly used the snub to undermine the credibility of Khatami, his team, and other reformist politicians who had been sticking their necks out since 1997 for friendlier relations with the United States. And the rest, as they say, is history, beginning with another surprise election, that of the radical and controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran in June 2005.

“This is where things get into the land of the unbelievable,” Haass admitted to Rose.
“We’re going to be on the same side as Iran helping the Iraqi government…. As crazy as this sounds, the moment may have come.” Or, as that great political prophet Mark Twain once said, “History may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme.” The question is, What is the end rhyme?

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Images by Stefan Krasowski and Adam_Inglis, respectively (permission via Creative Commons)