In interviews with Rice, Sunday talk show hosts never mentioned Iran's 2003 proposal for direct nuclear talks

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

During interviews with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on CBS' Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, and CNN's Late Edition, the shows' hosts noted that the Bush administration's recent offer to hold direct talks with Iranian officials on its nuclear program is a significant shift for the White House. But none of the hosts asked Rice to explain why the shift in policy came now rather than in 2003, when the U.S. reportedly rejected an overture from Iran in which the country pledged to suspend its "endeavors to develop or possess WMD" in exchange for concessions from the United States.

During interviews with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the June 4 editions of CBS' Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, and CNN's Late Edition, the shows' respective hosts -- Bob Schieffer, Chris Wallace and Wolf Blitzer -- noted that the Bush administration's recent offer to hold direct talks with Iranian officials on its nuclear program is a significant shift for the White House, describing the move as "a change in U.S. policy," "a major new diplomatic initiative," and "a dramatic development," respectively. Each also noted the significant challenges the U.S. and its allies face in getting Iran to agree to cease its uranium enrichment program, which is a pre-conditon for the talks to take place. But none of the hosts, nor Time magazine managing editor Mike Duffy, who co-interviewed Rice on Face the Nation with Schieffer, asked Rice to explain why the shift in policy came now rather than in 2003, when the United States reportedly rejected an overture from Iran in which the country pledged to suspend its "endeavors to develop or possess WMD" in exchange for concessions from the United States.

On Face the Nation, Schieffer said that "in a change of U.S. policy," the administration "agreed to talk to Iran if they would suspend their nuclear program." Similarly, Fox News Sunday host Wallace noted that "Top Iranian officials from that country's president on down say they welcome talks about the nuclear program, but they want it without any preconditions, that they would not stop their uranium enrichment program first." And Blitzer, on Late Edition, asserted that in "a dramatic development" the administration announced "a readiness potentially to resume after 27 years, direct talks with Iran under certain conditions," later adding that they are "predicated on a suspension of their uranium enrichment."

But not one of the hosts asked Rice to discuss the Bush administration's reported refusal of Iran's request for negotiations in 2003. According to Gareth Porter, in a detailed and comprehensive June 6 American Prospect article on the 2003 overture Iran proposed, the Iranians offered, among other things, "full transparency for security [assurance] that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD," along with talks on other matters such as Israel and Hizbollah. Iran did not yet possess the capacity to enrich uranium when making the 2003 offer, presumably affording the United States a better position from which to negotiate; Iran has since achieved enrichment capabilities. From a May 3 Financial Times article (subscription required) by Guy Dinmore:

Iran was ready to enter comprehensive talks in May 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad. On the table then was a proposal to discuss issues, including weapons of mass destruction, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future of Lebanon's Hizbollah organisation and co-operation with the UN nuclear safeguards agency.

[...]

[But t]he Iranian offer -- first reported by the FT in March 2004 -- was ignored by the Bush administration. Instead, Washington protested to the Swiss Foreign Ministry, upbraiding Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, who had been involved in communicating the offer and gave his opinion that it was an authentic proposal by Iran's leadership.

Dinmore also contrasted the potential United States bargaining power with Iran in 2003 with its bargaining power in 2006: "The US rejected the Iranian offer in 2003 from a position of strength -- Baghdad had just fallen and regime change in Tehran was in the sights of Washington's neoconservatives. Three years later Iran is not in such a weak position, with the US bogged down in Iraq and oil prices at record highs."

In a January 24 New York Times op-ed, Flynt Leverett, Middle East expert on the National Security Council during the early years of the Bush administration, also documented "a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations" delivered to the Bush administration by Iran in 2003, adding that "[u]nfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line":

In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences. The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A conversation I had shortly after leaving the government with a senior conservative Iranian official strongly suggested that this was the case. Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.

Additionally, as the weblog Arms Control Wonk has documented, an October 26, 2004, Washington Post article noted that late in 2002, "Bush demurred" upon learning from International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei that Iran wanted to talk. The Post also reported that the 2003 Iranian proposal "laid out a framework of a 'grand bargain'," adding then-undersecretary of state John R. Bolton's response: "We're not interested in any grand bargain."

Finally, Porter's article on the 2003 Iranian overture quoted Trita Parsi, a specialist on Iranian foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: "If the United States had engaged Iran in 2003, Iran would not be enriching [uranium] now."

From the June 4 edition of CBS' Face the Nation:

SCHIEFFER: Well, let's talk a little bit about Iran. In a change of U.S. policy, you agreed to talk to Iran if they would suspend their nuclear program. I know there's a big "if" there. Now, you and the other Western powers have offered Iran a package of incentives and possible penalties if they don't stop their nuclear activity. Today, they say they plan to make this package public. I guess the Western powers have said, "Let's keep it private so it won't be provocative in any way." They say they're going to make it public, and they say they're not going to stop nuclear activity. Is that their response? What do you make of what they're saying today?

RICE: Well, we're going to give the diplomacy a little time here and we're not going to react to everything the Iranian leadership says. Over the last couple of days, they've said lots of different things. When the proposal goes to Iran, I think it will be very clear, I hope it will be very clear to the Iranian government that this is the international community's way of giving them an opportunity to resolve this impasse favorably with a civil nuclear program that would be acceptable to the international community. Iran keeps talking about its right to civil nuclear power; no one is questioning that it has a right to civil nuclear power. But many countries have the right to that, that don't enrich and reprocess on their territory, and given Iran's history, it--it must not have the technologies that could lose--lead to a nuclear weapon.

Now, the two paths that were talked about by Foreign Secretary [Margaret] Beckett, the British foreign secretary in Vienna, are very clear. We are committed as an international community to those -- to that path -- to those two paths. But let me just say, when the president made the decision more than a year ago that the United States was going to fully support the European negotiations, that that was in -- in the U.S. interests to have the diplomacy have chance to work, that really was the course that we continued to follow this week. Because it was clear that at some point we were going to have to decide, should the United States become party to the talks that we already supported?

SCHIEFFER: Do you see any sign at this point that the Iranians have taken this seriously?

RICE: Well, I -- I do think they're taking it seriously. But let's see what answer they -- they come up with. And as I said, I don't think we're going to react to everything that's said until we have -- until they have a chance to see the proposal and until they understand the two paths.

DUFFY: What's the timetable here? John Negroponte, the director national intelligence, told us a few weeks ago that he does not expect Iran acquire a nuclear device at the current rate for--and at least until the beginning of the next decade. Is the intelligence on that estimate any better than it was on the intelligence with respect to Iraq's WMD program?

From the June 4 edition of Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday:

WALLACE: With a major new diplomatic initiative for Iran and new problems in Iraq, we're joined now by the secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. And welcome back to Fox News Sunday.

RICE: Thank you, Chris.

[...]

WALLACE: Well, let's talk about the impasse and your diplomatic move this week. Top Iranian officials from that country's president on down say they welcome talks about the nuclear program, but they want it without any preconditions, that they would not stop their uranium enrichment program first. Do you regard that as a rejection of the offer that the U.S. and other world powers made this week?

RICE: Chris, we understand that it may take a little time for Iran to assess the situation. In short time they will be presented with the actual proposals that the EU Three and others have been considering. And I think we have to give that some time. I would note that the conditions that we outlined are not American conditions. They're conditions of the IAEA board of governors, conditions of the U.N. Security Council presidential statement and, indeed, a condition that was set by the Europeans when the negotiations broke down. Iran needs to suspend its enrichment and enrichment-related activities and come back to the table, but that's not an American condition. That's a condition set by the international community.

WALLACE: So you don't regard this as a rejection.

RICE: Well, I think we just have to wait and give this a little time.

WALLACE: You say you want to wait for Iran to actually get the offer.

RICE: Right.

WALLACE: When will they get the offer?

RICE: Well, in the next few days, I think the offer will be made clear to Iran. I think there will be an envoy to Iran from the group that put this together, from the Europeans. But the important thing here is that it's a major opportunity. It's sort of a major crossroads for Iran, and it's perhaps not surprising that they will need a little bit of time to look at it. But the fact is there are two paths, and we hope they're going to choose the path that is a path away from confrontation and toward a solution.

WALLACE: One concern is that Iran will drag out the diplomacy, as, in fact, they have for years, while they continue their uranium enrichment program. In the offer, is there a specific deadline as to when Iran has to give an answer?

From the June 4 edition of CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer:

BLITZER: Let's talk about Iran, a dramatic development this week. You announced it earlier this week at the State Department, a readiness potentially to resume after 27 years, direct talks with Iran under certain conditions. This is the response from the Ayatollah Khamenei, the spiritual leader of Iran today. "If you, [the United States] make a wrong move regarding Iran, definitely the energy flow in this region will be seriously endangered. We are committed to our national interests, and whoever threatens it will experience the sharpness of this nation's anger." What do you make of this reaction?

RICE: Well, first of all, we're not going to react to every statement that comes out of Iran. We have set in train a diplomatic process. That diplomatic process needs to work now with Iran being given the proposal that the six parties put together in Vienna, with Iran recognizing that it now has a path ahead that would allow an end to this impasse, but also that the international community is committed to a second path should that first path not work. The oil card, let's just remember that Iran is some 80 percent dependent on oil in its budget and so not really able to live without -- with a disruption as well. Let's just allow the diplomacy to work. I don't think this is the time to react to every statement that Iran makes.

BLITZER: So you're not worried about Iran imposing an oil embargo against the United States?

[...]

BLITZER: I want to talk about Iraq, but one final question on Iran before I do so. Some have suggested that this break, this readiness to begin talks, direct talks with Iran, predicated on a suspension of their uranium enrichment, but one thing that's missing is a suspension of their support for terrorism. You say that Iran is a terror nation right now. Why not also demand that they suspend supporting terrorists as a condition for U.S. talks?

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