A Washington Times editorial asserted that “Iran has shown no serious interest in negotiating” about its alleged nuclear weapons program, despite evidence that, in May 2003, Iran made diplomatic overtures toward the United States.
A May 1 Washington Times editorial asserted that “Iran has shown no serious interest in negotiating” about its alleged nuclear weapons program, in order to argue that “the crux of the problem is not the Bush administration, which has for nearly three years largely deferred to Europe's unsuccessful diplomatic efforts on Iran.” However, the Times omitted any reference to an apparent offer made by the Iranian government in May 2003 to negotiate a “grand political bargain,” including Iran's nuclear program and support for anti-Israeli terrorist groups. The Bush administration reportedly refused any diplomatic talks with Iran.
As noted by Washington Monthly's Kevin Drum, according to former intelligence and administration officials, Iran sent messages to the United States in May 2003 through back channels seeking negotiation. Brookings Institution senior fellow Flynt Leverett, who, from 2002-2003, served as the senior director for the Middle East Initiative at the National Security Council, wrote in a January 24 op-ed in The New York Times that the Bush administration “has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory.” He provided three examples, one of which was the diplomatic overture by Iran in May 2003:
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.
A February 19 Newsday article reported that "[i]n May 2003, shortly after the U.S. military destroyed the army of Saddam Hussein, a fax arrived at the State Department with an Iranian offer to open talks that would include a discussion of weapons of mass destruction." The article also reported that "[t]he fax was one of a series of informal soundings that emanated from Tehran in the months after the United States invasion of Iraq":
Iran's envoys to Sweden and Britain also began sending signals that the regime was ready to negotiate a deal, according to a former Western diplomat closely familiar with the messages. Iran was sending messages through other back-channels as well, according to Paul Pillar, who served as the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005.
Newsday reported that, according to former officials, “the Bush administration was in no mood for conversation or grand political bargains.” The article further stated that, according to Leverett, the administration “rejected the Iranian probe” and rebuked Swiss ambassador Tim Guldimann for having delivered the Iranians' message:
Critics, including the two former Bush administration officials, European diplomats, and policy experts, say the United States may have squandered an opportunity to negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear program by not talking with Tehran. According to both Leverett and Pillar, the administration's priority was to avoid negotiations with the regime, out of concern it would imply acceptance of its continuation in office. Since then, Iran's government has become even more conservative, making the prospect of further negotiations more problematic.
“No one at a senior level was willing to push Iran on diplomacy,” said Leverett. “Was there at least a chance that we could have gotten something going? Yes, there was a chance.”
Leverett and others say the administration refused to pursue a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear program because it meant acknowledging a regime they viewed as fundamentally illegitimate. “They believed that just a little pushing from us and it would be over,” said the former Western diplomat. “They were wrong.”
The man in charge of nuclear proliferation policy when the offer came in from Iran was John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
A “U.S. military official with extensive knowledge of U.S. relations with Iran” also told Newsday that "[w]hat we took was exactly the wrong approach ... If Iran is ready to come to the table, then you come to the table. Do it with distrust but get them to the table and get them engaged. We wasted an opportunity."
From the May 1 Washington Times editorial:
As the possibility of military action against Iran is being considered, the reactions of politicians and opinion-makers range from mature and thoughtful (increasingly from some on the left) to the surreal and foolish.
In the latter category is European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who said over the weekened [sic] that no one was even considering military action over Tehran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has stridently denounced the idea. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar advocates direct U.S.-Iranian talks to resolve the nuclear dispute, and expresses optimism that the two governments will find significant areas of agreement. On Saturday, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported that Germany's Green Party supports Iran's right to “peaceful” use of nuclear energy and favors direct negotiations between the United States and Iran. The fact that Iran has shown no serious interest in negotiating does not appear to have affected the thinking of ideologues who believe that there is a negotiated solution to virtually every political problem.
The good news, however, is that a growing number of people on the sober-minded political left appear to grasp the reality of the situation: that the crux of the problem is not the Bush administration, which has for nearly three years largely deferred to Europe's unsuccessful diplomatic efforts on Iran. The problem is the behavior of the Iranian government.
Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for Britain's Guardian newspaper, was strongly opposed to the war that deposed Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. But according to Mr. Freedland, the combination of Iranian threats to destroy Israel, Mr. Ahmadinejad's messianic talk of a hidden imam and Iran's support for terrorism make the current Iranian regime a much more serious threat to peace than Saddam was. “Iran is led by a man who cannot let a week go by without issuing an annihilationist threat to one of his neighbors,” Mr. Freedland writes. “Put it together and it forms an alarming picture: a state galloping towards a nuclear bomb, led by a messianist bent on destroying a nearby nation.”
Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings Institution scholar, handled Persian Gulf-related issues for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. His service in the administration made him very skeptical of the idea of working out some kind of “grand bargain” between Washington and Tehran -- the core of the Clinton administration's efforts to reach an accomodation with the Iranian government. The problem, Mr. Pollack says, is that the Iranians demand in essence that the United States government afford the Iranian government “respect” by never criticizing it for terrorism, torture, persecution of dissidents -- anything. In essence, Tehran is demanding better treatment than we afford our closest allies, a standard that makes compromise impossible.
In short, there are thoughtful people on the political left who understand reality: that it is difficult verging on impossible to negotiate with the people who run Iran today.