4 May 2003, WP: (Unattributed): Switzerland Iran Amb. Guldimann fax to DOS (Grand Bargain) (PDF)

(Undated), NYT: (Unattributed): Iran fax to DOS (Grand Bargain) (PDF)

(Undated), NYT: (Unattributed): Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs fax to DOS (Grand Bargain) (Revised Draft) (PDF)

(Undated), NYT: (Unattributed): US-Iran memo (Grand Bargain) (Original Draft) (PDF)

April 28, 2007

Iran's Proposal for a 'Grand Bargain'


In Sunday's column I lay out the attempts to reach a "grand bargain" between the U.S. and Iran, before Bush administration hard-liners killed the effort in 2003. Here I'm providing more background and the full documents.

The most crucial documents are the Iranian proposals for a "grand bargain" with the U.S. Iran apparently was partly reassured by the bustle of diplomacy in 2001-2003, while also nervous at what it saw as U.S. swagger into Iraq and Afghanistan -- and taken aback by President Bush's hostility to Tehran, as reflected in Iran's selection for the "axis of evil."

This document [1] is the original draft version of the "grand bargain," but its parentage is uncertain. For political reasons, doves in both the U.S. and in Iran prefer to present the grand bargain idea as originating on the other side, for neither wants to signal any political weakness. So this document arrived in the Iranian Foreign Ministry and purported to come from the U.S.; it was described as a U.S. initiative, but I can't find anyone in the U.S. who acknowledges having prepared it. In any case, this was the starting point.

Then Ambassador Zarif edited it -- his changes are in red in this document, [2] and this is the one I would strongly encourage you to read. It was approved as the master statement of the Iranian position. Iran faxed it to the State Department and sent it, through an intermediary, to the White House. Here's [3] a final, clean version, as it was transmitted.

I can't verify that the Iranian versions were received, or at least reviewed by senior officials. The Bush administration instead seemed to focus on a two-page document that came from the Swiss ambassador to Iran at the time, who looked after American interests there. That was a cover letter and a paraphrase of the Iranian documents cited above. These documents from the Swiss ambassador are what American officials received on May 4, 2003, and which they then rejected. Indeed, the Swiss ambassador was even reprimanded for having the temerity to forward the proposal. The Swiss document was published earlier this year [4] on the Washington Post website with an article [5] by Glenn Kessler; the Iranians' position is that the real proposal is the one they prepared and transmitted, not the Swiss paraphrase.

These proposals were an outgrowth of a burst of diplomacy, both official and unofficial, in the fall of 2001 as the U.S. and Iran cooperated against their mutual enemy, the Taliban. For background, here [6] is a partial chronology prepared by Hooshang Amirahmadi, head of the American Iranian Council.

The unofficial diplomacy got a boost at two meetings at the home of Ambassador Zarif in September 2002, for board members of the American Iranian Council. Mr. Amirahmadi's notes show that at the first meeting, Tom Pickering -- a veteran U.S. ambassador -- said that he had just spoken with the State Department and was told that the Bush administration was prepared to normalize relations in some circumstances. Others at the meeting whom I spoke to don't particularly remember that, one way or the other. Mr. Pickering himself says he doesn't remember it, or whom he might have spoken to in the State Department, but he says that if it is in the notes he doesn't contest it.

At a follow-up meeting at Mr. Zarif's home, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with many of the same people. Mr. Amirahmadi's notes indicate that initially Mr. Kharrazi was not encouraging but finally said in response to a question:
"Yes! We are ready to normalize relations" with the US and prepared to discuss problems that exist between us, but for that to happen we must be able to trust the US and this requires some initial positive gestures in the part of Washington, particularly a change in tone.
In the months afterward, there were further discussions about how to proceed to nurture improved U.S.-Iranian relations. One proposal was for a conference at which each would publicly discuss normalization; another [7] was for cooperation against Saddam Hussein. By all accounts, the State Department and National Security Council were fully briefed through this period, but different participants disagree about how much of a blessing the State Department gave the process. One participant said it had enough approval that it was in effect "track one-and-a-half," while another participant said he didn't see much Bush administration support at all. To add to the confusion, there were several track-two processes going on at the same time, and they were not all fully briefed on the others. Here [8] is a memo that Mr. Amirahmadi wrote to himself in November 2002, incorporating his meeting notes and describing the events of that fall as he saw them.

When the Neo-cons killed the incipient peace process, they did so partly on the basis that Iran had been uncooperative on terrorism. At a meeting in Geneva on terrorism issues, Zalmay Khalilzad had told Ambassador Zarif that the U.S. had information of a forthcoming terror bombing in the Gulf area. Mr. Khalilzad reportedly asked Iran to interrogate Al Qaeda members in Iranian prisons for information about the incident. Iran apparently dropped the ball (it says it didn't have enough information) and did not generate any useful intelligence, and the incident turned out to be a suicide truck bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 12, 2003.

As I wrote in my column, I'm not sure that the diplomacy would have led to a "grand bargain" -- there would have been very tough negotiating ahead. But the Iranian proposal was promising and certainly should have been followed up. It seems diplomatic mismanagement of the highest order for the Bush administration to have rejected that process out of hand, and now to be instead beating the drums of war and considering air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.

The moderate camp in Iran was discouraged and discredited when the U.S. rejected its "grand bargain" proposal. But there is still a chance that Iran's May 2003 proposal could be revived as a basis for new talks that aim for normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations. And if there isn't room for a "grand bargain," there may at least be an opportunity for a mini-bargain. Condi Rice seems more willing to negotiate with Iran than other principals in the administration, so let's hope she pursues this path.

I'd welcome your comments below on this episode in U.S.-Iranian relations.