Thursday, May 25, 2006

US-Iranian diplomacy, 2001-3

"God may smile on us, but I don't think so." - anonymous Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh April 2006 on Bush administration plans to pressure Iran militarily

Gareth Porter has been following the diplomacy on both the Iraq War and the Iran Pre-War.  We're fortunate to have someone with his background looking at this aspect of things.  Porter is the author of A Peace Denied: The United States, Vietnam, and the Paris Agreement (1975), a key study of the diplomacy that led up the the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 and how the situation in Vietnam subsequently unravelled.

In Burnt Offering:  How a 2003 secret overture from Tehran might have led to a deal on Iran’s nuclear capacity - if the Bush administration hadn’t rebuffed it American Prospect 06/06/06 issue (accessed 05/22/06), he gives some fascinating details of the diplomatic initiative by Iran in 2003 which the hardliners in the administration sucessfully quashed.

As Gary Sick noted in Iran: Confronting Terrorism Washington Quarterly Autumn 2003,

Iran showed a willingness to cooperate with the US in anti-terrorism efforts immediately after the 9/11 attacks in 2001:

Although Iran officially opposed the subsequent U.S. attack on Afghanistan, it made no effort to interfere and even cooperated quietly on issues such as humanitarian relief, search and rescue, and other practical matters. After the Taliban government was deposed, Iran participated positively and creatively in the Bonn talks to establish a new interim government in Afghanistan, drawing rare praise from U.S. officials.10 At the Tokyo donors conference in January 2002, Iran pledged a total of $560 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan  - the largest donation of any developing country. Speculation emerged among pundits that this would be the beginning of a new U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Sick's 2003 article described the following situation just after Bush's January 2002 State of the Union speech famously including Iran in the "axis of evil".  He writes:

The United States also began asserting publicly that members of Al Qaeda were taking refuge in Iran across the border from western Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, put the U.S. case succinctly: “Hard-line, unaccountable elements of the Iranian regime facilitated the movement of Al Qaeda terrorists escaping from Afghanistan.”  The government in Tehran initially denied that any Al Qaeda partisans were in Iran. The very lengthy border between Iran and Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan is riddled with drug smuggling routes and is far from secure, however, and after some weeks, Iran announced that it had located Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters within its borders and that they were being returned to their countries of origin. Over the following year, the Iranian government detained and extradited more than 500 fugitives, largely volunteers from various Muslim countries who had gone to Afghanistan to join the jihad against the West.

Why would members of the Iranian security services look the other way or perhaps even facilitate the passage of these fugitives? No doubt money was the primary reason. Besides money, however, some hard-line elements may have also seen an opportunity to recruit agents or to incorporate some militant Afghan cadres into their own operations. One can only speculate, though, because neither Washington nor Tehran disclosed the identity of these individuals nor suggested their possible motives.

The Al Qaida-MEK offer

Porter's new article sheds considerable light on Iran's diplomatic calculations at that time.  He writes:

Bush’s axis-of-evil speech was followed by public charges and press leaks from the administration that Iran was deliberately “harboring” al-Qaeda cadres who had fled from Afghanistan. In fact, the Iranians had made a serious effort to cooperate with Washington on al-Qaeda, according to Leverett. When the administration requested that the Iranian government send more guards to the Afghan border to intercept al-Qaeda cadres, Iran did so. And when Washington asked Iran to look out for specific al-Qaeda leaders who had entered Iran, Iran put a hold on their visas.

The effect of the Bush administration’s signals of hostility was to discredit the idea of cooperation with Washington as a means of obtaining U.S. concessions to Iranian interests. Reflecting the mood in Tehran, in May 2002, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the idea of negotiations with the United States as useless.

After the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iran was willing to give the US access to the Al Qaida operatives it had captured in exchange for American agreement to suppress the Mujahadeen e Khalq (MEK), a terrorist group that "Saddam had used for acts of terror against non-Sunni Iraqis and Iran".  Iran also wanted mutual sharing of information on Al Qaeda and MEK.

The State Department was in favor of disarming MEK.  But the Pentagon, which was running Iraq, never got around to doing that.  Porter explains some of the behind-the-scenes action:

The neoconservatives had hopes of taking advantage of this break to advance the plan developed by Feith and his staff for regime change in Iran. It called for a covert operation in Iran using the MEK (reconstituted under a new name) for armed forays into Iran. But Bush seems to have balked at getting in bed with the MEK. Seeing an opening, Powell became personally involved in heading off the use of the MEK against Iran. Powell pursued the MEK issue with both Rice and Rumsfeld “on a number of occasions,” according to Wilkerson. When he learned that Rumsfeld had prevailed on the military in May to leave the MEK with most of its arms and to allow it to move freely in and out of its camp north of Baghdad, Powell wrote a stiff letter to Rumsfeld reminding him that the MEK were U.S. “captives, not allies.”

But the U.S. stance toward Iran was still stuck in an imperial mode of making unilateral demands on Tehran for further cooperation on al-Qaeda as a condition for further talks. In October 2003, Armitage said in congressional testimony that the United States would be open to a wide-ranging dialogue, but only after Iran had agreed to “turn over or share intelligence about all al-Qaeda members and leaders.” Meanwhile, the State Department cracked down on the MEK in the United States as a terrorist organization, but it could offer no information to Tehran on the MEK in return for such intelligence cooperation, as Iran had proposed. It was still constrained by the Hadley Rules from engaging in any reciprocity with Iran. And in the end, Rumsfeld and Cheney succeeded in getting the U.S. proconsul in Baghdad, Jerry Bremer, to countermand a decision by the heavily Shiite Iraqi Governing Council to repatriate the MEK to Iran.

Even though the MEK remains on the US list of terroristorganizations, the Pentagon is still hoping to use them against the Iranian regime.  And there have been reports of their taking military action inside Iran.

Porter's account sheds light on the situation described by Gary Sick in 2002 with the US accusing Iran of sheltering Al Qaida members, about the time these diplomatic iniatives were taking place.  Iran was holding Al Qaida figures as bargaining chips for dealing with the United States.  And it's entirely plausible that the Al Qaida figures in Iran that administration officials refer to now are still being held for bargaining chips.

There's nothing especially benign in that on Iran's part.  And we would all do well to remember Iran's duplicitous dealings with Ollie North and his rogue National Security Council foreign policy operation during the Reagan administration.  They got snookered by the Iranians big-time.  But it's important to see today's situation in the light of the diplomacy of recent years.

The larger offer of negotiations

But Iran's offer on the MEK was taking place on a separate track from a far broader offer at that time.  Without going into more details here, Iran's UN Ambassador presented a separate proposal for an exchange of information about MEK and Al Qaida essentially at the same time as the broader proposal.  I described the MEK-Al Qaida issue separately to address the questions that Sick raised in his article quoted above.

Porter describes the broader offer as follows:

In early 2003, the Iranians believed they had three new sources of bargaining leverage with Washington: the huge potential influence in a post-Saddam Iraq of the Iranian-trained and anti-American Iraqi Shiite political parties and military organizations in exile in Iran; the Bush administration’s growing concern about Iran’s nuclear program; and the U.S. desire to interrogate the al-Qaeda leaders Iran had captured in 2002.

As the United States was beginning its military occupation of Iraq in April, the Iranians were at work on a bold and concrete proposal to negotiate with the United States on the full range of issues in the U.S.-Iran conflict. Iran’s then-ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharrazi, the nephew of then–Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, drafted the document, which was approved by the highest authorities in the Iranian system, including the Supreme National Security Council and Supreme Leader Khamenei himself, according to a letter accompanying the document from the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, who served as an intermediary. Parsi says senior Iranian national security officials confirmed in interviews in August 2004 that Khamenei was “directly involved in the document.”

The proposal, a copy of which is in the author’s possession, offered a dramatic set of specific policy concessions Tehran was prepared to make in the framework of an overall bargain on its nuclear program, its policy toward Israel, and al-Qaeda. It also proposed the establishment of three parallel working groups to negotiate “road maps” on the three main areas of contention - weapons of mass destruction, “terrorism and regional security,” and “economic cooperation.”

The document was sent to Washington just in time for a meeting between Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif and Khalilzad in Geneva on May 2, 2003. One copy arrived at the State Department by fax, and a second copy was taken to State in person by an American intermediary, according to a source who has discussed the letter with the intermediary.

Porter discusses the specifics of that proposal at greater length in the American Prospect article.  In a separate article also released this week, he focuses in particular on the aspects of that proposal relating to Israel:  Iran Proposal to U.S. Offered Peace with Israel Inter Press Service 05/23/06.  There, he writes:

Iran offered in 2003 to accept peace with Israel and cut off material assistance to Palestinian armed groups and to pressure them to halt terrorist attacks within Israel's 1967 borders, according to the secret Iranian proposal to the United States.

Iran offered in 2003 to accept peace with Israel and cut off material assistance to Palestinian armed groups and to pressure them to halt terrorist attacks within Israel's 1967 borders, according to the secret Iranian proposal to the United States.

The two-page proposal for a broad Iran-U.S.agreement covering all the issues separating the two countries, a copy of which was obtained by IPS, was conveyed to the United States in late April or early May 2003. Trita Parsi, a specialist on Iranian foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies who provided the document to IPS, says he got it froman Iranian official earlier this year but is not at liberty to reveal the source.

The two-page document contradicts the official line of the George W. Bush administration that Iran is committed to the destruction of Israel and the sponsorship of terrorism in the region.

As we're watching what looks grimly like a replay of the buildup to war with Iraq in 2002-3, this time with Iran as the target, the 2003 Iranian diplomatic initiative takes on renewed significance.  And given the fact that Iran's hostility to Israel is a key point in the Iran hawks' arguments, Iran's offer to consider a drastic change in their relations to Israel is especially notable.  Porter writes in the IPS article:

Before the 2003 proposal, Iran had attacked Arab governments which had supported the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The negotiating document, however, offered "acceptance of the Arab League Beirut declaration", which it also referred to as the "Saudi initiative, two-states approach."

The March 2002 Beirut declaration represented the Arab League's first official acceptance of the land-for-peace principle as well as a comprehensive peace with Israel in return for Israel's withdrawal to the territory it had controlled before the 1967 war. Iran's proposed concession on the issue would have aligned its policy with that of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others with whom the United States enjoyed intimate relations.

Another concession in the document was a "stop of any material support to Palestinian opposition groups (Hamas, Jihad, etc.) from Iranian territory" along with "pressure on these organizations to stop violent actions against civilians within borders of 1967".

Even more surprising, given the extremely close relationship between Iran and the Lebanon-based Hizbollah Shiite organisation, the proposal offered to take "action on Hizbollah to become a mere political organization within Lebanon".  (my emphasis)

In the American Prospect piece, Porter describes how the hardliners were able to brush off the Iranian offer of serious negotiations.  Aside from the general hostility of Cheney, Rummy and the neocons to Iran, a fortuitous (for them) incident occurred:

But on May 12, 2003, a terrorist bombing in Ryadh killed eight Americans and 26 Saudis. Rumsfeld and Feith seized the occasion to regain the initiative on Iran. Three days later, Rumsfeld declared, “We know there are senior al-Qaeda in Iran … presumably not an ungoverned area.” The following day someone obviously reflecting Rumsfeld’s views gave David Martin of CBS News an exclusive story. “U.S. officials say they have evidence the bombings in Saudi Arabia and other attacks still in the works were planned and directed by senior al-Qaeda operatives who have found safe haven in Iran,” Martin reported.

But in fact U.S. intelligence had no evidence that the Iranian government was intentionally allowing al-Qaeda to remain on Iranian soil. Contrary to Rumsfeld’s disingenuous statement, U.S. intelligence did not conclude that the government knew where the al-Qaeda members from Afghanistan were located in Iran. “The Iran experts agreed that, even if al-Qaeda had come in and out of Iran, it didn’t mean the Iranian government was complicit,” recalls Wilkerson. “There were parts of Iran where the government would not know what was going on.”

Nevertheless, within a few days, Rumsfeld and Cheney had persuaded Bush to cancel the May 21 meeting with Iranian officials. In a masterstroke, Rumsfeld and Cheney had shut down the only diplomatic avenue available for communicating with Iran and convinced Bush that Iran was on the same side as al-Qaeda.

Porter concludes by reminding us that Iran is again offering negotiations with the United States, this time much more publicly.  So far, it seems very uncertain whether Bush and his team are willingly to seriously pursue negotiations, or whether they are intent on bombing Iran.  As the history of the 2001-3 diplomacy shows, so far the Bush administration not only has been unwilling to go the "second mile" of which the Gospels speak; they haven't even been willing to go the first mile.

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