BOOK REVEALS DETAILS OF IRAN’S DIPLOMATIC OUTREACH TO ISRAEL
By Marc Perelman
Forward (New York)
August 10, 2007 (posted Aug. 9)
A soon to be released book details previously unknown backroom contacts between Iran and Israel in 2003, when Tehran was pushing the Bush administration into entering comprehensive diplomatic negotiations.
In Treacherous Alliance, Trita Parsi, an adjunct professor at John Hopkins University and president of the National Iranian American Council, contends that shortly after Iran proposed a “grand bargain” to the United States four years ago, Tehran made a similar offer to Israel during an academic meeting in Athens.
The terms of Iran’s offer to the United States -- which included stabilizing Iraq, curbing support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and addressing concerns over its nuclear program, in exchange for an end to sanctions against Iran and the disbanding of an anti-Iranian militant group -- have been known for some time. But as Washington and Tehran now hold official talks for the first time in more than a quarter-century, the book’s revelation of alleged Iranian outreach to Israel opens a revealing window on the last serious attempt at diplomatic reconciliation with the Islamic Republic.
During a May 2003 conference in Athens attended by several prominent Israeli analysts and ex-officials, Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, presented what Parsi describes as a bold strategic shift to a group of Israelis. Rezai’s proposal at the conference, which is organized annually by the Greek Foreign Ministry and the University of California, Los Angeles, entailed a more moderate Iranian stance on the Palestinian issue in exchange for Israel dropping its opposition to rapprochement between Washington and Tehran.
Parsi quotes an anonymous senior Israeli analyst as saying that the Iranian message had been consistently relayed to Israelis at the time, and as such appeared to reflect official policy. Parsi told the *Forward* that the analyst was Zeev Schiff, the recently deceased senior military correspondent for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz.
Parsi’s version of events, however, was disputed by a senior Israeli who attended the session but refused to be identified in keeping with the meeting’s off-the-record protocol. The Israeli stressed that Rezai’s pitch focused only on finding a modus vivendi on Iraq with the United States and did not touch upon the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Parsi’s claim was also called into question by some Iran experts, who noted that as a former official Rezai was not speaking on Tehran’s behalf. The former Revolutionary Guard commander, they added, was criticized upon his return to Iran for meeting with Israelis and for discussing such sensitive topics.
“This doesn’t mean an official Iranian overture to the U.S. and Israel,” said Karim Sadjepour of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington. Rezai, he said, was prone to “do his own thing” and was often at odds with the ultimate decision-maker in Iran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
While acknowledging that Rezai did not make a formal proposal in Athens, Parsi maintains that it would have been highly unlikely for the Iranian to have taken such a bold step without official backing from Iran’s leadership, in particular at a conference organized by an American institution and including Americans and Israelis with intelligence ties.
“The Iranians wanted to come to Athens because the Israelis were there,” Parsi said, stressing that Tehran was at the time desperate to reach out to a Bush administration that had just invaded Iraq and whose most hawkish elements were indicating that Iran would be next.
“The Iranians were sending their message to the Europeans, via back-channels, and to the Israelis in order to make sure it got across,” Parsi said.
In early May 2003, Iran sent a written offer to the Bush administration via the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who serves as the official liaison between the United States and Iran. In Washington, meanwhile, Iran sent an official message through the Swiss envoy, as well as through another go-between: former Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, for whom Parsi worked at the time.
Ney, Parsi claims in his book, had the offer hand-delivered to Karl Rove, Bush’s senior political adviser, whom Ney had known since college. Rove acknowledged he had received the “intriguing” proposal and would deliver it to the president, Parsi writes.
The administration eventually decided not to pursue the proposal. Critics of the administration have since blasted the decision, calling it a missed opportunity for dialogue at a time when Iran’s nuclear program was less advanced and its leadership more moderate.
Both Flynt Leverett, who was the senior Middle East official in Bush’s National Security Council until 2003, and Lawrence Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to then-secretary of state Colin Powell, have stated publicly that it was neoconservatives in the administration who nixed the proposal. Parsi echoed those assertions, claiming that Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice favored a positive response but were thwarted by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, leading the State Department to rebuke the Swiss ambassador for overreaching his mandate.
Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, however, told Newsweek earlier this year that the offer seemed to reflect the Swiss envoy’s views more than those of the Iranian leadership. Wilkerson recently disclosed to the Forward that after he told the BBC in January that Cheney had rejected the proposal, Powell sent Wilkerson an e-mail stating that he himself had been opposed to engaging Iran.
Armitage did not respond to a query for comment. Peggy Cifrino, a Powell aide, said he was not available for comment, but noted he had said at the time that the offer was not seen as a proposal for a “grand bargain.”
While Washington did not respond to the Iranian offer, it did authorize its ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to discreetly resume talks with Iran over Iraq. The situation changed dramatically, however, on May 12, 2003, when a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia killed eight Americans and 16 Saudis.
At a meeting in Geneva a few days before the attack, Khalilzad had urged his Iranian counterpart to collect information from Bin Laden operatives detained in Iran on an imminent Al Qaeda strike in the Persian Gulf. After the bombing, Washington accused Iran of allowing Al Qaeda to direct attacks from its soil, and all channels of communications were closed.
FRANK TALK ABOUT IRAN
Forward (New York)
August 10, 2007 (posted Aug. 9)
Iran’s participation in two rounds of official talks with the United States, the first such contacts in 27 years, could be a sign that the long-awaited thaw is finally underway in the Islamic Republic’s troubled relations with the West. If it is true, as Tehran’s leaders say, that Iran is prepared to help America stabilize Iraq -- much as Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai says Iran is helping in his country -- then we might be seeing the first indications of a new, more pragmatic Iran.
On the other hand, Iran’s insistence this week that it will not even consider suspending its illegal uranium enrichment program, despite the prospect of new and harsher United Nations sanctions, could be a signal that the mullahs remain as ideologically inflexible and implacable as ever. The issuing of Iran’s uncompromising declaration on the eve of a high-level visit by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and less than a week after IAEA inspectors visited a new Iranian nuclear plant in Arak, piles insult on top of the regime’s defiance.
And that is just the trouble in attempting to construct a sensible policy toward Iran right now: that the mullahs’ regime is so dreadfully difficult to read. Signs of pragmatism and flexibility alternate with signs of ideological rigidity and fanaticism, often within days of each other and sometimes from the mouth of the same individual leader. Iranian diplomats talk sweetly at the United Nations and in European capitals, insisting that their nation’s nuclear program is aimed only at civilian energy purposes, yet they continue to defy U.N. resolutions, pursue illegal technologies and hide essential pieces of their project. They insist that they represent no threat to the stability of the region or the world, yet their president continues to spew forth genocidal threats against the sovereign nation of Israel. They ask to be taken seriously and shown respect as a world power, even as they stage international conferences to deny the undeniable truth of the Holocaust.
The extreme, erratic nature of the regime’s behavior and the gravity of its threats make it impossible to sit back and hope for the best. And yet, all the options currently in view are bad ones. Sanctions aimed at bludgeoning Tehran into backing down on its nuclear threat have not worked so far. Harsher sanctions are now being discussed by the Security Council, but the process is slow and cumbersome, and time is running short.
To some minds, the most extreme option, the military one, seems the most prudent. And yet military action -- even if successful -- would almost certainly bring catastrophic results: devastating Iranian counterattacks on Israel and American interests, radical destabilization of the region, weakening of moderate and pro-Western regimes, an explosion of anti-American and anti-Israel rage throughout the Muslim world that would make current tensions look like a love fest. Even advocates of military action admit that its consequences would be almost too awful to contemplate; their only justification is that allowing Iran to go nuclear would be worse.
All the more reason to respond with outrage, tinged with despair, at the disclosure, reported by Marc Perelman in this week’s Forward, that Iran sought four years ago to reach rapprochement with America. The offer, detailed in an upcoming book by the respected Iran expert Trita Parsi of Johns Hopkins University, reportedly included readiness to negotiate compromises on the nuclear and Israeli-Palestinian issues. It was rebuffed by the rigid ideologues of the Bush administration.
Parsi argues that the Islamic regime has never been as ideologically driven as others claim. Like most governments, it has a rational decision-making process through which it pursues its interests as it perceives them. Its interests and goals are far from those of America, much less Israel; still, a rational combination of carrots and sticks, of toughness combined with diplomatic give-and-take, could achieve manageable understandings that might be a basis for coexistence. That approach may well be guiding the Bush administration now, as it engages the Iranians and seeks common ground on matters of joint interest, beginning with Iraq.
That could be good news for world peace, but bad news for Israel. A new report issued this week by the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank that advises Jerusalem on strategic planning, argues that Washington might be moving toward a grand bargain with Tehran that reaches compromise understandings in areas of sharpest disagreement -- but ignores Israeli interests. Israel has been working until now from the assumption that its interests vis-a-vis Iran are the same as America’s and the West’s, and that its essential task is to convince Western governments of that truth. According to Reut, the interests of Israel and the West may not overlap as much as Israel would like. To America and much of the West, Iran represents a disruptive element that can seriously upset regional and world order. To Israel, Iran represents an existential threat.
Reut’s conclusion is that Jerusalem must begin speaking to Washington frankly about the areas where the two nation’s interests converge and where they do not. Israel must focus its efforts on ensuring that America does not take Israel for granted, or ignore it altogether, as contacts with Iran proceed.
Events have proven repeatedly over the past quarter-century that Iran is capable of doing business with Israel when it sees that as in its interest. Israel, no less than America, must begin searching for that bottom line.
The same might be said of America’s misadventure in Iraq, which appears to be moving toward some sort of less-than-victorious denouement. Here, too, Israel must assess its strategic needs in light of the chaos in Iraq, and sit down for some straight talk with its American ally, as opinion columnist Yossi Alpher argues on the opposite page.
This will require nimble, open-minded tactics on the part of Israel’s friends in America. It is in Israel’s interests to ensure that Washington is under pressure to lean on Iran with every available tool, in order to rein in its mischief-making, its nuclear ambitions and its continued backing of terrorism. Equally important, however, is to make sure that realistic goals are set, that doors are left open, and that our side knows how to recognize when it has won.