Secrets of the Troika


The recent publication of Dick Cheney’s memoir, In My Time, completes the trilogy of the Bush presidency.  The other two members of the war troika have already weighed in with their own contributions to the record.  George Bush’s Decision Points and Donald Rumsfeld’s The Known and the Unknown appeared last year.  Neither made much of a splash, but Cheney stirred up some dust because, unsurprisingly, he was nastier than the others, particularly to Condoleeza Rice and Barack Obama.

I am surely one of the few readers of CounterPunch to plow through all 1725 pages of the trilogy.  This was neither enlightening nor edifying, but neither was it an exercise in intellectual masochism.  I read all three volumes with a singular purpose:  to see what clarification the troika would provide of a quiet, little known event that occurred a few months after a triumphant Bush declared victory in Iraq in 2003.  It received cursory attention from the political class and the media.  Then it dropped from view.

In 2003, the Iranian government made a formal diplomatic proposal for direct, comprehensive negotiations about all major issues, grievances, and conflicts that fueled the hostility in their dealings with each other. This was a critical juncture in Iranian-American relations. It offered the possibility of exiting the impasse that began with the overthrow of the Shah and the occupation of the American embassy in 1979.

Bush did not respond to the Iranian offer. Not for the first time in his dealings with the Middle East, he eschewed diplomacy. His decision went unannounced and unexplained.  Eight years later, it is still a non-event.  Instead, he chose to intensify the long standing policy U.S. policy of vilification, distrust, isolation, sanction, and threat of military attack.

Some may ask, why care, to the point of suffering through three undistinguished memoirs, about a little known decision that changed nothing.  It is my contention that the absence of this duet– the Iranian proposal and Bush’s rejection –from political discourse about our relation with Iran distorts public understanding of the ongoing conflict and that this works to the advantage of hardliners in the U.S. government and in the neoconservative policy elite.

Hostility between the United States and Iran is always simmering.  The potential for escalation is constant, either because of friction between the U.S., Israel and Iran or because of internal political developments in each nation. In the present climate, war may or may not be imminent but it is definitely not reassuringly improbable.  In the last month, the situation has become grimmer and more dangerous because the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador has aroused the war party in the United States and Israel to clamor for armed reprisal.

Because Bush’s decision has had a negative impact on the evolution of our dealings with Iran, it is not a merely academic exercise to review this recent history and to glean enlightenment from the troika’s memoirs about their decision to reject the Iranian negotiation proposal.

In the spring of 2003, the United States was, for a brief moment, riding high in the Middle East.   The Baathist regime and the Iraqi army had been dismantled.  The Taliban had been driven from Kabul, and al Queda dispersed into Pakistan. The United States was not yet embroiled in the quagmire of the insurgencies to come.   The Iraqi Sunni insurrection had not begun, and the Taliban had not yet reorganized to challenge NATO forces.   Hamas was not yet voted into power in Gaza.  Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the linchpins to U.S. hegemony in the region, were stable dictatorships.   Israel’s military dominance was unchallenged.  Oil was flowing, and the price was to our liking.  Mahmud Ahmadinejad was not yet a player.

The position of the Iranians was precarious but not bleak.  On the upside, Iran’s hostile neighbors were vanquished.  In the west, Saddam Hussein was in hiding.  In the east, the Sunni Taliban who had been massacring Shiite Afghanis were swept away.  Relations with the United States had been improving; the reformist government of Mohammed Khatami and the Clinton administration had taken symbolic steps toward rapprochement.  After the September 11 attacks, Iran supplied the U.S. with intelligence on the Taliban and imprisoned al Queda fighters who retreated into Iran.   The U.S. recognized Iran’s cooperation and its strategic importance by including it in the multilateral Bonn conference in December, 2001 which set up the provisional Afghan government and installed Hamid Karzai in its top position.

On the darker side, Iran was now surrounded by combat ready American land forces and by air power projected from bases in central Asia in the north and the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Indian Ocean.  Despite Iranian cooperation, Bush displayed the administration’s undiminished hostility by enrolling Iran into the axis of evil in his 2002 State of the Union Address.  A pre-emptive strike on Iran was on the policy wish list of neoconservative operatives like Paul Wolfowitz and Eliot Abrams in the Defense and State Departments. Israel was issuing sporadic threats of military attack.

The Iranian leadership could not ignore the possibility that the American troika, then reveling in its power and (temporary) success, might be dreaming of regime change in Tehran.  Sizing up its vulnerability, the Khatami government made a bold move.  They sent a formal proposal to negotiate through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.  The memorandum laid out Iran’s aims:  cessation of American hostility; removal of sanctions; a stable, democratic government in Iraq; Iraqi reparations for the 1980-88 war; access to advanced technology; recognition of Iran’s security interests in the region;  suppression of violent anti-Iranian Kurdish organizations which the U.S. itself designated as terrorist.

The memorandum explicitly recognized aims of the United States: transparent guarantees that Iran would not develop nuclear weapons; full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency; Iranian action against al Queda and other terrorist groups; support for political stability and non-sectarian democratic institutions in Iraq; termination of material support to Hamas;  pressure on Hamas to stop attacks on Israeli territory;  acceptance of the Arab League’s 2002 Beirut Peace Initiative which included recognition of Israel’s right to exist, endorsement of a two state solution and ending hostilities with a peace treaty. (The actual memorandum is available in Treacherous Alliance by Triti Parsi.)

The Swiss ambassador delivered the memorandum to Colin Powell in the State Department.  Because Powell had been marginalized by the war party in the White House, it was also delivered to Karl Rove by a Republican congressman experienced in Iran-U.S. affairs in order to insure that it would reach Bush’s desk. The Swiss foreign ministry vouched for its authenticity. The Bush administration thought likewise. The proposal reflected the Khatami government’s long standing interest in improved relations. It had been endorsed at the highest levels of the Iranian government.  Most importantly, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini had signed off on the diplomatic initiative.

This was an extraordinary Iranian gambit.  It was a bid for a “grand bargain” that opened up the possibility of important benefits for both parties and also for Israel.  But the proposal died a quiet death; U.S.-Iranian relations continued down the road of hostility and impasse.  Every issue Iran proposed to address has been festering, or worse, ever since. Ahamadinejad was elected President two years later; Iran set out to develop its nuclear technology on an industrial scale; Hamas stepped up its military activity and provoked Israel into a massive self-injurious counterattack on Gaza.

Amazingly, there was apparently no serious deliberation in the U.S. government about how to respond to Iran.  Colin Powell was reportedly dumbfounded by Bush‘s decision to ignore the proposal.  His deputy, Lawrence Wilkerson, thought that a positive response was a “no brainer”.   In the 2005 Senate confirmation hearing on her appointment as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice testified that she had never seen the memorandum—an astounding admission by the National Security Advisor that she had been shut out by the war troika.

Wanting to understand the rationale of this stealth decision that was unknown even to the Secretary State, I turned to the memoirs of the troika to see what they had to say.  The Iranian offer to negotiate isn’t mentioned much less analyzed in the trilogy. The troika doesn’t say a word about why the offer was spurned or why the decision was made without the knowledge and advice of anyone else in the government. Iran appears in their memoirs as a menace, as a rogue state supporting terrorism, as an opportunistic destabilizer in Iraq and Afghanistan, as hell bent on building a nuclear weapon.  Not for an instant is it described as an enemy who sought to make peace.

Whether negotiations in 2003 could have had positive and enduring results is an unanswerable question.  With hindsight, it is reasonable to imagine that achieving some degree of agreement on the issues Iran put on the table, or even just starting a communicative diplomatic relationship, would have left the U.S. in a better position than it found itself as the years of Bush’s misadventures rolled on.

The troika’s silence buries their reasons for rejecting what they knew to be an authentic proposal.  Flush with “victory” and feeling their oats as “Masters of the Middle East”, they may not have given more than a moment’s thought to the decision.  Bush, after all, was “the decider” who was wont to make judgments from his gut.  Such a mind is easily moved by the self-deception of presidential and nationalistic grandiosity.

There is one rationale that the troika could not express publicly, then or now. It is easy conjecture that they punted because they knew that talking directly with Iran, irrespective of the outcome of negotiations, would undermine pursuit of their superpower fantasies of pre-emptive attack and regime change.  An American attack while negotiating with Iran would have been as perfidious as Japan’s sending negotiators to Washington in December, 1941.

So now the U.S. is beleaguered throughout the Middle East and stuck in a tense, fruitless standoff with Iran. In both America and Iran, internal political conflicts, as well Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, are impediments to opening up broad negotiations.  Obama and Hilary Clinton are trapped by their tunnel vision to fretting about Iran’s building a nuclear weapon and meddling in Iraqi politics. And they press on with their program of strong arming other countries into economic warfare against Iran, industrial sabotage and assassination.

Bush’s decision has enduring significance not because it is a missed opportunity but because the erasure of this episode from the historical narrative about Iran shapes political discourse and policy debates in which Iran is cast as the Evil Other: unremittingly hostile, nefarious, dangerous, dark, irrational, and fanatical.  The parallel with the Soviet Union in cold war ideology is obvious. The fact that Iran raised the possibility of negotiating issues like the recognition of Israel, withdrawing support from   Hamas, and agreeing to international supervision of its nuclear industry doesn’t fit into the official narrative.  Neither does the fact Bush that turned them down to preserve the possibility of overthrowing the government of Iran.  In the official narrative, we are good, they are bad.

Bush’s decision also has an enduring impact on the Iranian narrative regarding its relationship with the United States.  It is not lost on those in the Iranian political class who know of Khatami’s gamble for a grand bargain that Bush’s rebuff was the latest entry in the narrative of depredations the United States has visited on Iran.

Courtesy of the United States, the landmarks of modern Iranian history are coup (aka regime change), dictatorship, and war.  The narrative opens in 1953 with an American coup crushing its parliamentary democracy, imprisoning an esteemed democratically elected premier (Mohammad Mosaddeq) , and installing a corrupt dictator (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) propped up by a savage police organization and prison system (SAVAK);  in 1980, punishing Iran for throwing the Shah out by unleashing Saddam Hussein’s invasion which led to an eight year war and almost a million casualties. And then, in 2003, smacking down a reformist president who tries to start negotiations.

Ahmadinejad will soon be gone.  There is no telling what direction Iranian politics will take in the next parliamentary and presidential elections. However, whether greens, or reformists or hardliners prevail, the next regime will govern knowing that the U.S. spurned a serious offer to make peace and pressed on with its hostile campaign against Iran.  Even those Iranian political leaders who are inclined to better relations with the United States will need to be wary of American power and will need, as responsible nationalists, to keep Iran strong and well defended.

So long as this episode is expunged from the American rendition of its Iran narrative, rapprochement is probably not in the cards anytime soon.   Those who press for American dominance in the Middle East are free to foster fear and loathing of Iran.  Unimpeded by historical reality, they are free to construe Iran’s distrust and recalcitrance in its dealings with the U.S. as paranoid, hostile, and duplicitous rather than as a cautious, prudent response to a powerful, dangerous opponent that not so long ago thwarted its effort to find accommodation with western powers.

(Textual sources for this essay are:  Triti Parsi, Treacherous Alliance (2006) and journalistic dispatches by Gareth Porter.)

Michael Teitelman lives in New York City.  He can be reached at mt258@columbia.edu

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