First Rejected, Now Denied

In a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied knowledge of Iran's secret 2003 negotiating proposal to the United States. Her denial is part of a broader administration strategy aimed at buttressing the Bush administration's coercive policy toward Iran from congressional pressures for diplomatic engagement with the country.

Rice's State Department had adopted press guidance last month to sow confusion in the media about the Iranian proposal by denying that the document in question actually represented Iran's views. Rice's response on Wednesday to a question from Congressman. Robert Wexler in a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee was a slight variant on that theme. She claimed she had neither seen any secret negotiating proposal from Iran in 2003 nor been informed of it by other officials; she then questioned Iran's endorsement of any such proposal.

The Iranian proposal, which was conveyed to the Bush administration secretly by the Swiss Ambassador in Tehran in early May 2003, provided a framework for wide-ranging negotiations with the United States, including an indication of Iran's willingness to make peace with Israel, end material support for armed actions by Hezbollah and Hamas, and allow intrusive inspections of its nuclear program as part of a broad agreement to normalize relations with the United States. The proposal sought an end to U.S. hostility toward Iran and recognition of its legitimate political and security interests in the region.

The State Department's effort to present the Iranian proposal as unrepresentative of Iranian official views emerged at the daily State Department briefing on January 18, following a BBC appearance by Colin Powell's former chief of staff Lawrence Wilkerson in which he had referred to the department's snubbing of the offer back in 2003. Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey, speaking on the basis of previously prepared guidance, said, "I'm just really not sure what Larry's talking about … [as] far as I know, there's never been an offer from the Iranian government on those kinds of concerns."

When pressed on whether he had checked to see if the State Department had received a negotiating proposal from Iran in 2003, Casey said, "To the best of my knowledge, there has been no direct communication from the Iranian government to us that occurred in 2003." That statement was deliberately disingenuous, since the document came via the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran.

When a reporter called attention to the obvious dodge of answering only in terms of "direct" communication, however, Casey went further. "If what you're asking me is, did the Iranian government provide a document to the Swiss or anyone else and say, 'Here, please give this document to the United States,' my understanding is that did not happen."

Without saying so directly, Casey was apparently hoping to leave the implication that the letter may have been drafted by the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann, on his own, and therefore did not represent a genuine Iranian offer.

That position could hardly represent a misunderstanding on the part of the State Department. The Iranian provenance of the document had been confirmed in detailed accounts of the initiative provided by both Wilkerson and former NSC official Flynt Leverett. Both have stated that the document was approved by the highest levels of the Iranian government. In December, the administration had prevented Leverett from referring to the Iranian proposal in a New York Times op-ed piece, despite the fact that he had already done so in a previous Times op-ed.

Earlier this week, a State Department official who insisted on speaking off the record made it clear that the administration is not trying to deny the existence of the document but is instead questioning that it actually represented Iran's views rather than those of the intermediary, Swiss Ambassador Tim Guildimann. "We are not really prepared to discuss something that happened in 2003," the official told me, but added, "I think it's pretty clear. The offer didn't come from us, and it didn't come from the Iranians. I leave it to you to figure out who it did come from."

Trita Parsi, the Iranian-American scholar who made the text of the summary letter available to this writer for an article published in the June 2006 issue of The American Prospect, reiterated in a new interview that the document did indeed represent the views of the highest levels of the Iranian government. "They may have had someone in the middle who helped them put the framework for negotiations on paper, but the important point is that the Iranians approved the framework, and the Swiss gave the document to the U.S. at Iran's request," Parsi said.

In her appearance before the House committee Wednesday, Rice sniffed at "this so-called proposal from Iran" without trying to deny its existence. In dismissing its importance, she used a technique that has become one of her trademarks in dealing with the question of negotiating with Iran. She suggested that the Iranians could not have been serious about any concession involving possible peace with Israel because they weren't offering such a concession through other channels.

"We had people who said, 'The Iranians want to talk to you.'" said Rice. "But I think I would have noticed if the Iranians had said, 'We're ready to recognize Israel.' I just don't remember seeing any such thing." She thus tried to cast doubt on Iran's seriousness about negotiations, by redefining the issue as one of whether Iran had offered a unilateral concession outside of the framework for a broad, multi-issue agreement.

Rice had previously made the same kind of argument in response to suggestions that the United States should engage with Iran diplomatically regarding the chaos in Iraq. She had dismissed the need for such diplomacy by saying that nothing was preventing the Iranians from contributing to the stability of Iraq in the absence of discussions with the United States.

Such arguments are based on the assumption that the United States need not and should not make any concessions to Iran in return for it fulfilling U.S. demands. That premise has been the hallmark of the Bush administration's approach to Iran from the beginning. The strategy of Rice's State Department to sow confusion regarding Iran's 2003 overture represents the latest twist of a policy based on diplomatic coercion rather than negotiations. Public awareness of the Iranian negotiating document presents a potential obstacle to the pursuit of the Bush administration's coercive diplomacy. Rice has certainly not heard the last about it.

Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His most recent book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

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