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.