Isolating Iran

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

Written with a deep knowledge of Irans society and culture, these books break new ground in analysing the triangular Iran-Israel-U.S. relations.

AMERICANS play football; Iranians play chess, a former Swiss Ambassador to Iran told Barbara Slavin. He meant that Americans think only in terms of the next play; while Iranians are planning many moves. But, there is also another difference. In football, the reaction is instant and forceful, sometimes even brutal. Chess is a civilised game of cool calculation.

In 2006, a White House strategy document put Iran at the top of the list of United States adversaries. It declared, We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran. India also faces a challenge, albeit of a different sort, in its Iran policy.

Together, the U.S. and Israel are on a collision course with Iran. India is a friend of all three; to be frank, more with the first two than with Iran and the triangular entente (India-U.S-Israel) is growing by the day. India launched Israels spy satellite recently. No prizes for guessing whom the Israelis intend to spy on.

In the world of diplomacy, rhetoric helps little to understand the motivations and actual policy. Iran and Israel have had many dealings sub rosa over the years. The main object of Irans policy has ever been to secure normalisation of relations with the U.S. The U.S., however, has rebuffed every overture and is beating the war drums. What stand should India take in this crisis?

In October 2005, while researching for a cover story for Frontline (Volte-face on Iran; November 18, 2005) and even later, this writer persistently asked the Press Attache of the Iranian Embassy in New Delhi for a copy of an inexplicably missing document, which contained Irans offer to the U.S.

Reportedly, it was so wide-ranging as to confirm the view expressed by Mohammed ElBaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in an interview to an American publicist in mid-2005: Iran was seeking a Grand Bargain in exchange for its concessions on the nuclear issue. The prize they seek, above all, is better relations with the U.S. It was so secret a document that the Press Attache was unaware of it.

There was a faint hint of it in an anguished message, which Irans chief negotiator on the nuclear issue (2003-05) Hassan Rowhani, sent to the European Union-3 (the United Kingdom, France and Germany) on July 18, 2005; significantly, a month after Mahmoud Ahmadinejads election as President: Today, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, I find strong and inescapable reasons and elements that bind us negotiations have brought us very close to an agreement. Rowhanis reference to the troubled areas signified a willingness to cooperate in a wider regional framework. Iran was rebuffed in 2005, in 2003, and in 2002. The rebuffs continue to this day.

The text of that missing document of May 4, 2003, is now available in the books of Professor Trita Parsi and Barbara Slavin and fully confirms ElBaradeis impression. Parsis book is based on 130 in-depth interviews with Iranian, Israeli and American officials and analysts. Slavin of USA Today has interviewed three Iranian Presidents, including Ahmadinejad, travelled with three U.S. Secretaries of State and has travelled extensively in Iran. Her book is rich in insights and provides good reportage of the domestic scene in Iran, besides the moves in Iran-U.S. relations.

Professors Ali Gheissari and Vali Nasr, well known for their writings on that country, provide a useful corrective to simplistic views on Iran. Voting still decides the direction of popular political debates and influences policymaking. It also affects distribution of power and political offices at the national level.

Their book covers the period from the Islamic Revolution in 1979 to 2005. Both the parliamentary elections in 2004 and the presidential poll in 2005 introduced new ideas in politics, and exposed divisions. In December 2006, Ahmadinejads supporters fared badly in elections to municipal councils. Arch conservatives suffered in the polls to the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body of clerics.

I.B. Tauris has published a biography of Ahmadinejad by Kasra Naji, who worked as a journalist in Teheran for many years. Ali M. Ansaris book shows how foreign policy is a major issue in domestic politics and how unreal are American perceptions of Iran.

All these books are written by persons who have a deep knowledge of Irans society and culture. Slavin provides a good journalistic supplement to the superb documentation in Parsis outstanding work. To highlight its disclosures is to belittle its significance. It breaks an altogether new ground in analysing the triangular Iran-Israel-U.S. relations. And, that is of utmost relevance to us.

The Shah of Iran did not recognise Israel, but a none-too-secret Israeli embassy did flourish in Teheran. Israeli statesmen clandestinely visited Teheran, as Moshe Dayan visited New Delhi. In both cases, intelligence agencies were used for diplomacy. Even in Nehrus days sub rosa contacts were on.

By 2008, a solid triangular relationship has been formed. The Israeli Ambassador to India, Mark Sofer, bragged to Outlook (February 10) that Israel had helped India in turning around the situation in Kargil in 1999; that is, India owes its victory to Israel. We do have a defence relationship with India which is not secret. What is secret is what the relationship is. And with all due respect, the secret will remain secret.

The diplomat spilled the beans;India has a tacit alliance with Israel and, at one remove, with the U.S. India-U.S. and India-Israel relations feed on each other. During the congressional hearings on the nuclear deal on September 8, 2005, Tom Lantos wanted to know what discussions the Americans had with the Indians concerning their Teheran policy. Hence, Indias disgraceful vote in the IAEA.

Only a vigilant public opinion can arrest this dangerous trend. Parsi expounds lucidly Israels Peripheral Doctrine. Since its Arab neighbours are hostile, Israel must reach out to Turkey, Ethiopia and the Shahs Iran as well as to non-Arab minorities such as the Kurds and the Lebanese Christians. As Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres had predicted, the Oslo process helped to end Israels isolation. After the signing of the accords, Israel established diplomatic relations with a record number of states, including several Arab governments. The normalisation of relations with heavyweights China and India was the most radical change in Israels international status since 1948 and boosted its bid to retain strategic significance in the Middle East [West Asia] and in Washington. The Israeli-U.S-Iranian triangle had shifted remarkably in just a few years. In the 1980s, Israel was the unlikely defender of and apologist for Iran in Washington, taking great risks to pressure the Reagan administration to open up channels of communication with Iran. Now, Israel did the opposite. Israel wanted the United States to put Iran under economic and political siege.

The doctrine remains, only the partners have been changed.

Look, there is the old periphery and the new periphery, Knesset member Ephraim Sneh, a major proponent of this view, told Parsi. Now we should have a new periphery to outflank Iran. The new periphery consisted of both old and new periphery states. India was the most important new periphery state it was the new Iran. It was a majority non-Muslim, non-Arab country on the outer periphery of the Middle East that essentially replaced Iran in the Likuds strategic outlook. The emerging Israeli-Turkish-Indian connection was hardly unexpected. It marked the logical evolution of a pair of strategic relationships that had charted similar trajectories for the better part of the 1990s. In fact, in the view of many Israeli strategists, it remained a mystery to the Jewish state why it took India so long before it recognised the common Indian-Israeli trajectory.... Though strategic ties to India and Turkey served many purposes, weakening Iran was the most critical objection for the Jewish State (emphasis added, throughout). Does India share this objective?

Iran worked against the U.S-sponsored peace process in Palestine because it feared that an Arab-U.S. detente would isolate it in the region. Israel worked hard to prevent an Iran-U.S. rapprochement lest it imperil its security interests. The U.S. fell for this game, little realising that its entente with Israel would facilitate the peace process and widen its options generally.

It was imperial hubris which prompted the U.S. to reject brusquely Irans breathtaking offer of May 4, 2003. It covered every trouble spot in the region.

Iran offered to end its support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad and pressure them to cease attacks on Israel. On Hizbollah, its most reliable partner in the Arab world, it offered to support the disarmament of the Lebanese militia and transform it into a purely political party. On the nuclear issue, it offered to open up the nuclear programme completely to intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate any fears of Iranian weaponisation. It would sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which it eventually did).

It also offered extensive American involvement in the programme as a further guarantor and goodwill gesture. On terrorism, Teheran offered full cooperation against all terrorist organisations above all, Al Qaeda. On Iraq, Iran would work actively with the U.S. to support political stabilisation and establishment of democratic institutions.

Iran offered to accept the Beirut declaration of the Arab League, the Saudi peace plan from March 2002 in which the Arab states offered to make peace collectively with Israel, recognising and normalising relations with the Jewish state in return for Israels agreement to withdraw from all occupied territories and accept a fully independent Palestinian state, an equitable division of Jerusalem, and an equitable resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Iran would formally recognise the two-state solution and consider itself at peace with Israel.

Iran wanted the members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MKO), an Iranian terrorist organisation based in Iraq, handed over to in return for Al Qaeda operatives it held. Parsi is uniquely qualified to provide an authoritative account of the background to this offer, the manner in which it was conveyed and its appalling, but revealing, aftermath. The first draft of the proposal was written by Sadegh Kharrazi, the nephew of the Iranian Foreign Minister [Kamal Kharrazi] and Irans Ambassador to France. The draft then went to Irans supreme leader for approval, who asked Irans U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Javad Zarif to review it and make final edits before it was sent to the Americans.

Only a closed circle of decision-makers in Teheran was aware of and involved in preparing the proposal Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, President Mohammad Khatami, U.N. Ambassador Zarif, Ambassador to France Kharrazi, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Swiss Ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann, was also consulted. The U.S. and Iran had no diplomatic relations. Switzerland looked after their interests in both capitals.

The Iranian version of the story is that Iran did not make the proposal; rather, it responded to an American proposal. On April 27, 2003, Sadegh Kharrazi received an American proposal that spelled out the contours of a grand bargain. It came from a high-level State Department official, most likely Under Secretary of State Richard Armitage or Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, Sadegh Kharrazi notified Khamenei, who asked Zarif to make amendments to the proposal and return it.

This version is belied by Guldimanns letter to the U.S. State Department, appended to the book, which says that the Leader explicitly has asked him whether this is a U.S. proposal and S.Kh. [Sadegh Kharrazi] denied this.

Parsi was then adviser to Congressman Bob Ney, the powerful and respected Republican Chairman of the House Administration Committee. He spoke Farsi and had taught English in Shiraz. He had access to the White House, having known President George W. Bushs senior adviser Karl Rove in college.

In early May 2003, Guldimann visited Washington and briefed Ney personally on the proposal. The Swiss diplomat gave the Congressman a copy of the two-page proposal, which included an outline of Iranian and American aims and a proposed procedure on how to advance the negotiations, as well as an 11-page account by Guldimann of his conversations with Iranian officials. Guldimanns account clarified Teherans position and the authenticity of the proposal. A few days earlier, on May 4, Guldimann had faxed the proposal to the State Department together with a one-page cover letter detailing Teherans intentions with the proposal and its authenticity. Another copy was sent to the U.S. Ambassador in Geneva, Kevin Moley. I got the clear impression that there is a strong will of the regime to tackle the problem with the U.S. now and to try it with this initiative, Guldimann wrote in the cover letter.

Ney, a staunch advocate of dialogue with China, had the letter hand-delivered to Rove, who promptly called Ney to verify its authenticity and assured Ney that he would deliver it directly to the President.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, favoured a positive response. Together with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, they approached the President about the proposal. It was shot down by Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. We dont speak to evil, they said. There was no debate at all.

Parsi writes: Why talk to Iran when you could simply dictate terms from a position of strength? After all, the swift success in Iraq showed that taking on Iran would not be too complicated. In April 2003, Under Secretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Ferth had briefed Defence and State Department officials on how the war in Iraq could be continued into Iran and Syria in order to replace the regimes there. The plans were quite extensive and far-reaching. It was much more than just a contingency plan, Laurence Wilkerson, Colin Powells Chief of Staff recalled.

But just saying no to the Iranians was not enough. The Beltway hawks apparently wanted to add insult to injury. Instead of simply rejecting the Iranian offers, the Bush administration decided to punish the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place. Only a few days after its delivery, Washington rebuked Guldimann and the Swiss government for having overstepped its diplomatic mandate. It was the most shameful thing, Wilkerson confessed. But the message to Teheran was clear not only would the Bush administration refuse Iran the courtesy of a reply, it would punish those who sought to convey messages between the two.

Rice lied about it repeatedly. She told Slavin, I honestly dont remember seeing it. Later, in February 2007, she was pressed by the House International Relations Committee on the Iranian grand bargain proposal and was asked if the U.S. had missed a major opportunity.

Contradicting an earlier interview with National Public Radio, in which she acknowledged having seen the proposal, Rice now told lawmakers that she could not recall ever having received it. I just dont remember ever seeing any such thing, she said dismissively about the Iranian proposal.

Incidentally, the Iranians had made a similar proposal to the Israelis in Athens. It was in a speech by General Mohsen Rezai, former Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Guards to a group of American, Israeli and Palestinian officials. The gist of Rezais plan was to work out a modus vivendi regarding the Israeli-Iranian standoff; the two states would respect each others spheres of influence and stay out of each others hair. If the United States and Israel reversed its isolation policy of Iran, Teheran would modify its behaviour on several key issues, including Israel.

Iran would significantly moderate its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by adopting a Malaysian or Pakistani profile, that is, it would be an Islamic state that would not recognise Israel, would occasionally criticise Israel, but would completely avoid confronting or challenging the Jewish state, either directly or via proxies. Iran would also pressure groups such as Hizbollah to refrain from provoking Israel. In return, Israel would cease to oppose a U.S- Iran rapprochement and would recognise Irans role in the region, while the U.S. would end its policy of isolating Iran and accommodate a key Iranian role in the security of the Persian Gulf.

Parsi adds that support for the Pakistani/Malaysian model was particularly strong in the Iranian Foreign Ministry, in parts of the military establishment, and in the Presidents office, and it was also endorsed by former President Rafsanjani. It also enjoyed the reluctant support of Ayatollah Khamenei, and this explained why Iranian diplomats on numerous occasions, including at a dinner on Capitol Hill attended by Zarif and several U.S. lawmakers, repeated the call for Irans inclusion in regional decision-making in return for Iranian passivity on Israel. The Iranians also communicated the gist of the Pakistani/Malaysian model to members of the Washington foreign policy community, who confirmed Irans willingness to bargain

Parsi was present at the dinner. However, Rice had a different agenda, as Slavin convincingly demonstrates.

Were going to fix (sic.) the Middle East just the way we fixed Europe after World War II, she said just after the fall of Baghdad. Bush and Cheney shared this outlook. Iraq could be used to pressurise Iran.

Rice also told Slavin in November 2005 that broader negotiations were rejected because that would run the risk of granting legitimacy to a government that does not deserve it. On February 16, 2006, she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. would actively confront the aggressive policies of the Iranian regime and at the same time.... work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their own country in short, regime change.

In another interview with Slavin in 2006, Rice said, I continue to think the best chance for, the word that I hate, engagement continues to be on the nuclear issues, with the potential for a broader agenda.

Slavin aptly remarks: That Rice, Americas chief diplomat, could not use the word engagement in relation to Iran without disparaging it, speaks volumes about the administrations difficulty in meeting a fundamental requirement of negotiating success showing a modicum of respect for your adversary.

In the 1981 accord on the release of the hostages, the U.S. agreed with Iran that it would not intervene directly or indirectly, politically or morally, in Irans internal affairs. The MKO was listed as a terrorist body by the U.S.

It is this folie de grandeur which has landed the U.S. in a mess in Afghanistan and Iraq. The world had paid a price for its rejection of the path of diplomacy. David Ottaway and Joe Stephens of The Washington Post reported (October 30, 2001) that a deal with the Taliban fell through because of the U.S demand that Osama bin Laden face trial in the U.S.. They were prepared to give him up as a neutral third country.

The International Herald Tribune of November 7, 2003, carried an exceptionally informed report by James Risen on Saddam Husseins acceptance of virtual surrender terms before the attack. Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed. Is Iran the next target? On February 15, 2006, Rice unveiled a $85 million programme to overthrow Irans government.

Every overture by Iran has been exploited only to be rebuffed. It condemned the 9/11 attacks. Many Iranians held spontaneous candle-light demonstrations in sympathy. On 9/11, Kamal Kharrazi sent across a handwritten note to Powell which read: The United States should know that the Iranian people and the Iranian government stand with the United States in its time of need and absolutely condemn these vicious terrorist attacks. The U.S reaction? On January 29, 2002, a little over four months later, Bush dubbed Iran as one of the axis of evil with Syria and North Korea.

Parsi notes: Throughout the 1990s, Iran had been the primary sponsor of the Northern Alliances; a group of anti-Taliban forces led by the legendary guerilla fighter Ahmed Shah Masood. Together with Russia and India, Iran had armed and funded the Northern Alliance at a time when the United States was turning a blind eye to the Talibans human rights violations and its support for terror. Having a staunchly anti-Iranian and anti-Shia Government in Afghanistan hardly undermined the Clinton administrations overarching goal of isolating Iran. The policy came back to haunt America a few years later. But now, the Iranians were eager to offer their help to Washington and show America the strategic benefits of cooperation with Iran.

Iranians trample a

The Iranians had real contacts with important players in Afghanistan and were prepared to use their influence in constructive ways in coordination with the U.S., recalled Flynt Leverett, then Senior Director for Middle East Affairs in the National Security Council.

At the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in December 2001, it was Irans last-minute intervention with the Northern Alliances representative that persuaded it to accept compromise with the other Afghan factions.

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