Friday, November 4, 2011

Post #39 - The Arrogance of Power

"Pride goes before destruction, and a folly before a fall." (Proverbs 16:18)

"The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been two hundred years.
These nations have progressed through this sequence:
From bondage to spiritual faith;
from spiritual faith to great courage;
from courage to liberty;
from liberty to abundance;
from abundance to selfishness;
from selfishness to complacency;
from complacency to apathy;
from apathy to dependence;
from dependency back again into bondage."

(Sir Alex Fraser Tyler, 1742-1813, Scottish jurist and historian )

America began with vast land and natural resources (the fact that there were a number of people -- non-Europeans -- already living here was only a temporary impediment). The colonies, later the young nation, thrived in part because of isolation behind two great oceans and its (mostly) pacific relations with its neighbors to the north and south. Yet, in the twentieth century – the “American century”, as it has been called – the United States expanded its Monroe Doctrine of hegemony in this hemisphere to a Reagan-Bush doctrine of hegemony worldwide. The already fairly macho “Speak softly and carry a big stick” of Teddy Roosevelt morphed into “The one with the big stick speaks; others listen – or suffer the consequences.” Under the current administration, the stick is approximately the same size, but the message sometimes seems ambiguous.

Former US Embassy, Tehran (credit: Daniel Brennwald)
In May 2003, a message was conveyed from Iran, by fax, to the US Department of State using the intermediary services of the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann. In that message (apparently itself a response to a U.S. “feeler” received in Iran one month earlier), the Iranians put virtually everything on the table for discussion. They listed U.S. concerns as including:

  • Weapons of mass destruction – that Iran should relinquish any attempt to develop or obtain such weapons
  • Terrorism – that Iran should move against any Al Qaeda members in Iran and share intelligence with the United States
  • Iraq – that Iran should support stabilization and democratization efforts there
  • Middle East – that support to Hamas, Hezbollah and other such groups be ceased

They identified the following concerns of their own:

  • Regime change – that the United States give up trying to oust the IRI
  • Sanctions – that the West dismantle the system of economic sanctions
  • Iraq – that the United States help root out the MKO (mujaheddin), control Turkish cross-border activity and respect Iranian/Iraqi links around religious sites and trade
  • Technology – that Iran have access to peaceful nuclear, biological and chemical technologies
  • Security assurances – that Iran's interests in national and regional security be recognized
  • Terrorism – that MKO within the United States be the object of government action (undefined)

In addition, a framework procedure for addressing these concerns was laid out. The Swiss diplomat who acted as the go-between reached his own conclusion that this was a serious overture, approved at the highest level of the Iranian government -- “I got the clear impression that there is a strong will of the regime to tackle the problem with the United States now and to try it with this initiative.” The United States, incredibly, failed to respond in any way to the memorandum, though it was examined and discussed within the Department of State, seen by members of Congress and conveyed to the White House national security staff. The State Department, when queried about this strange lapse claimed “This document did not come through official channels but rather was a creative exercise on the part of the Swiss ambassador.”

In fact, according to Flynt Leverett, who was a senior Middle East expert in the government at that time, said, “This was just the Swiss doing their job.” The only channel that now exists between Iran and the White House is the U.S. Interests Section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, established for just this kind of intermediation.

Leverett explained the potential importance of this document:

"If you compare this document to the messages that came in from the Chinese through Pakistani intermediaries to the Nixon administration 1970 and 1971, messages that ultimately produced Kissinger's trip to China and then Nixon's break-through visit to China – if you compare the Chinese messages that came in – and they're available at the GWU [George Washington University] National Security Archives online – if you compare those messages with this Iranian proposal, [it] is more substantive, more detailed than the Chinese proposals that came in to the Nixon administration. The problem here is the way this administration responded to Iranian proposal compared with the way the Nixon administration responded to these Chinese messages..."

Then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice claimed never to have seen the document. Her response to a reporter's question in June of the previous year belies that version of history, in that it clearly failed to deny the memo:

"QUESTION: Some officials who work with you at the White House and at the State Department said that the U.S. missed an opportunity in 2003, that Iran came to the U.S., wanted to talk, and the U.S. rejected that. And that was a period when the U.S. was stronger. It appears that the U.S. is coming to this in a much weaker position. Aren’t you?
SECRETARY RICE: Oh, I think coming to the table with the entire international community united around a particular course is a pretty strong position to be in. What people wanted, what the Iranians wanted earlier, was to be one-on-one with the United States so that this could be about the United States and Iran. Now it is Iran the international community, and Iran has to answer to the international community. I think that’s the strongest possible position to be in."

Nicholas D. Kristof, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote in 2007:

"Hard-liners in the Bush administration killed discussions of a deal, and interviews with key players suggest that was an appalling mistake. There was a real hope for peace; now there is a real danger of war.
"...It's not clear to me that a grand bargain was reachable, but it was definitely worth pursuing — and still is today."

Instead, Bush administration hard-liners aborted the process. Another round of talks had been scheduled for Geneva, and Ambassador Zarif showed up — but not the U.S. side. That undermined Iranian moderates, perhaps impacting the strength of their position in the ill-fated 2009 elections, when the regime fought back mercilessly against the challenge of the "Green Movement."

A U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could have saved lives in Iraq, isolated Palestinian terrorists and encouraged civil society groups in Iran. But instead the U.S. hard-liners chose to hammer plowshares into swords. Leverett took pains to emphasize the critical importance of this sequence of events in determining what happened after that:

Dave Robinson, at a mosque in Natanz, Iran
'Let me point out that at the time the proposal came in the spring of 2003, Iran wasn't enriching uranium. They weren't spinning centrifuges...This is one of the costs that ignoring this proposal has imposed on the United States. They have made significant advances in their nuclear program over the last three and a half years since this proposal came in. And I enrichment as part of a settlement of the nuclear issue is now a pretty remote possibility. If we had moved in 2003, I think it would have been a real option..."[The document itself can be seen at the website:]

Dave Robinson, of Pax Christi, on his second trip to Iran in recent years, spoke with the Iranian president: "I specifically asked President Ahmadinezhad his thoughts on the Iraq Study Group's recommendation to include Iran in regional discussions on the violence in Iraq. He responded that Iran has a clear interest in ending the violence in Iraq. He said that last year [2006], the U.S. asked the Iranians for help in Iraq. Unfortunately, he said, no one in Iran trusts the U.S. Administration, but regardless, he had “friends” respond to the Administration's request. They never heard another word."

No one should underestimate the difficulty of reaching an agreement with the current government of Iran. Its complex leadership structure and the past history with our country mean that every inch of the journey would have to be treated like a walk through a mine field. But, have we truly tried?

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