Lost Opportunities: Nicholas Kristoff (and Reinhold Niebuhr) on Iranian Peace Offers

I am pretty moderate guy--especially when it comes to national security issues. Two years of working in the Pentagon gave me an eye-opening view of the real threats that we face--and that was before September 11th. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the Presidency of George Bush will go down in history as a disaster from a national security point of view.

Where to begin? The Bush Administration largely accepted a variant of the Clinton Administration's "Agreed Framework" to secure a non-nuclear North Korea--but only creating a crisis that resulted in North Korea developing nuclear weapons. All because we refused to engage with North Korea, and because we reneged on our own pledges under that Agreement.

By any measure, the Iraq War has been a disaster--there were no weapons of mass destruction, our land forces (Army and Marines) are bogged down in Iraq (and are thus unavailable for other threats), and our intervention brought less stability, not more, to the region.

In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff may have identified the worst foreign policy mistake of this Administration: the refusal to engage in negotiations with Iran in 2003 after Iran made a serious peace gesture. Once again, the Bush Administration displayed remarkable hubris.

And, as I will explain later in this post, I think that the Bush Administration is guilty of the very hubris that theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned us about at the height of the Cold War.

Here is what Kristoff reports:

In May 2003, Iran sent a secret proposal to the U.S. for settling our mutual disputes in a “grand bargain.”

It is an astonishing document, for it tries to address a range of U.S. concerns about nuclear weapons, terrorism and Iraq. I’ve placed it and related documents (including multiple drafts of it) on my blog, www.nytimes.com/ontheground.

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.

Scattered reports of the Iranian proposal have emerged previously, but if you read the full documentary record you’ll see that what the hard-liners killed wasn’t just one faxed Iranian proposal but an entire peace process. The record indicates that officials from the repressive, duplicitous government of Iran pursued peace more energetically and diplomatically than senior Bush administration officials — which makes me ache for my country.

The process began with Afghanistan in 2001-2. Iran and the U.S., both opponents of the Taliban, cooperated closely in stabilizing Afghanistan and providing aid, and unofficial “track two” processes grew to explore opportunities for improved relations.

. . .

This was shaping into a historic opportunity to heal U.S.-Iranian relations, and the track two participants discussed further steps, including joint U.S.-Iranian cooperation against Saddam Hussein. The State Department and National Security Council were fully briefed, and in 2003 Ambassador Zarif met with two U.S. officials, Ryan Crocker and Zalmay Khalilzad, in a series of meetings in Paris and Geneva.
Encouraged, Iran transmitted its “grand bargain” proposals to the U.S. One version was apparently a paraphrase by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran; that was published this year in The Washington Post.

But Iran also sent its own master text of the proposal to the State Department and, through an intermediary, to the White House. I’ve also posted that document, which Iran regards as the definitive one.

In the master document, Iran talks about ensuring “full transparency” and other measures to assure the U.S. that it will not develop nuclear weapons. Iran offers “active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilization.” Iran also contemplates an end to “any material support to Palestinian opposition groups” while pressuring Hamas “to stop violent actions against civilians within” Israel (though not the occupied territories). Iran would support the transition of Hezbollah to be a “mere political organization within Lebanon” and endorse the Saudi initiative calling for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Iran also demanded a lot, including “mutual respect,” abolition of sanctions, access to peaceful nuclear technology and a U.S. statement that Iran did not belong in the “axis of evil.” Many crucial issues, including verification of Iran’s nuclear program, needed to be hammered out. 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.

Read it all (subscription sadly required). Kristoff has copies of the original documents on his own blog. The most important of which is this document, which is a document edited by ambassador Zarif that was presented as the Iranian position. Iran faxed it to the State Department and sent it, through an intermediary, to the White House. Here’s a final, clean version, as it was transmitted.

Kristoff offers a bit more background on his blog:

When the Neo-cons killed the incipient peace process, they did so partly on the basis that Iran had been uncooperative on terrorism. At a meeting in Geneva on terrorism issues, Zalmay Khalilzad had told Ambassador Zarif that the U.S. had information of a forthcoming terror bombing in the Gulf area. Mr. Khalilzad reportedly asked Iran to interrogate Al Qaeda members in Iranian prisons for information about the incident. Iran apparently dropped the ball (it says it didn’t have enough information) and did not generate any useful intelligence, and the incident turned out to be a suicide truck bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 12, 2003.

As I wrote in my column, I’m not sure that the diplomacy would have led to a “grand bargain” — there would have been very tough negotiating ahead. But the Iranian proposal was promising and certainly should have been followed up. It seems diplomatic mismanagement of the highest order for the Bush administration to have rejected that process out of hand, and now to be instead beating the drums of war and considering air strikes on Iranian nuclear sites.
The moderate camp in Iran was discouraged and discredited when the U.S. rejected its “grand bargain” proposal. But there is still a chance that Iran’s May 2003 proposal could be revived as a basis for new talks that aim for normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations. And if there isn’t room for a “grand bargain,” there may at least be an opportunity for a mini-bargain. Condi Rice seems more willing to negotiate with Iran than other principals in the administration, so let’s hope she pursues this path.

The rest, as they say, is history. It appears that Iran is moving toward becoming a nuclear power. If this happens, it is likely that the major Sunni powers in the region (such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt) will be moved to become nuclear powers in their own right. And virtually every military analyst that has looked at the current situation has agreed that the military options available to the United States are limited indeed.

Which brings me back to Reinhold Niebuhr. During the Cold War, he heartedly endorsed our efforts to contain and combat Communism, but he also warned against our own hubris. As David Brooks explains:

Ten years later, at the start of the Cold War, Niebuhr gave another set of lectures, this time in Fulton, Missouri; they served as the starting point for a book called The Irony of American History (1952). He began the book by making his position against communism clear: "We are defending freedom against tyranny and are trying to preserve justice against a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice." Niebuhr would have chosen the word "demonically" with care; in effect, he dubbed the Soviet Union an evil empire thirty years before Ronald Reagan did.

Niebuhr was afraid, however, that in battling evil the United States would become intoxicated with illusions about its own goodness. He wrote,

We take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization. We must exercise our power. But we ought neither to believe that a nation is capable of perfect disinterestedness in its exercise, nor become complacent about particular degrees of interest and passion which corrupt the justice by which the exercise of power is legitimized.

Many Americans, Niebuhr believed, fail to see the irony of this situation and the limitations of what can be achieved. Instead they believe that the United States has a mission to spread democracy around the world. They think that this country is uniquely blessed and have come to regard it as the tutor to mankind. Nations in the grip of this sort of hubris seek "greater power than is given to mortals," he said. They become inflamed by hatred for their foes, and corrupted even if their foes really do deserve to be hated. And they become enraged when they discover barriers to the realization of their ideals.

They become, in short, a menace to the fragile fabric of the world. Niebuhr approvingly quoted a European diplomat who argued in the 1940s that American idealism imperiled Europe. "For American power in the service of American idealism could create a situation in which we would be too impotent to correct you when you are wrong and you would be too idealistic to correct yourself," the diplomat said.

Read it all. It appears that in fighting a new threat (Islamic fundamentalism), we are falling into the very trap identified by Niebuhr. We are inflamed by hatred for our foes and corrupted by own hubris.


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