Monday, May 07, 2007

Iran and US: Too Proud to Talk

Keywords: Condoleezza Rice; Sharm El Sheik, Egypt; Mottaki; Ambassador Javad Zarif; Nicholas Kristof; Hooshang Amirahmadi; grand bargain; Iran; United States; Neo-Cons.

It happened again this weekend, apparently. Secretary of State and Iran’s foreign minister and deputy foreign minister were brought together at an international conference in , Egypt. They even attended the same party, but this elaborately casual occasion did not bring about any diplomatic conversation whatever, apparently to the disappointment of their Egyptian hosts. As usual, both sides expected the other to take the initiative. There had even been plans for a conversation to emerge; the U.S. had said that only Iraq could be the subject of any conversation. In the end, Rice said, “The opportunity simply didn’t arise. I would have taken that opportunity but it didn’t arise.”

Probably she was miffed by the speech she had just heard Iranian Foreign Minister deliver, in which he had said, “The United States must accept the responsibilities arising from the occupation of Iraq, and should not finger-point or put the blame on others.”

“You can ask him why he didn’t make an effort,” Rice later said. “I’m not given to chasing anyone.”

The sad thing is that this kind of coy approach-and-avoid dance has been going on for years between Iran and the United States — at least sporadically. At other times the countries have come close to war, as may have been the case even a month ago. Even Rice’s appearance in the same room as Iran’s top diplomats is a relatively cordial gesture compared to the threats of bombing that we heard a few weeks ago.

(see photo) has recently described in his New York Times column a period two years ago when the US and Iran were going through a similar proud vacillation between flirtation and ostracism. In his April 29 column, Kristof described a secret proposal that Iran sent to the US to solve their disputes in a “grand bargain.”

It seems that for a period in 2001-2 the two countries were cooperating rather well in defeating their common enemy, the . Even some “track two “ diplomacy began to occur, with the diplomats Thomas Pickering, Frank Wisner, and Nicholas Platt representing the American side, while the Iranian ambassador to the US, being the main Iranian negotiator, along with an Iranian professor at Rutgers University, Hooshang Amirahmadi.

Important contacts took place over dinner at Ambassador Zarif’s home in September 2002. At a follow-up meeting at Mr. Zarif’s home, Iranian foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi met with man of the same people, reports Kristof. A document was drafted and sent to the State Department and, through an intermediary, to the White House. In it Iran offered “full transparency” to assure that it would not develop . It offered to cooperate actively in stabilizing , and to end its material support of opposition groups, and to pressure Hamas to stop violent actions against civilians in Israel (though not the occupied territories). would support the transition of Hezbollah to become a “mere political organization within and endorse the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet at that time too, each country wanted the other to seem to take the initiative. In another column, Kristof described the situation: “For political reasons, doves in both the US and in Iran prefer to present the grand bargain idea as originating on the other side, for neither wants to signal any political weakness. So this document arrived in the Iranian Foreign Ministry and purported to come from the US; it was described as a US initiative, but I can’t find anyone in the US who acknowledges having prepared it. In any case, this was the starting point.”

But it was also almost the ending point. The White House apparently focused on the paraphrased version of the document sent by the Swiss ambassador to Iran. They rejected it and even reprimanded that Ambassador for even forwarding the proposal to them. (The Swiss document was published on the Washington Post web site earlier this year.)

After hesitating about the implications of the proposed “grand bargain,” Foreign Minister Kharrazi finally said, “Yes! We are ready to normalize relations” with the US and prepared to discuss problems that exist between us, but for that to happen we must be able to trust the US and this requires some initial positive gestures in the part of Washington, particularly a change in tone.

Apparently that “change in tone” was too great a concession for the Neo-Cons to make, after having classified Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” And so the deal fell through.

Kristof argued cogently, “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.”

Yet Kristof retained a little optimism that new talks might emerge for normalizing US-Iranian relations, since “Condi Rice seems more willing to negotiate with Iran than other principals in the administration, so let’s hope she pursues this path.”

That was his blog entry of April 28. As we have seen from the reports of last week’s meeting in Sharm El Sheik, Kristof’s hopes were again dashed. And mine as well.



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