By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was pressed yesterday on whether the Bush administration missed an opportunity to improve relations with Iran in 2003, when Tehran issued a proposal calling for a broad dialogue with the United States, on matters including cooperation on nuclear safeguards, action against terrorists and possible recognition of Israel.
Although former administration officials have said the proposal was discussed and ultimately rejected by top U.S. officials, Rice, who was then national security adviser, said she never saw it.
"I have read about this so-called proposal from Iran," Rice told the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, referring to reports in The Washington Post and other publications last year. "We had people who said, 'The Iranians want to talk to you,' lots of people who said, 'The Iranians want to talk to you.' But I think I would have noticed if the Iranians had said, 'We're ready to recognize Israel.' . . . I just don't remember ever seeing any such thing."
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) cited a former Rice staff member, Flynt Leverett, who has publicly discussed seeing the proposal when he worked at the White House.
"Why should we accept the administration's analysis today that it is correct to yet again not engage with Iran when administration officials at the time now have concluded -- at least this one and one or two others -- that the administration was wrong?" Wexler asked Rice at the hearing.
Rice's comments add a new level of complexity to an issue that has generated debate among foreign policy experts: Did the Bush administration forgo a chance to pursue a dialogue with Iran shortly after the fall of Baghdad, when U.S. power seemed at its height?
The Iranian document, conveyed to Washington via the Swiss Embassy, listed a series of Iranian aims for potential talks, such as ending sanctions, full access to peaceful nuclear technology and a recognition of its "legitimate security interests," according to a copy that has circulated in Washington and was verified by Iranian and U.S. officials.
In the document, Iran offered to put a series of U.S. aims on the agenda, including full cooperation on nuclear safeguards, "decisive action" against terrorists, coordination in Iraq, ending "material support" for Palestinian militias and accepting a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document also laid out an agenda for negotiations, including possible steps to be achieved at a first meeting and the development of road maps on disarmament, countering terrorism and economic cooperation.
Rice dismissed yesterday the earlier comments of Leverett.
"First of all, I don't know what Flynt Leverett's talking about, quite frankly," she said. "Maybe I should ask him when he came to me and said, 'We have a proposal from Iran and we really ought to take it.' "
Leverett said yesterday that he became aware of the two-page offer, which came over a fax machine at the State Department, in his waning days in the U.S. government as a senior director at the National Security Council, but that it was not his responsibility to put it on Rice's desk because Rice had placed Elliott Abrams in charge of Middle East policy. "If he did not put it on her desk, that says volumes about how she handled the issue," he said yesterday.
Abrams is currently the deputy national security adviser in charge of the Middle East and democracy promotion. An NSC spokeswoman, speaking on behalf of Abrams, said yesterday that Abrams "has no memory of any such fax and never saw or heard of any such thing."
Former State Department officials have said that they saw the Iranian offer and used it as a key element in a 2003 memo to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell proposing that the United States pursue a "grand bargain" with Iran. The Iranian offer was attached to the memo, but Powell did not forward the memo to the White House, officials said.
Last June, Rice appeared to confirm, in an interview with National Public Radio, that the White House had received the memo. "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," Rice said. State Department officials at that time did not dissuade reporters from interpreting her comments as referring to the 2003 fax.
Leverett said the Iranian offer is "embarrassing and politically difficult" for the administration now that it has rejected calls for a dialogue from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, has confronted Iranian agents in Iraq and has expanded military assets in the Persian Gulf.
Leverett charged in December that the White House orchestrated an effort by the CIA to demand significant deletions in an opinion article he had written on Iran policy on the grounds that the material was classified. "The single biggest recision" concerned his description of the Iran's 2003 offer, he said yesterday.