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Rice Disputes Claim of Iranian Overture

By ANNE GEARAN
The Associated Press
Thursday, February 8, 2007; 7:57 AM

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice disputed claims Wednesday that the Bush administration bungled a diplomatic overture from Iran that offered a broad dialogue with the United States after nearly a quarter-century of enmity.

Rice told Congress she does not remember seeing the 2003 Iranian proposal, which suggested Iran was ready to discuss its disputed nuclear program, support for militant groups that the United States labels terrorists and the acceptance of Israel.

"We had people who said the Iranians went to talk to you, lots of people who said the Iranians want to talk to you," Rice said during an exchange with Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla.

"But I think I would have noticed if the Iranians had said, 'We're ready to recognize Israel,'" Rice said. "I just don't remember ever seeing any such thing."

The document, faxed to the State Department in the early days of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, proposed direct talks, perhaps in Paris. Iraq was at the top of the proposed agenda, with Tehran proposing "active Iranian support for Iraqi stabilization."

The text of the document has been provided to news organizations, including The Associated Press.

"You did not see that supposed fax?" Wexler asked Rice.

"I just have to tell you that perhaps somebody saw something of the like, but I can tell you I would have noticed if the Iranians had offered to recognize Israel," she replied.

The administration dismissed the proposal, which has since become a touchstone for criticism that the Bush administration muffed a chance to avert Iran's rush toward nuclear proficiency that could produce a bomb.

Rice was asked about such criticism from a former National Security Council aide, Flynt Leverett.

"I don't know what Flynt Leverett's talking about, quite frankly," Rice 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 had left the NSC by the time the fax arrived, but he said in an interview that he knows the document was sent to the NSC. It also went to Rice's predecessor as secretary of state, Colin Powell, former officials have said.

Leverett said he has never discussed with Rice whether she saw it.

"This administration, out of some combination of ideological blindness and incompetence, couldn't be bothered to explore whether this opportunity was as serious as it looked on paper," Leverett said Wednesday.

Critics also say that engagement in 2003 might have blunted Iranian influence in Iraq. Shiite militias and death squads, some with ties to Iran, are blamed for much of the sectarian violence in Iraq.

In June 2006, Rice had indicated that she was familiar with the proposal. She was asked about the offer during an interview with National Public Radio, and she appeared to provide the first official confirmation that it existed.

"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 then. She contrasted that with the current U.S. stance, in which the United States has offered to join European-led talks with Iran over its nuclear program if Iran meets preconditions. Iran has refused.

The Bush administration has resisted suggestions, including from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, that is should engage Iran to try to improve security in next-door Iraq. Lawmakers challenged that position Wednesday and about the administration's current stepped-up rhetoric and seeming provocation of Iraq.

Rice repeated Bush's assurance that "we're not planning or intending an attack on Iran."

"What we are doing is we're responding to a number of Iranian policies both in Iraq and around the world that are actually quite dangerous for our national security," she said.

© 2007 The Associated Press