By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
The Swiss ambassador to Iran informed U.S. officials in 2003 that an Iranian proposal for comprehensive talks with the United States had been reviewed and approved by Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; then-President Mohammad Khatami; and then-Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, according to a copy of the cover letter to the Iranian document.
"I got the clear impression that there is a strong will of the regime to tackle the problem with the U.S. now and to try it with this initiative," Tim Guldimann, the ambassador, wrote in a cover letter that was faxed to the State Department on May 4, 2003. Guldimann attached a one-page Iranian document labeled "Roadmap" that listed U.S. and Iranian aims for potential negotiations, putting on the table such issues as an end to Iran's support for anti-Israeli militants, action against terrorist groups on Iranian soil and acceptance of Israel's right to exist.
The cover letter, which had not been previously disclosed, was provided by a source who felt its contents were mischaracterized by State Department officials. Switzerland serves as a diplomatic channel for communications between Tehran and Washington because the two countries broke off relations after the 1979 seizure of U.S. Embassy personnel.
Guldimann's two-page fax prompted a debate among foreign policy professionals on whether the Bush administration missed an opportunity four years ago to strike a "grand bargain" with Iran at a time when Washington appeared at the height of its power after the invasion of Iraq and Iran had not mastered uranium enrichment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was questioned about the document on Capitol Hill last week. She said she did not recall seeing it when she was national security adviser. "I just don't remember ever seeing any such thing," she said.
Former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage is quoted in this week's issue of Newsweek saying that the administration "couldn't determine what was the Iranians' and what was the Swiss ambassador's" in the proposal, adding that his impression at the time was that the Iranians "were trying to put too much on the table" for effective negotiations. Guldimann wrote that he had several long discussions with Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran's ambassador to France -- and also nephew to the foreign minister and brother-in-law to Khamenei's son. According to Guldimann, Sadegh Kharrazi reported going "through every word of this paper" with Khamenei, Khatami and the foreign minister. "The question is dealt with in high secrecy. Therefore no one else has been informed," Kharrazi added.
The supreme leader had reservations on some points but agreed with 85 to 90 percent of the road map, and "everything can be negotiated," Kharrazi said, noting any reservations could be discussed at the first bilateral meeting. Kharrazi added: "There is a clear interest to tackle the problem of our relations with the U.S. I told them, this is a golden opportunity." Guldimann noted that the "lack of trust in the U.S. imposes them to proceed very carefully and very confidentially." Kharrazi proposed that Armitage represent the United States at the first meeting because he had made positive comments on Iranian democracy. Guldimann reported that he thought that was impossible, and he told Kharrazi that the Iranians should aim for a lower-level official.
"This document did not come through official channels but rather was a creative exercise on the part of the Swiss ambassador," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said yesterday. "The last 30 years are filled with examples of individuals claiming to represent Iranian views. We have offered to Iran a chance to sit across the table from us and discuss their nuclear issue and anything else they would like, should they simply, verifiably suspend their uranium-enrichment activities."