(REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

“Folks, that is way beyond what we offered, way beyond.”

–Secretary of State John F. Kerry, interview at Thomson Reuters headquarters, Aug. 11, 2015

In making the case for the international deal with Iran to restrain its nuclear ambitions, Secretary of State John F. Kerry has pointed to “a proposal” made in a letter on June 17, 2008, by six foreign ministers, including then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as offering the Islamic republic an agreement that exceeded what the administration agreed to in its deal.

In the interview at Reuters, Kerry ticked off a series of elements, including recognizing Iran’s right to nuclear energy, providing “technical and financial assistance for peaceful nuclear energy,” legally binding fuel supply guarantees, improving relations with Iran and support for Iran “playing an important and constructive role in international affairs,” as well possible economic incentives.

As Kerry put it, “Folks, this is way beyond what we offered, way beyond.”

Similarly, in a congressional appearance on July 23, Kerry also referenced the 2008 letter when a lawmaker complained the deal would let Iran keep producing nuclear fuel. “We’re not alone in this, folks,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The Bush administration proposed the exact same thing. This is not something that President Obama just sort of dreamed up and thought was a good idea.”

Kerry’s statements have inspired tweets like this:

So can Kerry fairly compare the 2008 letter and the recent agreement? Or is Kerry being disingenuous?

The Facts

State Department officials said that Kerry is not trying to compare the 2008 letter and the outcome of the Obama administration negotiations, but to provide an example to people demanding a “better deal” that eventually any negotiation would have ended up in the same place.

“Because critics of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] have not offered a viable alternative, Secretary Kerry and others point to the 2008 proposal as another attempt to achieve a similar outcome through diplomacy,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.  “The 2008 proposal is germane because, if it had gotten Iran to the negotiating table and been successfully concluded, it could have resulted in recognition of Iran’s right to the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes in conformity with its NPT [NonProliferation Treaty] obligations, as well as sanctions relief. That Iran was unwilling to negotiate on terms that included suspension of enrichment is further evidence that there is no ‘better deal’ to be had.”

Hmmm. There’s a big difference between a proposal for talks and a negotiated deal, something we previously explored when The Fact Checker caught Kerry exaggerating that Iran in 2003 “made an offer to the Bush administration that they would, in fact, do major things with respect to their [nuclear] program.” In that case, there was little evidence of an actual offer, and Kerry earned Three Pinocchios.

So what was happening in 2008? The five permanent members of the Security Council (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and China), working with Germany and the European Union, had pushed through three U.N. Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, in an effort to prod it to the negotiating table. Those were the sticks. But the “carrots” were the elements that might be on the table if Iran actually started negotiations.

Many of the carrots had been on the table ever since the Europeans first started negotiating with Iran in 2003. When the United States formally joined the effort in 2006, some of the elements offered by the Europeans were withdrawn or watered down, notably discussions on regional security. (The Americans did not want to offend Persian Gulf allies.) The 2008 letter slightly sweetened the pot with its language on Iran playing a constructive role in the region.

But the bottom line was always that before any dialogue could start, Iran needed to first suspend its enrichment of uranium — a route to a nuclear weapon — in accordance with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

You have to carefully read the diplomatic verbiage to realize that the letter was crafted to spark Iran’s interest—but it could be interpreted in different ways.

The letter said the ministers were ready to “recognize Iran’s right to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” But that did not necessarily mean Iran could enrich uranium.  There was also a clause — “once international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program is restored” — that left lots of wiggle room. There was literally no time limit.

There were also phrases regarding cooperation on “management of spent fuel” and “legally binding nuclear fuel supply guarantees.”

What did that mean? That was a reference to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which Russia was building at the time, planning to keep control over the nuclear fuel. George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin promoted the concept of a uranium enrichment center — “a fuel bank” — that would make nuclear fuel available to countries so they did not need a home-grown supply.

Indeed, former Bush administration officials say, the administration had a strict policy of demanding zero enrichment capability in Iran — “zero centrifuges spinning” was the mantra — and had never backed off it, publicly or privately. As Bush said at a news conference the day before the June letter was released: “You don’t need to enrich to have civilian nuclear power.”

If the Bush administration had ever negotiated with Iran perhaps the stance would have softened. But it would have been silly to concede such major points even before negotiations had started.

The Iranians responded to the June letter with their own wish list of negotiating topics, including stating that they were willing to consider discussing having an enrichment fuel bank in “different parts of the world — including Iran.” The Iranians ignored the demand to suspend enrichment — and instead focused on a quick suspension of sanctions. “The time for negotiating from the condescending position of inequality has come to an end,” wrote then-Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

In other words, nothing happened. It’s worth recalling that at the time, to the consternation of European diplomats, then-Sen. Barack Obama and his presidential campaign aides were saying they would be willing to start talks without waiting for Iran to suspend enrichment. Campaign aide Susan Rice, now national security adviser, called the demand to suspend enrichment a “counterproductive precondition.”

So, with the presidential election less than six months away and Obama leading in the polls, there was little incentive for Iran to act on the 2008 letter.

Condoleezza Rice, in a statement to The Fact Checker, said:

“It has come to my attention that Secretary Kerry has referenced the June 2008 letter from the P5+1 to Iran in recent briefings to Congress.

Allow me to recount what transpired in June 2008.  The letter was a final attempt by the P5+1 to convince the Iranians to negotiate in good faith before seeking new sanctions.  The idea was to show the Iranians what negotiations might look like if they met the essential condition of the verifiable suspension of all enrichment and reprocessing programs and activities.  I want to emphasize that this had long been a precondition for the United States formally joining the talks and that it was a requirement that had the backing of all of our negotiating partners.  It was enshrined in three U.N. Security Council Resolutions.

The United States never negotiated the elements described in the letter with the Iranians.  This was a listing of what might be possible.  Indeed, several ideas were explored among the P5+1, including the provision of civil nuclear capability to Iran.  That was to be done by providing fuel by outside parties (likely the P5 itself) through a fuel bank.  The provision of a civil nuclear program without indigenous enrichment and reprocessing, we thought, could form the basis for other agreements and it was the core of a landmark one with the United Arab Emirates in 2009.

The premise of our negotiations with the Iranians was to end their program and halt their enrichment and reprocessing activities. We had succeeded in imposing sanctions through the United Nations and had levied the first financial and banking sanctions through the Treasury Department.  We believed that in time these sanctions would be powerful tools against the Iranian economy and would force them to negotiate.

That was the joint position of the international community when we left office in 2009.”

The Pinocchio Test

Kerry is significantly mischaracterizing the position of the Bush administration in 2008. He suggests Rice signed a “proposal” that includes the prospect of Iran retaining the ability to enrich uranium—and continuing advanced research on centrifuges. But that’s not the case at all.

Instead, the letter was an effort to set the parameters of possible discussions — which never took place. The Bush administration was certainly interested in negotiations – but it wanted Iran to suspend enrichment first and then give up its capacity to enrich in exchange for participating in an international fuel bank.

The Obama administration may have a valid case for the Iran deal. But it should not reinvent diplomatic history. We wavered between Three and Four Pinocchios, but ultimately settled on Three.

Three Pinocchios


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