Neo-con cabal blocked 2003 nuclear talks
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The George W Bush administration failed to enter into negotiations
with Iran on its nuclear program in May 2003 because neo-conservatives who
advocated destabilization and regime change were able to block any serious
diplomatic engagement with Tehran, according to former administration
The same neo-conservative veto power also prevented the administration from
adopting any official policy statement on Iran, those same officials said.
Lawrence Wilkerson, then chief of staff to secretary of state Colin
Powell, said the failure to adopt a formal Iran policy in 2002-03 was the
result of obstruction by a "secret cabal" of neo-conservatives in the
administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney.
"The secret cabal got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran," Wilkerson
wrote in an e-mail to Inter Press Service (IPS).
The Iranian negotiating offer, transmitted to the State Department in early May
2003 by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, acknowledged that Iran would have to
address US concerns about its nuclear program, although it made no specific
concession in advance of the talks, according to Flynt Leverett, then the
National Security Council's senior director for Middle East Affairs.
Iran's offer also raised the possibility of cutting off Iran's support for
Hamas and Islamic Jihad and converting Hezbollah into a purely socio-political
organization, according to Leverett. That was an explicit response to Powell's
demand in late March that Iran "end its support for terrorism".
In return, Leverett recalls, the Iranians wanted the US to address security
questions, the lifting of economic sanctions and normalization of relations,
including support for Iran's integration into the global economic order.
Leverett also recalls that the Iranian offer was drafted with the blessing of
all the major political players in the Iranian regime, including Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.
Realists, led by Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were inclined to
respond positively to the Iranian offer. Nevertheless, within a few days of its
receipt, the State Department had rebuked the Swiss ambassador for having
passed on the offer.
Exactly how the decision was made is not known. "As with many of these issues
of national security decision-making, there are no fingerprints," Wilkerson
told IPS. "But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W Bush."
As Wilkerson observes, however, the mysterious death of what became known among
Iran specialists as Iran's "grand bargain" initiative was a result of the
administration's inability to agree on a policy toward Tehran.
A draft National Security Policy Directive (NSPD) on Iran calling for
diplomatic engagement had been in the process of interagency coordination for
more than a year, according to a source who asked to remain unidentified.
But it was impossible to get formal agreement on the NSPD, the source recalled,
because officials in Cheney's office and in under secretary of defense for
policy Douglas Feith's Office of Special Plans wanted a policy of regime change
and kept trying to amend it.
Opponents of the neo-conservative policy line blame Condoleezza Rice, then the
national security adviser, for the failure of the administration to override
the extremists in the administration. The statutory policymaker process on
Iran, Wilkerson told IPS in an e-mail, was "managed by a national security
adviser incapable of standing up to the cabal ..."
In the absence of an Iran policy, the two contending camps struggled in 2003
over a proposal by realists in the administration to reopen the Geneva channel
with Iran that had been used successfully on Afghanistan in 2001-02. They
believed Iran could be helpful in stabilizing post-conflict Iraq, because the
Iraqi Shi'ite militants whom they expected to return from Iran after Saddam
Hussein's overthrow owed some degree of allegiance to Iran.
The neo-conservatives tried to block those meetings on tactical policy grounds,
according to Leverett. "They were saying we didn't want to engage with Iran
because we didn't want to owe them," he recalled.
Nevertheless, US ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (now envoy in Iraq)
was authorized to begin meeting secretly in Geneva with Iranian officials to
discuss Iraq. The neo-conservatives then tried to sandbag the talks by
introducing a demand for full information on any high-ranking al-Qaeda cadres
who might be detained by the Iranians.
Iran regarded that information as a bargaining chip to be given up only for a
quid pro quo from Washington. The Bush administration, however, had adopted a
policy in early 2002 of refusing to share any information with Iran on al-Qaeda
or other terrorist organizations.
On May 3, 2003, as the Iranian "grand bargain" proposal was on its way to
Washington, Tehran's representative in Geneva, Javad Zarif, offered a
compromise on the issue, according to Leverett: if the US gave Iran the names
of the cadres of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) who were being held by US forces
in Iraq, Iran would give the US the names of the al-Qaeda operatives they had
The MEK had carried out armed attacks against Iran from Iraqi territory during
the Hussein regime and had been named a terrorist organization by the US. But
it had capitulated to US forces after the invasion, and the neo-conservatives
now saw the MEK as a potential asset in an effort to destabilize the Iranian
The MEK had already become a key element in the alternative draft NSPD drawn up
by neo-conservatives in the administration.
The indictment of Iran analyst Larry Franklin on Feith's staff last year
revealed that, by February 2003, Franklin had begun sharing a draft NSPD that
he knew would be to the liking of the Israeli Embassy.
(Franklin eventually pleaded guilty to passing classified information to two
employees of an influential pro-Israel lobbying group and was sentenced to 12
and a half years in prison.)
Reflecting the substance of that draft policy, ABC News reported on May 30,
2003, that the Pentagon was calling for the destabilization of the Iranian
government by "using all available points of pressure on the Iranian regime,
including backing armed Iranian dissidents and employing the services of the
Mujahideen-e Khalq ..."
Nevertheless, Bush apparently initially saw nothing wrong with trading
information on MEK, despite arguments that MEK should not be repatriated to
Iran. "I have it on good authority," Leverett told IPS, "that Bush's initial
reaction was, 'But we say there is no such thing as a good terrorist.'"
Nevertheless, Bush finally rejected the Iranian proposal.
By the end of May, the neo-conservatives had succeeded in closing down the
Geneva channel for good. They had hoped to push through their own NSPD on Iran,
but according to the Franklin indictment, Franklin told an Israeli Embassy
officer in October that work on the NSPD had been stopped.
But the damage had been done. With no direct diplomatic contact between Iran
and the US, the neo-conservatives had a clear path to raising tensions and
building political support for regarding Iran as the primary enemy of the
Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His
latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published last June.