LISBON, Portugal, May 8 (UPI) -- History is full of might-have-beens, but the attempt in April 2003 by the government of Iran to negotiate a 'grand bargain' with the Bush administration may just have some life left in it.
The bargain, as spelled out by the Iranians, offered to accept a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, to rein in Iranian support for what the United States considered terrorist groups, cooperation with the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and against al-Qaida, and to join a comprehensive security agreement with the countries of the Persian Gulf. This would include an agreement to exclude nuclear weapons, which in effect suggested that Iran was prepared to suspend its nuclear program.
In return, Iran wanted full diplomatic recognition from the United States, along with a suspension of U.S. sanctions and an agreement to drop plans for regime change and support for groups opposed to the Iranian regime.
One of the central Iranian concerns was the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran's oil and gas industries, which had left them with obsolete drilling and extraction and refining technologies. This had cut their potential output to some 2 million barrels a day, when it could be producing 6 million barrels or more, and Iran was prepared, as part of the grand bargain, to bring in U.S. oil corporations as partners.
This was a formal offer, transmitted through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran (which acts as custodian for U.S. interests since Washington has no formal diplomatic ties with Tehran) and then followed up by a senior Iranian general in further talks with U.S. officials on the sidelines of a conference in Athens.
The U.S. officials involved were Mr. and Mrs. Flynt Leverett. She was a State Department career diplomat, one of three U.S. diplomats authorized to deal with Iranian officials, with whom she had already discussed cooperation against al-Qaida. He had been hired early in 2002 by Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush's national security adviser in the White House, to be her senior aide on the Middle East. She had asked him to "be prepared to throw the long ball" in drafting proposals to get the Israel-Palestine peace process back on track, which meant defining final status plans on eventual borders including Jerusalem.
In talks at a conference in Portugal this weekend with both Leveretts on the Iranian proposals for a grand bargain, they impressed on this reporter their belief that the Iranian offer was serious, and had the support of the then Iranian government and of the country's supreme religious authority Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and very much worth pursuing. After their talks in Athens, the Leveretts drafted a report which went to Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said he thought it was an important development, but would be a non-starter in political terms.
The timing is important. The Iranian offer had been drafted in Iran in late March 2003, during the period when the U.S. invasion of Iraq was underway, but before the stunningly swift advance of the American troops had taken Baghdad. The offer was thus being considered in a Washington at the height of its moment of military triumph, when neo-conservatives were suggesting that the liberation of Iran could be the next step.
A further important piece of background is the fate of Flynt Leverett's final status proposals for Israel and Palestine. He had built on the plans discussed by Israelis and Palestinians under the auspices of the Clinton administration at Camp David and Taba and proposed using the 1967 border, with agreed adjustments, and making Jerusalem into a shared capital for both countries, and a settlement of the issue of the return of Palestinian refugees in a way which would not undermine the Jewish character of the state of Israel.
Despite her initial instructions to Leverett, she greeted his proposals with something close to dismay, saying the U.S. plans could neither talk about Jerusalem nor base a settlement on the 1967 borders. As a result of her talks with aides to Israeli premier Ariel Sharon, and strong opposition from Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the "long ball" plans were dead. Cheney and Rumsfeld were equally opposed to the Iranian "grand bargain."
Both Leveretts (she is now on maternity leave and he has left the administration and is now at the Brookings Institution in Washington) still believe the grand bargain with Iran is a possibility, only "the price will be much higher now."
Iran has a new government, led by the firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has dramatically advanced its nuclear program. Last month, Iran demonstrated that it has already enriched uranium sufficiently to produce nuclear fuel, so the further enrichment to weapons-grade uranium is now simply a matter of time. Moreover, Iran's need for U.S. technology and spare parts to boost its flagging economy and oil output is being transformed by new deals with China, Russia and India that appear to include France's Total group, which has the advanced technologies Iran needs.
The Bush administration moment of military triumph in 2003 has gone, and the image of an omnipotent U.S. military has been replaced by the grinding disillusion of an overstretched U.S. force tied down by a grueling insurgency while Iraq teeters on the edge of civil war. Bush himself is politically weaker, with his approval rating down at 32 percent, and his hopes of rallying an international consensus to threaten new sanctions and even tougher measures against Iran are now bogged down in the United Nations Security Council. So if there is to be any kind of grand bargain, the price will certainly be higher, but it may still represent the only peaceful solution on offer.