As relations between Washington and Tehran deteriorate, critics of the Bush administration are seeking to cast blame for the rocky relationship not on Iran's nuclear program or support of terrorism, but on President Bush's intransigence. At the root of the attacks is the administration's supposed rejection of a May 2003 Iranian offer of a grand bargain to settle all outstanding disputes. "Basking in the glory of 'Mission Accomplished' in Iraq, the Bush administration dismissed the Iranian offer," Peter Galbraith, a Democratic party activist and former ambassador to Croatia, wrote in the October 11 New York Review of Books.
The problem is that this argument is rooted in a fraud. The "Iranian Roadmap," which was posted online by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on April 28, was not an Iranian overture but the work of a disgruntled Swiss diplomat, Tim Guldimann.
I first met Guldimann at a 1999 dinner party at his Tehran residence, and he spoke of his desire to repair U.S.-Iranian relations. The Swiss ambassador in Tehran is charged with representing U.S. interests--basically passing messages between the governments--but Guldimann was more ambitious. He saw an opportunity to facilitate rapprochement, which he said was hampered not by Iran's support for anti-U.S. terrorist groups and violent opposition to the Camp David II process, but by the Clinton administration's inflexibility.
Fast forward four years: Guldimann was nearing the end of his posting. With Iranian reform in retreat, he had little to show for his time--and blamed Bush and Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei equally. Guldimann developed the one-page "roadmap" in conversation with Sadeq Kharrazi, the Iranian ambassador in Paris. It suggests Tehran would address Washington's concerns about its weapons programs, its embrace of terrorism, its efforts to destabilize Iraq, and its opposition to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In exchange, Washington would refrain from pressing regime change, abolish sanctions, recognize Iran's "legitimate security interests," crack down on the militant Mujahedin al-Khalq (MKO), and give the Islamic Republic access to "peaceful" nuclear, biological, and chemical technology.
Kharrazi circulated the paper to senior Iranian officials with the caveat that it did not come from Washington, and Guldimann tried to use the Iranian response as "the basis for opening bilateral discussion." The paper went nowhere; it was clear to all involved that it was Guldimann's proposal and had little to do with Tehran. Guldimann said in his cover memo and in meetings with a range of U.S. policymakers that the Iranian leadership agreed with 85 to 90 percent of the proposal, though he did not know which 10-15 percent they disputed.
Guldimann's suggestion that the proposal came from Iran was bizarre. The United States and Iran were already deep in dialogue, with British foreign secretary Jack Straw as the high-level intermediary. In 2003, Iran's U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Javad Zarif, met U.S. diplomats Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker in Paris and Geneva. Indeed, Khalilzad met Zarif the day before Guldimann delivered his Iranian "breakthrough."
Guldimann's ignorance of these ongoing discussions exposed his fraud. John Bolton, then undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, suggested to Colin Powell that the Swiss be formally asked to recall Guldimann for freelancing. The Swiss foreign ministry keeps a discreet silence, but Guldimann has quietly left the foreign service.
The facts notwithstanding, a coterie of former officials and lobbyists have seized upon the Guldimann memo. Flynt Leverett, a Condoleezza Rice appointee who left the National Security Council to campaign for John Kerry in 2004, has compared it to Mao Zedong's 1972 opening of China. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's chief of staff, affirmed the Iranian offer to credulous journalists. Iran lobbyist Trita Parsi, a former aide to disgraced congressman Bob Ney, insists he alerted White House political strategist Karl Rove to the Iranian proposal. But Parsi, who trades on his close ties to the Tehran regime, was also unaware that the United States was already in talks with the Islamic Republic.
Journalists at the Financial Times and the Guardian used the Guldimann memo to bash Bush's alleged diplomatic ineptitude, the plotting of the neoconservatives, and the dark hands of Cheney and Rumsfeld. From there, it crossed the Atlantic. On April 29, 2007, Nicholas Kristof penned a column in the New York Times labeling the Bush administration's rejection of the Iranian offer "diplomacy at its worst":
A U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could have saved lives in Iraq, isolated Palestinian terrorists and encouraged civil society groups in Iran. But instead the U.S. hard-liners chose to hammer plowshares into swords.
In her new book, USA Today's Iran beat reporter Barbara Slavin suggests Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith are to blame for scuttling the offer.
Regardless of who wins the White House in 2008, Iran will dominate the diplomatic agenda of the next few years. But policy must be based on reality: There was no Iranian offer in May 2003, but rather a Hail Mary pass thrown by an activist ambassador and pitched by limelight-seeking former officials to a receptive press. Almost seven years into the Bush administration, Tehran has yet to offer a single confidence building measure. Relying on a foundation of falsehoods only distracts from efforts to resolve disputes before they escalate into military action.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was an Iran country director at the Pentagon between September 2002 and April 2004.