In the series of basic questions about Iran and its intentions, one of the first should be: How willing have its leaders been to negotiate? “The Iranians are just as skittish as we are,” says Gary Sick, a member of the National Security Council in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations and a Persian Gulf specialist. “Negotiating with the ‘Great Satan’ is a very hard thing for them to do politically. I’ve compared it to a teeter-totter—when one side is up, they don’t want to negotiate, and vice versa. Finding a point of equilibrium is very hard to do.”
There does appear to have been an opportunity for equilibrium that, with little notice in the media, was passed up not by Iran but by the Bush administration.
In the fall of 2001, U.S. attention was focused on Osama bin Laden and rooting out Al Qaeda from Afghanistan. At the same time, something else was happening in Afghanistan: Iran was cooperating with the U.S. to a degree that hadn’t been seen since the days of the Shah. It was, as Ray Takeyh, author of Hidden Iran, put it, “the underreported story of the first episode of America’s war on terrorism.”
Before the U.S. began its air strikes against the Taliban in October 2001, U.S. and Iranian diplomats started to meet and coordinate on Afghanistan. (Iran had long opposed the Taliban, whose Sunni extremism brands Shia, Iran’s state religion, as heretical.) Iran invited the U.S. to use its airbases for emergency landings and offered to conduct rescue operations for lost American pilots. Tehran’s diplomats apparently also stepped in to save a U.S.-proposed power-sharing deal that the Northern Alliance initially opposed. Indeed, Iran even offered to help train the nascent Afghan Army—under U.S. supervision.
James Dobbins, then the Bush administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, recounted his shock at just how cooperative the Iranians were being in a May 2004 Washington Post op-ed. Diplomats from a number of countries were helpful, wrote Dobbins, but “none were more so than the Iranians.” He duly reported the overtures back to Washington where, Dobbins noted, “none was ever taken up.”
Mid-level contacts between Tehran and Washington continued in fits and starts. In May 2003, Iranian leaders appear to have made a last-ditch effort at a deal. They may have been motivated by the speed with which the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. After all, Iran had fought an eight-year war with Iraq that ended in a stalemate; the U.S. march to Baghdad took three weeks. Whatever its inspiration, Iran’s offer put nearly everything on the table, from support for Hezbollah to Iran’s nuclear energy program. It has since been dubbed the “Grand Bargain.”
The exact provenance of the offer wasn’t initially clear. It came sans letterhead via a fax from the Swiss ambassador to Iran—Washington’s designated middleman for communications. But the offer does appear to have been serious. “I have talked to people in Iran who were responsible for editing and sending it,” says Gary Sick. “It was cleared at the highest levels as an offer in good faith.”
The offer wasn’t an easy story for journalists to nail down. The Iranians who had crafted a peace offering to the “Great Satan” had every incentive to stay mum, as did an administration in Washington that had little interest in negotiating. But the Financial Times published a short piece by diplomatic correspondent Guy Dinmore in July 2003 sketching out the overture and the U.S.’s lack of interest. “We are not reaching out at this point,” a State Department official told Dinmore.