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.
And there the story sat. The first follow-up didn’t come for nearly a year, until Dinmore himself wrote another, more detailed piece in which he clarified that the fax was actually the culmination of a series of feelers. The added details still did not set off a rush for follow-up. The next story on Iran’s interest in a deal didn’t appear until the fall of 2004, roughly eighteen months after Dinmore’s first report, in The Washington Post. That story, the first to refer to a “Grand Bargain,” included more intriguing revelations:
• Through Swiss Ambassador Tim Guldimann, Tehran indicated a desire to discuss its nuclear program.
• The offer held the outlines of a “Grand Bargain,” but Washington balked. “We’re not interested in a grand bargain,” then U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton said.
• Over eighteen months, the countries periodically discussed their mutual interests in Afghanistan and Iraq. But a Bush administration policymaker said “instructions were clear” to the U.S. negotiators: “Don’t bring up the nukes.”
All of which were mentioned roughly sixty paragraphs into the Post piece. The story itself, unprecedented peril forces tough calls, written in the run-up to the 2004 presidential elections, was a lengthy (and stinging) assessment of the administration’s nonproliferation strategy. There’s very little to criticize in the Post’s effort. The story’s reporters—Dafna Linzer and Barton Gellman—simply happened across some fine nuggets as part of a larger investigation.
What is surprising was (again) the lack of follow-up. Few other reporters seemed interested in the evidence of Iran’s apparent peace overtures and the U.S.’s recalcitrance. The first headline about any of this in a U.S. paper wouldn’t come for another year and a half, nearly three years after the Financial Times first revealed those overtures. (That story was published in February 2006 by a freelancer, Greg Beals, in Long Island’s Newsday.)