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.)
Reporters seemed interested in the story and later—when a source began providing documentary proof—some tried to write it. But “editors slashed it down to something like the last paragraph of a larger story,” says Trita Parsi, the Iran expert and former congressional staffer who provided the documents. “It was something that went against people’s assumptions.” USA Today’s Barbara Slavin wrote one such story. “Overall, USA Today was very reasonable about these things,” recalls Slavin. “But I got the document in March 2006, and my editors did not think it was significant. And I only got to write about it in May 2006. It was at the end of a story about Iran President Ahmadinejad’s letter [to Bush] and said basically, ‘Oh, by the way, this isn’t the first time Iran has offered to negotiate.’”
Through the rest of 2006, there appears to have been one piece devoted to the offer, in The Washington Post—it ran on page A16. Even though the offer had never really made news, it was considered old news.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof decided to write about the proposals in early 2007. Kristof says he, too, was “concerned about the possibility of a military encounter. So I started doing some reporting.” Kristof eventually added more detail showing that the Iranians had not simply sent the offer through the Swiss, but had also approached the State Department, and had sent an offer to the White House itself. Writing about the various versions of the offer, Kristof concluded “neo-cons killed [an] incipient peace process.”
“In general, what journalists are best at covering is what a president or prime minister said yesterday,” says Kristof, not “complicated processes that don’t happen in one day, that can’t easily be condensed into a bumper-sticker .But it was something we really needed to pursue, especially when it looked like we might bomb Iran because of the view that they were utterly recalcitrant, incapable of a diplomatic solution. These documents were an important bit of counter-evidence.”
No story about the “Grand Bargain” ever appeared in the news pages of the Times.
With last December’s National Intelligence Estimate, an assumption came crashing down: that Iran was on the march toward nukes. Evidence had long been thin that Iran was dedicated to building a bomb. Yet that murkiness was rarely deemed noteworthy of coverage before the NIE.