By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Did Iran make a peace offer to the United States in 2003? If so, how did the US respond – and why? And in any case, does it matter now?
Most Americans have absorbed from US government sources and from our conventional media two notions ---
• that a wildly hostile Iranian government has rejected all efforts at negotiation toward preventing its acquiring nuclear weapons and has threatened to destroy Israel;
• and that the US is trying hard to prevent the nuclear-weapons option, while hoping to avoid war and to work closely with other countries for a peaceful resolution.
But our religious traditions teach us – Put not your trust in princes.
And this story is put in serious question by reports that in 2003, the Iranian government made a major reconciliation overture to the US government, proposing broad concessions –
including ending its support for terror attacks on Israel, adopting the Arab peace initiative, and providing effective, verifiable assurances against pursuing a nuclear-weapons program, in return for a softening of the US attitude to Iran.
The letter – which allegedly had the support of the conservative theocratic Muslim hierarchy as well the then moderate and reform-oriented elected government -- was sent via the Swiss government, which represents US interests in Iran. The US responded by flatly rejecting the proposal and rebuking the Swiss for passing it on.
Some pieces of information about this Iranian peace proposal have been available in scattered sites for some time. (But I must say that though I try hard to keep alert to dangers of war and possibilities of peace in the Middle East, and though I try to keep healthily skeptical of Bush Administration claims, I was not aware of these reports.)
For bringing the pieces together, and for putting on line what is alleged to be an actual replica of the Iranian proposal, we are indebted to Ami Isseroff of Mideastweb (an Israeli blog with very mildly dovish tendencies).
For its information, see –
This information was originally reported by the Financial Times soon after the Iranians sent their proposal to the US. This past January, it was reported in much fuller detail by a former senior US official who was involved in 2003.
The Financial Times article was written by Guy Dinmore (July 15, 2003). It claimed:
<< Iran has communicated to the US its readiness to open direct talks about its nuclear programme as a first step towards tackling other issues, such as terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but US officials say the Bush administration is keeping the door closed.
<< Tehran's overtures have been conducted mainly through Mohammad Javad Zarif, its ambassador to the United Nations in New York, in discussions with Americans in close contact with the Bush administration, including at least one former senior official.
<< That Iran's leadership was ready to open a dialogue with the US was also conveyed by Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, in a recent visit to Washington. Switzerland represents US interests in Iran.
<< But although the US is seeking a dialogue with North Korea, a member of President George W. Bush's "axis of evil", and is engaged in talks with other "rogue states", such as Libya and Syria, US officials say there is little appetite for negotiations with Iran.
<< "We are not reaching out at this point," said a State Department official, adding that the matter was still under review.
<< Within the Bush administration some officials advocate "regime change" as its Iran policy, while a minority proposes engagement. But the prevailing view is that the US has been effective in working with the European Union and Japan to put economic pressure on Iran.>>
The existence of such a letter was also claimed by Flynt Leverett in a New York Times article of January 24, 2006.
Leverett had been Senior Director for the Middle East Initiative, National Security Council (2002-2003); , Middle East/Counterterrorism Expert, State Department Policy Planning Staff (2001-2002); CIA Senior Analyst (1992-2001). When he wrote his article for the Times he was a fellow of the Brookings Institution.
"During its five years in office, the administration has turned away from every opportunity to put relations with Iran on a more positive trajectory. Three examples stand out.
"In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, Tehran offered to help Washington overthrow the Taliban and establish a new political order in Afghanistan. But in his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush announced that Iran was part of an "axis of evil," thereby scuttling any possibility of leveraging tactical cooperation over Afghanistan into a strategic opening.
"In the spring of 2003, shortly before I left government, the Iranian Foreign Ministry sent Washington a detailed proposal for comprehensive negotiations to resolve bilateral differences.
"The document acknowledged that Iran would have to address concerns about its weapons programs and support for anti-Israeli terrorist organizations. It was presented as having support from all major players in Iran's power structure, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
" Unfortunately, the administration's response was to complain that the Swiss diplomats who passed the document from Tehran to Washington were out of line.
"Finally, in October 2003, the Europeans got Iran to agree to suspend enrichment in order to pursue talks that might lead to an economic, nuclear and strategic deal. But the Bush administration refused to join the European initiative, ensuring that the talks failed."
For Leverett's entire article, see --
Three openings, all rejected.
All this contradicts the official line of the Bush administration that Iran is committed to building nuclear weapons, destroying Israel, and sponsoring terrorism in the region.
It is true that in elections since 2003, an Iranian president was elected who has a thoroughly nasty and disgusting attitude toward Israel. But -- suppose the US government had responded to the 2003 offer, and offered to end US hostility to Iran? Might that have in fact helped strengthen the Iranian reformers?
WHY did the Bush Administration reject the Iranian offer out of hand? WHY were they wanting not a change in Iranian policy, and not a freer and more democratic Iran, but a "regime change" – that is, the overthrow of the whole Iranian governmental structure?
In the spring of 2003, the Bush Administration was still getting off on the delicious all-but-sexual fantasy that it was in full control of Iraq, could decide on its own what to do with Iraq's oil.
And right down the street was another oil-rich but recalcitrant country. After all, once before – in the 1950s -- the US had overthrown an Iranian government – a democratically elected government of social reform that dared to nationalize Iranian oil. The CIA overthrew it and re-installed the Shah, setting in motion the forces that a generation later created the far more hostile Islamist revolution.
So -- was it once more the fantasy of Big Oil, of a US addicted to Oil that could deliriously dance on the shores of a gigantic Lake of Oil that it controlled –that was behind the Bush rejection of this peace overture?
But – even if the Bush Administration mistakenly or deliberately ruined peace possibilities in 2003, today we do have a different Iranian president, nasty in rhetoric. Are we stuck with the path the Bush rejectionism forced us onto?
Consider these facts: In the NY Times on Saturday, June 3, 2006 -- just now – a page-seven story by Nazila Fathi and Steven Lee Myers acknowledged that "Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final word over decisions on the country's nuclear program." NOT the nasty President Ahmadinejad but a conservative, theocratic, certainly anti-Israel but unadventurous cleric. The same one who had approved the 2003 peace overture.
The Times also noted that the "package of incentives" agreed upon in Vienna on Thursday by the U.S, France, Germany, the U.K., Russia, and China, has not yet been presented to Iran, but rather "is expected to be presented to Iran in the coming days."
And on the web site of the *Times*, an AP story reports that Iran has still not seen the proposal, and, of course, is waiting to see the proposal before responding: "Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would deliver the package to Iranian officials in the next few days. 'We are waiting to officially receive the proposals. We will make our views known after studying the package,' Mottaki said Saturday."
One would think – room for change! Room for a difficult but possible peace-building process!
Not so fast. Despite their own page-seven story, the NYT editors made President Ahmadinejad's general remarks on Friday about Iran's right to develop a peaceful nuclear program the basis of a below-the-fold front-page misrepresentation: "Iran Rejects Incentives Plan."
How many hundreds of thousands of readers will absorb this headline while missing the page-seven story and the AP story?
And how many millions of Americans will take comfort in the Condoleeza Rice proposal for talks with Iran without noticing it was conditioned on Iran's agreement to suspend in advance its uranium enrichment, which is exactly one of the issues to be negotiated?
What would be an approach to all these questions that should win support from all our prophetically committed religious communities, and from a freedom-committed secular community?
We are taught:
Seek peace and pursue it.
We are taught;
Justice, justice shall you pursue.
We are taught:
The earth is God's, and you human beings only resident aliens, sojourners -- not owners.
We are taught:
Put not your trust in princes.
How do we turn these teachings into a policy that might fulfill them?
• Real movement to uphold the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including its commitment that the US, Russia, and all the other nuclear-weapons states take step-by-step moves to radically reduce their nuclear arsenals and toward abolishing nuclear weapons.
• Real movement toward a Nuclear-weapons-Free Middle East, including tough verification and inspection, that includes a step-by-step reduction of the Israeli nuclear arsenal (ultimately to zero but only after years of working peace with all previous enemies) as well as thorough inspection in Iran.
• Agreement among all the governmental and non-governmental elements in the broader Middle East to end all financial, cultural, political, and material support to groups of any nationality that attack civilians, and to bring such groups to justice.
• Step-by-step movement AT THE SAME TIME as the nuclear disarmament process, and on a matching schedule, toward a grand Middle-East peace settlement, with full recognition and normal international peaceful relationships among Iran, all the Arab states, Israel, and a viable Palestinian state with boundaries very close to those of 1967.
• Coordinated efforts, with the US in the lead, to radically reduce the use of Oil and other fossil fuels, to move away from nuclear-energy plants that could be turned into weapons factories or that pose other environmental dangers, and to substitute energy conservation and renewable sources of energy.
Will it be easy to work toward such a remarkable set of interwoven actions? Of course not.
What do we need to do? We cannot achieve political solutions by seeking only political changes. We need --
To integrate – bring integrity -- to both our hearts and our minds:
To turn our hearts, the hearts of our older and our younger generations, toward each other, lest the earth be utterly destroyed (as the Prophet Malachi says will be the task of Elijah – and for us to take on as the task of each of us);
To listen -- Sh'ma! – to truth. Factual truth, honest truth, inconvenient truth, unconventional truth, subversive truth.
To connect the Abrahamic communities that now are constantly in danger of defining their connection to the One as exclusive "ownership" into shared listening, learning, and acting toward these ends.
For the intense Islam-focused leaders of Iran will have to hear the just claims of Israeli Jews; the Armageddon-awaiting Christians of America will have to hear with respect and compassion the story of Islam; the frightened Jewish community will have to hear the fears of others; we will all have to hear the wailing of our wounded planet
And we must go beyond hearing each other to acting together. We need "ego-disarmament," as Rev. Bob Edgar calls it, not only at the individual but also at the collective level. We cannot put our trust in princes, even well-inclined ones, to make real the compassion and the justice that we seek; we ourselves must weave the sacred threads and fringes of connection.
Those threads are action.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center www.theshalomcenter.org and co-author with Sister Joan Chittister and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti, a Christian and a Muslim, of The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.