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Ex-Congressional Aide: Karl Rove Personally Received (and Ignored) Iranian Peace Offer in 2003

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As Seymour Hersh reports the Pentagon has created a special panel to plan a bombing attack on Iran, we examine how the Bush administration ignored a secret offer to negotiate with Iran in 2003. We speak with the National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi, a former aide to Republican congressman Bob Ney. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While the Bush administration continues to insist it has no plans to go to war with Iran, The New Yorker magazine is reporting the Pentagon has created a special panel to plan a bombing attack on Iran that could be implemented within 24 hours of getting the go-ahead from President Bush. According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the planning group was established within the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in recent months. In response to the report, Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman denied the U.S. is planning to go to war with Iran and said, quote, “To suggest anything to the contrary is simply wrong, misleading and mischievous.” Whitman went on to say the White House is continuing to address concerns in the region through diplomatic efforts.

This comes against the backdrop of last week’s allegation that Bush’s chief adviser, Karl Rove, personally received a copy of a secret offer from the Iranian government to hold negotiations four years ago. The Bush administration decided to ignore the grand bargain offer. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently claimed she had never even seen the document. At the time, Iran said it would consider far-reaching compromises on its nuclear program, relations with Hezbollah and Hamas, and support for a Palestinian peace agreement with Israel.

Rove’s involvement was revealed by an aide to former Republican Congressmember Bob Ney. The aide, Trita Parsi, said Ney was chosen by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran to carry the Iranian proposal to the White House because he knew the Ohio congressmember to be the only Farsi-speaking member of Congress and particularly interested in Iran.

Well, Trita Parsi joins me now from Washington, D.C. He’s president of the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian-American organization in the United States. His forthcoming book is called Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States. Welcome to Democracy Now!

TRITA PARSI: Thank you for having me, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what this memo, this proposal was, coming from Iran, and how you say it made its way to the highest levels of the U.S. government.

TRITA PARSI: Well, this is back in May 2003. The United States had just defeated Saddam in less than three weeks, and I think there were a lot of feelings inside Iran that they needed to present some sort of a negotiation deal with the United States. But what they presented was quite similar to many things that they had communicated verbally to the United States over the last couple of years. Basically, they said the United States has a couple of aims, Iran has a couple of aims, and there is a process to be able to proceed with the negotiations.

And what the Iranians agreed to discuss as a framework of the negotiations was how to disarm the Hezbollah, how to end support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, how to open up the nuclear program, how to help the United States stabilize Iraq, and, in short, that the government there would not along sectarian lines, and also how to sign onto the Beirut Declaration, which is basically a former recognition of the two-state solution. These are far-reaching compromises that Iran potentially would have agreed to in the negotiations, but the Bush administration, as you reported, decided simply not to respond to the proposal.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how it made its way from Iran to the U.S. government?

TRITA PARSI: The United States, back in 1991, established the Swiss Embassy in Iran as a go-between between the United States and Iran. The U.S. needed a channel of communication, a reliable channel of communication between the two countries just to ensure that the war in Iraq back in 1991 would not cause any misunderstandings between Iran and the United States that could be dangerous. That channel was then afterwards in existence, and the Swiss ambassador to Iran is a person that usually visits the U.S. every six months and gives a report to the United States, to State Department, sometimes to Congress, about what the situation in Iran is, mindful of the fact that the U.S. itself does not have any diplomats in Iran. So this channel has been used on numerous occasions by the United States and by Iran to be able to send messages to each other.

And this time around, the Iranians gave a proposal to the Swiss ambassador that he then sent to the Swiss Foreign Ministry in Bern, who faxed it onto the State Department, but the Swiss ambassador also made a personal visit to Washington, D.C., to brief the State Department about the proposal, and he also made sure that he met with Congressman Ney, who has been a longtime advocate for negotiations and dialogue between the United States and Iran, and he handed him the proposal, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the Swiss ambassador was Tim Guldimann?


AMY GOODMAN: And he then got this proposal to the man you worked for, Congressmember Ney?

TRITA PARSI: Exactly. I was an adviser to Bob Ney at the time. And Tim met with Bob and handed over the proposal to him. And Bob afterwards sent it to be hand-delivered to the White House to Karl Rove, and Karl Rove called back within two hours, and they had a brief discussion about the proposal.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did Karl Rove say?

TRITA PARSI: Well, he basically said that it was an intriguing proposal. He first wanted to know if it was authentic, and the congressman assured him that it was, according to what the Swiss ambassador had said. And we have to remember, the Swiss ambassador would not be handing over proposals to the United States unless they were authentic. The Swiss ambassador’s work has been requested by the U.S., not by the Iranians. So he is basically fulfilling a mission that has been given to him by the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to you, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, was the former consultant for, aide for Congressmember Bob Ney. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, largest Iranian American group in the United States, author of the forthcoming book, Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States, saying that the Bush administration, Karl Rove, received a memo in 2003 that Iranian leaders backed comprehensive negotiations with the United States. Now, Trita Parsi, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, was questioned about this document several weeks ago on Capitol Hill. She said she didn’t recall seeing it when she was national security adviser. “I just don’t remember ever seeing any such thing,” she said. Your response?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think part of the reason why the secretary of state currently is using the terminology of saying that she doesn’t recall seeing it may be because the Bush administration senses that it may be forced to negotiate with Iran down the road, particularly if this surge policy is a failure, which a lot of people predict that it will be. And as a result, they don’t want the negotiations, the potential future negotiations, with Iran to be compared to what they could have achieved with Iran back in 2003, because clearly the United States is in a much weaker position today than it was back then. And I think it would look bad for the administration to come to a deal with Iran now that would be substantially worse than the deal they could have achieved back in 2003. And I think they want to avoid that type of a comparison.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about this proposal that came to the U.S.? You have Karl Rove who knew, the very close relationship between — well, it was Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice who went with President Bush to South Korea, just them together. Do you have any awareness or knowledge of President Bush knowing about this?

TRITA PARSI: Well, according to many people that I have interviewed in the Bush administration, they did have a discussion about this at the highest level in the Bush administration, and basically the hard line of the Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld basically ensured that they would not proceed with the negotiations. In fact, they actually reprimanded the Swiss ambassador for having delivered it.

And the argument by the hardliners, the hawks in the Washington — in the White House at the time was basically that Iran is weak and it’s giving this proposal precisely because of the fact that it is fearful of the United States and that the U.S. can achieve more by taking on the Iranian regime and just removing it than by negotiating. So we had this situation in which, back then, because of America’s strength, the Bush administration argued that it could not negotiate.

And we have the opposite situation right now. Now, the Bush administration is saying that because it’s weak, it cannot negotiate. But if you can’t negotiate when you’re strong, because you’re strong, and you can’t negotiate when you’re weak, because you’re weak, that basically means that you’re not interested in negotiations at all.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read you a clip by Gareth Porter, “Rove Said to Have Received 2003 Iranian Proposal.” And it says that “the identification of Rove as a recipient of the secret Iranian proposal throws new light on the question of who in the Bush administration was aware of the Iranian proposal at the time. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied in congressional testimony [last week] that she had seen the Iranian offer in 2003 and even chastised former State Department, National Security Council and [Central Intelligence Agency] official Flynt Leverett for having failed to bring it to her attention at the time.

“At a Capitol Hill conference on U.S.-Iran relations Wednesday, sponsored by the New America Foundation and [your organization, Trita Parsi] NIAC, Leverett responded to Rice’s criticism by saying it was 'unthinkable that it would not have been brought to her attention' and [demanding] an apology from her.”

TRITA PARSI: Well, I would agree that it is absolutely unthinkable that a proposal of this importance would not have reached the secretary of state or at the time the national security adviser, particularly mindful of the fact that Flynt Leverett, who was at the NSC at the time, did see it — his wife Hillary Mann, who was also at the NSC, did see it — who had a discussion with Colin Powell about it, according to his testimony at our conference two weeks ago. So I find it highly unlikely that they did not see it. I frankly believe that it’s beyond unlikely that they didn’t see.

But again, I think it’s partly because of the fact that they’re fearful that if there are going to be any negotiations down the road, not negotiations that they themselves choose to have, but they’re basically forced to have, that they don’t want the result of those negotiations to be compared to what they could have achieved back in 2003.

AMY GOODMAN: What has Ney said about this — I mean, now disgraced, involved with the Abramoff scandal, in jail — what are his comments?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I can’t speak for him, but I think there may be some indications from him in which he will come out with his side of the story, as well.

But let me say one thing about the impact that this has had on the Iranians, because I was in Iran back in 2004, doing interviews for my book, which has a lot of details about this proposal. And what was really interesting is that when the Iranians put this on the table and they were basically offering significant policy modifications in the hope that this would be able to open up a new chapter in the relationship with the United States, when the United States, when the Bush administration did not even respond to it, that left Tehran with the impression that the U.S. does not necessarily have problems with Iranian policies. What the U.S.'s problem lies is with Iran's power. So if you can’t give any concessions to the Bush administration that would be able to change the nature of this relationship, then why give concessions to begin with? And that is part of the reason why Iran’s position has strengthened and hardened so much over the last couple of years. It’s mainly because of the failure of the Iranian government to be able to reach an understanding with the United States by offering concessions. So now they’re trying to do the same by playing it very, very tough.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response, Trita Parsi, to Seymour Hersh’s piece in The New Yorker, that the Pentagon has established a special planning group within the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to plan an attack on Iran.

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think that these are things that we’ve been hearing quite a lot here in Washington for quite some time now. And it is quite likely — it is also quite likely that the Bush administration is using the revelation of this and this flourishing of articles saying that the Bush administration is about to strike as a pressuring tactic against Tehran, this psychological warfare that seems to be going on right now. But one of the elements that I think we’ve seen very clear evidence for is this shift in the U.S.’s policy in the Middle East, in which it is now increasingly siding with the Sunni states and even turning a blind eye to their extensive support for al-Qaeda and jihadist groups, including in Iraq, groups that are killing Americans far more than the Shiites are, and pursuing that, not in order to stabilize Iraq, but in order to weaken Iran and re-establish the type of balance in the region that they feel is more beneficial to the United States, but is also the same balance that has been creating a war in the Middle East every five to 10 years over the last 50 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me follow up on this point, because it is certainly a key one. Seymour Hersh, in The New Yorker magazine, reporting that the Bush administration and Saudi Arabia are pumping money for covert operations in many areas of the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria and Iran, in an effort to strengthen Saudi-sported Sunni Islam group and weaken Iranian-backed Shias. Some of the covert money has been given to jihadist groups in Lebanon with ties to al-Qaeda. So, supporting the Sunnis over the Shia and working with Saudi Arabia to funnel that money.

TRITA PARSI: And basically says that the United States is not trying to resolve the civil war in Iraq. Rather, it’s taking sides in the civil war. And ironically, it’s taking the same side as al-Qaeda is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: And the second part of the story, that John Negroponte, Seymour Hersh reports, may well have resigned his post as national intelligence director, because of his discomfort that the administration’s covert actions in the Middle East so closely echoed the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.

TRITA PARSI: I think one thing to keep in mind in all of this is that the United States does have legitimate grievances with the Iranian government and the policies that they have been pursuing. But the problem is that the line that the Bush administration is pursuing is only making matters worse in the region right now. It is further destabilizing the region. It’s further making it more difficult to be able to find a solution to Iraq. The only solution that I can see is to actually bring all the parties to the table. And that, of course, also includes not only the Iranians, but also the Saudis.

Part of the fear that countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel have, is that if the United States strikes a bilateral deal with Iran, it will come at the expense of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. And that’s what they’re trying to prevent at this stage. But it’s only adding more fuel to the tensions in the region. And that’s why I think the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation was the most effective one, the most successful one, if the United States can bring all the parties to the table in order to find a multilateral solution to the problems in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, why come out with these documents right now? This is years later. This is, what, some three, four years later.

TRITA PARSI: Well, I was holding this document for quite some time. I did not come out with it until I saw that Flynt Leverett had, because Flynt was in the White House at the time, and I was basically someone who was an advisor to a congressman and I happened to see it. Part of the reason why I decided to come out, speak about it and also provide a document to a lot of journalists was because I was very fearful last year that the Bush administration was getting very close to military conflict with Iran and that the talk in town was that the Iranians are not interested in a deal, that the Iranians would never negotiate, a lot of these false assumptions about Iran that I felt was just helping hawks being able to bring this situation closer to closer to war. And I wanted to make sure that people knew that there have been substantial negotiation proposals, negotiation proposals that could be pursued once more in order to be able to find a peaceful solution to what is taking place between the United States and Iran. And I did so, mindful of the fact that there seems to be a lot of people in the White House that have the military option as their first option, not as their last option.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council and is author of the forthcoming book, Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States.

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