"In May 2003, the Iranian authorities sent a proposal through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, for negotiations on a package deal in which Iran would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for an end to U.S. hostility. The Iranian paper offered "full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD [and] full cooperation with the IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments." The Iranians also offered support for "the establishment of democratic institutions and a non-religious government" in Iraq; full cooperation against terrorists (including "above all, al-Qaeda"); and an end to material support to Palestinian groups like Hamas. In return, the Iranians asked that their country not be on the terrorism list or designated part of the "axis of evil"; that all sanctions end; that the United States support Iran's claims for reparations for the Iran-Iraq war as part of the overall settlement of the Iraqi debt; that they have access to peaceful nuclear technology; and that the United States pursue anti-Iranian terrorists, including "above all" the MEK. MEK members should, the Iranians said, be repatriated to Iran.
Basking in the glory of "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, the Bush administration dismissed the Iranian offer and criticized Guldimann for even presenting it. Several years later, the Bush administration's abrupt rejection of the Iranian offer began to look blatantly foolish, and the administration moved to suppress the story. Flynt Leverett, who had handled Iran in 2003 for the National Security Council, tried to write about it in the New York Times and found his Op-Ed crudely censored by the National Security Council, which had to clear it. Guldimann, however, had given the Iranian paper to Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, now remembered both for renaming House cafeteria food and for larceny. (As chairman of the House Administration Committee he renamed French fries "freedom fries" and is now in federal prison for bribery.) I was surprised to learn that Ney had a serious side. He had lived in Iran before the revolution, spoke Farsi, and wanted better relations between the two countries. Trita Parsi, Ney's staffer in 2003, describes in detail the Iranian offer and the Bush administration's high-handed rejection of it in his wonderfully informative account of the triangular relationship among the United States, Iran and Israel, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States."
Parsi was quoted in a June 2006 Washington Post article on the Iranian offer:
"Parsi said that based on his conversations with the Iranian officials, he believes the failure of the United States to even respond to the offer had an impact on the government...Iranian officials decided that the United States cared not about Iranian policies but about Iranian power.
The incident "strengthened the hands of those in Iran who believe the only way to compel the United States to talk or deal with Iran is not by sending peace offers but by being a nuisance," Parsi said."
In other words, the aggressive unilateralism of our hardliners strengthened their hardliners. It bears repeating: Here we had Iran offering not just to talk, but even agreeing in advance to the U.S.'s main demands: transparency in Iran's nuclear program, cooperation in Iraqi security and reconstruction, and ending support for terrorism against Israel. Not only didn't the Bush administration pursue it, they didn't even respond. In a presidency almost completely defined by its successive foreign policy blunders, this will surely be remembered as one of the worst.