Insight on the News - World
Posted June 20, 2003
Iran Back Channel Backfires
Posted June 20, 2003
By Kenneth R.
The White House last Saturday issued a strongly worded statement
in support of student demonstrators in Tehran, prompting harsh
criticism from Iranian officials who accused the United States of
"interference" in Iran's domestic affairs. But just one month
earlier, both Washington and Tehran were exploring a discrete back
channel that participants hoped could lead to renewed diplomatic ties
and trade between the two countries.
The back-channel discussion between former U.S. and Iranian
officials last month was intended as a forum to allow for quiet
communication between the two governments, without rhetoric or
politics. But a meeting last month in Athens turned into a
public-relations fiasco, sources with direct knowledge of the events
tell Insight, when a just-retired National Security Council staffer
inadvertently "spooked" an Iranian translator, who frantically
contacted Iranian reporters in Tehran to leak the story.
The May 12 meeting in Athens between Flynt Leverett, the former
NSC official, and Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the Islamic
Republic Guards Corps (IRGC, or Pasdaran) left bruised feelings on
both sides, the sources said.
Leverett, who had left the NSC just days before the meeting, tells
Insight Daily he made clear to the Iranians that he no longer was in
government, but apparently they took him as a U.S. government
official anyway. "We were furious when we heard about this," a White
House official said. "Of course the Iranians were going to think
Flynt was a White House emissary. We were totally blindsided. Flynt
was absolutely not acting with our knowledge or our approval."
Leverett, a former CIA analyst who was on loan to the NSC, now works
at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington.
Leverett already was out of step with administration policy for
his advocacy of a dialogue with the Islamic Republic government and
because of what one official called his "intense animus" toward
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The Athens meeting took place on the sidelines of an academic
forum organized by UCLA political-science professor Stephen Spiegel
and which included academics from the United States, Iran and Israel.
The forum was part of so-called "Track 2" diplomacy among
nongovernment experts and academics that grew out of the arms-control
and regional-security talks established by the 1991 Middle East peace
conference in Madrid.
Sources close to Rezai tell Insight that he had traveled to Athens
on his own, without official sanction, using his regular passport,
not his diplomatic passport. But when the translator leaked news of
the meeting to the Tehran press, it was billed as having been the
brainchild of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani,
well-known for having orchestrated back-channel negotiations with the
Reagan administration during the Iran-Contra affair. And Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shot down all talk of a new back
channel with Washington in a statement released to the media the day
after the meeting in Athens. Any rapprochement with Washington, he
said, was tantamount to "surrender."
Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W. Bush's special envoy to the
Iraqi opposition, has held several rounds of talks with Iranian
Foreign Ministry officials on the sidelines of the "6+2" talks about
Afghanistan in Geneva. Those talks, which administration spokesmen
discuss openly, were narrowly focused on seeking an Iranian
commitment to assist downed U.S. airmen during the war in Iraq and
similar issues relating to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush
administration suspended those meetings late last month after
communications intercepts revealed that orders for the May 12 bombing
against a U.S. housing compound in Saudi Arabia had come from an
al-Qaeda cell operating in Iran.
Rafsanjani stunned political observers in Tehran shortly after the
fall of Saddam Hussein in April when he floated an unusual trial
balloon. Why not organize a popular referendum on whether to resume
diplomatic relations with the United States, he proposed in an
interview with an Iranian monthly magazine, Rahbord (Strategy).
He was responding to mounting discontent inside Iran over the
closed society maintained by hard-line clerics who run Iran's
"Islamic Republic." Those same clerics promptly shot down the
balloon, but Rafsanjani continued to warn in private that without
significant changes, or at least the appearance of cooperation with
the United States, Iran's discontented youth could foment a
revolution against the regime.
Rezai, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, is the top
deputy to Rafsanjani on the Expediency Council, a uniquely Iranian
institution established to hammer down legislation the reformist
Parliament passes that the clerics feel could threaten their power.
He is considered a nationalist who often disagrees with the ruling
hard-line clerics, including Rafsanjani, on policy issues such as the
resumption of ties to the United States.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.