Jeffrey LewisIran's May 2003 Offer

Over the weekend, I and several colleagues finally got our grubby mitts on the full text of the March May 2003 offer that Iran puportedly sent to the US via the Swiss Ambassador.

At least, I think so.

To recap:

  • In July 2003, the Financial Times’ Guy Dinmore reported the details of an offer from Iran “conveyed by Tim Guldimann, the Swiss Ambassador to Tehran, in a recent visit to Washington.”
  • Dinmore released additional details in March 2004, describing the offer in some detail and citing an official who claimed the Bush Administration had “rebuked the Swiss foreign ministry for overstepping its diplomatic mandate.”
  • Bart Gellman and Dafna Linzer picked the story back up in October 2004, describing the offer as a grand bargain.
  • Things pretty mcuh died down until Flynt Leverett, former Senior Director for the Middle East Initiative at the National Security Council, mentioned the offer in a January 2006 op-ed for the New York Times and subsequent interviews.

The accounts vary in some small details—was the document a one-page fax or a more detailed offer hand delivered by Guldimann? (Background on the two page version).

All accounts seem to agree that the proposal was written by Iran’s then-Ambassador to France, Sadegh Kharazi. (Kharazi, by the way, is no longer Iran’s Amabassador to France in part because he favored negotiations with the United States—or at leas that is what he told AFP. “I am one of those who are in favour of negotiations with the United States, and I have paid the price.”)

The offer appears to have been one of a series of overtures that included efforts by the Iran’s representative to the United Nations, Mohammed Javad Zarif, a message passed through IAEA DG Mohammed ElBaradei, and “soundings” from Iranian envoys to Sweden and Britain.

The big question is whether the any of the offers reflected a consensus effort by the leadership in Tehran. Leverett thinks so, but other’s aren’t so sure.

Debate over whether the letter reflected a consensus, however, was not why the Administration didn’t respond. It was a lack of consensus in Washington, according to Gellman and Linzer, who report then-Deputy National Security Advisor Steve Hadley wasn’t able to produce consensus on a national security presidential directive on Iran.

Regular readers may recall that I scoffed when Hadley announced that “we decided to shelve the NSPD and go ahead and implement the policy” because “No NSPD means no policy.”

That seems to have been the problem, no NSPD meant no agreement on how to respond to the offer—other than to hassle Guldimann for doing his job.

_Late update: I missed a passing reference in a Barbara Slavin article that contained more reporting than entire stories in other papers_.

Paul Adds:

This piece by Garth Porter in the American Prospect deserves a read as well….more detail on the story behind the offer.


  1. Ami Isseroff (History)

    The text and pretty much the same story are posted at and inclduding texts of the FT articles.

    There was apparently more than one letter and that accounts for the one page vs two page discrepancy.

    The reasons why the US ignored it (and why the whole story is STILL ignored!) and the reasons why Iran would be willing to sacrifice its major principles regarding Israel and the “Great Satan” in order to be able to refine uranium are them most interesting aspects of the story, which we still do not understand completely.


  2. hass (History)

    You assume that Iran has “major principles” with respect to Israel and the “Great Satan”. Perhaps Iran’s major principle is independence and energy security? History shows that the Iranians and the US and Israel are quite happy to get along with they need to.

  3. Andy (History)


    Iran’s major principle may be independence and energy security. It’s curious they are choosing nuclear for energy security though. Consider this DOE study:

    Even if more reserves are discovered (and they reportedly have been), there are still inconsistencies between what Iran says it wants and what it does.

  4. Hass (History)

    We’ve been through this repeatedly. Iran’s nuclear program is more than economically justified:

  5. Andy (History)

    Mr. Isenberg makes some good points, but much of his logic is flawed and he completely ignores important considerations. For example, there is a huge difference between building reactors and buying fuel for them on the international market and building reactors using much more expensive domestic fuel. The issue we face today is not that Iran wants or needs nuclear reactors for power generation as much as it’s an argument over their desire to have a completely domestic fuel enrichment capability. Mr. Isenberg did not address that at all in his article. The fact is, from an economical standpoint, it’s much better to simply buy reactor fuel on the open market where there is currently a glut of it. Building the huge domestic infrastructure to do this is tremendously expensive and time consuming, especially considering Iran’s very limited uranium reserves and their demonstrated lack of expertise with the technology. And then there is the issue of waste – with a domestic program, Iran has to store and protect the waste, something they would not have to worry about if they bought fuel. Of course Iran’s argument is that it wants total energy independence. And it may actually achieve that for a decade or two with a domestic nuclear program until its reserves run out.

    The other mistake Mr. Isenberg makes is arguing that nuclear energy is desirable because Iran’s petroleum sector can’t keep up with demand. Then he argues that the reasons the petroleum sector is lacking are due to sanctions and a lack of investment in the oil sector. Well, duh. The whole point is that if Iran modernized its petroleum sector, which would cost much less than a fully domestic nuclear program (not to mention that part of the modernization cost would be recovered by increases in efficiencies and exports), its domestic energy needs would largely be solved. It’s ironic that Mr. Isenberg would argue that Iran needs a domestic nuclear program because sanctions are hurting the petroleum program. Iran could easily get investment back and sanctions lifted by moderating and ending its support for terrorism.

    Mr. Isenberg states: “Third, the large oil and gas reserves that Iran possesses do not mean that Iran can use oil and gas at no cost.” Of course not, but that cost is less than the huge sums of money they are pouring into the nuclear program. And again, what happens when Iran builds this entire infrastructure and runs out of domestic uranium in 20-30 years?

  6. Hass (History)

    These aren’t Isenberg’s own assertions. On the oft-repeated claim that Iran doesn’t need nuclear power since Iran can harness the gas it flares, the British Parliament studied that and concluded otherwise. The Isenberg article is merely a place to start.
    Also Iran has never said that it would be 100% reliant on domestic uranium. In fact, as part of its offers of compromise, it has said that it would be willing to limit its own enrichment to only the amount required to protect against a fuel cut-off from outside sources – a valid concern, considering Russia’s practice of cutting off energy supplies to Ukraine and the Caucasus. Iran could also import the necessary uranium from neighbors such as Turkmenistan, which have vast reserves of the stuff. Also, at this point the question or enrichment has become for Iran is about vindicating its sovereignty. Whether enrichment is economically a good idea or not, Iran has every right to enrich. If Iran can be arbitrarily deprived of that right today, why not something else tomorrow?

  7. Andy (History)

    You’re correct that Iran has the right to enrich under the NPT and it has become a sovereignty issue for them. However, it gained the technical means to enable that enrichment through NPT violations. How should that issue get resolved? Previous subterfuge and NPT violations create a huge credibility problem for the Iranians, and the weak NPT enforcement only encourages other countries to violate the NPT themselves. I don’t think it’s arbitrary to deprive Iran from enrichment under the NPT when they gained the technology to do so in violation of the NPT. The only reason they now assert their “rights” is because their covert program was discovered. Are we to allow countries to gain nuclear technology illegally and then blindly affirm their right to use that ill-gotten technology? If so, then what kind of precedent does this set for Saudi Arabia, Egypt and a host of other powers in the region? And all this is setting aside the strong evidence we have of Iranian interest in weapon development. Certainly that is an issue to consider. At the very least I think Iran would have to endure a much stricter inspection regimen than normal if it is allowed to continue with enrichment. But that is something the Iranians reject out of hand as well.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the economic questions. It seems obvious to me and many others that Iranian energy needs would be better served by exploiting their petroleum resources, which will give them energy security through the latter half of this century.

  8. hass (History)

    Iran’s plans to enrich uranium involved no subterfuge until the US prevented it. In fact IAEA inspectors visited Iran’s uranium mines in 1992, and the discovery of uranium was openly announced in 1982, and in 1983 the US prevented the IAEA from entering into technical cooperations with Iran to develop the fuel cycle. That’s when Iran started going underground. So, if anyone has violated the NPT, it is the US. And while Iran was forced to resort to subterfuge to obtain centrifuge parts which resulted in breaches of their safeguards agreements (not the same as NPT violations) the IAEA determined that none of the undeclared activity was related to a weapons program. Finally, note that several other countries have been caught conducting secret nuclear experiments—S. Korea, Egypt among them—and yet no one is claiming that they magically lost their rights under the NPT. The IAEA and the NPT have remedying mechanisms, and Iran has abided by them according to the IAEA. Iran has even exceeded its NPT obligations in many instances. However, nothing in the NPT or the IAEA Charter or Statutes permit the US/EU to deprive other NPT signatories of their rights. And in fact the Iranians have specifically offered to allow more stringent inspections of their enrichment plants despite your statement. And as for the economics, the Stanford Research Institute advised the Shah that Iran had to diversify its energy resources in the 1970s, and nothing has changed since then except that Iran’s oil has been depleted even more whilst Iran’s population has tripled, making diversification even more necessary.
    Finally, take a look at and see how Iran’s nuclear program started under the Shah, with the support and participation of the same countries that now object to it.