Jeffrey LewisSix Party Deal: Implications for Iran?

Did then-Secretary of State Colin Powell sit on Iran’s 2003 offer as part of a bureaucratic tangle over Korea policy? Steve Clemons raises that disturbing question in his post on the Six Party Deal that Chris Hill has brilliantly brought home.

One of the interesting questions about Iran’s 2003 proposal is why Rice and others claim never to have seen it.

Glenn Kessler recently reported although “former State Department officials … used [the offer] as a key element in a 2003 memo to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell proposing that the United States pursue a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran” those officials said “Powell did not forward the memo to the White House … ” [emphasis added.]

Now on the subject of what Condi did or did not see, Kessler sometimes let’s his Condilove get the better of him (see: Grimace that Touched off a Flurry, The). So when he says that Powell didn’t forward the memo, and that his precious Condi never saw it … grain of salt and all.

But, now, Steve Clemons offers a possible reason why Powell just might have decided to sit on the memo:

It seems that one of the reasons why the U.S. ignored a serious Iran proposal for comprehensive negotiations leading to normalization in March/April 2003 was that Secretary of State Powell and his staff worried that moving forward on an Iran effort would so antagonize Cheney that they would not get agreement from the White House to push forward on the fragile deal-making getting the North Korea-focused Six Party Talks going.

One has to go back and look, again, at the news coverage of very intense policy battles that raged over our Korea policy in the Spring of 2003 to really see why Powell might have looked at the Iran offer as a bridge too far for his limited influence with the Decider.

The March (late April, early May) 2003 offer coincided with a major push by Powell on North Korea that resulted in some extremely intense policy battles about whether the United States should negotiate with North Korea or pursue regime change. Powell, at the time, was said to have used Iraq as a distraction to seize control of Korea policy from Rumsfeld and Cheney. “There’s a sense in the Pentagon that Powell got this arranged while everyone was distracted with Iraq,” one intelligence official told David Sanger, “And now there is a race over who will control the next steps.”

One can see why, at that moment, Secretary Powell might have decided to avoid a major policy battle over the Iranian offer.

Of course, means, motive and opportunity are just circumstantial evidence.

Late Update A reader notes that Flynt Leverett mentioned the decision to hold back the memo to conserve political capital (without explicitly mentioning Korea policy) in Gareth Porter’s article The American Prospect. Leverett told Porter “The State Department knew it had no chance at the interagency level of arguing the case for it successfully, They weren’t going to waste Powell’s rapidly diminishing capital on something that unlikely.”

For more on the internal battles at the time, see: David E. Sanger, “AFTEREFFECTS: NUCLEAR STANDOFF; Administration Divided Over North Korea,” The New York Times, April 21, 2003, A15 and Steven R. Weisman, “AFTEREFFECTS: WASHINGTON; Under Fire, Powell Receives Support From White House,” The New York Times, April 24, 2003, A20.


  1. hass (History)

    Nonsense. The US has consistently refused all offers of negotiations with Iran, or have loaded them with preconditions intended to torpedo any talks. Even indirect negotiations. Even on limited topics aside from the nuclear issue. The N. Korea excuse just doesn’t wash.

  2. J (History)

    Gareth Porter with The American Prospect broke this story on Powell’s decision to sit on it last summer. See link and excerpt below:

    Bush Administration Brush-Off

    Iran’s historic proposal for a broad diplomatic agreement should have prompted high-level discussions over the details of an American response. In fact, however, the issue was quickly closed to further discussion. Leverett believes the document was a “respectable effort” to provide a basis for negotiations. Yet he recalls that there was no interagency meeting to discuss it. “The State Department knew it had no chance at the interagency level of arguing the case for it successfully,” he says. “They weren’t going to waste Powell’s rapidly diminishing capital on something that unlikely.”

    The outcome of discussion among the principals—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell—was that State was instructed to ignore the proposal and to reprimand Guldimann for having passed it on. “It was literally a few days,” Leverett recalls, between the arrival of the Iranian proposal and the dispatch of the message of displeasure with the Swiss ambassador.

  3. Mike H

    What about the deal itself? Is it good from a non-proliferation perspective?

  4. Mike H

    It would be ironic if there were no Iran deal in 2003 because of North Korea but if it turns out that this deal with North Korea is designed to help the US shift the focus of non-proliferation efforts away from North Korea and towards Iran.

  5. Glenn Kessler

    correction—the offer was not received in March, but on May 4. And this is an article I had on May 7 in the Washington Post—this was a big victory for Powell:

    Plan for N. Korea Will Mix Diplomacy and Pressure May 7, 2003Page A1By Glenn KesslerWashington Post Staff Writer

    The Bush administration plans to adjust its policy toward North Korea by adopting a two-track approach that would combine new talks with pressure on the communist state by targeting its illegal drug and counterfeiting trade and possibly its missile sales, U.S. and Asian officials said yesterday.

    The emerging consensus, which will be refined today at a meeting of President Bush’s top foreign policy advisers, would bridge a gap that has emerged within the administration since North Korea declared it possesses nuclear weapons at talks last month between U.S., North Korean and Chinese representatives in China. Administration officials have sought to resolve their policy differences, which pit those pushing for confrontation with the Pyongyang government against those advocating further talks, in advance of next week’s visit to Washington by South Korea’s new president, Roh Moo Hyun.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis

    Right, May. I always do that.

    Paul, is there some reason we initially thought this (or some other offer) arrived in March?

  7. China Hand (History)

    Unfortunately, the Bush administration inspires (and often justifies) my darkest imaginings. I think the North Korean fire sale is being rushed through to clear the decks for Iran. We’ll see.

  8. Little Mo (History)

    It is a shame to think we cannot handle two diplomatic endeavors at the same time.

  9. hass (History)

    The fax cover letter has surfaced – kinda negates the argument that the State Dept wasn’t sure if the offer was really endoresed by the Iranians:

    “The cover letter, which had not been previously disclosed, was provided by a source who felt its contents were mischaracterized by State Department officials” (2003 Memo Says Iranian Leaders Backed Talks

    By Glenn KesslerWashington Post Staff WriterWednesday, February 14, 2007; Page A14)

  10. China Hand (History)

    Corrosive cynicism here. As much as I like the idea of diplomacy, compromise, win-win, and so on, I have trouble characterizing Chris Hill’s deal as “brilliant”. I think George Bush went into the tank on this one.

    I suspect President Bush gave a green light to Christopher Hill on North Korea as a piece of emergency image management.

    Now President Bush can tell the world and the inside-the-Beltway crowd that he’s not just a war-hungry nut—he’s the Negotiarator!

    So he gains some credibility and some slack, especially from his beleaguered foreign policy team, which he will probably abuse by setting the bar for success of any Iran talks impossibly high.

    Nutshell prediction: Non-stop push to make an attack on Iran palatable to the international community and domestic audience; North Korean deal does not outlive its political usefulness and dies in the working groups. 2008: angry and armed Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China. In other words, just like 2006, only moreso.