Insight on the News - World


Posted June 20, 2003



Iran Back Channel Backfires

Posted June 20, 2003

By Kenneth R.Timmerman

The White House last Saturday issued a strongly worded statementin support of student demonstrators in Tehran, prompting harshcriticism from Iranian officials who accused the United States of"interference" in Iran's domestic affairs. But just one monthearlier, both Washington and Tehran were exploring a discrete backchannel that participants hoped could lead to renewed diplomatic tiesand trade between the two countries.

The back-channel discussion between former U.S. and Iranianofficials last month was intended as a forum to allow for quietcommunication between the two governments, without rhetoric orpolitics. But a meeting last month in Athens turned into apublic-relations fiasco, sources with direct knowledge of the eventstell Insight, when a just-retired National Security Council stafferinadvertently "spooked" an Iranian translator, who franticallycontacted Iranian reporters in Tehran to leak the story.

The May 12 meeting in Athens between Flynt Leverett, the formerNSC official, and Mohsen Rezai, former commander of the IslamicRepublic Guards Corps (IRGC, or Pasdaran) left bruised feelings onboth sides, the sources said.

Leverett, who had left the NSC just days before the meeting, tellsInsight Daily he made clear to the Iranians that he no longer was ingovernment, but apparently they took him as a U.S. governmentofficial anyway. "We were furious when we heard about this," a WhiteHouse official said. "Of course the Iranians were going to thinkFlynt was a White House emissary. We were totally blindsided. Flyntwas absolutely not acting with our knowledge or our approval."Leverett, a former CIA analyst who was on loan to the NSC, now worksat the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Leverett already was out of step with administration policy forhis advocacy of a dialogue with the Islamic Republic government andbecause of what one official called his "intense animus" towardIsraeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The Athens meeting took place on the sidelines of an academicforum organized by UCLA political-science professor Stephen Spiegeland which included academics from the United States, Iran and Israel.The forum was part of so-called "Track 2" diplomacy amongnongovernment experts and academics that grew out of the arms-controland regional-security talks established by the 1991 Middle East peaceconference in Madrid.

Sources close to Rezai tell Insight that he had traveled to Athenson his own, without official sanction, using his regular passport,not his diplomatic passport. But when the translator leaked news ofthe meeting to the Tehran press, it was billed as having been thebrainchild of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani,well-known for having orchestrated back-channel negotiations with theReagan administration during the Iran-Contra affair. And SupremeLeader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei shot down all talk of a new backchannel with Washington in a statement released to the media the dayafter the meeting in Athens. Any rapprochement with Washington, hesaid, was tantamount to "surrender."

Zalmay Khalilzad, President George W. Bush's special envoy to theIraqi opposition, has held several rounds of talks with IranianForeign Ministry officials on the sidelines of the "6+2" talks aboutAfghanistan in Geneva. Those talks, which administration spokesmendiscuss openly, were narrowly focused on seeking an Iraniancommitment to assist downed U.S. airmen during the war in Iraq andsimilar issues relating to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bushadministration suspended those meetings late last month aftercommunications intercepts revealed that orders for the May 12 bombingagainst a U.S. housing compound in Saudi Arabia had come from anal-Qaeda cell operating in Iran.

Rafsanjani stunned political observers in Tehran shortly after thefall of Saddam Hussein in April when he floated an unusual trialballoon. Why not organize a popular referendum on whether to resumediplomatic relations with the United States, he proposed in aninterview with an Iranian monthly magazine, Rahbord (Strategy).

He was responding to mounting discontent inside Iran over theclosed society maintained by hard-line clerics who run Iran's"Islamic Republic." Those same clerics promptly shot down theballoon, but Rafsanjani continued to warn in private that withoutsignificant changes, or at least the appearance of cooperation withthe United States, Iran's discontented youth could foment arevolution against the regime.

Rezai, the former Revolutionary Guards commander, is the topdeputy to Rafsanjani on the Expediency Council, a uniquely Iranianinstitution established to hammer down legislation the reformistParliament passes that the clerics feel could threaten their power.He is considered a nationalist who often disagrees with the rulinghard-line clerics, including Rafsanjani, on policy issues such as theresumption of ties to the United States.

Kenneth R. Timmerman is a senior writer for Insight.