Insight on the News - World

Original story

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 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 non-government 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.