As a postscript to a brouhaha that blew up with regard to Lee Smith’s Tablet series on the Iran lobby, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have reasserted their claims that in 2003, Iran offered essentially a grand bargain. Their claim is false, but Flynt restates his case here which is, essentially:
1) The grand bargain document exists;
2) The Swiss Ambassador said the document came from the Iranians;
3) Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff Larry Wilkerson said it was true.
(1 and 2): No one doubts that the Swiss Ambassador provided a document. What is questioned is whether that document came from the Iranians, or whether it was an invention of Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador. The reason for the doubt:
a. Guldimann often freelanced
b. Guldimann told different people different things about the document’s origin
c. The Swiss Foreign Ministry refused to back up Guldimann’s account
d. Guldimann notably said that the Iranian leadership only agreed with a proportion of the document, but could not detail what the Iranian leadership agreed with on its own alleged document.
e. The Iranian U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif denied the origin was Iranian in one of his emails to Trita Parsi, according to the data dump of Trita Parsi’s documents for the discovery phase of the court case Parsi initiated against another Iranian-American activist.
(3) As chief-of-staff to Powell, Wilkerson did not participate in policy discussions of the document. However, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, perhaps the strongest proponent of engagement with Iran in the Bush administration, did and concluded the document was perhaps more the product of Guldimann.
Most damning to questions over what really happened: Several critics of the Bush administration’s approach to Iran who talked up Flynt’s story in 2003 now serve in the Obama administration. They have access to all the documents, memos, etc., regarding the episode. Their silence is a confirmation that there simply is nothing to the story.
It seems what happened is either Flynt was mistaken, or he saw the episode as a way to draw attention to himself, or a combination of both. In the politicized environment of the day, some journalists were willing to bend over backwards to believe the story, and were unwilling to ask the tough questions which would have shown the story false. Many journalists — Barbara Slavin and Glenn Kessler among them — do not come off well in retrospect. Nor do many academics. An e-mail from Prof. L. Carl Brown, for example, which was released by Trita Parsi, also suggests that a willingness to believe the story out of animus toward the Bush administration. When talking to adversarial states, however, it’s important to deal with reality rather than let a myth become the basis for diplomacy.