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.
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.