Another Unnecessary War? Another Media Misstep?

Despite Kristof’s recent breakthrough, the media still seems to be suffering from a case of amnesia regarding negotiations with Iran.

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Despite the uniformly catastrophic results of the Bush administration’s (deceptively defended) decision to invade Iraq, an American attack on nearby Iran remains a significant possibility. Most Americans are undoubtedly having trouble making sense of why and whether such an attack is necessary as the news of the “Iranian threat” arrives piecemeal, helter-skelter, and without much in the way of useful context.

Watching, listening to, and reading the news, we hear bits and pieces of a frustrating diplomatic kabuki dance around critical issues such as alleged WMD development and terror connections, faux negotiations and accusations, and counter-accusations. It’s almost too terrible to quote Yogi Berra about “déjà vu all over again,” but there, I did it.

The latest occasion for alarm is the upcoming ceremony in sunny Sharm El Sheikh (in the Sinai), where Iran will convene with other interested parties in a conference on the future of Iraq. But all the excitement over the possibility that Condoleezza Rice might have a substantive chat with her Iranian counterpart at the Sharm breakfast buffet misses an essential element in the history of the conflict between these two nations.

What almost all news outlets miss in their coverage of the diplomatic dance is the recent history of Iran’s offers to the United States to settle the two nation’s differences peacefully, including addressing literally all of our legitimate security concerns.

Writing in The American Prospect last year, diplomatic historian Gareth Porter dissected some of the problems with the American public’s debate on Iran. Of course, leading his debate is the Bush administration narrative: “Iran’s ‘mad mullahs’ want nuclear weapons to destroy Israel and can only be stopped by the threat or use of military force.” To support this view, Porter reports that State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that Bush and company did not see “‘anything that indicates the Iranians are willing to engage in a serious diplomatic process’ on the nuclear issue.”

Per usual, the truth is exactly the opposite. Former administration official Flynt Leverett was one of the first people to reveal a little-known Iranian offer of diplomacy. In a January 2006 New York Times op-ed. Leverett reported on three separate opportunities the United States had to engage Iran: when we fought the Taliban and Iran offered support in 2002, when Iran offered bilateral negotiations to resolve the countries’ differences in spring 2003, and when the Bush administration declined to join in a European diplomatic initiative that included the suspension of Iranian nuclear enrichment later in 2003. Each chance was refused by the Bush administration.

Perhaps the most interesting of the three is the proposal for comprehensive talks in spring 2003, known as the “grand bargain.” New York Times pundit Nicholas Kristof did yeoman’s work reporting on that proposal in last Sunday’s paper and on his blog, where he even posts a copy of the hypothetical agreement sent to the White House and the State Department. A similar memo was sent via the Swiss.

Kristof aptly terms the Bush administration performance “diplomacy at its worst. … the U.S. hard-liners chose to hammer plowshares into swords.” After all, “a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could have saved lives in Iraq, isolated Palestinian terrorists and encouraged civil society groups in Iran.” What does the Bush administration think it has to lose?

I’ve written about this topic before, laying out the “media amnesia” around Iranian negotiations. But now, with all the reporting about potential diplomatic activity with Iran, especially in wake of the Iraq Study Group’s recommendation that the United States engage with Iran as a regional partner in finding a solution to Iraq, one would hope that the reporting on this issue would seek to incorporate this crucial context before the administration embarks on yet another potentially catastrophic—and unnecessary—adventure.

Alas, one might as well believe in Tinker Bell.

Examining the coverage of the Sharm El Sheikh talks in Kristof’s own paper, The New York Times, for instance, one sees no mention of the Iranian offers. Instead we get deliberately decontextualized tough talk from Condi Rice, like this: “Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters,” Rice said. “Stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders. Stop using advanced IED technology to kill American soldiers. Stop stirring up trouble among militias that then go and kill innocent Iraqis.”

In fact, virtually everything Rice complains of is addressed in the so-called “grand bargain.” And yet from The New York Times we learn only that “both the United States and Iran are intensifying their search for face-saving approaches that would allow their standoff over the nuclear issue to soften enough to allow for substantial talks.” A quick Lexis Nexus search reveals a similar pattern to most of the stories on the summit. This Washington Post piece reports Rice saying that if Iran didn’t make the conference, it would be a “missed opportunity,” as if the Bush administration hadn’t been deliberately missing opportunity after opportunity to resolve these issues peacefully for the past five years.

In recent coverage of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ trip to Israel, we learn that he believes diplomacy with Iran “appears to be working.” Let’s hope so, though it’s decidedly unclear just what “diplomacy” he means. Meanwhile, the march to war continues virtually unimpeded. Let’s hope we don’t hear the same excuse—we just didn’t know—that cost us so dearly with this same crowd last time around.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from to Media Matters. The new URL is

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Eric Alterman

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