When mass demonstrations against the Iranian regime erupted in the summer of 2009, the Obama administration found itself facing a totally unexpected problem. President Obama had gone to great lengths to try to strike a bargain with the regime, and had ignored the internal opposition. Now he suddenly needed a crash course on the regime’s domestic challengers, and possibly to try helping them.
The president had come to office promising to establish good relations with the Islamic Republic, but no progress had (or has) been made. Moreover, there was mounting public evidence of the Iranian role in both Iraq and Afghanistan, ranging from the provision of explosives and components of the murderous IEDs (the so-called “roadside bombs”), to training terrorists (who subsequently killed Americans) inside Iran, to supporting and housing al-Qaeda members, including relatives of Osama bin Laden, to sending officers and soldiers of the Revolutionary Guards Corps onto the battlefield (several hundred were in American military detention camps in Iraq).
The president was personally committed to reaching an accord with the leaders of the Iranian regime, and he had pursued this goal with considerable energy, both through traditional diplomatic channels, and more informal discussions. Over time, the Swiss Foreign Ministry (which, in the absence of formal relations between Iran and the United States, has long served as the official middleman), the sultan of Oman, Iraqi President Talabani, and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan have carried messages, suggested actions, and arranged tactical agreements (such as the release of the American hikers held hostage in Iran starting in July 2009).
American-Iranian relations have always involved a mix of semi-official meetings and secret middlemen, and the Obama administration was no exception. Some “informal” and unannounced conversations took place (to the annoyance of the other participants) on the sidelines of several meetings between Iranians and the group of EU countries and the United States, dealing with the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Others were conducted by the so-called “Track 2” teams of American and foreign policy wonks and former government officials, on the one side, and similar Iranians on the other. These were confirmed by some of the participants, who insist on anonymity, but an American participant stressed that the Obama administration knew in advance of the meetings, and was briefed in considerable detail on the substance of the talks. Nonetheless, when queried by Sara Carter of the Examiner — who writes today about her own long investigation of these questions — the White House would not confirm knowledge of the Track 2 meetings, even though the existence of the Track 2 channel has been known for years.
There are also reports of a meeting as recently as last November in Turkey, involving a State Department official. This, too, was officially denied.
Devoted as he was to reaching an agreement with Tehran, the president did not authorize any contacts with the leading component of the Iranian opposition, the so-called Green Movement, whose candidate for the presidency, Mir Hossein Mousavi, almost certainly won the elections of June 2009. Throughout the eruptions of the summer and early fall, Mousavi and the other top leaders of the Greens received no communication from the U.S. government.
This was undoubtedly due to two factors:
–if such contacts were discovered by the regime, it would have made any deal with Tehran much more difficult;
–the U.S. intelligence community did not believe there was any serious possibility of regime change in Iran. Top analysts told the policy makers that the regime was strong and stable, and any street demonstrations or labor protests would be ineffective, and short-lived.
This assessment proved erroneous — as would similar evaluations in subsequent uprisings in Arab countries — and as the demonstrations continued to roil the streets of Iran’s major cities, the administration was forced to at least consider the possibility of reaching out to the Iranian opposition. They accordingly contacted “experts” in Europe and the United States for help.
They decided to try to secretly contact the Greens, and I have learned from persons with first-hand knowledge of the events that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received help from an old friend and Senate colleague, Senator Chuck Schumer. The New York senator knew a person — a distinguished Iranian-American with no history of political involvement, and with a reputation for impeccable honesty and morality — who had a way to contact the Green leaders.
According to a person familiar with the details of the process, Schumer’s acquaintance was asked to pass two questions to the Green leaders on behalf of the administration: The Greens were given to understand that the questions came from the secretary of state. The questions were: “What should we do? What should we NOT do?”
They were good questions, and they were passed through at least two persons, both known to me, one in the United States, the other in Europe. The person in Europe is well known and admired by the Greens, who now faced a very delicate problem. It was one of Obama’s problems in reverse: if any exchange between the Greens and the administration leaked out, the consequences might be very grave. On the other hand, it would not do to ignore such questions from such a source.
The reply is in the form of a lengthy memorandum, dated November 30, 2009.
You can read it here.
As you will see, it was written very carefully. It is unsigned, and there is no hint of the author’s (or authors’) identity (I have good reason to believe that several people worked on it). Instead of answering the two questions directly, the memo presents a snapshot of Iran under a theocratic tyranny, which is described in very harsh terms (“It is as if the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ were to be reestablished in the West,” and, later on, “the regime is a brutal, apocalyptic theocratic dictatorship that tries to survive by means of suppression of its own people, military force, theft of national resources and economic stealth”). The memo says that the regime cannot change; like all totalitarian regimes it cannot be reformed. But the memo insists that the forces for change within Iran are strong and well led.