Iran’s 2003 Grand Bargain Offer, Bob Ney and Trita Parsi's role

Public and court documents show that Parsi and his boss Bob Ney played a key role in this affair that was designed to manipulate US administration, lift the pressure off the Iranian regime and push the US government to dismantle the Iranian opposition group





In May 2003, the Iranian regime extended an olive branch to the United States and sent a proposal for dialogue, peace and friendship. The Iranian regime was determined to resolve all the outstanding issues between the two countries, but an arrogant US government, judging that Iran was on the verge of collapsing, killed the opportunity.

The scenario above has gained attention as the indisputable truth, while in fact it is much more like an urban legend. This story has been the impetus behind a large-scale media campaign to blame US administrations for hostilities toward Iran. It is also used in lobbying efforts aimed at lifting Pressure off and sanctions against the Iranian regime.

However, reality presents a different series of events, complicated by distinct characters and agendas. The affair centers on four main players: Trita Parsi, Bob Ney, and Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

Trita Parsi is President of National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington-based lobbying organization, the government press calls “the Iran lobby in US.” Parsi’s former boss, the corrupted Congressman Bob Ney, received bribes from businessmen deeply connected to the Iranian regime, and was later sent to jail. Lastly, the affair involves Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett who are currently among the most ardent and unconditional defenders of the Iranian regime in Washington. (see their website).

In this report, we examine NIAC documents both public and internal obtained during a defamation lawsuit to see how this offer was prepared, who was involved, the Iranian motives in 2003 and the coordination between the Iranian ambassador to the UN and Trita Parsi in 2006 to release a copy of this offer to the press and use it in a campaign to further the Iranian regime's interests.

The Facade, Tehran’s Party-Line Story

In April of 2003, the Iranian regime extended an olive branch to the United States. Sadegh Kharazi, the Iranian ambassador to France and Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, co-wrote a proposal for a deal between Iran and US. 

Guldimann added a short memo and faxed the proposal to the State Department through Swiss foreign ministry in early May and he also came to Washington to deliver the proposal personally. (Read also Glenn Kessler's article in Washington Post, 2007)

click on image to see actual document


The affair remained unpublicized for three years until early 2006, when international pressure over Iran’s nuclear issue mounte. Trita Parsi president of National Iranian American Council (NIAC) released a copy of the Iranian offer to the press. According to Parsi, the Iranian regime was determined to initiate a dialogue with the United States to resolve all the outstanding issues between the two countries, but an arrogant US government, judging that Iran was at the verge of collapsing, killed the opportunity:

In May 2003. The United States had just defeated Saddam in less than three weeks, and I think there were a lot of feelings inside Iran that they needed to present some sort of a negotiation deal with the United States…

Iranians were basically offering significant policy modifications in the hope that this would be able to open up a new chapter in the relationship with the United States, when the United States,

And the argument by the hardliners, the hawks in the Washington -- in the White House at the time was basically that Iran is weak and it’s giving this proposal precisely because of the fact that it is fearful of the United States and that the US can achieve more by taking on the Iranian regime and just removing it than by negotiating. So we had this situation in which, back then, because of America's strength, the Bush administration argued that it could not negotiate… What was really interesting is that when the Iranians put this on the table and they were basically offering significant policy modifications in the hope that this would be able to open up a new chapter in the relationship with the United States.


Bob Ney and Trita Parsi's role in 2003

According to trita Parsi, the Iranian regime and the Swiss ambassador agreed to use Congressman Bob Ney as their trusted channel to deliver the message to the White House. In his book, Parsi explains the decision taken by theSwiss ambassador and Iranian officials to use Bob Ney as their channel:

Getting the proposal to the United States was a major operation. As the caretaker of U.S. interests in Iran, the Swiss ambassador in Iran, Tim Guldimann, served as the go-between when the two countries needed to communicate...The Americans had sought out the Swiss and given them very strict directions about the channel. Information was to be strictly conveyed—in both directions— without any interpretation by the Swiss. The Swiss embassy in Tehran would send Iranian messages to the Swiss embassy in Washington via the Swiss Foreign Ministry, which in turn would deliver it to the U.S. State Department.

The Iranians, well aware of the infighting and turf wars that characterized the Bush administration, apparently feared that the proposal might not reach the White House if it was sent to the State Department. Even if Powell received it, there was no guarantee that he could bring it to Bush’s attention, given the tensions that existed between Powell and White House officials. Another channel was needed besides the State Department; someone who had direct access to the president. Guldimann, whose frequent briefings of U.S. officials in Washington regarding events in Iran were much appreciated, had the answer—Representative Bob Ney of Ohio.

In early May 2003, Guldimann visited Washington and briefed Ney personally on the proposal. The Swiss diplomat gave the congressman a copy of the two-page proposal, which included an outline of Iranian and American aims and a proposed procedure on how to advance the negotiations, as well as an eleven-page account by Guldimann of his conversations with Iranian officials. Guldimann’s account clarified Tehran’s position and the authenticity of the proposal. A few days earlier, on May 4, Guldimann had faxed the proposal to the State Department—together with a one-page cover letter detailing Tehran’s intentions with the proposal and its authenticity. Another copy was sent to the U.S. ambassador in Geneva, Kevin Moley.

Ney, who had advocated U.S.-Iran dialogue since Khatami became president in 1997, quickly realized that the document could create a major breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations and aid America’s war against al- Qaeda.“This is it,” he told me at the time with unveiled excitement.“This is the one that will make it happen.” He promptly sent a staffer to hand-deliver the document to Karl Rove, the president’s senior adviser, whom Ney had known since his college years. Within a few hours, Rove called Ney to verify the authenticity of the proposal, assuring the Ohio lawmaker that he would deliver the “intriguing” document directly to the president. The first step of the operation had been successfully completed—the proposal had reached the highest levels of the U.S. government. Washington’s response, however, would surprise everyone, including the Swiss (p 246-247).

In an interview, Parsi also admitted that: “he was the point person for Ney in helping to manage this issue.”


Ongoing negotiations between Iran and US in 2003

Why did Iran use Bob Ney to deliver the offer to the White House? According to Parsi, Iran feared that the State Department might not not give the offer to the White House and therefore, Bob Ney was the right person to do it. However, this narrative fails to take into account what was happening in more official U.S.-Iran relationships in the same time frame in Geneva as reported by James Rosen:

Acting U.S. Ambassador to Iraq (and NSC Senior Director in the White House) Zalmay Khalilzad had just met with Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (soon to become UN ambassador) in Geneva on May 3, one day before the Guldimann fax arrived at the State Department.  This was their fourth meeting in as many months.  Earlier, there had also been more than sixteen meetings between Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ryan Crocker, (who was also serving as the interim envoy to Afghanistan) and senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials in Geneva and Paris from November 2001 through December 2002, at least one every month except January 2002.   Special Afghanistan Envoy James Dobbins had negotiated with Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and a senior Iranian General in full uniform, at three meetings from November 2001 through March 2002.

These negotiations received attention in the mainstream U.S. press, for example, the New York Times' account of the grand bargain includes a chronology of US-Iran negotiations and details the talks in May 2003 in Geneva:

“On May 3rd, Ambassador Zarif (Iranian ambassador to the UN) meets Ambassador Zalmy Khalilzad and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Geneva. The US delegation is headed by Dr. Khalilzad. The US has already invaded Iraq and is in control of its Government.”

During the May 3rd meeting, the two countries agreed on another meeting on May 24th in Geneva. Meanwhile, these official negotiations ceased for another reason:

During the May 3rd meeting, Khalilzad tells Zarif that the US has learned that a terrorist bombing incident is planned to happen in the Persian Gulf area. He asks that Iranian Government utilize members of Al-Qaeda in Iranian prisons for information on the planned incident. The incident happened on May 12 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.” (See also The Council on Foreign Relations Task Force Report on Iran 2004, -p. 29)

So, why didn't Iran simply deliver the offer of thegrand bargain to the White House representative, Zelmay Khalilzad, who was present in the May meeting in Geneva?



US government reaction

Contrary to Parsi or Leveretts' claims, there were not the hardliners in Bush administration who dismissed the so-called Iranian offer but the advocates of engagement and dialogue with Iran. They did not believe that a piece of paper written by the Swiss ambassador could be considered a serious offer to resolve the Iran-US impasse.

Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, an advocate of dialogue with Iran told PBS' Frontline in July 2007 that he and Colin Powell had been "very interested" in an opening to Iran, but neither of them thought that the message they received in May 2003 was a "serious endeavor." He told PBS:

"I've seen Flynt Leverett...argue that this was a missed opportunity.  But I must say that speaking for me and most of my colleagues at the State Department, we didn't see it that way, and I don't think many others did at the time because it didn't fit with some of the other things... that we'd been hearing from Iran....If there had been a desire on the Iranian side to seek a better relationship, it would have been an ideal send that signal, and we got no such signal to my knowledge.  I remember talking with people from our Near East division about a fax that came in from the Swiss ambassador, and I think our general feeling was that he had perhaps added a little bit to it because it wasn't in consonance with the state of our relations...The Swiss ambassador in Tehran was so intent ...on bettering relations between...the United States, and Iran that we came to have some questions about where the Iranian message ended and the Swiss message may begin...And we had had some discussions, ...particularly through intelligence channels with high-ranking Iranian intelligence people, and nothing that we were seeing in this fax was in consonance with what we were hearing face to face. So we didn't give it much weight."[Former (Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage interviewed by PBS Frontline about the Guldimann initiative July 12, 2007.)

At the same time, the State Department spokesman Tom Casey told the Washington Post, "This document did not come through official channels but rather was a creative exercise on the part of the Swiss ambassador. The last 30 years are filled with examples of individuals claiming to represent Iranian views." [Washington Post, February 14, 2007] 


Were Bob Ney and Trita Parsi more trusted than the Revolutionary Guards?

According to Guldimann's memos, the Iranian regime kept the affair extremely confidential and therefore, only four people in Iran were informed: the Supreme Leader, the President, the foreign minister and Sadegh Kharazi:

S. Kharazi asked me whether I could present the enclosed roadmap very confidentially to someone very high in the Department of State in order to know the US reaction to it. He said that the lack of trust with the US imposes them to proceed very carefully and very confidentially. After discussing this problem with him, I understood that they want to be sure that if the initiative failed and if anything about the new Iranian flexibility became known, they would also for internal reason not to be bound to it."

Kharazi told me that he had two long discussions with the leader on the roadmap. In those meetings which both lasted two hours, only president Khatami and foreign minister Kamal Kharazi were present. The question is dealt with in high secrecy. Therefore no one else has been informed.

Obviously, the secrecy implied that the Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the National Security Council, the cabinet ministers, and the Parliament were all kept in the dark on this alleged historical shift in Iranian foreign policy, but Bob Ney and Trita Parsi were informed!


Bob Ney and Parsi

In order to understand, the actual events and Iran’s motivations to send the proposal, a few facts about former Congressman Bob Ney must be reviewed. First and foremost, the Congressman advocated relentlessly for pro-Tehran policies and initiatives while serving as a Member of Congress. Secondly, Ney was one the most corrupted politicians who was embroiled in Jack Abramof scandal and was sentenced to thirty months in prison. According to court documents and his plea agreement, Ney received bribed from two businessmen who worked for the Iranian regime. This bribery occurred at the same time the so-called Grand Bargain was set in motion.

You can read this report about Ney's corruption, his relation with two London based businessmen who worked for Iran and his relation with Trita Parsi


The real story, Iran's intentions

Considering all available facts and taking into account the people involved in this affair, including Parsi, Ney and S. Kharazi, the Iranian ambassador to France, one plausible explanation appears.

In 2002-2003, Iran and theUS coordinated the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the US promised that during the invasion, it Would disarm the Iranian opposition, the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (called MKO or MEK) that resided in a large base near Baghdad called Ashraf.

As planned, in March 2003, the US invaded Iraq and bombed the MEK base killing scores of residents. Then, the US disarmed the group but instead of delivering them to Iran, gave them protected status. Hillary Mann Leverett, at the time a State Department staffer, participated in negotiations with Iran and detailed this story:

During US talks with Iran in 2002-2003 (in which I directly participated), when it became clear the US was going to invade Iraq, the Iranians made clear that they would turn over suspected al Qaida figures in Iran to the U.S. in exchange for the U.S. allowing MEK leaders based in Iraq to be turned over to Tehran.
In 2003, the Bush Administration inexplicably rejected this offer and then had the gall, as the occupying military power in Iraq, to give the MEK “protected status” under the Geneva convention, which essentially prevented the Iraqi government from turning the MEK operatives over to Iran.

In another article, she explained the details of US and Iranian agreement about MEK:

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration told the Iranians that the MEK, an Iraqi-based Iranian opposition group that the United States had for years identified as a foreign terrorist organization, would be targeted as an extension of Saddam’s military apparatus.
However, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, the Pentagon granted the MEK special protected status, raising concerns in Tehran that Washington wanted to use the MEK as part of a campaign to bring down the Islamic Republic.

In response to the Bush Administration’s unconditional demands that Tehran turn over Al Qaida operatives we believed to be on Iranian soil, the Iranians offered a deal: to exchange Al Qaida figures they had detained for MEK cadres in Iraq.
To facilitate such an exchange, the Iranians offered to release all low- and mid-level MEK figures, to allow the ICRC to monitor the treatment of any high-level MEK figures detained in Iran, and to forego application of the death penalty to any high-level MEK figures found guilty of crimes by Iranian courts.
In the end, it was the Bush Administration, not Iran, that rebuffed a deal which would have given us access to important Al Qaida operatives–including, possibly, Saad bin Ladin."

In April 2003, it became evident that the US would not deliver MEK members to Iran. This was a setback for the Iranian regime and for those in Washington who believed that “getting rid of MEK” would help Iran-US relations.

In mid-April, a conference was organized in Athena, Greece where Flynt Leverett, who had just left the White House, met with the former chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei. Strangely enough, the man who accompanied Rezaei was Siamak Namazi, Trita Parsi's lobbyingpartner in Tehran. According to a press report in Tehran, the meeting between Leverett and Rezaei was arranged by Namazi.

Concordant reports indicate that the two men discussed how to resolve current and future issues between the two countries and, most pressingly, the MEK issue.





Flynt and Hillary Leverett


While the Iranian regime was deeply concerned about the MEK and hoped that the invasion of Iraq would definitively "erase" this problem, in Washington, Trita Parsi and Bob Ney were also hard at work to limit MEK's political maneuvering and pave the road for their elimination in Iraq.

(see documents:

  • Parsi's 2003 reports to Atieh Bahar in Tehran (1- 2) mentioning MEK issue,
  • Parsi's email explaining Ney's anti-MEK activities,
  • In 2007, Parsi's 2007 letter on behalf of Bob Ney to US District Court Judge explaining Ney's anti-MEK activities

Finally, Sadegh Kharazi, the Iranian ambassador to France who co-wrote the Iran’s offer for the Grand Bargain, enters the story. In April and May 2003, he was negotiating with theFrench government to invade theMEK central office near Paris and arrest the group leaders. In June 2003, French police accepted the Iranian demand, invaded MEK headquarters and arrested their leaders.

Now, let's review the Iranian offer document. Nicholas Kristof and several others have posted two versions of the document: first is the document that Swiss ambassador Guldimann faxed to DOS, the second is this version that was apparently edited by Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the UN.

Both documents show that the most urgent Iranian demand from the US was the MEK issue. Other items like the removal of sanctions were issues that would take time to discuss and resolve. In Zarif's version, Iran asked the US: "Pursuit of anti-Iranian terrorists, above all MKO and support for repatriation of their members in Iraq, decisive action against MKO and affiliated organizations in the US."

Taking into account all these concordant facts, we can assume that Iran sent this "unofficial" and "unauthenticated" document via Guldimann and Bob Ney to influence the United States’ decision regarding MEK, an issue that was at that time discussed in the White House and divided the administration.



Media and lobby campaign after 2006

For three years, Iran and its advocates did not need to publicize the so-called grand bargain offer but the situation changed in 2006. This was the year Iran resumed the nuclear program and the hostilities between Iran and the US increased. The Iranian regime, fearing tougher US policies and a new round of sanctions, launched a large-scale campaign to influence public opinion and pressure the administration. The grand bargain offer became a winning card in this campaign.

According to NIAC's internal documents released during a defamation lawsuit, Trita Parsi met with the Iranian ambassador to the UN, Javad Zarif, in March 2006. Zarif gave Parsi a copy of the "Iranian 2003 offer for "Grand Bargain,” then, Parsi coordinated with him to release this copy to the press. Together with his lobbying partners like Flynt Leverett, Parsi used the "Iranian offer" in a large-scale campaign to prove that Iran was ready for peace and dialogue while the US was seeking war with Iran. (See documents)

In February 2007, NIAC organized a conference in which Leverett and other former officials spoke and publicized the story. The story became the centerpiece of the NIAC lobby campaign to influence public opinion and ease sanctions and pressure against Iran. (See this NIAC document)

This large-scale media campaign proved to be Adept in attracting the US anti-war groups to the Iranian side, and many of them participated in pro-Tehran grassroots lobbying in Washington and pressured the US government to have a friendlier policy with Iran. (See report)