Globe and Mail
February 21, 2009 at 12:05 AM EST
LONDON — What if the world's biggest threat, instead of growing in size and menace, simply vanished?
Imagine if Iran, after years of extremism, found itself led by a president who had been elected on a platform of women's rights, a free press, foreign investment and closer relations with the United States and other Western countries.
Imagine if, in response, the U.S. government made a public, formal apology for the 1953 Central Intelligence Agency overthrow of Iran's elected government, the act that had sent the country on the path to extremism in the first place.
Imagine if the Iranian people then began holding pro-U.S. demonstrations.
And imagine if that moderate Iranian leader offered to accept peace with Israel, to permanently halt funding of Palestinian militant groups such as Hamas and to submit fully to inspections as it abandons any nuclear-weapons programs in exchange for better relations with America.
Ah, imagine. It could never be so easy. But wait. Don't I recall something from my pile of newspaper clippings? Ah yes, here it is, and not even yellowed. Amazing how fast we forget things.
Mohammad Khatami, the pro-Western reformist, was elected in 1997.
Madeleine Albright, the U.S. secretary of state, issued the big apology to Iran in March of 2000. “Certainly, in our view, there are no obstacles that wise and competent leadership cannot remove,” she said. “As some Iranians have pointed out, the United States has cordial relations with a number of countries that are less democratic than Iran.”
The pro-American demonstrations, by all reports genuine (and unpunished), took place over several days in 2003. In that spring, Mr. Khatami sent a Swiss official to Washington to make the peace offer. In exchange for recognizing Israel, cutting off Hamas and proving it had abolished any nuclear-weapons plans, Iran wanted an end to sanctions, normal diplomatic relations with the U.S. and recognition of its role in the region.
So what happened? Well, nothing. George W. Bush was president, the Iraq war was just approaching the “mission accomplished” phase, and nobody in the White House thought it would look good to make peace with Iran, a country that only the year before had been made a rhetorical component in Mr. Bush's “axis of evil.”
As one State Department official directly involved with the Iranian offer told me, “It was like we missed the biggest Middle East peace opportunity of the decade, just so we could keep saying ‘axis of evil.'”
So the offer was stuck in a drawer. That diplomatic snub was one of several humiliations, diplomatic and economic, that led to the defeat of Mr. Khatami's reformists in subsequent elections and the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's neo-conservative zealots. Mission accomplished, indeed.