Ex-Iran nuclear negotiator alleges Iran refused 2004 US offer to join talks

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Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, translated part of a long interview with Iran’s former lead nuclear negotiator Hasan Rouhani that appears in the (Iranian) Center for Strategic Research, posted May 7.

In it, Rouhani describes a 2004 meeting he had with then International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director Mohammed El Baradei, who had reportedly come to Tehran straight from Washington where he had been meeting with the Bush White House.

The central point of the interview excerpt Clawson translated below is fascinating: Rouhani says that in 2004, El Baradei conveyed to him that the United States would be interested in joining talks with Iran, but that the Iranian regime, according to Rouhani, decided against it. From Clawson’s translation:

In a long reflective interview in Persian with the (Iranian) Center for Strategic Research which he heads posted 7 May, former lead nuclear negotiator Hasan Rouhani describes an episode in April 2004: El Baradei, just back from DC, calls to ask if he can come to Tehran immediately.  He does so, ostensibly about IAEA business, but actually to tell Rouhani that when in DC, he saw Bush and asked Bush to join the nuclear negotiations with Iran (you may recall the USG attitude at the time towards the E3 negotiations was standoffish).  Rouhani said, to quote the interview, “Bush’s response was, Why the nuclear problem? Why not solve all the problems between us?  Continuing, Bush said I don’t know must about who in Iran has power, but if one person with complete authority comes from Iran, I myself will negotiate on America’s behalf so we can tackle all our problems and put all of them on the table. Why should we have differences and why should our problems remain intractable? El Baradei told me that a very good opportunity had come up and America had shown an interest” in solving the problems.

 

The interviewer than asked, “This suggestion was not accepted?” To which Rouhani said, “At that time it was decided we would not have negotiations with the Americans.”  The interview persisted, “In fact the Americans took a step forward?’ [an expression meaning: showed interest in reaching a deal].  Rouhani’s one word response was, “Yes.”

 

At another point in the interview, when discussing the U.S. was not involved at that point in 2004 with the nuclear negotiations, he says, “Basically the regime [nezam, usually used to refer to the Supreme Leader] decided that we would not have negotiations with America.” [...]

 

When discussing why the 2004 negotiations with the Europeans failed, he says they could only have succeeded if America had been involved.  He goes on to say, “Another factor was that Israel and the Arabs brought pressure and were obstructionist.”  Note the “and the Arabs.”

 

(More translated excerpts from the Rouhani interview here.)

I’ve reached out to former Bush advisors to get their memory of the alleged El Baradei-Bush 2004 conversation.

One possible interpretation of the interview–and the timing of its appearance now in Iran? By suggesting past negotiations stalled because of Iranian refusal to deal with the United States, it could be another sign the regime is moving towards a rethink, and possible opening towards a deal.

One Washington Iran expert, who asked to speak anonymously, commented that in general, “I take everything I read in the Iranian press as intended to influence domestic audiences of politically informed elites. Ruhani likes to talk and what he may be trying to accomplish with this interview I really can’t say: presumably it’s more of the same as the Rafsanjani commentary on Khamenei’s previous veto of changing the policy toward the US.”

But the expert was highly skeptical that Bush would have used El Baradei as an interlocutor with Tehran, particularly in 2004 (a year into the Iraq war which deeply strained US ties with the IAEA chief).