The Magazine

Diplomatic Illusions

Why negotiations with Iran will never work.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Although it’s way too soon to know how the WikiLeaks release of classified U.S. documents will play out historically, it is interesting to compare two cables brought to light by the document dump—one written by Bruce Laingen, the chargé d’affaires in Tehran at the time of the Iranian revolution in 1979, and the other written by a U.S. diplomat in Baghdad in 2007 recounting conversations between the British ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, and American civilian officials and military officers. Both cables are meant to tutor their readers on how to negotiate with the Iranian regime. 

Diplomatic Illusions

The two are similar to guides to negotiating with Iranians written for American officials in the Obama administration by the retired-then-rehired Foreign Service officer John Limbert. Like Laingen, Limbert was taken hostage in 1979 after the imam’s “students” seized the U.S. embassy. Limbert is a master of the Persian language; the British ambassador has an academic and professional background in the Arab world; Laingen, who served in the Navy in World War II, was a career diplomat who spent much of his career in the Greater Middle East (Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Looking at the counsel offered by Laingen, Adams, and Limbert across three decades allows us to appreciate how hard it is for Westerners to deal with faithful Muslims who see a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. 

President Obama has not yet publicly abandoned diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. In the European-led talks with Iran, in which the United States will also participate, slated to begin on December 6 in Geneva, the administration is undoubtedly hoping that Iran might chat seriously about halting uranium enrichment. The increasing pain inflicted by the American-led sanctions regime could, diplomats pray, make this time different. The Americans and the Europeans will certainly offer more carrots to Tehran even though the Europeans, who’ve endeavored to cajole the Iranians to stop uranium enrichment since 2003, have become even more pessimistic than the Americans about their chances.

Washington’s Iran policy has now moved irreversibly in favor of economic coercion as the principal means to induce a change of behavior in Tehran. It’s increasingly clear that the administration would, truth be told, prefer a change of regime in Iran—there has been real evolution since the “Age-of-Aquarius” early days of the Obama presidency—but intellectually and emotionally such sentiments are difficult for this administration to express. And such undiplomatic thoughts would be publicly upsetting for our European allies, even though, as WikiLeaks documents make clear, they are becoming common in private exchanges. (When French national security adviser Jean-David Levitte describes Iran’s diplomatic engagement with the West on the nuclear issue as a “farce” and calls the Tehran regime “fascist,” it’s probably safe to conclude that the French no longer put much faith in “constructive engagement.”) 

So it is worthwhile to review what others who’ve had dealings with revolutionary Iran have thought about their encounters. Limbert’s interesting 2009 book Negotiating with Iran was written before the tumultuous pro-democracy Green Movement challenged Ali Khamenei’s dictatorship that June, and before Limbert rejoined the State Department as point man on Iran. It is a sober yet optimistic work. 

Back in 1979, Limbert was sympathetic to the Khomeini revolution (and WikiLeaks-released State Department cables about the shah’s mind-numbing police state show why a thoughtful U.S. diplomat would have been deeply uncomfortable with the Pahlavi dynasty). In his recent book, he can’t quite bring himself to see the struggle between the United States and the Islamic Republic as an ideological/religious battle. Looking back at Obama’s failed outreach to Ali Khamenei, Limbert concludes that “diplomatic efforts  .  .  .  foundered on mutual suspicion, political ineptitude, misreading signals, bad timing, and the power of inertia.  .  .  .  Officials on both sides seemed unable to get beyond their classic responses.” Nothing about God. Nothing about Satan. Nothing about the evolution of Shiite Islamic militant thought in the 20th century. Nothing about Khamenei’s vision of incompatible civilizations. 

I strongly suspect that Limbert was Obama’s alter ego and Persian pen: The president’s words were really his. Obama’s use of the Persian poet Saadi—a Sufi poet of brotherly love and no favorite of the revolution—in his outreach to Khamenei reflected the cultural lens through which Limbert sees Iran. The president’s studied use of the official appellation “The Islamic Republic of Iran” in his addresses to the supreme leader mirrored Limbert’s belief that such polite symbolism could aid in conflict resolution. And Obama was in perfect sync with Limbert in describing the root cause of America’s problems in the Middle East as “negative preconceptions.” 

The failure to perceive irreconcilable ideological differences between Americans and the still-faithful disciples of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is vividly on display in the reporting cable from the U.S. embassy in Iraq dated November 30, 2007. The cable summarizes a series of meetings in Baghdad where General David Petraeus and the American ambassador met and conversed with the British ambassador to Tehran. The meetings were called to prepare the Americans for the fourth round of the Iran-Iraq-United States trilateral discussions, to be held in Baghdad the following month.

According to Ambassador Adams, Iran had several goals, “both superficial and substantive.” The Iranians wanted to “institutionalize talks with the US and keep open the possibility of broadening the agenda.” The British ambassador predicted, per the State Department cable, that “the Iranians will seek to keep them going both to engender their prestige and to keep tabs on what the USG is thinking.” Adams thought “the talks had triggered a useful internal debate [in Iran] in how to make the best use of the talks and their strategic interests.” With nice English understatement, “Adams added that he believed there is a significant lobby in Iran against holding talks with the US.” What we know now pretty clearly is that Khamenei hated these talks. Even while they were occurring, he gave the distinct impression that he held his nose when referring to the meetings. 

The driving force behind the discussions was not Iranian curiosity about American intentions but Shiite Iraqi anxiety and anger at the Iranians. Although American and British observers of Iraq have a tendency to view Shiite Iraqis as pawns of the Iranians, the opposite is often closer to the truth. Iran got tied down in Iraq—its options complicated and limited by the fractious, increasingly anti-Persian sentiments of the Iraqi Shia, some of whom were being assassinated by Iranian-trained and Iranian-guided Iraqi hit teams (a point that Wiki-Leaks-released classified Pentagon documents make crystal clear). Iranian-backed assassinations were beginning to cause noticeable disquiet among Iran’s clergy, many of whom are closely connected to the Iraqi clergy in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iraqi Shia effectively dragged Ali Khamenei’s representatives to these meetings with the Americans; the talks stopped precisely because the supreme leader opposed institutionalizing discussions and did not view them as enhancing Iranian prestige. The last thing in the world he wanted was to “broaden the agenda” between him and “Satan incarnate”—a phrase that Khamenei deployed against the United States after President Obama basically begged the supreme leader for unconditional talks. 

Unlike Khamenei, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn’t mind the Iranian-American chitchat in Iraq. (And according to Ryan Crocker, the American ambassador there, “chitchat” would be a generous description of what transpired in Baghdad.) Ahmadinejad has regularly given the impression that he enjoys going mano a mano with the United States. Unlike Khamenei, who has a traditional cleric’s distaste for physical contact with impure things and people (chiefly women and unbelievers), Ahmadinejad sees Iranian-Muslim superiority as best displayed up close and personal. The president relishes his trips to the United Nations, which becomes a stage for Ahmadinejad’s personal passion play of the righteous against the wicked. The supreme leader would probably rather have his toenails pulled out than ascend the U.N. dais or speak to unbelievers at Columbia University. 

Adams and Limbert both give a good idea of the Iranian love affair with conspiracy, how it melds inextricably with reality. “Iranians assume,” the Baghdad cable tells us, “that everything [the Americans] do or say has meaning and has been carefully thought out and coordinated, both internally and with the UK; there are no accidents.” Less emotionally invested in Iran than Limbert, the British ambassador is a bit clearer in how he describes Iranian malevolence. Per Adams, “Iran sees the US as a tough, determined adversary that can be manipulated and wounded.” The State cable, which is full of Adams’s sensible tactical advice about Iranian habits and manners, contains not a word about how religion enters into Khamenei’s perceptions of the United States. With Adams and Limbert, God doesn’t seem to be a participant in Iranian-American conversations. 

What’s more striking is that God doesn’t enter Bruce Laingen’s ruminations either. For the chargé d’affaires during the most stressful time in Iranian-American relations, the embassy’s problems lay more in Persian culture than in the explosion of the Iranian-Islamic identity. “In some instances,” Laingen wrote shortly before the embassy takeover, “the difficulties we have encountered are a partial reflection on the effects of the Iranian revolution, but we believe the underlying cultural and psychological qualities that account for the nature of these difficulties are and will remain relatively constant.” I suspect that Laingen would like to rewrite that sentence. 

Laingen saw several pernicious cultural forces at work—“Persian egoism,” the “incomprehension of causality,” and the “Persian concepts of influence and obligation.” Any-one who’s ever been a case offi-cer handling Iranian agents will instinctively grasp Laingen’s discussion of “causality”—how time, cause, and effect are interconnected, which is why Westerners usually start conversations at “A” and work towards “Z.” Iranians, even highly Westernized Iranians, can start at “P,” work back to “D,” skip erratically to “N,” and then jump to “Y.” Debriefing an Iranian—“decoding” is a more apt description—can take a great deal of patience and a very un-Western appreciation of contradictions. Laingen’s cable is admirably free of political correctness (the idea was just germinating in universities in 1979) and is, as a practical guide for face-to-face discussions with revolutionary Iranians, rich. But again, it’s impossible to overlook the lack of religious content in the chargé’s reflections. 

The ruminations of Laingen, Adams, and Limbert are all culture-heavy commentaries. They assume that culture and what we would describe as pragmatic political considerations override what revolutionary Iranians, like Islamic fundamentalists everywhere, call akhlaq, religious ethics. They also give little attention to how politics can rapidly warp culture—even age-old culture. The modern Middle East is the very sad story of ideological passion—socialism, communism, fascism, Arabism, nationalism, and Islamism—pulverizing traditional culture, with all its eccentricities and customs that allowed for human decency and so much mirth. As Westerners ought to know from their own modern history, good people fueled with the wrong ideology can quickly become monsters. Ideology can permanently scar a culture and transform it. 

The colorful, humanistic side of Iranian culture, like the importation and deep absorption of Western democratic ideas, is fighting hard against the Islamic Republic’s modern and authoritarian religious ideology. But God’s faithful soldiers—which is how Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and their backers within the Revolutionary Guards see themselves—remain powerful. You cannot take God away from these men. You cannot define their fundamental concepts of good, evil, and justice without making reference to the obligations that every believer owes to the Almighty. You cannot talk about Iran’s nuclear program without understanding it within a religious context. How many times have we heard NPR or American (especially Iranian-American) academics and journalists talk about the irretrievable marriage of the nuclear program with Iranian nationalism? Whether that is true or not, the secular disposition of the analysts is telling. Secularism has transformed Western culture—or, as Ahmadinejad and Khamenei would say, has permanently debased it. 

When the Americans, Europeans, and Khamenei’s representatives gather in Geneva on December 6, we should keep in mind what Limbert, Adams, and Laingen teach us about the revolutionary Iranian psyche and how Iranians act among themselves and with foreigners. But we should also keep in mind what’s missing from these gentlemen’s fine commentary. If the Obama administration and the Europeans actually understood the opposing side, they would realize the sanctions now on the books are not nearly enough to make Khamenei blink. Islamic history is littered with defeated religious militants. But they were defeated. They didn’t arrive at a new understanding of their faith through diplomacy and negotiations. 

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. His book The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East is forthcoming from the Hoover Institution Press.

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