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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. 

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