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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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. 

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