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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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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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