During the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama promised to meet the leaders of Iran "without preconditions." He appears a man of his word. Within days of his election, the State Department began drafting a letter to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intended to pave the way for face-to-face talks. Then, less than a week after taking office, Obama told al-Arabiya's satellite network, "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." The president dispatched former Defense Secretary William Perry to engage a high-level Iranian delegation led by a senior Ahmadinejad adviser.
The pundits and journalists may applaud, but their adulation for Obama's new approach is based more on myth than reality. "Not since before the 1979 Iranian revolution are U.S. officials believed to have conducted wide-ranging direct diplomacy with Iranian officials," the Associated Press reported. But Washington and Tehran have never stopped talking; indeed, many of Obama's supposedly bold initiatives have been tried before, often with disastrous results.
In 1979 Ayatollah Khomeini's return gave an urgency to U.S.-Iran diplomacy. Many in Washington had been happy to see the shah go, and sought a new beginning with the "moderate, progressive individuals"--according to then Princeton professor (now a U.N. official) Richard Falk--surrounding Khomeini. The State Department announced that it would maintain relations with the new government. Diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Tehran worked overtime to decipher the Islamic Republic's volatile political scene.
On November 1, 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security adviser and now, ironically, an Obama adviser on Iranian affairs, met in Algiers with Iranian prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi to discuss normalization amidst continued uncertainty about the future of bilateral relations. Iranian students, outraged at the possibility, stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days.
But the hostage seizure did not end the dialogue. For five months, even as captors paraded blindfolded hostages on television, Carter kept Iran's embassy in Washington open, hoping for talks.
Should Obama send a letter to Iran's leaders, he would follow a path worn by Carter. Just days after the hostage seizure, Carter dispatched Ramsey Clark, a Kennedy-era attorney general who had championed Khomeini after meeting him in exile in France, and William Miller, a retired Foreign Service officer critical of U.S. policy under the shah, to deliver a letter to Khomeini. After word of their mission leaked, the Iranian leadership refused to receive them. After cooling their heels in Istanbul for a week, the two returned in failure. Shining a spotlight on private correspondence may score points in Washington, but it kills rather than creates opportunities.
Obama's inattention to timing and target replicates Carter's failure. His outreach to Ahmadinejad comes amidst Iran's most contentious election campaign since the revolution. Allowing Ahmadinejad to slap a U.S. president's outstretched hand is an Iranian populists' dream come true. Alas, this too was a lesson Obama might have learned from Carter. Three decades ago, desperate to engage, Carter grasped at any straw, believing, according to his secretary of state, that even a tenuous partner beat no partner at all. Each partner--first foreign minister Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and then his successor Sadeq Qotbzadeh--added demands to bolster his own revolutionary credentials, pushing diplomacy backward rather than forward. Thirty years later, the same pattern is back. Ahmadinejad's aides respond to every feeler Obama and his proxies at Track II talks send with new and more intrusive demands.
Once out of office, Carter aides sought to secure history's first draft with a flood of memoirs praising their own efforts. Kissinger aide Peter Rodman noted wryly in a 1981 essay, however, that pressure brought to bear by Iraq's invasion of Iran did more to break the negotiations impasse than Carter's pleading with a revolving door of Iranian officials.
Carter is not alone in his failed efforts to talk to Tehran. While the Iran-Contra affair is remembered today largely for the Reagan administration's desire to bypass a congressional prohibition on funding Nicaragua's anti-Communist insurgents, the scheme began as an attempt to engage Iran. On August 31, 1984, national security adviser Robert McFarlane ordered a review to determine what influence Washington might have in Tehran when the aging Khomeini passed away. Both the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency responded that they lacked influential contacts in Iran. Because weapons were the only incentive in which the war-weary ayatollahs had interest, McFarlane decided to ship arms both to cultivate contacts and win the goodwill necessary to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon. He failed. Not only did the Iranian leadership stand McFarlane up during his trip to Tehran, but the incentive package also backfired: Hezbollah seized more hostages for Tehran to trade.
The stars seemed to align for George H.W. Bush, however. Khomeini died on June 3, 1989, and, two months later, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose pragmatism realists like Secretary of State James Baker applauded, assumed Iran's presidency. In his first address, Rafsanjani suggested an end to the Lebanon hostage crisis might be possible. Like Obama, Bush spoke of a new era of "hope." State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler described Iran as "genuinely engaged." Alas, as Rafsanjani spoke publicly of pragmatism, he privately ordered both the revival of Iran's covert nuclear program and the murder of dissidents in Europe.
In his first term, Clinton signed three executive orders limiting trade with Iran and approved the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. He and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright changed tack in their second term. Both apologized for past U.S. policies. The State Department encouraged U.S. businessmen to visit Iran, until Iranian vigilantes attacked a busload of American visitors in 1998. Not discouraged, and lest U.S. rhetoric offend, Albright even ordered U.S. officials to cease referring to Iran as a rogue regime, and instead as a "state of concern." Rather than spark rapprochement, however, it was during this time that, according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, Tehran sought to develop a nuclear warhead.
While the press paints George W. Bush as hostile to diplomacy and applauds the return of Bill Clinton's diplomatic team under his wife's leadership, it is ironic that the outgoing administration engaged Iran more than any U.S. presidency since Carter--directing senior diplomats to hold more than two dozen meetings with their Iranian counterparts. Yet, after 30 years, Iran remains as intractable a problem as ever. Every new U.S. president has sought a new beginning with Iran, but whenever a president assumes the fault for our poor relationship lies with his predecessor more than with authorities in Tehran, the United States gets burned.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was an Iran country director at the Pentagon between September 2002 and April 2004.