Over a century ago George Santayana wrote that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
He might have had John Kerry and Wendy Sherman in mind.
For there is a long history of U.S.-Iran negotiations, and much to learn from them. Perhaps the best short text came from the pen of Bruce Laingen, then the American Charge d’Affaires in Tehran, in a cable dated August 13, 1979, under the title “Negotiations.” The full memo was later published by the New York Times, on January 27, 1981.
Laingen was involved in difficult negotiations with the then-new revolutionary government of Iran. There were many explanations for why the talks were so tough, but Laingen said, “we believe the underlying cultural and psychological qualities…account for the nature of these difficulties are and will remain relatively constant.”
After some very sharp analysis, Laingen drew six lessons. First, “one should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone have merits….A negotiator must force recognition of his position upon his Persian opposite number.” Are our negotiators these days being sufficiently forceful, or falling for the Iranian charm offensive?
Second, Laingen wrote, “one should not expect an Iranian readily to perceive the advantages of a long-term relationship based on trust. He will assume that his opposite number is essentially an adversary.” But today one has to wonder if our government has adopted what Ray Takeyh at the Council on Foreign Relations called the “Rouhani narrative:” Rouhani is a reformer and we have to help him; progress is at hand. If that’s our view, the Iranians will eat our negotiators alive.
Third, “linkages will neither be readily comprehended nor accepted by Persian negotiators.” Once again, a forceful and tough negotiating stance appears required.
Fourth, “one should insist on performance as the sine qua non at each stage of negotiations. Statements of intent count for almost nothing.” Yet our negotiators seem dazzled by Rouhani’s soft words, despite his admission that he has used them in the past to stall for time while the nuclear program progressed.
Fifth, Laingen wrote, “cultivation of good will for good will’s sake is a waste of effort.” Yet our negotiators appear to think good will is a key goal, and will change the nature of our relations with Iran. We like good meetings, earnest exchanges, and expressions of positive intentions. On leaving Geneva last weekend, Secretary Kerry said that "With good work and good faith over the course of the next weeks, we can, in fact, secure our goal." But Laingen’s exact point is that there is no good faith so it is foolish to look for it—and even more foolish to work hard to create it.
Finally, Laingen’s cable said “one should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in negotiations at any given moment and not be cowed by the possibility.” It seems the French have learned that lesson far better than we. The Iranians came to the table because the sanctions are hurting badly now. They won’t walk away so quickly—even if they threaten to do so.
The French expression “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” seems apt as we think about the 1979 cable and the current negotiations. The more things change, the more—34 years later—they are the same. By the way, Laingen sent this message in to the State Department, as noted above, on August 13, 1979. Less than three months later, on November 4, he was one of those seized as a hostage in the U.S. Embassy. The Times got hold of his message to State in 1980, but held it for a year—publishing it in January, 1981, when Laingen and the other hostages had been freed. They were freed the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, which is itself a lesson in how to win a negotiation with the Islamic Republic.