As the United States and other members of the P5+1 commence negotiations with Iran, it is worth recalling the classic analysis of Iran’s negotiating style sent in from the U.S. embassy in Tehran on August 13, 1979. The author of the cable, political counselor Victor Tomseth, and the man who authorized it, charge d’affaires Bruce Laingen, became hostages when the embassy was seized on November 4, 1979.
The cable is an analysis of the “underlying cultural and psychological qualities” that explain the difficulties the embassy had been having in negotiations with the new regime. In one famous line, the cable claims that “Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism … that leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one’s own.” There is also a “pervasive unease about the nature of the world in which … nothing is permanent and … hostile forces abound.” Persians therefore see themselves as “obviously justified in using almost any means available to exploit such opportunities” to protect themselves. Tomseth then adds that Persians have a poor understanding of causality, “an aversion to accepting responsibility for one’s actions,” and resist “the idea that Iranian behavior has consequences” on American policy.
From these analyses, explained at greater length, the cable draws lessons. First, “one should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone that it will be conceded to have merits. … A negotiator must force recognition of his position upon his Persian opposite number.” Second, the Iranian negotiator will not seek cooperation or a long-term relationship of trust; instead, he “will assume that his opposite number is his adversary” and will “seek to maximize the benefits to himself that are immediately available.” Third, “linkages will be neither readily comprehended nor accepted.” Fourth, and especially relevant now, “one should insist on performance as the sine qua non at each stage of the negotiations. Statements of intention count for almost nothing.” Fifth, “cultivation of good will for good will’s sake is a waste of effort.” And finally, “one should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in negotiations at any given moment and not be cowed by this possibility.”
With these warnings in mind, reading accounts of the first round of negotiations held in Istanbul on April 14 cannot be reassuring. The most detailed account is from Laura Rozen. There we see a “Western diplomat” explaining that “The morning session was very positive: the vibe ... was, 'wow, they are engaging.’” Rozen reports that a “European diplomat” happily noted to her that EU foreign minister Lady Catherine Ashton “rebuilt a rapport with [Saeed] Jalili,” the Iranian negotiator. “The Iranian delegation body language when Wendy [Sherman] spoke was direct and engaged,” a European diplomat told Rozen. Such nonsense must make the Iranians smile. Indeed, one would love to see the Iranian version of Tomseth’s cable, explaining the ingenuousness of American and other Western negotiators: seeking personal rapport and good vibes, committed to the value of the process itself, and wanting above all to prevent a “breakdown in negotiations.”
Nor can it be reassuring that the two most important negotiators are Ashton and Sherman. Prior to 2008, Ashton’s only involvement in world affairs was six years (1977-1983) as a high official of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). CND is a leftist organization that, while Ashton was one of its leaders and the Soviet Union was an expansionist power, called for unilateral nuclear disarmament by the United Kingdom and the prevention of any deployment of nuclear weapons there. CND has a long history of denouncing U.S. policy just about everywhere—from the Vietnam War to today’s Middle East. Rozen’s account shows Ashton very much in charge of the Istanbul talks, which in fact were delayed from May 10 until May 23 to accommodate Ashton’s calendar.
Sherman, who leads the U.S. delegation, is now under secretary of state for political affairs. In the Clinton administration, Sherman was counselor to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and “policy coordinator” on North Korea. At the end of her tenure, she wrote in the New York Times that North Korea is “a country of immense pride.” She added that after the Albright trip to Pyongyang in October 2000, where Albright happily exchanged friendly toasts with her hosts, “North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, appears ready to make landmark commitments about the missile program. To ensure the survival of his regime, he has to improve the country's disastrous economy by reducing the burden of a vast missile program and opening the doors to trade.”
There is no record of Sherman acknowledging that her judgment on North Korea was wrong or suggesting that from the experience of failed Clinton and Bush policies toward North Korea she has taken any lessons at all. While talks continued for years, North Korea continued the development of nuclear weapons and of missiles—a somber thought in the context of the Iran negotiations.
The next round of talks is scheduled for Baghdad on May 23. Ashton called the Istanbul talks “constructive and useful.” That reminded me of the last time an EU foreign minister stood next to Jalili and said, “The meeting of today has been constructive.” That was in 2007.