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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.
Obama’s outreach to Ahmadinejad comes amidst Iran’s most contentious election campaign since the revolution.
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
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 is a resident scholar at AEI.
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