The Danger of Negotiating with Iran

Analysis: Addicted to moral equivalence, our leaders forget the perils of talking to rogues


As a candidate for president, Barack Obama made diplomacy with rogue regimes a signature issue. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them…is ridiculous,” he declared in 2007. In both his inaugural address and his first television interview as president, he reached out to the Islamic Republic of Iran. “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us,” he told Al-Arabiya. In the six years since, whether firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or reformer-by-comparison Hassan Rouhani held the Iranian presidency, Obama has been so committed to a deal on Iran’s illicit nuclear program that he hasn’t let anything stand in his way—Congress, allies, or even facts.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the history of high-profile diplomacy with rogue regimes, Obama’s behavior is more the rule than the exception. If every senator looks in a mirror and sees a future president, then every president looks in a mirror and sees a brilliant statesman, a man who will be Nixon in China or Reagan in Reykjavik. In reality, what most should see is a reflection of Frank B. Kellogg, Aristide Briand, or Neville Chamberlain. With very little understanding of history, Obama, alas, sees only himself.

Albert Einstein is often credited (wrongly) with the adage that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results. By that definition, Foggy Bottom is Bedlam. The U.S. military, in contrast, constantly forces soldiers to confront their mistakes—that is, after all, why sergeants-major chew out soldiers. Soldiers spend more time in the classroom dissecting exercises than they do in the field. Even when deployed, they never neglect after-action reports to determine what they might have done better.

In the last half century, however, the State Department has never conducted a “lessons learned” exercise to identify what went wrong with high stakes diplomacy. Nor does the State Department have any clear metrics to measure success and failure. State Department spokesmen often make declarations of progress that declassified records of talks—with Iran, North Korea, the Palestinians, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Pakistan or, increasingly, Turkey and Russia—belie.

Too many American diplomats dismiss the need to consider mistakes. Instead, many are committed to the belief that talking is a cost-free, risk-free strategy. Testifying before the Senate in support of Obama’s outreach to Iran, Nicholas Burns, the second undersecretary of state for foreign affairs under George W. Bush, promised, “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail.” Richard Armitage, another veterans of Bush’s State Department, has promoted a similar argument: “We ought to have enough confidence in our ability as diplomats to go eye to eye with people—even though we disagree in the strongest possible way—and come away without losing anything.”

But Armitage was wrong to project American values onto others. Americans may not see willingness to talk as weakness, but other cultures do. On the same day in 2008 that William J. Burns, Bush’s third undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, met an Iranian delegation in Geneva—the first public high-level meeting between American and Iranian diplomats in decades—Mohammad-Jafar Assadi, the ground force commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) declared that, “America has no other choice but to leave the Middle East region beaten and humiliated.”

American diplomats genuinely want peace, but cultural equivalence can kill. So too can ignorance of an adversary’s true goals. This is why Obama’s headlong rush into a deal with Iran will be disastrous.

Obama has had no shortage of cheerleaders. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed his embrace of diplomacy with rogue regimes.  “You don’t make peace with your friends,” she said, adding, “You have to be willing to engage with your enemies.” That may be true, but how you engage with rogues is important. And this is where Obama—and so many would-be statesmen before him—have gone wrong.

It is possible both to take diplomacy seriously and to remember that rogue regimes are a particular problem. There is, of course, no standard definition of “rogue,” but there is no universal definition of “terrorism” either. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In effect, rogueness is the diplomatic equivalent of pornography; attempting to define it calls to mind Justice Potter Stewart’s quip about pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

For the purposes of American policy, it wasn’t the “neocons” of the Bush administration who coined the concept, but rather the progressives within the Clinton administration. In 1993, Les Aspin, then the secretary of defense, warned that “the new nuclear danger we face is perhaps a handful of nuclear devices in the hands of rogue states or even terrorist groups.” The following year, Bill Clinton himself described Iran and Libya as “rogue states” in a speech before European officials. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, hardly a hawk, repeatedly referred to Iran as a rogue regime, and, in 1997, Madeleine Albright argued that “dealing with the rogue states is one of the great challenges of our time…because they are there with the sole purpose of destroying the system.”

Indeed, Iran checks every box for a rogue regime: It has sacked embassies at home and blown them up abroad. When, between 2000 and 2005, the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran in the name of supporting “Dialogue of Civilizations,” Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration poured the bulk of its hard currency windfall into nuclear and ballistic missile programs, constructing, for example, the undeclared and covert enrichment facility at Natanz.  Iranian leaders have also been unapologetic about ratcheting up terrorism and support for insurgencies in proportion to their sense of the West’s diplomatic desperation. In their wildest dreams, the Iranians never imagined seeing Western acquiescence to their domination not only of Syria and Lebanon, but also of Iraq, Yemen, and perhaps the Gaza Strip. The Iranians have only grown more truculent under Obama, sending naval warships through the Suez Canal and undertaking their first naval deployment to the Pacific Ocean since the 10th century.

Of course, the Iranian people themselves bear the brunt of the Islamic regime’s tyranny. Every time Iranian leaders speak of reform to the Western audience, public executions and crackdowns on religious minorities increase: Iranians understand the message: talk of reform is for external consumption only.

That hasn’t stopped every U.S. administration from seeking to bring Iran in from the cold. Obama may have reached his hand out to Iran, but he wasn’t the first: both Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, and Jimmy Carter each tried something similar. Revolutionary leaders only had American hostages to seize because Carter was determined to keep hopes for rapprochement alive, and to keep the embassy in Tehran open whatever the risks—Khomeini’s rhetoric notwithstanding. Then, as now, the president had the media in his corner. The day before Khomeini’s revolutionary thugs seized the U.S. embassy, Steven Erlanger, the New York Times’ future chief diplomatic correspondent, published an analysis arguing that “the religious phase [of Iran’s Revolution] is drawing to a close even as it is becoming formalized.” In other words, Carter was right. The naysayers who listened to what the Iranian leaders actually promised were not sophisticated enough to understand the nuanced position of the new regime.

But Carter did not stand alone in his hope of restoring the partnership between Tehran and Washington, nor are Democrats the only party who have expected dialogue to reform rogues. The Reagan-era “Arms for Hostages” scheme began as an effort to engage Iran and cultivate a new generation who might succeed Khomeini. And it was George H.W. Bush, not Obama, who used his inauguration to promise the Iranian leadership that, “Goodwill begets goodwill. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on.” President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani publicly suggested that he was willing to play ball, and Bush was hooked. Only when Bush had the secretary general of the United Nations send an intermediary to Tehran did he learn that Rafsanjani’s interest in peace was a ruse. Rafsanjani, whom aides to Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all called a pragmatist at various times, subsequently suggested that Iran could annihilate Israel with a single nuclear bomb while Iran’s size would enable it to withstand any retaliation

Bill Clinton turned the other cheek to Iran’s culpability in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack in order to give diplomacy a chance. After Khatami’s term ended, his own advisors began to brag about how they had played the United States. On June 14, 2008, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, Khatami’s press secretary, hinted about the real motivation behind Iran’s reformist rhetoric. “We should prove to the entire world that we want power plants for electricity,” he said. “Afterwards, we can proceed with other activities.” Ramezanzadeh had this to say about the purpose of dialogue: “We had an overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities.”

When Obama declared on April 5, 2009, that “All countries can access peaceful nuclear energy,” the hardline daily Resalat responded with a front-page headline, “The United States capitulates to the nuclear goals of Iran.”

If Obama were serious about ending Iran’s nuclear threat, he would consider the lessons from past diplomacy with Iran. First, taking force off the table undercuts rather than eases diplomacy. Consider the hostage crisis. According to interviews with veterans of Carter’s Iran crisis team, Gary Sick, the 39th president’s point man on Iran, leaked word that the White House had agreed to table any military response. Hostage takers have since acknowledged that, once they learned that they could expect no military consequences, they transformed their 48-hour embassy sit-in into a 444-day crisis.

Desperation for a deal also backfires. After Iran seized the hostages, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance sought to talk to any Iranian who would listen. He sought a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Abulhassan Bani Sadr. Bani Sadr made demands, but lost his post just two and a half weeks after the meeting was held. So Vance then sought to work with Bani Sadr’s successor, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, a former trainer for Palestinian terrorists, who proved his revolutionary credentials by augmenting earlier demands. Steering into the Iranian political maelstrom has never worked.

Western diplomats, like community organizers, pride themselves on sensitivity. Multiculturalism is their religion and moral equivalence is their mantra. They seldom understand how adversaries feign grievance to put Americans on the defensive. Take, for example, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a vocal proponent of engagement with Iran, who warned that Iranians “bristle at the use of the phrase ‘carrots and sticks,’” because it both depicted them as donkeys and implied noncompliance would lead to a beating. What Pickering and crew never realized, however, is that Iranians often use the phrase “carrots and sticks” themselves.

Likewise, Iranians often demand apologies for grievances real and imagined. When Albright apologized for the American role in the 1953 coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, Tehran demanded compensation. Alas, Albright was apologizing to America’s co-conspirators: Due to right-wing Iranian fears of communism during the Cold War, the clergy had sided with the United States and the Shah over the left-leaning populist.

Incentivizing defiance also undercuts diplomacy. In the year before Obama blessed talks with Iran, the Iranian economy had shrunk 5.4 percent. After talks, its economy grows. In order to bring Iran to the table, Obama has released more than $11 billion to Iran. To put that in perspective, that is equivalent to the last two years’ budget of the IRGC, a group responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. What Obama has done is the equivalent of giving a toddler dessert first, and then asking him to come back to eat his broccoli.

Obama recently dismissed a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel for being devoid of any “viable alternatives.” But Netanyahu was right: leverage matters. Reagan talked to the Soviet Union, but only after a massive military build-up that allowed him to negotiate from a position of strength. He never abandoned moral clarity. Only twice in history has the Islamic Republic reversed course after swearing to a course of no compromises. The first time was about what it would take to release the American hostages, and the second about what it would take to end the Iran-Iraq War. After the hostages were released on the first day of the Reagan presidency, Carter’s associates credited the persistence of diplomacy. This is nonsense: As Peter Rodman has pointed out, Iraq’s invasion of Iran had rendered Tehran’s isolation untenable. Khomeini needed to release the hostages or his country would have crumbled. Likewise, Khomeini considered ending the Iran-Iraq War in 1982, but the IRGC pushed him to continue it until “the liberation of Jerusalem.” After six years of stalemate and another half million deaths, Khomeini reconsidered. In his radio address, he likened accepting the ceasefire to drinking from a chalice of poison, but suggested that he had no choice if Iran was to survive.

How can these past successes be replicated? Sunset clauses, multinational contracts, and sanctions relief won’t do it. Only one thing will: Forcing the regime to choose between its nuclear ambitions and its survival.

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