Over and over again, we are told that direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations would be a radical departure from past practice, and might decisively improve the “relationship.”
Both claims are false. Direct negotiations would not be new — talks between the United States and the leaders of the Islamic Republic have been conducted by every administration since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini brought down the shah — and there is no reason to believe that a “grand bargain” is on the horizon.
The Obama administration started talking to the Iranian regime even before the 2008 elections, and those talks have continued apace. They have recently hit a snag over a familiar subject: hostages.
Although the talks between the two countries are invariably conducted in secret, the long story of U.S.-Iranian negotiations is abundantly documented. The United States started negotiating with the leaders of Khomeini’s revolutionary movement even as the shah was preparing to flee Tehran in early 1979. High-ranking officials of the Carter administration’s State Department and Pentagon worked feverishly to maintain the military, commercial, cultural, and diplomatic alliance between the two countries. These efforts famously failed, but the talks continued, even during the long hostage crisis, and led to a formal agreement (the Algerian Accords of 1981) that produced the release of the American hostages on Ronald Reagan’s Inauguration Day.
Every American administration thereafter attempted to reach a modus vivendi with the Iranians. Reagan’s efforts led to weapons sales and further hostage releases. Clinton and Albright publicly apologized for previous American policies, and eased visa restrictions and sanctions. George W. Bush actually believed that Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Nicholas Burns had negotiated an historic deal with Iran’s regime (in the person of Ali Larijani) in the late summer of 2006.
The conviction that Bush never tried to reach a working agreement with the Iranians is deeply embedded in the conventional wisdom (and in Iranian versions of events; see for example the preachy oped in the New York Times last Friday, in which two Iranians say that when the Bush administration offered to talk, “the Iranian government rejected the offer of direct, high-level talks as insincere”) yet full details are in a multi-part BBC television series broadcast several years ago. In that documentary, major participants (including Nicholas Burns) appear on camera recounting how, at the last minute, the Iranians requested three hundred extra visas for a monster delegation to fly to the UN. The visas were duly issued — Rice understandably didn’t want to give the Iranians an easy out — but Larijani’s plane never left Tehran. Burns and Rice had gone to New York to greet Larijani and celebrate the historic moment. When the Iranians failed to appear, Rice flew back to Washington. Burns hung around for a couple of days, vainly hoping the Iranians would eventually show up.
The Obama team began talking directly to the Iranians even before the 2008 elections — a campaign representative traveled to Iran to present the candidate’s hopes for improved relations — and the efforts continued throughout Obama’s first term. The latest talks took place in Lausanne and Doha in the months prior to the 2012 elections and, as the New York Times reported, the two sides agreed to continue negotiating if the president were reelected.