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How To Talk To A Mullah (Not)

Last fall, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates–a man well known for his prudence as well as thoughtfulness–remarked on the many failed efforts by the United States to reach some sort of modus vivendi with the Iranian regime.

Every administration since 1979 has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed. Some have gotten into deep trouble associated with their failures, but the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.

Leave aside the fact that, before becoming SecDef, Gates was one of many who recommended “engaging” the Iranian regime in talks; things look different from inside the Pentagon, when daily reports document the extent of Iranian evil doing to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the murderous activities of their proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.   “Consistently unyielding” is a significant understatement.  The “reality,” as he puts it, is that there is no reason to believe that the Iranians are interested in anything other than our destruction or domination.  They are our enemies, as they have proven over the past thirty years.

Which is not to say they won’t talk.  They love to talk, and they excel at talking, which they view quite differently from the way we look at “engagement” or “negotiations.”  We seek durable agreements to resolve fundamental problems;   The Iranians are quite capable of striking temporary deals with their worst enemies, fully intending to resume hostilities when circumstances are more favorable.

I saw their methods at first hand.  For a few months in the summer and early autumn of 1985, I was the only American official in the room during talks with various Iranians, including some very high-ranking ayatollahs, and I was privy to telephone conversations with Iranian officials in the office of President Mir Hussein Moussavi.

The circumstances certainly favored a positive result, much more so than today’s situation (even though there are some important similarities).  The Iranians were then at war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and they were having a rough go of it.  Iraq had the upper hand on the battlefield, and was attacking inside Iran.   Iran had hardly any night radar, and once the sun set,  the Iraqis routinely bombed Iranian targets, including the cities, which saw a nightly exodus of tens of thousands of people swarming to the safer darkness of the countryside.  The regime was becoming more unpopular by the day, as citizens attacked government and religious leaders in the streets.  There was even open conflict between different factions of the Revolution Guards, and there were reports of workers walking off the oil fields.

Under the circumstances, it was not surprising that the mullahs were prepared to deal, even with the satanic forces of Israel and the United States.  The Ayatollah Khomeini, the country’s unchallenged tyrant, had to wonder if destiny had turned against him.  Iran desperately needed help.  And the Iranians had cards to play with us, in the form of several American hostages held by Hezbollah.  One of these was particularly important, both to President Reagan and to CIA chief William Casey: William Buckley, the station chief in Beirut.  While never admitting they controlled Buckley’s fate, the Iranians said that if the relationship between the two countries improved, they would be as helpful as possible in obtaining the release of the American hostages.  The Americans replied that the relationship was the central issue, but that Iran would have to call a halt to all terrorist attacks against American targets, and moderate its rhetoric (“Death to America!”, then, as now, was loudly chanted in the streets).  If that happened, and if Iran helped with the hostages, the United States was prepared to sell weapons to the mullahs as a sign of good faith.