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.
Over the course of several months, the United States sold weapons (and later provided military intelligence), terrorist attacks ceased, and Iranian leaders pointedly omitted America from its enemies list on major public occasions. Two hostages dribbled out, but never Buckley, who was brutally tortured to death. Despite numerous meetings, the relationship was certainly not improved. Each side blamed the other, and there was plenty of blame to share, as I made clear in a detailed account (Perilous Statecraft; An Insider’s Account of the Iran-Contra Affair). But, for those who think they can reshape the relationship today, a few important lessons can be learned:
–The degree of ignorance, distrust and treachery at the highest levels of the Iranian regime is so great that the “process” on their side is almost totally opaque. Officials do not tell one another what is going on, they threaten one another if they suspect anyone is trying to make a deal with the Americans, and their inability to understand the workings of the American Government is almost limitless. Our Iran experts constantly bemoan American failure to understand Iran, but the Iranians’ ignorance of us is often spectacular. They believed that George H.W. Bush, not Ronald Reagan, was the most powerful man in Washington (after all, he’d run the CIA, which runs much of the world). They did not know who Robert McFarlane was, despite his rank as national security adviser. They believed America controlled Saddam Hussein at will;
–They made promises they never intended to keep, such as promising to arrange for the release of all American hostages if only sufficient arms or spare parts were delivered to Iran. Time after time, meetings were organized on the basis of promises that had been communicated to Washington, only to discover that the relevant Iranian officials had not only not made the promises, but had never been informed of them. This problem is structural, it is not just a question of one personality or another, for it was repeated several times, involving different intermediaries and different Iranian officials;
–The only person who really matters in Iran is the supreme leader (Khomeini at the time, Khamenei today), but his power is so awesome that underlings are reluctant to go to him unless they feel they are able to deliver a full package, not just steps en route to an agreement. No bargain can be struck that way. It takes time to work out a deal, but we can’t have any confidence that any of the pieces have really been approved, whatever our interlocutors may say. At the end of the process, and only then (assuming that the talks themselves have been approved), will we get approval or rejection. For thirty years, it’s been rejection.
It seems the Clinton Administration had similar experiences. The president and Secretary of State Albright were so convinced that a grand bargain was within their grasp, that they publicly apologized to the Iranians for past presumed American sins. But Khamenei rudely brushed them aside; he was not interested in better relations with the Great Satan. This came as a great shock to the Americans, who had been negotiating for months, had lifted elements of the embargo, facilitated cultural exchanges, and the like. Ken Pollack summed it up like this:
In the Clinton Administration in 1999 and 2000, we tried, very hard, to put the grand bargain on the table. And we tried. We made 12 separate gestures to Iran to try to demonstrate to them that we really meant it, and we were really willing to go the full nine yards and put all of these big carrots on the table if the Iranians were willing to give us what we needed. And the Iranians couldn’t.
Pollack’s choice of words is spot-on: the Iranians couldn’t. They couldn’t, because hatred of America is the very essence of the Islamic Republic. To cease that enmity, to call off the thirty years’ war against us, would be tantamount to changing the nature of the regime itself. Can you imagine Hitler striking a grand bargain with the Jews, or Mao with the bourgeoisie? It’s much the same with the mullahs.
The only really promising element in the talks with Iranians in 1985 came from a senior Iranian government official, who told us he and his allies wanted to work for a better relationship with America, and understood this entailed a change in the nature of the regime. It was never pursued, so I have no idea if he was serious (it could well have been a deception). But he was not the supreme leader, and he told us he knew he and his friends would have to challenge Khomeini in order to accomplish his objective.
No doubt there are still senior Iranian officials who want better relations with America, but they are not in a position to deliver it. To do that, they would have to change the nature of the regime. That might be worth discussing, but formal talks between the two governments will not involve such people. We will be talking to representatives of the regime, and they have no interest in regime change. To put it mildly.
We had real leverage on the Iranians back in the mid-80s, when the regime's leaders actively feared for their survival. Today's mullahs also fear their own people, and some of their internal enemies are killing mullahs and Revolutionary Guardsmen, just as during the Iran-Iraq war. While Iran is not actively at war, it has suffered severe setbacks on several fronts: Iraq (where its proxy al Qaeda was defeated), Gaza (where its proxy Hamas was defeated), and even Lebanon (where its proxy Hezbollah failed to do anything while Israel was drubbing Hamas). Back in the mid-80s, Iran was willing to stop calling for the destruction of America for a few months, and put a stop to the killing of Americans by Iranian proxies. Today, the Iranians demand that America apologize and "reform." The terms of reference have been inverted. And sadly, the president seems inclined to accept the inversion.
But if all we want to do is talk, they’ll certainly talk. They may not do it publicly, but most talks between Iran and the United States have been private, like those apparently involving former Defense Secretary Perry, and those–little discussed in print so far–with former Ambassador William Miller. As the Iranians see it, if we’re talking, they can continue to pursue their atomic bomb. So talking is good for them.
It’s very unlikely to be good for us.