May 30, 2011

Engaging Iran: First, Break the Rules

The relationship between Washington and Tehran has been bound by a set of rules that has perpetuated mutual mistrust for more than 30 years. Ultimately, the only way to break the stranglehold of these iron rules is through dialogue that cuts through the fear, hostility and stereotypes that have come to paralyze US-Iranian relations.

By John Limbert for ISN Insights

For over 30 years, Washington and Tehran have been locked in a downward spiral of mutual hostility and suspicion in which each side's actions confirm the worst fears of the other. Instead of talking, the two sides glare at each other across an abyss, and trade insults, accusations and some­times worse. Each side has somehow be­come the other's perfect enemy, the mani­festation of all that is evil.

Matters were not always this bad. On 31 December 1977, US President Jimmy Carter was a guest of the Shah in Tehran. The two exchanged toasts, compliments and expres­sions of friendship. Just over a year later the Shah was gone, and Iran was in chaos. In April 1980 the US formally broke relations six months after a group of students took American diplomats hostage, and those in authority in Tehran endorsed the outrage and sanctified an atmosphere of mob rule that haunts Iran to the present day.

I for one - caught in the middle of the 1979-81 violence - did not believe that our two countries' estrangement would last so long. I thought that tempers would cool and after five or ten years the US and the new Islamic Republic would be able to converse about what mattered to both: terrorism, narcot­ics, Afghanistan and other issues. We would converse not as friends, but as two states whose interests compelled us to do so.

The rules that bind

I was wrong. In 30 years there has been no such dialogue, friendly or otherwise. In its absence, subsequent American administra­tions, facing the reality of Iran, have tried almost everything. After the appalling ex­periences of Carter with the hostages and Ronald Reagan with the Iran-contra scan­dal, most presidents would have preferred to ignore Iran. Finding themselves forced to deal with it, however, they sought to con­tain it, bribe it, overthrow it, change it or make peace with it.

Nothing worked. History is littered with the wreckage of these efforts, which foundered on a combination of mistrust, misreadings, bad luck, bad timing and negative precon­ceptions. After 30 years of hostility, floun­dering and missteps, officials in both Teh­ran and Washington find themselves in the unwavering grip of five rules that, like the biblical "laws of the Medes and the Persians that alter not", have come to control both sides. The rules are:

1. Never walk through an open door. In­stead, bang your head against a wall.

2. Never say yes to anything the other side proposes. Doing so will make you look weak.

3. The other side is infinitely hostile, de­vious, domineering and irrational. It is the embodiment of all that is evil.

4. Therefore, anything the other side pro­poses must contain some kind of trick. Its only purpose in life is to cheat you.

5. Whenever you seem to be making progress, someone or some diabolical coincidence will mess it up.

As early as his primary campaign in 2008, President (then candidate) Barack Obama recognized the pattern of futility over the last 30 years, and urged a change in US-Iranian relations. He persisted in advocat­ing this policy in the face of opponents' criticism (from both political parties). In the early months of his administration, with interviews, speeches and public and private messages, he made a significant shift in both the content and tone of American dis­course about Iran.

The results of these efforts have been dis­appointing. There has been only one high-level official meeting between the two sides (Saeed Jalili and William Burns at Geneva in October 2009), but in general the Iranian side, for whatever reason, seems unable to respond to Obama's offers. Jalili - appar­ently acting under strict instructions - os­tentatiously avoided meeting Burns at the Istanbul talks in January 2011. As Obama himself put it, "The Iranians seem unable to get to yes."

Why is this so? Analysts point to fractious domestic politics in Tehran and to the heavy baggage of mutual mistrust accumulated over decades. Rules three and four above condemn us to assume the worst about each other. Most important, Obama's new approach has thrown Iranians off balance. Rather than berate them, he has quoted Persian poetry, sent them greetings for the Iranian New Year and spoken of mutual re­spect. To this approach, unlike the denunci­ations by Obama's predecessor, the Iranians simply do not know how to respond.

Breaking the stranglehold

Given all the negatives that haunt this re­lationship, it turned out that breaking the rules was going to be a serious challenge. Despite efforts to make changes, the rules have kept their stranglehold. The problem now is this: Since the original attempts to open a dialogue have run into difficulty, both sides have reverted to doing what they know best and have done for 30 years. In both capitals, officials build careers on how creatively they can bash the other side. Bashing we both know how to do; it turned out we did not know how to change a dys­functional relationship and end 30 years of futility.

Although the rules remain rigid, there are four steps that can help us overcome at least some of the hostility and misunderstand­ing that has characterized Iranian-Ameri­can relations for too long.

1. Have great patience and forbear­ance. There will be setbacks, but do not let them divert us from the goal. Recall what the Algerian media­tors told Carter over 30 years ago as they struggled to negotiate an end to our long captivity: Do not give up.

2. Put aside negative preconceptions and assumptions. If we go into an encoun­ter with Iranians assuming that they are simply too stubborn, too irrational, too unreasonable, etc., then we will find them as we assume them to be.

3. Deal with the ghosts in the room. They hover whenever Americans and Iranians encounter each other. Ever present are ghosts of the 1979 hostage crisis, the 1964 SOFA controversy, the 1953 coup against Mossadegh and even the ghosts of the 1827 Treaty of Turkmanchai. All are there, and if we ignore them, they will still haunt us.

4. In addition to patience, have high ex­pectations. Assume failure (through the fault of the other) and you will get it. Assume success is possible, how­ever modestly you define it, and you may be surprised by what you can achieve.

In the last analysis there is only one way to break the stranglehold of the iron rules. Americans and Iranians must talk to each other in order to break down the fear, hos­tility and stereotypes that have come to paralyze our relations. Not doing so for 30 years has put us on a road to nowhere. Talking may be difficult and frustrating, but in the end there is no other way to get us off that road.

Dr John Limbert is Class of 1955 Profes­sor of Middle Eastern Studies at the United States Naval Academy. In 1979-81, as a Foreign Service Officer, he was held pris­oner at the US Embassy in Tehran.

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