Saturday, December 31, 2011

Post #140 - Give Us the Shah!

(More on the John Limbert book, Negotiating with Iran.)

What lessons for would-be negotiators come out of the debacle of 1953-54?

"Inequalities between the two sides created contradictory perceptions." (A basic tenet of conflict resolution is that encounters where one side is clearly disadvantaged -- think of a meeting between high school administrators and students that takes place in the principal's office -- has a slim chance of being effective and successful.) Limbert cites another author writing about the crisis: "Neither of the two alternative British demands -- another concession or compensation for operations until 1990 [over 35 years] -- would have been made, let alone succeeded, if Britain's dispute had been with Holland, Sweden, or any other small European country. It was clear that Iran's position was weak, not on legal grounds, but in terms of the country's relative world power." "The British...," says Limbert, "seemed genuinely confused when the Iranians refused to behave as the weaker side should and insisted on remaining ungrateful for past British beneficence...the failure to understand how the Iranians' view of their past was shaping their actions and pushing them into unreasonable positions" was the "larger failure."
"The Iranian side sought an abstraction called justice." -- "The two sides in the dispute...could not establish the all-important objective criteria, acceptable to both sides...against which to measure a settlement." "They had demonized [the other side] beyond all recognition or rationality." Like the hostage-takers in 1979, "rather than play the game by the rules, the British would turn over the board" -- and create a coup. (Additionally, "the United States...was...perceived to be the real power behind, and the daily instructor of the absolute and arbitrary state [introduced by the Shah].")

The overrunning of the U.S. Embassy/Tehran
From there, Limbert moves on to the crisis that most directly involved him -- and which had a profound impact on his life and those of his family members -- The Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1979-81. Underscoring a point he had made earlier in the book, Limbert begins by noting that "When Americans and Iranians deal with each other today, there is symmetry in their respective views of recent history. Each side sees itself as the injured party...the CIA-sponsored coup d'etat...gave Iranians twenty-five years of royal dictatorship [while]...the hostage crisis...lurks behind some American analysts' Nazi metaphors for Iran and descriptions such as rogue state, axis of evil, Iranian threat, and world's number-one state sponsor of terrorism." Stereotypes abound, such as "fanaticism, violence, irrationalism, self-destruction, and disregard to the norms of international relations.:

"At the beginning of foreign eyes Iran appeared stable, and the shah's position appeared secure." (I must admit that I did not foresee his downfall in the late '60's, though there had been demonstrations and harsh reactions to them. I did not, however, that in my entire time in Iran, I only met a single person -- a mid-level eduction official -- who seemed to genuinely admire and laud the Shah. Others, depending on how well I knew them, were either non-commital or critical.)

"When the Shah's downfall came, it came quickly. President and Mrs. Carter spent New Year's 1978 in Tehran" toasting America's primary regional ally. "...just more than a year later, fierce political storms had shattered its surface calm...[by February 1979] the last units of the armed forces supporting the monarchy collapsed, and the revolution had triumphed." "Iranians of widely opposing political views -- nationalists, Marxists, religious ideologues, and others -- had formed a fragile coalition for the sole purpose of removing the shah. Now that he was gone, the real battle would begin," which ended in the creation of the Islamic Republic. "...the middle-class and upper middle-class nationalist leaders had neither the stomach nor the talent for the violent and brutal street fighting that wins revolutionary struggles."

Limbert outlines the decision-making process which allowed Washington to ignore the counsel of the best-placed persons who saw the hazards in admitting the Shah to the United States. Bruce Laingen (then-charge d'affaires at the Embassy, who, through a fluke of circumstance, spent his months of incarceration at the Iranian foreign ministry, rather than at the Embassy compound) warned his superiors in July of 1979: " give refuge to the Shah would almost certainly trigger massive demonstrations against our embassy...there could be no assurance that...Iran's regular military and police forces [can] relied on to apply the force that might be needed to prevent violence against us." (Laingen himself wrote about the saga in 1992, in Yellow Ribbon: The Secret Journal of Bruce Laingen.)

The Carter Oval Office, 1979
The president himself asked the advisors who were pushing a "humanitarian" welcome for the Shah: "What are you guys going to advise me to do when they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?" (This was reported in Time Magazine -- an issue that Limbert first saw while in captivity in Tehran!) We see that, "Given the history of American-Iranian relations...few Iranians at any level were going to believe that Washington was acting from humanitarian motives to aid a critically ill shah." The extreme religious faction chose to view the hostage crisis as an opportunity "to crush its opponents -- be they nationalist, leftists, or traditional conservatives."

In the long term, Iran paid a price for its "thumbing its nose at international respectability." "With the Islamic Republic having made gratuitous enemies not only of the United States but of its own wealthy Arab neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE all became important financial backers of Iraq [in the Iran-Iraq war].

Americans "found themselves holding no cards at all." Direct military action was "too dangerous and politically unacceptable," while doing nothing -- "downplaying the crisis, minimizing its importance" -- was equally impossible.

Looking at the hostage crisis in retrospect and with the benefit of a very long opportunity to think about what happened and why, Limbert finds these take-aways:

  • "American officials needed to expect the unusual and avoid the easy assumption."
  • "Officials should have listened to those who knew (even a little). They should have remembered the lessons of history and understood the other side's perceptions of that history."
  • "Patience and timing were everything," in finding a way out of the crisis, and
  • "The parties had to find serious intermediaries." Unlike what happened later in the Keystone Cops Iran-Contra affair, "the professionalism and the credibility of the Algerian intermediaries were to prove crucial."

(My next post on Limbert's book with begin with the Lebanon Hostages.)

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