Saturday, December 31, 2011

Post #141 - And then things got really bad...

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

After the hostage crisis and the revolution, US-relations went into the deep-freeze, or, as Limbert says "an isolation chamber." "Iran expertise and Persian language skills within the bureaucracy were allowed to wither." Moreover, "the United States became a virtual ally of the Iraqis in their war with the Islamic Republic." (I have written in earlier posts about this period and American complicity in its horrors.) "In this situation," Limbert reports, "negotiators came to neglect their own underlying interest in favor of doing maximum harm to the adversary."

It was into this atmosphere of tension and distance that the need to free Americans being held in Lebanon came to the fore. On the Iranian side, their national survival depended on feeding the supply lines to the troops on the Iraqi front and defending Iranian cities from bombardment. In addition, for Americans, the Cold War calculus of always and everywhere preventing a larger quantum of Soviet influence was a factor that further confounded this and many other policy discussions.

A National Security Decision Document drafted in 1985 suggested that the administration should "encourage Western allies and friends [Limbert: i.e. Israel] to help Iran meet its import requirements so as to reduce the attractiveness of Soviet assistance and trade offers, while demonstrating the value of correct relations with the West. This includes provision of selected military equipment as determined on a case-by-case basis." This pertains, we should remember, to a country with which we had no diplomatic relations, and whose active enemy was being subsidized and supplied by the United States and other Western countries!

Robert McFarlane
"Almost twenty years later, [National Security Advisor Robert] McFarlane admitted that this reasoning that a Soviet threat to Iran justified arms sales had no basis in any evidence" -- indeed, "had no foundation in fact of contemporary events or intelligence material." [Limbert quotes Trita Parsi, who interviewed McFarlane.] The U.S. officials "were operating in total ignorance and were relying on the views of a collection of arms merchants, con men, hustlers, and others pursuing their own political and personal goals."

Eventually, over one thousand TOW missiles, Hawk missile spare parts and other armaments were shipped to Iran through Israel, and the funds generated found their way to U.S.-supported rebels in Nicaragua -- an illegal disbursement of government funds. When all this ultimately became known to the Congress and the public, it was a "scandal that nearly brought down the Reagan administration" (as the hostage crisis had contributed to the end of the Carter administration). "As Secretary of State Shultz told congressional investigators, 'Our taken to the cleaners.'"

Eventually, the hostages in Lebanon did gain their freedom. Again, the lessons that come out of this initially bungled and later successful effort:

  • "[T]he parties had to choose intermediaries with great care."
  • "Negotiators had to deal carefully with harsh domestic political climates and with the legacy of bitterness and hostility between Iranians and Americans." Limbert makes clear that the climate was truly "toxic" on both sides during this period.
  • "The Islamic Republic's priority was its own survival." Why should this be surprising? Iran was at war -- eventually losing 100,000 or more of its citizens. Plus, Iranians felt that "the world [was] arrayed against them."
  • "A search for justice remained at the center of Iran's negotiating position." They wanted the world to acknowledge that they were the aggrieved party -- both when outsiders manipulated their internal affairs and when Iraq started a bloody conflict. 

Bazaaris in Tehran, selling "pesteh" (pistachios)
What Limbert finds, in his meticulous sifting of more than a century of history, is that the same themes and gambits recur. Iranians are no strangers to negotiation -- "The reality is that just about every interaction in Iran -- from buying sugar to obtaining a driver's license -- involves negotiation." Americans often fail miserably (and leave disgruntled and befuddled) when they attempt to buy articles in an Iranian bazaar -- the heart of Persian commerce since before history began. It is not that the vendor does not wish to engage them, or that he seeks to cheat them. They are simply ignorant of the long-standing, generally well-known rules and protocols of negotiating Persian-style. (I will do a later post on "chooneh-zadan" - the art of bargaining.)

Legalism -- or, as we like to glorify it "the rule of law" -- was of dubious value in the context of negotiation with Iranians. As one Iranian expert asked, rhetorically, "Had treaty after treaty not proved that international law was simply a political device to ensure Western control?"[Ansari, cited by Limbert]. Further, "foreign powers...frustrated Iranians' attempts to gain control of their own destiny by suppressing the Constitutional Movement (in 1906-11) and by overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh's nationalist government (in 1953)." In other words, the West seemed to be saying (like my five-year-old grandson with a boardgame), "play by my rules, unless I decide to change them." "When Britain and Czarist Russia..." Limbert points out, "signed their 1907 treaty that divided Persia into spheres of influence, the preamble stated that both parties pledged to respect Persian independence and territorial integrity. As one contemporary British observor put it, 'Such statements are a sure sign that a country is about to lose both its territorial integrity and its independence.'"

Technical language or provisions came to be associated with the reign of the West-leaning Shah. Therefore, the Islamic Republic, like the Cultural Revolution in China or the reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, put a negative valuation on intellectuals and technocrats (further hindering the progress of the country, but emphasizing that a "new day" had dawned).

Rhetoric may be florid and belligerent, but Iranians do respect power and disdain weakness. "Iranians," Limbert notes, " see "fetneh" (disorder) as their worst calamity, far worse than a despot's arbitrary or harsh rule...a powerful ruler is seen as the only safeguard against the anarchy that is always lurking below the surface." However, justice is also a central value. "One early twelfth-century Islamic historian expressed this ideal of the just ruler as follows: 'There is no kingdom without an army, no army without wealth, no wealth without material prosperity, and no material prosperity without justice." Many Iranians believe "that justice should be quick, decisive, and visible" (which explains much of the "reign of terror" that enveloped Iran following the consolidation of Islamic Republic power.

In sum, during the "thirty-year destructive U.S.-Iranian relationship of mutual grievance, hostility, and recrimination, name-calling, finger-pointing, posturing, and sermonizing have had few results." "Neither Americans nor Iranians," Limbert concludes, "should be proud of their country's actions in this sorry history. The American side has justified its 1953 actions by the necessities of the Cold War and fear of Soviety expansion into an unstable Iran; the Iranian side has justified its actions in 1979-80 by the postrevolutionary hysteria and prevailing chaos."

This important and carefully-crafted book ends on a positive note: "[W]e should put aside those prejudices that have convinced us -- before a dialogue has even begun -- that no accommodation (short of surrender) will even be possible. Expect negotiations to fail through the fault of the other side and they probably will. Expect better and success becomes possible."

Let me wrap up this excursion into sanity, by quoting from today's Washington Post op-ed page, a piece entitled "Counter Iran with diplomacy, not threats."  It was co-authored by William H. Luers (former ambassador and past-president of the U.N. Association),  and Thomas R. Pickering (former undersecretary of state and ambassador to Russia, Israel, Jordan and the United Nations):

"The United States must set out on a relentless search for a better way to get at this seemingly unknowable regional power.  Without that patient search for different ways to deal with Tehran, Washington will be stuck with a policy that will not change Iran's practices or its regime and could lead to a catastrophic war."

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