For a week prior to the United Nations General Assembly meeting, speculation was increasing among pundits and politicians alike that an unprecedented thaw between Washington and Tehran was in the works: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was finally ready to grasp President Obama’s outstretched hand — never mind the dissonance between what Rouhani said to external audiences and what he said at home, or the fact that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his aides had repeatedly made clear that no one should read concession into Iran’s new diplomatic tone. It should have come as no surprise, then, that Rouhani has slapped away Obama’s hand, bolstering Rouhani’s own position at home and diminishing Obama in the process.
While history is never destined to repeat, it does inform. In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a study of the history of US diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I include a chapter that examines the past three decades of American diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. There have been two parallel episodes in US-Iranian history.
The first occurred in 1989: It was a year of great optimism for a breakthrough in US-Iran ties. The Iran-Iraq War had ended. George H.W. Bush’s inaugural address included much of the same rhetorical underpinnings as Obama’s would 20 years later. Within months, Ayatollah Khomeini would die, and both diplomats and Iran experts assured both the State Department and the press that the new Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, did not come with the same ideological baggage.
Soon thereafter, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—whom many American officials saw as a pragmatist—was elected Iran’s new president. Rafsanjani, at his own inauguration, appeared to reciprocate Bush’s outreach. The Bush White House and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft asked the United Nations to confirm Rafsanjani’s willingness to talk and let bygones be bygones. When the UN’s intermediary arrived in Tehran, he was quickly ushered into a meeting with Rafsanjani, who let it be known in no uncertain terms that his rhetoric was merely that, and that there would be no change of policy toward the United States.
Fast forward almost a decade. As Bill Clinton’s term ended, his legacy muddied by second-term scandals, he sought (like many second-term presidents) to define his legacy with diplomatic breakthroughs. He and his national security team set their sights on three goals: Re-establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and a presidential handshake between Clinton and Khatami. Clinton succeeded on the first, and seemed to come within a hair’s breadth of achieving the second, before Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat walked away from the deal to which his own negotiators had agreed.
For a short time, White House and State Department aides thought they might pull off a coup on the third, and again the United Nations played center stage. The UN had carefully choreographed a meeting opportunity between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi against the backdrop of a meeting regarding Afghanistan. Albright was to remain in the room alone while Kharrazi entered ahead of the meeting. But, at the last minute, Khamenei ordered Kharrazi to skip the meeting, leaving Albright twiddling her thumbs. The two never met, and so never discussed any further meeting between Clinton and Khatami.
The three episodes have much in common.
- First, the supreme leader in each case was the same. There will be no substantive change in US-Iran relations while Khamenei is alive and supreme leader.
- Second, both the White House and State Department associated Iranian diplomatic rhetoric with a sincere desire for change, regardless of warning signs inside Iran that suggested the change in diplomatic tone was tactical but did not signal a change in policy.
- Third, in each case, journalists and analysts shed professionalism for advocacy, and became cheerleaders for a meeting, willingly cherry-picking any facts in order to amplify optimism.
- Fourth, in each case diplomats handling the Iran account discounted the importance with which senior Iranian officials embrace the ideology of the Islamic Republic, and instead began projecting their own desire for reconciliation upon a regime which bases its legitimacy upon its opposition to the “Great Satan.”
I, too, long for the day when America and Iran are again close allies, and when they can visit each other’s countries without hassles or politics interceding. There is no fast track to reconciliation, however.