Catalytic Diplomacy
Epilogue: Iran
The successes in this section–on scientific exchange and political exchange–all occurred during the Khatami period. It seemed like a good time to try for an opening with Iran. Compared with the present period, it was! And more political actors should have tried harder in that period.

But, in fact, President Khatami was intimidated by the strength of the conservatives and very much under their control. After his term of office, during a visit to New York, he confessed in a small meeting his “greatest regret.”

Guess what it was? On an occasion when he was addressing the United Nations General Assembly as Iranian President, President Clinton stayed to hear his address and tried to make eye contact with him. But President Khatami avoided the opportunity to shake hands.

On his return, he advised the Supreme Leader that he had avoided President Clinton’s overture and was asked, in return: “Why?” He responded, “Because of you.” This was his regret—not to have dared to shake hands with President Clinton!


Now, after the 2009 elections, we see the underlying latent power and strength of the conservatives and why Khatami had good reason to believe that he was outgunned. The conservatives managed to steal the election and to remain unified and repressive in the face of the extraordinary courage and unity of the reformists. (Note)

But recent history has also shown how much support is becoming available to reformers of courage like Mir-Hossein Mousavi. On the other hand, even Mousavi has indicated that his own determination was shaped by the resonance he was getting from the public; he announced that, in response to this support, he would not let the demonstrators down.

What have I learned from my limited experience dealing with Iran?


Notwithstanding the fact that its Constitution provides for a Supreme Leader, Iranian decision-making can appear, from below, to be quite chaotic, which bodes ill.

No permission or ruling seems final until the event in question transpires because some other authority may intervene. The smart money in Iran seems to play its cards last because, in the alternative, it may be trumped by another person or faction. And the capacity to say “no” to some policy, i.e., the proliferation of vetoes, seems to exceed the capacity of the system to reach and stick to a constructive position.

Under these circumstances, little can be organized from the outside. Someone, or some faction, inside the Iranian system has to want some policy to happen and to lobby persistently and over time. And nothing can be considered agreed upon until the agreement is finally implemented.

In this regard, negotiating with Iran can be more difficult than negotiating with North Korea, where the toing and froing of the Government’s negotiating position is part of a carefully guided strategy rather than the resolution of different factions.

The fatwa section confirms the chaotic quality of decision-making, wherein the Supreme Leader purports to issue a fatwa but no one can figure out exactly what it says, and the effort in the Majlis to put the fatwa into law is clumsy and confused. Even if the whole fatwa approach was, at some level, an effort to mislead, it was not carried out in a coherent fashion.

Also, the Islamic religion—which gives each and every Ayatollah the authority to issue conflicting religious instructions—is destructive to consensus building.


As a consequence, it is hard to be optimistic about negotiating with Iran over complex issues. Our experience saw a lot of unapologetic bait and switch. For example:

* We were led to expect high-level personnel at a meeting but when the meeting took place, only a low-level person arrived and he did not even want to give his name! (This was in 1995).

* In 1999, we were led to expect that our very successful hosting of an Iranian delegation would be reciprocated. In fact, no serious effort was made to reciprocate the visit and it required intense lobbying and the intercession of one influential member of the Iranian delegation to secure the return invitation.

* In 2000, when the invitation was implemented, we were led to believe that a series of banquets would be held in our honor in Tehran but, on arrival, we discover that these “banquets” are, in fact, just dinners with one person or another from the delegation we had hosted in America in 1999. With one exception, we were introduced to virtually no one.

* When sending Billington to Iran, we demanded at his request, and were led to expect, “security assurances” of a specific and detailed kind. When the time comes, after much negotiation, the “assurance” takes the form of a bland assertion: “No assurance is really necessary”.

The Iranian side tends to pocket concessions. Secretary of State Madeline Albright saw this when she made concessions on tariffs on carpets and pistachios in a careful speech that actually expressed regret for the overthrow of Mossadegh. There was no real reciprocation.

Indeed, the Iranian official involved in responding (the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations) was careful not to arrive at the Washington conference where she was making her speech until she had left to avoid the unpleasantness of having to acknowledge her presence.

In negotiating with Iran, one is constantly advised, encouraged and prodded to make concessions with the assurance that, if this is done, some good result may, might or is likely to transpire. In fact, the interlocutor may well think, hope or expect such a favorable response. But, all too often, this assurance is based on his or her speculation—or on some encouragement the interlocutor has received—that is less than dispositive. A State Department official summed this up quite well once when he advised: “Iran always disappoints.”

Needless to say, negotiating with America is not easy either. It has its own bait and switch tendencies. The Executive Branch may make a negotiating commitment only to find that the Congress will not agree. And, depending upon which party is in power, the U.S. posture can be arrogant and overbearing in different degrees. But the Iranians are raised in a part of the world where tough bargaining is traditional and expected and the Americans are used to quite a different style of reciprocating concessions. So negotiating will not be easy.


Although Iranians are quite friendly to Americans, especially on the street, Iranian officials can be prickly and quick to take offense.

For example, an early letter to a high-ranking Iranian—who had received a Ph.D. in America and was, I assumed, quite Westernized— was treated as an insult. Why? Well, the opening letter had offered to pay his full expenses to the United States. And what was wrong with that? Nothing, except that this offer of paying expenses should have been made, I was advised, at a later date and not in the first letter where it was deemed demeaning!

I was surprised when a very helpful and friendly Iranian scientist was constantly apologizing for small things. After a while, it dawned on me that he had learned that, in Iran, a very low posture was protective. Iran is, indeed, a country where one has to keep one's head down because political rocks are constantly being thrown from unexpected directions.


A related more serious economic problem is that the status quo in Iran—which definitely includes opposing the Great Satan—has much support from monied and corrupt interests that benefit financially from avoiding a Western embrace and keeping things as they are.


In this year, 2009, the credibility of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been irreparably lost. The bizarre efforts to reassure the faithful with show trials based on forced confessions including torture reveal all too vividly the mentality of the current power elite and the desperate last-ditch situation in which it sees itself.

As time goes on, new generations of younger Iranians—whose consciousness has been associated with ever more unstoppable and revealing methods of communication—will hollow out what remaining support for the regime exists. Eventually, in some unforeseeable way, the Islamic Republic of Iran will turn into something quite different as the Soviet Union turned into the Russian Federation through the determination of Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

At that point, Western-style negotiations may well be fruitful. Until then, the “negotiations” are, unfortunately, more likely to take the form of a balancing of reciprocal threats. But this is not certain and efforts to negotiate should be pursued continually.

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