A major theme of my recent book about the history of negotiating with rogue regimes (a new, paperback edition of which came out last week) is that American leaders’ habit of projecting Western motivations and sincerity onto partners often opens the door for adversaries to outplay the State Department at the bargaining table. It’s important to consider Iranian motivations and how Tehran’s decision-making and strategic goals differ from those of the United States.
There’s a certain pattern with regard to Iranian willingness to engage in talks that is deeply troubling: Whenever Iranian leaders demonstrate behavior that, under any honest and dispassionate reading of diplomatic norms or international law would constitute an act of war, those Iranian leaders either solicit or rush to accept offers to engage in a diplomatic process.
Within days of the original Iran hostage crisis, for example, Iranian intermediaries—foreign ministers Abulhassan Bani Sadr and Sadegh Qotbzadeh—accepted offers to negotiate with the Americans, and the Carter administration kept military action off the table. There was absolutely no progress, however, nor did Tehran mean there to be. The only thing that ultimately brought the hostages home was a combination of the Iraqi invasion of Iran—an event that raised the cost to Iran of its international isolation—and the election of Ronald Reagan, who Iranian leaders seemed to fear was stronger and not as indecisive as Jimmy Carter.
In 1983, Iranian-backed terrorist blew up the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut. The Marines, of course, were in Beirut as peacekeepers against the backdrop of Lebanon’s civil war. Once again, the Iranians faced no consequence: Instead, Reagan administration officials did not want to undercut the secret diplomacy which today Americans know as the Arms-for-Hostages scandal.
In 1996, Iranian operatives helped plan and execute the truck bombing of the Khobar Towers, killing 19 American airmen. The FBI investigated the terrorist attack and its report fingered very specific individuals in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Iranian regime. But as momentum grew for a response, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami offered a “dialogue of civilizations,” and Bill Clinton ordered the FBI report withdrawn, and shelved any thought of retaliation. While that dialogue never went anywhere, it did provide space for Iran both to bolster its nuclear program and support logistically the 9/11 hijackers.
The strategy continued under George W. Bush. Despite building a covert enrichment plant and, separately, experimenting with items like nuclear triggers that only had military applications, Iranians defused any serious repercussions by offering an olive branch to the European Union, and offering once again to negotiate. Hassan Rouhani, at the time Iran’s Supreme National Security Council chairman later bragged about how he had played the Europeans and even installed new centrifuges while he was receiving European plaudits for suspending enrichment.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s efforts to negotiate with Iran—an outreach with which Tehran flirted—simply gave Iran a pass from accountability as it smuggled in explosively formed projectiles and funded militias responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans.
Never before has a country repeatedly declared its goal was “death to America,” taken clear actions to achieve that aim, and suffered no serious consequences for its actions. The reason for this is Iran’s diplomatic brilliance. They have conditioned successive administrations as easily as Pavlov: They hint at diplomacy, and get a free pass for abusing and murdering Americans.
Secretary of State John Kerry may see himself on the verge of winning the Nobel Peace prize he so passionately desires, but the Iranians are playing him like a fiddle. At the same time, they realize by feigning sincerity they can achieve their nuclear aims, once again bypassing consequence for their illegal activities. How sad it is that the White House is playing into Supreme Leader Khamenei’s hands.