Politics & Policy

Talking with the Mullahs

Obama thinks he has a bright new idea. In fact, Clinton and Bush tried it, and failed.

President Obama keeps telling us that he wants to sit down and talk with Iran’s ruling mullahs, as if this would be a drastic change from the past. But the Bush administration negotiated extensively with Tehran, in an effort to “bring Iran back into the family of nations.” Indeed, by early autumn 2006, they were convinced that a deal had been struck, and they were preparing the script for the public announcement.

They were deceived, and the tale is worth careful study by anyone who thinks Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s Iran really wants good relations with the United States. Most of the story was broadcast by the BBC late last month, and it featured the Bush State Department’s point man on things Iranian, former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns, who confirmed the basic facts on camera.

Contrary to what many Bush critics said at the time, in mid-2006 the president was not gearing up for a war with Iran. Instead, he and his top aides — most notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — were engaged in negotiations to come to a modus vivendi with Tehran. Earlier that year, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had convinced Secretary Rice that the Iranians were ready to make a deal. He told her that the Iranians would suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for a lifting of Western sanctions and a process that would “bring Iran back into the family of nations.”

Rice agreed, and she convinced President Bush to support the initiative. There were then numerous exchanges between American and Iranian officials, notably Ali Larijani, then in charge of all negotiations regarding the nuclear project. (Larijani was the Europeans’ favorite Iranian; there were apparently excellent “vibes” whenever Larijani dealt with them.) As in the Clinton years, the United States agreed to expand “cultural exchanges” as a sign of good will and openness, and American officials spoke, both privately and publicly, about the “carrots” that would be given to Iran if only the nuclear-enrichment activities ceased.

By the end of the summer, the Americans believed they had reached agreement with the mullahs, and the stage was set for a public announcement at the United Nations General Assembly in September. Larijani would come to New York and announce a suspension of the enrichment activities, and Rice would be there to announce that America was lifting sanctions on Iran.

As the denouement approached, the Iranians made an unexpected request. On the Friday prior to his scheduled Monday arrival, Larijani said he would be traveling with a large delegation. Could the United States quickly issue 300 visas? Rice decided, to the consternation of Homeland Security personnel, that she didn’t want to give the Iranians any excuse for backing out of the deal, and staff worked overtime to check the Iranian names against our list of intelligence officers and terrorism enablers. The visas were issued in record time.

The terms of the deal were very closely held; they were not presented at interagency meetings chaired by National Security Council staff members (where such things were normally discussed), and high-level Pentagon officials, as well as top officials in the vice president’s office, were unaware of the deal. Shortly before the deadline, Burns and his assistants went to New York for the happy event.

It never took place. Larijani and the 300 never came to New York. Instead, President Ahmadinejad appeared and delivered his usual blistering denunciation of the United States, along with a visionary invocation of the imminent arrival of the 12th Imam. Burns retained hope that the grand bargain would yet be announced, and he remained in Manhattan for several days, awaiting Larijani.

The whole thing was rather like Groundhog Day, a replay of the failed “grand bargain” of the Clinton years. At that time, too, the secretary of state and other top diplomats were certain a deal had been struck. Sanctions were lifted, the president and secretary of state publicly apologized for past American behavior, and cultural exchanges were the order of the day. In the end, Supreme Leader Khamenei delivered a brusque insult, and the mirage disappeared.

There is thus nothing new in Obama’s call for negotiations with the mullahs; his two immediate predecessors both did it, both thought an agreement had been reached, and both learned otherwise. What reason is there to believe things could be different today? The Iranians have given us little reason to think so. Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, normally considered a “moderate,” suggested as much in December, and insulted Obama en passant: “There is little difference between statements of Obama and George Bush. . . . For the past30  years, you [the U.S.] have desired dialogue with us and we didn’t talk to you. Now you propose conditions? . . . Have you forgotten that the Irish McFarlane came here and our authorities were not willing to talk to him and our second- and third-rate authorities talked to them? . . . I don’t expect from someone who considers himself of African race and a suppressed black in America to repeat the words of Bush.” George Buopose conditions? . . . Have you forgotten that the Irish Mrd-rate authorities talked to them? . . . I don’t expect from someone who considers him

Those who yearn for talks with the mullahs should remember a line spoken by the villain in the movie Goldfinger. In the middle of the movie James Bond is spread-eagled on a sheet of gold, and there’s a laser beam cutting through it, about to slice him in half. Goldfinger is standing on a little balcony. Bond looks up and asks, “Do you expect me to talk?”

Goldfinger replies, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.”

Just as the mullahs do.

– Michael Ledeen is freedom scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...

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