Is It Possible to Negotiate With Iran?

Cover story, Centerpoint, January 2010

Jan 04, 2010

For the last 30 years, since the fall of the Shah, the United States and Iran have remained estranged from each other. Over the past decade, the U.S. war with Iraq heightened Iran's fears that it might be the next U.S. target. Such fears have burgeoned into paranoia among top Iranian officials, who seek to quell dissent among the population and avert their contrived theory of an American plot to undermine the government. To that end, Iran's security services have threatened and jailed visiting American scholars and journalists, falsely accusing them of collaborating to foment a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

Such a fate befell the Wilson Center's Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari in 2007. On a trip to Iran to visit her mother, she was persistently interrogated, harassed, and ultimately jailed for nearly four months in solitary confinement, erroneously accused of conspiring to overthrow the Iranian regime.

Esfandiari recounts her story, with historical and cultural notes, in her recent book, My Prison, My Home.

"My adopted country [United States] and the country of my birth [Iran] were engaged in a dangerous, undeclared war," she wrote, "and I, and many others like me, were caught in their crossfire."

The current U.S. administration has expressed interest in a dialogue with Iran, but is negotiation even possible in the current atmosphere?

Negotiating With Iran
On November 4, 30 years ago, Islamist students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in support of the Iranian Revolution and took 53 Americans hostage for 14 months. One of those hostages, John Limbert, had arrived in Tehran only three months prior as a Foreign Service Officer.

At a December 2 Middle East Program event, Limbert recalled, "I had one of the worst ideas of my Foreign Service career." That idea was to go outside the steel door of the Embassy to see if he could negotiate with the young Iranians. He spoke Farsi, he said, but admitted his negotiating skills back then were not yet honed. He continues to question what he could have done differently then, during an event that would begin America's 30-year estrangement with Iran.

Limbert, now deputy assistant secretary in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, wrote a book, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History, that questions how, not if, the United States should negotiate with Iran. The book, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace, reviews four Iranian crises as case studies and offers a set of 14 recommendations for American negotiators, including tactics and traps to avoid, based on lessons he learned from his experience.

"The question is: how do we deal with our Iranian counterpart, whoever it is and whatever government he represents," said Limbert. He contends there are certain constants in negotiating with Iran, despite changes of government, which can help U.S. policymakers, whether they are dealing with imprisoned Americans, Afghanistan, the nuclear issue, or other concerns Limbert's suggestions for American negotiators include: choosing intermediaries with care; not getting tangled in legal language, and being aware of history. "The ghosts of history are always in the room," he said.

"The reality is we encounter a residue of hostility and suspicion on both sides that have kept the 30-year estrangement going," Limbert said. On the Iranian side, he pointed to the Iranian sentiment that the aim of American negotiators is to humiliate them. On the American side, he indicated the U.S. affinity to view Iranian leaders as fanatical, xenophobic, and suspicious is equally detrimental to negotiations.

There are no guarantees of success, Limbert said, but it's important to believe successful negotiations are possible. He advocated having realistic expectations, yet high expectations, which he said seem contradictory, but the approach must be to acknowledge negotiations will be difficult while aiming for success. "There will be setbacks," he said. "Progress can be a handshake, a meeting, something not said."

Recognizing that most of his suggestions do not pertain exclusively to the Iranian issue, Limbert said they could apply, and prove effective, in many other cases and regions. Likewise, he said, what has worked in other situations could also be successful when negotiating with Iran.

Covering Iran After the Election
Following the June 2009 Iranian presidential election, when incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced the winner amidst widespread cries of electoral fraud, mass protests erupted in the streets of Tehran and other major cities in support of reformist opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. In Tehran, many protesters were beaten, dozens were killed, and others arrested.

Protesters used social media tools, particularly text messaging and Twitter, to mobilize. Since then, the Iranian government has clamped down on communication, blocking websites, slowing down cell phone transmission, banning rallies, and heavily censoring, in some cases jailing, journalists.

A December 1 Wilson Center meeting, "Prisons and Protests: Covering Iran after the Election," featured two western journalists commenting on the evolving situation in Iran. Iason Athanasiadis, a British-Greek freelance journalist who specializes on the Middle East, was in Iran last June to cover the presidential elections and wound up spending three weeks incarcerated in Tehran's Evin Prison on trumped up spy charges.

At this meeting, Athanasiadis said although he lived in Iran for three years and speaks Farsi, Iranian officials view any freelance journalist with suspicion. A day before the election, the government criminalized investigative journalism. After the election, he said, "Times changed without hope of going back, given the mayhem that followed." He was in Iran on a seven-day visa and tried to keep a low profile, but said "The country was starting to slip away in a dramatic way."

The Iranian government is continuing its crackdown, said Athanasiadis, and is now arresting people whose names were revealed during the initial interrogations of the protesters last summer. The nuclear issue, even, he said is "moving in a sphere akin to taking Ebadi's prize." He was referring to human rights lawyer and democracy activist Shirin Ebadi, whose Nobel Peace Prize medal was taken by Iranian authorities days earlier. He called it a "pointless exercise" that shows the mentality of the regime, the full paranoia in their fight against "the western onslaught."

Describing the new elite in power, Athanasiadis said they are divorced from the revolutionaries who overthrew the Shah. This Revolutionary Guard, he said, the second generation in power, was defending their country in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s while some of the current Iranian leaders were studying abroad. The Revolutionary Guard is mainly book-educated, insulated from international perspectives, added Barbara Slavin, assistant managing editor for World and National Security at The Washington Times.

How pervasive is the fear of a velvet revolution among Iranian leaders, or is the paranoia an excuse to retain power? "Will they compromise? How far will they go?" Slavin asked.

Slavin said the last six months reveal a weak, increasingly isolationist Iranian government that is struggling to come to terms with domestic and international opposition. There is an 80 percent literacy rate; some 40 percent have Internet access, and 70 percent of the population is younger than 30.

Iran's attempt to portray itself to the world as the most democratic country in the region backfired when protests erupted over the unfair election, said Slavin. "How bloody will it be? The government is bound to fail," she said.
With its nuclear facility, Iran is trying to show the world it does not fear sanctions nor outside military action, said Slavin. "They believe they can clamp down on the opposition and move on."

Paranoid that a Velvet Revolution is imminent and concerned about powerful western influences, Iran's hard-line regime continues to exert pressures to thwart any opposition. Time will tell if the 30-year Iran-U.S. impasse can be overturned and productive results can be achieved.

Experts & Staff