John Limbert discussed how the United States could negotiate with Iran in its attempts to end the 30-year estrangement between the two countries in his new book, Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History. The essential question of the book is not whether the United States should negotiate with Iran, Limbert emphasized, but how such negotiations should be conducted. In his book, Limbert reviewed four Iranian case studies and offered 14 recommendations for moving toward this objective.
The Middle East Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted the book discussion with Limbert, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the US Department of State, on December 2; Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program, moderated the event.
Limbert opened the talk by reflecting on how his book begins with a personal and policy failure, referencing his time as a hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran from November 1979 to January 1981 after a group of Iranian students overtook it. While describing one of the worst ideas in his Foreign Service career as attempting to negotiate with the young Iranians, Limbert indicated he wrote the book with the primary motivation of determining how he could have done better. His intent was to discover an effective approach to negotiations and to provide American negotiators with lessons he learned from his experience.
Limbert's book includes four case studies that underscore certain constants in the negotiation procedure, despite changes in Iran's government. From these case studies, he distilled lessons specifying what we can learn that will help current US negotiators. In negotiations with Iranians, Limbert argued the "ghosts of history are always in the room." It is not necessary to know exactly who these ghosts represent, however, but to be aware they are present and to successfully deal with them. One does not need to be an Iran expert, he stated, but one does need to maintain awareness of such history.
The book also includes 14 ideas or suggestions for US negotiations with Iran, which include both tactics that have worked and traps to avoid. Limbert provided a disclaimer, stating there are no guarantees of success even when following these suggestions because of residual feelings of hostility and suspicion on both Iranian and American sides that have fueled the 30-year estrangement. On the Iranian side, Limbert pointed to the Iranian sentiment that American negotiators' aim is to humiliate them. On the American side, he indicated the US affinity to view Iranian leaders as fanatical, xenophobic, and suspicious is equally detrimental to negotiations.
While Limbert acknowledged negotiations between the United Stats and Iran will be difficult, he stressed the importance of avoiding such negative assumptions. He also highlighted two seemingly contradictory approaches to negotiations that include both realistic expectations and high expectations. Thus, Limbert argued it is imperative to understand the difficulty of negotiations yet also to believe successful negotiations are possible. Recognizing that some of these suggestions do not pertain exclusively to the Iranian issue, Limbert stated these could apply in many other cases and also prove highly effective. Likewise, what has worked in other situations could also be successful when negotiating with Iran.
Drafted by Kendra Heideman on behalf of the Middle East Program.