Over and over again, we are told that direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations would be a radical departure from past practice, and might decisively improve the "relationship."
Both claims are false. Direct negotiations would not be new - talks between the United States and the leaders of the Islamic Republic have been conducted by every administration since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini brought down the shah - and there is no reason to believe that a "grand bargain" is on the horizon.
The Obama administration started talking to the Iranian regime even before the 2008 elections, and those talks have continued apace. They have recently hit a snag over a familiar subject: hostages.
Although the talks between the two countries are invariably conducted in secret, the long story of U.S.-Iranian negotiations is abundantly documented. The United States started negotiating with the leaders of Khomeini's revolutionary movement even as the shah was preparing to flee Tehran in early 1979. High-ranking officials of the Carter administration's State Department and Pentagon worked feverishly to maintain the military, commercial, cultural, and diplomatic alliance between the two countries. These efforts famously failed, but the talks continued, even during the long hostage crisis, and led to a formal agreement (the Algerian Accords of 1981) that produced the release of the American hostages on Ronald Reagan's Inauguration Day.
Every American administration thereafter attempted to reach a modus vivendi with the Iranians. Reagan's efforts led to weapons sales and further hostage releases. Clinton and Albright publicly apologized for previous American policies, and eased visa restrictions and sanctions. George W. Bush actually believed that Condoleezza Rice and her deputy Nicholas Burns had negotiated an historic deal with Iran's regime (in the person of Ali Larijani) in the late summer of 2006.
The conviction that Bush never tried to reach a working agreement with the Iranians is deeply embedded in the conventional wisdom (and in Iranian versions of events; see for example the preachy oped in the New YorkTimes last Friday, in which two Iranians say that when the Bush administration offered to talk, "the Iranian government rejected the offer of direct, high-level talks as insincere") yet full details are in a multi-part BBC television series broadcast several years ago. In that documentary, major participants (including Nicholas Burns) appear on camera recounting how, at the last minute, the Iranians requested three hundred extra visas for a monster delegation to fly to the UN. The visas were duly issued - Rice understandably didn't want to give the Iranians an easy out - but Larijani's plane never left Tehran. Burns and Rice had gone to New York to greet Larijani and celebrate the historic moment. When the Iranians failed to appear, Rice flew back to Washington. Burns hung around for a couple of days, vainly hoping the Iranians would eventually show up.
The Obama team began talking directly to the Iranians even before the 2008 elections - a campaign representative traveled to Iran to present the candidate's hopes for improved relations - and the efforts continued throughout Obama's first term. The latest talks took place in Lausanne and Doha in the months prior to the 2012 elections and, as the New YorkTimes reported, the two sides agreed to continue negotiating if the president were reelected.
The current chief Iranian negotiator is Mohammad Javad Larijani, the secretary of the Iranian Human Rights Council, the director of the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, and an advisor to the supreme leader. He is the eldest of five very powerful brothers including Ali (who negotiated with the George W. Bush administration) and Chief Justice Sadeqh Larijani. Mohammad Larijani has plenty of experience in direct, bilateral negotiations with the United States. He goes back to the Reagan years, having met with Robert McFarlane in Iran in May, 1986.
Mohammad recently gave himself a rhetorical award for courage, declaring that Iran would negotiate with the United States "even at the bottom of hell," should that be in its interests. He needn't worry about the venue; his most frequent trips have been to Switzerland.
Meanwhile, talks go on at lower levels, such as the so-called "Track Two" meetings involving think-tank intellectuals and former U.S. officials such as Thomas Pickering and Frank Wisner, and at least one recent get-together in Switzerland involving a former G.H.W. Bush official. Moreover, the Swiss government - our official diplomatic proxy for discussions with the Iranian regime - has been active. The Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Livia Leu Agosti, spent several hours with a Khamenei aide shortly before the November elections, and a few days after Obama's victory, Mohammad Larijani flew to Switzerland to meet with Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter.
The Iranian-Swiss talks produced an outline of what an acceptable agreement might look like. Both sides were to make good-faith gestures at the outset. The Iranians promised to let the IAEA return to inspect Parchin, and they agreed to new talks with the so-called 5 + 1 (US, Germany, France, England, China, and Russia). The Iranians have delivered on both counts.
For their part, the Iranians had several demands, including easing sanctions. But their number one requirement for an American gesture is right out of the historic playbook: hostage releases.
Both Americans and Iranians are in captivity. The Iranians insist on the return of the 48 "pilgrims" captured by the Free Syrian Army in Damascus last August. Those men are not pious tourists at all; they're mostly from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and their superiors in Tehran badly want them back, in no small part because some of them are senior officers who know a great deal about Iran's global operations.
In exchange, the Iranians are offering to release several Americans under arrest in Iran. The most recent American arrested there is Saeed Abedini, a pastor who reportedly converted to Christianity in the United States; the list includes a former Marine, perhaps a former FBI agent, and an elderly Iranian-American scholar. And there are others, whose names have not appeared in any account I have read, who the Iranians believe to be CIA agents.
Even if the White House is willing, it may well be impossible for the United States to deliver. FSA spokesmen have been bitterly critical of America's failure to help them; why should they release such valuable prisoners at a time when they are fighting Iranian-backed killers from the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah?
Nobody knows how the secret negotiations will work out, or indeed whether they will resume in the near future. But everyone should know that direct Iran-U.S. talks are very old news, that they've continued as recently as the last couple of months, and there's no particular sign that any breakthrough is imminent.
Dr. Michael Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is also a contributing editor at National Review Online. Previously, he served as a consultant to the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Defense Department. He has also served as a special adviser to the Secretary of State. He holds a Ph.D. in modern European history and philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, and has taught at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Rome.
Dr. Ledeen regularly appears on Fox News, and on a variety of radio talk shows. He has been on PBS's NewsHour and CNN's Larry King Live, among others, and regularly contributes to the Wall Street Journal and to National Review Online. He has a blog on Pajamasmedia.com.
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