Freedom Scholar Michael A. Ledeen
The best discussion of the long, sad history of these failed negotiations is in Ken Pollack's The Persian Puzzle. Pollack was involved in many of these efforts, and firmly believed that, if only we found just the right formula, a deal could be struck. After all, the president of the Islamic Republic at the time, Mohammed Khatami, was a "reformer," and appeared to be ready to resume better, and perhaps even normal, relations with the United States. To show our good will, we not only opened a channel of communications to the highest levels of the regime, but we made no less than nine significant concessions to the Iranians. We liberalized our visa policies, expanded cultural exchanges (including permitting our wrestlers to travel to Iran to participate in the world championships), we placed the Iranians' bogeyman, the Mujahedin Khalq (MEK), on our official list of terrorist organizations, and we shamefully removed the Islamic Republic from the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. We similarly removed Iran from the list of narcotrafficking governments and permitted American companies to sell food and medicine to Iranian purchasers. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went to international talks on the future of Afghanistan in the hope she would be able to talk directly to Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi, and President Clinton himself delivered a speech in which he regretted past American actions with regard to Iran.
All this produced nothing. And, as Pollack notes, Iraqi oil was being smuggled through Iranian waters in open defiance of the embargo on Iraq. But the Clinton folks, convinced that a deal had to be possible, went even further. On March 17, 2000, Secretary Albright openly apologized to Iran.
"The United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq . . . the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development . . . the United States gave sustained backing to the shah's regime . . . (which) brutally repressed political dissent...the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations . . . aspects of U.S. policy towards Iraq during its conflict with Iran appear now to have been regrettably shortsighted . . ."
(Pollack says that the Iranians were particularly eager for an apology for the overthrow of Mossadeq, and I have myself from time to time been hectored by Iranians for this presumed malfeasance. Perhaps it shouldn't have been done, but I cannot for a moment believe that the fanatical clerics in Tehran are enraged by the removal of a progressive liberal. But I digress.)
All those gestures and concessions and giveaways got Clinton a rude awakening. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei delivered one of his patented diatribes: "What do you think the Iranian nation, faced with this situation and these admissions, feels? . . . what good will this admission (of supporting Saddam in the war with Iran)--that you acted in that way then--do us now? . . . An admission years after the crime was committed, while they might be committing similar crimes now, will not do the Iranian nation any good."
(By the way, in her surrender speech, Albright created another myth, which has been elevated to holy writ in the Democratic Party Bible, namely that we favored Iraq in the war. It's a pretty amazing claim, given the quantity of arms and money and intelligence we showered on Iran in an effort to ransom our hostages. But I digress again.)
Pollack thinks that if Khatami-the-reformer had had more power, or more courage, the grand bargain might have been negotiated. But Khatami was powerless; real power resided with the Supreme Leader (there is a reason for that title), and Khamenei didn't want any part of a deal with the Great Satan.
Those who still dream of the grand bargain--including those in the G.W. Bush administration who have pursued it avidly, and have gotten kicked in the same place as the Clinton pursuers--must explain to us simple souls why there is anything different today that might make a bargain with the Iranians more likely than it has been for the last 28 years. Certainly the Iranians have shown no desire for reconciliation; quite the contrary, unless you think killing Americans at a rate considerably faster than the tempo of murder in the Clinton years represents some odd form of mating dance. The Supreme Leader is the same fanatic as he was then, in terrible health to be sure, but no friendlier towards satanic negotiators. The only big change in Tehran personnel is the president. Instead of Khatami-the-Reformer we've got Ahmadinejad, Hitler's great admirer. I don't think that is an improvement.
If they were forced to answer these questions, the advocates of negotiations would resort to the hoax--we haven't tried negotiations, and it's worth a try. But the real history of U.S.-Iranian relations suggests very strongly that the only possible winners in such talks will be the mullahs. They will gain more time to organize their war against us, and to build atomic bombs.
Michael A. Ledeen is the Freedom Scholar at AEI.