Iran and the US: A History of Mistrust

By his own admission, U.S. Ambassador John W. Limbert’s ordeal as a captive during the Iranian hostage crisis began with a monumental failure of negotiation.

"In 1979, somebody thought it would be a good idea to the let the shah [of Iran] into the U.S. for medical treatment, despite – I must say – the very eloquent and well-stated advice of our charge d’affairs at the time, Bruce Langein, who told Washington in no uncertain terms what he thought about the idea," said Limbert, during a talk last Thursday at the government-funded think-tank the United States Institute of Peace.

Soon after, the then 36-year-old political officer found himself in front of the sealed door of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, talking with a group of "unhappy young Iranians" who had forced their way into the compound, insisting they only wanted to have a sit-in.

"My job was negotiate them out," he said.

Limbert and 51 other U.S. diplomats were held captive for 444 days until their release on Jan. 20, 1981. Since the embassy siege, Iran and the U.S. have remained in a state of "no war, no peace." Enmity and mistrust run deep, with each side accusing the other of past misdeeds. An oft-told Washington joke goes something like this:

Iranian: "Will you guys get over 1979?" American: "Sure, only if you get over 1953." Iranian: "Never."

In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency backed a coup d’etat to oust democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and return the shah to the peacock throne.

On Thursday, Limbert discussed his experience of negotiations with Iran and his recommendations, in a newly published report entitled "Negotiating With the Islamic Republic of Iran: Raising the Chances of Success – Fifteen Points to Remember."

He underscored three important points: (a) check the sermonizing at the door, and separate the view of the person from the problem, (b) the past matters, so be aware of Iran’s history, and (c) give your counterparts credit for intelligence.

"They’re not ignorant fanatics. Give them credit for intelligence. There seems to be a tradition – and it’s not just us – for treating the Iranians as though they don’t really understand things," said Limbert.

Iran’s ascendance and the intentions of its hard-line president have become pressing issues for U.S. policymakers, who acknowledge the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program, yet who are equally unsettled by the prospect of a military confrontation with Tehran. Washington has pursued "coercive diplomacy" to change Iran’s behavior, but the value of economic sanctions is still questionable. Will it soften Tehran’s defiance, or further entrench the hard-liners?

From some corners of Washington come faint whispers advocating for normalization, or at the very least, negotiations with Iran. But the limited diplomatic experience thus far appears to have left some U.S. officials deeply suspicious of Iranian intent and sincerity.

"It’s not just those critical historic junctures where we really did bad things to each other, but it’s also the recent experience of negotiations themselves," said Ellen Laipson, a former U.S. diplomatic officer who currently heads the Stimson Center.

"I was in the White House in the spring of 1995 when President Clinton made two executive orders to further tighten sanctions against Iran and the role that [Secretary of State] Warren Christopher played was really quite striking," she said.

"He was clearly deeply influenced by his experience negotiating the Algiers Accord with Iranians and was still really profoundly mistrustful of the Iranians, and I think that very much shaped his own policy recommendations and preferences that President Clinton then endorsed."

The Algiers Accord helped negotiate the U.S. hostage release in 1981.

Michael Rubin, of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute think-tank, questioned the merits of placing too much faith in negotiations, suggesting that they may serve as a convenient tool for the Iranian regime.

"How do you judge sincerity? How do you judge success, because there may come a point when too much negotiation undercuts that success if the negotiation becomes a delaying tactic on one-side, if there’s no sincerity," he said.

Rubin also described the difficulty of negotiating with the different power centers in Iran.

"I would not suggest that the Iranians aren’t intelligent, or that they are crazy, they certainly aren’t, but when we talk about the nuclear issue, what always concerns me is, who’s in charge of that?" he said.

"Is it the Iranian nuclear program, or is it the Revolutionary Guard’s nuclear program, or is it the Office of the Supreme Leader’s nuclear program?"

If and when Iran and the U.S. finally sit down to talk, analysts say that history and culture will factor heavily in negotiations. The question is exactly how much culture should matter?

"We all agree that culture matters, but when does it matter? Under what circumstances is it important, as opposed to the rational incentive for getting people to negotiate?" asked Dan Brumberg, a professor of political science at Georgetown University and United States Institute of Peace fellow. "How much weight are we going to attach to culture?"