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The Obama-Rouhani Communication Efforts Are No Historic Breakthrough

10/10/2013 08:27 EDT | Updated 12/10/2013 05:12 EST

There's just something about Iran, perhaps an old Jedi trick, that clouds Western minds. No matter how many times one presents experts and journalists with the facts, they go right on repeating old myths. This in turn reinforces a mindset that makes it more likely that even good reporters and thoughtful, knowledgeable analysts, will accept new myths rather than look hard at the facts.

The greatest myth about Iran is that the United States has long refused to talk to the leaders of the Islamic Republic. The United States and Iran have been talking at high levels for decades. Some of these talks have involved high-ranking officials of the two countries, others were carried out by intelligence officers, and still others by private citizens. Steven Rosen has listed some 24 meetings in the first two years of the George W. Bush Administration "at which American officials at the rank of Ambassador or equivalent met directly with senior Iranian officials for substantive discussions."

These negotiations are all on the public record, and others have remained secret. Former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has said "we had had some discussions, ...particularly through intelligence channels with high-ranking Iranian intelligence people."

You will look far and wide before you find anyone referring to this documented record of Bush Administration negotiations with the Iranian regime, let alone retell the remarkable story of how the George W. Bush Administration negotiated with a very high-ranking Iranian official, Ali Larijani, and believed that it had reached agreement on a "grand bargain" in 2006. The deal was that Iran would stop enriching uranium, and the United States would ease sanctions and release blocked Iranian assets. It had been negotiated between Iran's Ali Larijani and the State Department's Nicholas Burns, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice's top Middle East deputy.

Rice and Burns were certain that it was a done deal, and they accordingly flew up to New York on a Sunday in September to receive Larijani at UN Headquarters, where the agreement was scheduled to be signed. But then, two bad things happened.

First, Larijani asked for 300 visas for his entourage. These were issued, as the Bush Administration decided not to give the Iranians an easy excuse for staying home.

Second, Larijani's plane never took off. Burns waited for a few days at the UN, hoping that Larijani would ultimately show up, but he didn't

These, and other details, are duly confirmed on camera by Secretary Burns in a long BBC documentary.

The 2006 failure has never received the attention of a much-discussed demarche delivered to the State Department in 2003 by the Swiss Ambassador to Tehran. Among others, former Clinton and Bush NSC official Flynt Leverett claimed that the demarche was serious, approved at the highest levels of the Iranian regime, and was so generous it even included recognition of Israel by Iran. Yet this account is flatly denied by Bush Administration officials, including several who were enthusiastic about reaching some sort of agreement with Tehran, including Richard Armitage, Secretary of State Powell, his military staffer, and then-National Security Advisor Rice (who says she never heard of it).

Whatever our evaluation of the account, it once again shows that the American and Iranian Governments were talking and communicating, both directly and through third parties.

The Bush Administration's efforts to strike a workable deal with the Islamic Republic were part of the pattern of American-Iranian diplomacy since the Revolution of 1979: lots of talking, but no bargain, grand or middling. The Clinton Administration's failed efforts -- including "historic" apologetic remarks by both the president and Secretary of State Albright -- are detailed by Kenneth Pollack in The Persian Puzzle, and in recent days Dexter Filkins has quoted former Ambassador Ryan Crocker to the effect that an improved relationship with Iran was well on its way in 2001-2002. Until Bush included Tehran in the "Axis of Evil."

It's almost an instant replay of the Clinton years. In 2000, Albright gave a speech that essentially apologized for past American behaviour towards Iran (notably U.S. support for the uprising against Mossadeq in 1953). She announced that import bans on food and carpets were lifted (the latest in a series of gestures), and called for renewed negotiations. Khamenei rejected her call.

Several high-ranking Iranian officials said that the rejection was due to the words "unelected hands" (referring to regime leaders) in Albright's speech. It's worthwhile listening to Pollack, who originally objected to the two words, and at first sympathized with the Iranian rejection: "...I was wrong in this assessment. Any rapprochement that could be nixed by two words in a speech was a rapprochement that was doomed to failure anyway."

As the Obama-Rouhani effort proceeds, we would do well to keep the real history in mind, and not treat it as something "historic." It's part of a well-established pattern, and until and unless there are concrete actions demonstrating real change, no one should expect a dramatic breakthrough. So far, we've seen it all before.

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