Barack Obama's election has sparked enthusiasm in Washington about the prospects for renewed engagement between the United States and Iran. On November 20, 2008, a group of former diplomats, bloggers, and academics released a statement that declared: "We are not forced to choose between a coercive strategy that has clearly failed and a military option that has very little chance of success. There is another way, one far more likely to succeed: Open the door to direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations at the senior diplomatic level." Unfortunately, as has become too common in Washington, these officials privilege advocacy over analysis.
It is a myth that the United States has boycotted diplomacy with the Islamic republic. Indeed, the past three decades are littered with failed diplomacy. Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran to disrupt attempts by the Carter administration to normalize relations. While the Iran-Contra Affair is remembered in Washington for the Reagan administration's misguided attempt to bypass Congress, its origin lies in national security adviser Robert McFarlane's desire to open doors to the Iranians. George H.W. Bush signaled a readiness to negotiate with Iran on August 4, 1989, the day after Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani took office, only to have Iranian authorities slam it shut.
Ironically, given the tendency today to associate diplomacy with the Democrats, it was the Clinton administration that was least open to engagement with Iran. Twice in 1995 and again in 1997, Clinton issued executive orders to limit trade with and investment in Iran. In 1996, he made the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act a pillar of his policy. Nevertheless, toward the end of his term, Clinton authorized Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to meet her Iranian counterpart. Elaborate preparations were made at the United Nations, but the Iranian foreign minister stood Albright up.
Despite the demonization of George W. Bush, the current president has been more open to diplomacy with the Islamic republic than any president since Carter. In 2001 and 2002, U.S. and Iranian diplomats met to discuss Afghanistan and, the next year, Iranian UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad-Zarif met senior U.S. officials Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker in Geneva.
Indeed, Bush has found himself besieged from all sides. Proponents of diplomacy condemn Bush for the moral clarity inherent in the January 2002 "axis of evil" speech and argue that the president's State of the Union statements sidetracked diplomacy. Some say Bush missed a Grand Bargain opportunity in 2003, but, as even pro-engagement officials acknowledge, this is a myth that resulted from wrongly ascribing Iranian authorship to an attention-seeking Swiss diplomat's wish. Meanwhile, those with less tolerance for Iran's support of terrorism, its violent opposition to the Middle East peace process, and its nuclear-weapons ambitions condemn Bush for pursuing a policy of rapprochement they say is at odds with his rhetoric.
This gap between rhetoric and reality is the defining feature of Bush's approach toward Iran. On May 31, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said U.S. diplomats would meet with their Iranian counterparts if Tehran suspended uranium enrichment. Two years later, she directed a senior U.S. official to sit down with his Iranian counterpart and offer a generous incentive package, even though Iran remained defiant. Meanwhile, Crocker, now the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has met his Iranian counterpart more than a half-dozen times.
Alas, engagement is no magic formula. First, it takes two to tango. What Carter, Bush the elder, Clinton, and Bush the younger learned -- but their domestic critics have not -- is that the impediment to engagement lies not in Washington but in Tehran. The day after Rice offered Iran an end to its isolation, Ahmadinejad dismissed Rice's offer as "a propaganda move." When Undersecretary of State William Burns sat down with his Iranian counterpart in Geneva in July 2008, Mohammad Ja'afi Assadi, commander of Iranian Republican Guards Corps ground forces, quipped that Washington's desperation showed that "America has no other choice but to leave the Middle East region beaten and humiliated." On October 12, 2008, Vice President Mehdi Kalhor said: "As U.S. forces have not left the Middle East region and continue their support for the Zionist regime, talks between Iran and U.S. are off the agenda."
Why not drop preconditions and engage -- as the National Iranian American Council, the Islamic republic's de facto lobby in Washington, recommends? There are several reasons. First, the demand for a cessation of Iran's uranium-enrichment program is not Washington's, but the UN Security Council's. To waive it would not only reaffirm the worst U.S. unilateralism and precondition the outcome of negotiations, but also obviate the possibility that any future UN resolution would mean anything to Tehran.
Second, embracing Tehran now would enable President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to claim, ahead of elections in his country, that his strategy succeeded where his predecessors' failed.
And, lastly, as Obama will learn when he assumes office, Iranian officials often approach diplomacy insincerely. As Abdollah Ramezanzadeh explained in June, looking back on nuclear developments during the Khatami administration: "We had one overt policy, which was one of negotiation and confidence building, and a covert policy, which was continuation of the activities."
If all diplomacy required were Washington's good intentions, the world would be a magical place. It is ironic that some U.S. diplomats trust the Islamic republic more than many Iranians themselves do.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was lead drafter for the Bipartisan Policy Center's Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development.