Washington diplomats have steadfastly refused to see the Iranian regime for what it is: a relentless enemy that seeks to dominate or destroy us. This blindness afflicted the first American negotiators shortly after the 1979 revolution, and has been chronic ever since, even though Iran declared war on us in that year and has waged it ever since.
During the first negotiations in early 1979, shortly after the Revolution, the Iranians denounced American meddling, and the Americans lamented Iran's dreadful human-rights practices. The Iranian negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister for Revolutionary Affairs Ibrahim Yazdi, said that Iran had just undergone "the cleanest revolution in world history," even though mass executions were underway throughout the country.
Yet American diplomats were optimistic that a grand bargain could be struck. The Iranians wanted arms, and American military men sat down to work out the details of new sales. On the diplomatic front, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Newsom reported that: "the Iranian suspicions of us were only natural in the post-revolutionary situation but that after a transition period common interests could provide a basis for future cooperation-not on the scale of before but sufficient to demonstrate that Iran has not been 'lost' to us and to the West."
This was written almost precisely a month before the American Embassy in Tehran was seized in November, 1979. For the next 444 days, diplomats talked and talked, until, minutes before Ronald Reagan's inauguration, the hostages were ransomed out.
Five years (and a new set of hostages) later, the Reagan administration commenced secret negotiations with the mullahs, using American, Israeli and Iranian back channels. Reagan's deep personal concerns about the fate of the hostages drove the policy, and inverted the logical strategic order.
Iran was a major problem for the U.S.--hundreds of American marines and diplomats had been massacred in Beirut by Tehran's favorite terrorist instrument, Hezbollah--and should have been dealt with on that basis. But some American officials convinced themselves that a deal could be made with Iranian "moderates," and a group led by former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane flew secretly to Tehran, met with a few mid-level Iranian officials, and returned empty handed. As in the Jimmy Carter years, the mullahs killed Americans, but America did not respond effectively.
The George H.W. Bush administration, with the Iran-Contra scandal fresh in their minds, avoided direct negotiations with Iran, but in recent years two of its leading officials--National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker--have been outspoken advocates for talking to the mullahs.
The Clinton administration passionately sought rapprochement. Believing that the Iranian "moderates" had grown more powerful with the election of President Mohammed Khatami, the president and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made public amends for real and imagined American sins against the Islamic Republic, and made a series of public and secret gestures calculated to show that the U.S. bore no ill will toward the mullahs.
Iran was secretly authorized to ship weapons into Bosnia in defiance of a United Nations embargo that was formally endorsed by the Clinton administration. Russia was secretly permitted to sell weapons and supply Iran's budding nuclear program, in violation of a law coauthored by Vice President Al Gore in his Senate years. Visas were issued to Iranian wrestlers and scholars, and some Iranian funds were unblocked.
This was all evidence of the American belief that an agreement could be reached. The Iranians exploited the opportunity, provided by our invitation to ship arms to the Muslims in the Balkans, by supporting a terror network in Bosnia. Mohammed Atta trained in Bosnia, from there he went to Hamburg, and thence to the U.S. Two other 9/11 terrorists--Ramzi Binalshibh, and Said Bahaji--were recruited into al Qaeda in Bosnian camps. We ignored the Iranian actions.
In 1996, the Iranians were up to their necks in the terror attack against Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. Still, we pursued the mirage of a deal with our enemies. In the final months of the Clinton administration, former Spanish President Felipe Gonzales traveled secretly to Tehran to explore the possibilities of a new relationship. Like all the others, he made no progress.