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Review by David Jones

Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History, John W. Limbert, United States Institute of Peace Press, Washington, D.C., 2009, ISBN-13: 978-1601270436,215pp., $25

Iran has succeeded Russia as the illustration of Winston Churchill famous observation, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  For over 30 years, since the 444 days of “America held hostage” featuring our captive diplomats in Tehran in 1979-80, the United States (and much of the rest of the world) has groped to find mechanisms to understand and negotiate productively with the Iranian revolutionary government.  To date, it has been a frustrating and futile experience but one that, since the Iranian government appears to be moving steadily toward obtaining nuclear weapons capability, has increasing urgency.

And there may be no American better positioned than Ambassador John Limbert to dissect the Iranian corpus.  Limbert’s pre-Foreign Service career included a Harvard Ph. D. in Middle Eastern studies, instructing in Iranian schools, and, most poignantly, as a captive in-the-Embassy experience as a hostage in 1979-80.   A Farsi speaker, Limbert had retired from the Foreign Service and had written Negotiating with Iran immediately prior to being recalled by the current administration to act as Near East’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iranian affairs.  Regardless of the result of future United States negotiating efforts with Iran, any failure cannot be attributed to lack of experienced leadership.

Negotiating with Iran opens with a chapter addressing Iranian historical/cultural constants that attempts to provide a template for the confusing and often apparently contradictory Iranian attitudes.  Such background is particularly useful for a general reader–even if Limbert emphasizes that knowing a great deal about Iranian culture/history will not necessarily help understand why they have taken a particular negotiating position.  It continues with four case studies of Iranian negotiating experience and concludes with two chapters:  one outlines 14 principles for negotiating with Iran and the final chapter addresses “mutual myth-perceptions.”  Casual readers might prefer to skip the case studies, which can be opaque.

The core of the book, however, is the series of case studies:  the Azerbaijan crisis of 1945-47; the oil nationalization crisis of 1951-53; the Embassy hostage crisis of 1979-81; and the effort to free Lebanon hostages.

The Azerbaijan Crisis.  At the end of World War II, Tehran faced an existential problem:  how to induce the Soviet Union to withdraw from Azerbaijan, regain control over the region, and withhold oil concessions from Moscow.  Despite a very weak negotiating position, Tehran persuaded Stalin that it could not make concessions with Soviet troops on its territory and a new parliament had to be elected as well to endorse any oil agreement.  Moscow bought this scenario and withdrew its forces; Tehran subsequently reoccupied Azerbaijan–but never accorded the Soviets oil concessions.  There was some good luck involved–along with U.S. pressure on the Soviets at the UN, but the practical result was an Iranian negotiating success.

The Oil Nationalization Crisis. Iran, led by nationalistic Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, sought to end British control over its oil industry.  The British took the stodgy position that they had a legitimate, long-duration contract and, while willing to make selected compromises, “seemed incapable of empathy, of understanding…the depth of Iranian hostility,” which depicted the agreement as an “insidious, festering evil.”  Neither Mosaddegh nor the British moved toward obtainable compromise. United States mediation failed. And the British (and eventually the U.S.) concluded that Mosaddegh was the problem.  We orchestrated a coup, in 1953 removing Mosaddegh, which lead to an oil agreement/consortium under the aegis of the Shah.

For Limbert our actions associated with the coup were the ultimate poisoned apple.  It wedded us to the Shah; stamped the Shah as “an American puppet,” and convinced the Iranian people that the United States had morphed “from their friend to their enemy.”

The Embassy Hostage Crisis.  Avoiding a directly personalized account, Limbert provides a capsule discussion of the events leading to the Iranian revolution, the collapse of the Shah’s regime, and ultimately the seizure of the Embassy.

Although we were willing to deal with revolutionary Iran, in initial discussions with Iranian officials, they offered only “a litany of complaints about the past sins of the U.S…[and] American culpability for all the Iranians had suffered under the Shah.”  The United States decision to admit the Shah to the U. S. for medical treatment was the proximate cause of the Embassy seizure.  Admitting the Shah was understandable in American humanitarian terms, but totally objectionable to the Iranian revolutionaries.  Ultimately, we had “no cards” to use with Iranian leadership, which also had no incentive to release the hostages.  Limbert suggests that we should have downplayed the crisis; however, that approach blithely ignores the realities of the 1980 media-driven election campaign, which made dispassionate analysis of the fate of our hostage diplomats impossible.  Ultimately, the hostage release came when the Iranians had sorted out their internal political issues and perhaps wanted to eliminate a foreign affairs distraction when they were embroiled in war with Iraq and potentially facing a U.S. president more bloody-minded than Carter.  In Limbert’s view, we should appreciate that the 1953 coup remains more important to Iranian attitudes toward the U.S. than the hostage seizure should be to us.

Lebanon Hostages.  Limbert grinds through the almost decade long, half-forgotten effort engulfing both the Reagan and Bush administrations that sought mechanisms to free a rotating cast of U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon.  Throughout the period, Iranian objectives changed from obtaining U.S. arms to fight Iraq to obtaining the release of 17 Dawa prisoners held in Kuwait for attacking the U.S. and French embassies.  Time eventually simplified the problem:  the Iran-Iraq war ended and Saddam’s 1991 assault on Kuwait freed the Dawa terrorists.  Iran eventually settled for a UN study blaming Iraq for aggression against Iran, and the prisoners were quietly released over time.  Limbert excoriates U.S. officials in the Reagan administration as “ignorant, clumsy, and amateurish” noting that ultimately success requires valid interlocutors.

Fourteen Principles and Misperceptions/Myths.  Limbert is a student of the “Getting to Yes”school of diplomacy, and peppers the text with observations drawn from negotiating techniques.  Thus there are relatively standard observations such as locating valid interlocutors, talking to Iranians who can make decisions, crediting them with personal intelligence and an ability to define their own national interests.  Some points will be frustrating:  Iranian disinterest in legal structure; vague presentations featuring “political theater and flamboyant gestures”; belief that a conspiracy theory is more likely the truth; and “overplayed” hands to Iranian detriment can be the norm.

Limbert argues that for 30 years each side has trapped itself in downward spirals.  We have demonized each other and, expecting the worst, get what we expect.  He suggests that re-engaging will be a difficult and time-consuming process.  Our expectations should remain low and realistic, but expecting failure will guarantee it, while expecting better “success becomes possible.”

An Observation.  Still, after a full review of the Iranian position and Limbert’s analysis, one can conclude that the Iranians are not only injustice collectors; they actively seek out injustices for further collection.  They seem unable to accept the “move on” attitude often adopted by other states.  In that regard, it may be useful to recall some Chinese history.  Imperial China was comprehensively exploited and partially occupied by European powers (and Japan).  The United States supported the Republic of China throughout its civil war with the Chinese communists, then saved Chiang Kai-shek’s forces from annihilation, and continues to prevent Beijing from seizing Taiwan.  At the same time of the coup in Tehran, the USG was a fighting bloody war in Korea, killing over 400,000 Chinese in the process, and subsequently pressured China for years with economic sanctions and through UN resolutions.  Surely Beijing had no reason to view the United States with less than hostility.  But as we well know, China determined that agreement with the U.S. was more useful than no agreement and the current parameters of our complex relationship—with all of its anomalies—are well known.

David T. Jones
David T. Jones

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy.  During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving inter alia as a POLAD for the Army Chief of Staff.  He is coauthor of Uneasy Neighbors, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews.


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