American presidents have said that a nuclear-armed Iran is “unacceptable.” So, presumably, is a nuclear-armed Pakistan, India, or North Korea. The Berlin wall was also unacceptable. In all these cases, however, Americans remained smart and did not become captive to their own rhetoric.
For 30 years, America’s dealings with Iran have been difficult and frustrating. Attempts to break the existing downward spiral of insults, accusations, and threats have foundered on mistrust and sometimes on just bad timing. When President Obama – at the beginning of his administration – offered Iran engagement based on mutual respect (something the Iranians have always claimed they wanted), Tehran seemed unwilling or unable to respond.
In May 2010, when Iran seemed ready to accept the same nuclear fuel deal it had rejected seven months earlier, the process of building consensus for a UN Security Council sanctions resolution had become irreversible.
Despite setbacks, the US should not give up on the effort to end over three decades of futility with Iran. Otherwise Americans risk stumbling into another armed conflict with unpredictable and disastrous consequences. Americans should keep their heads on their shoulders and apply the classic tools of statecraft: patience, firmness, persistence, open-mindedness, and a readiness to listen.
L. Bruce Laingen was chief of mission and John Limbert was political officer at the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Both were detained in Iran for 14 months.