US 'how to' guide on talking to Iran – in 1979 – emerges from WikiLeaks

A WikiLeaks cable written three months before the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran is at times insightful and at times sweeping in its condescension about the 'Persian psyche.'

Vahid Salemi/AP
Iranian school boys hold posters of the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during an annual state-backed rally in front of the former US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, marking the anniversary of take-over of the embassy in 1979 by militant students, on Nov. 4. Less than three months before the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant students, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, diplomats posted there crafted 'how-to' guide to negotiating.

As top Western diplomats sit down at the negotiating table with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva, they will have no shortage of advice, some of it freshly culled from the trove of secret US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.

Pointed, sometimes insightful, though also sweeping at times in condescending assumptions or schoolteacher-ish advice, the releases show a narrow snapshot of US diplomacy and America's perceptions of one of its most enigmatic foes.

Coping with the Islamic Republic since it came into being with the 1979 Islamic revolution has been a top priority of Washington – but also one of its most challenging battles. Less than three months before the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant students, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, diplomats posted there crafted a “how-to” guide to negotiating.

Some elements of the Iran analysis have in the past three decades been revised or changed in practice – if not in text, as so far, few other similar documents have been leaked. Yet the confidential cable notes the “special features” of negotiating with Iranians, and reads, “We believe the underlying cultural and psychological qualities that account for the nature of these difficulties are and will remain relatively constant.”

The cable posits that, “Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism” stemming from the “long Iranian history of instability and insecurity which put a premium on self-preservation.” The result, the cable says, is “an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one’s own.”

A time of little love for Americans

The Aug. 13, 1979, cable came at a time of great change in Iran, and little sympathy for Americans, when Islamic revolutionaries had toppled the pro-West Shah and were consolidating their power. Militant students had already once made their way into the US Embassy in February – and been forced to leave. “Death to America” was a common slogan; US flags were increasingly burned.

In that troubled milieu, the cable portrays Iranians as almost impossible to deal with or even to befriend, and as acting irrationally at times with a “socalled ‘bazaar mentality’ so common among Persians, a mind-set that often ignores longer term interests in favor of immediately obtainable advantages and countenances practices that are regarded as unethical by other norms.”

More than a few Iranians might not recognize themselves in the two-page description. But among the “lessons,” the cable concludes: “Finally, one should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in negotiations at any given moment…. Given the Persian negotiator’s cultural and psychological limitations, he is going to resist the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process.”

The view today: a regime bent on self-preservation

In sharp contrast, US and Iranian analysts alike have come to view Iran’s foreign policy for decades as relatively cautious and rational, if prone to exaggeration in public declarations. They see a regime determined to preserve itself, above all else.

A changed American view of Iranian rationalism was noted in the late 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which has never been officially superseded. It determined that Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003 “in response to international pressure [which] indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon…”

1979: a pervasive unease about the world

Yet some aspects of the 1979 cable are as recognizable today as they would have been from the start of the revolution, and in fact decades before. The cable, for example, found “a pervasive unease about the nature of the world in which one lives. The Persian experience has been that nothing is permanent and it has been that hostile forces abound.”

Iranians sometimes joke that they are conspiracy connoisseurs. Late last week, Iran’s Minister of Intelligence Heidar Moslehi charged that the US had tasked 80 agencies with toppling the regime. Over 19 years, “the enemies” had spent $17.7 billion as “part of a ‘soft war’ against the Iranian nation … in order to stage a coup,” Mr. Moslehi was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

That statement echoes numerous Iranian officials speaking about foreign threats. Such claims have blossomed since Iran’s controversial June 2009 election prompted weeks of lethal street protests and charges that the US, Britain, and Israel were behind a “velvet revolution.”

The leaked 1979 cable further warns would-be negotiators that “one should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone that it will be conceded to have merits.” It adds that “one should not expect an Iranian readily to perceive the advantages of a long-term relationship based on trust. He will assume that his opposite number is essentially an adversary.”

A British briefing for the US

Dealing with such an “adversary” was also the purpose of British Ambassador to Tehran Geoffrey Adams, who, according to a 2007 WikiLeaks cable, traveled to Baghdad to brief Gen. David Petraeus and then-US Ambassador Ryan Crocker in advance of first-ever US talks with Iran’s ambassador to Iraq.

The Nov. 30, 2007, embassy cable reads: “In negotiations, [Ambassador Adams] advised being steady and firm, tough but not aggressive, and at the same time, seeking to engage and draw attention to mutual interests.” Iranians were “obsessed with the West and this obsession at times blinds them to their interests.”

Iran’s goal was to “institutionalize talks with the US,” and it was “important to rid the Iranians of their standard notion that time was on their side,” the cable states. “Adams repeatedly said, ‘Iranians are not stupid’ … even if they at times misread signals.”

On the American side, the diplomat with the most experience on Iran – who speaks Farsi, was in the Peace Corps in Iran, and was later one of the hostages from 1979-1981 – has updated US thinking in his 2009 book “Negotiating with Iran.”

John Limbert – who until August was the State Department’s top official on Iran – lays out 14 steps for success, but admits that a large measure of luck is also required of even the most carefully crafted policy.

“In reality, there will almost never be a eureka moment for the American negotiator,” Ambassador Limbert writes. He notes that “each sides has constructed a mythology and an image of absolute evil in the other.”

Among his 14 points are to “be aware of Iran’s historical greatness, its recent weakness, and its grievances.…” Another is to “understand that the Islamic Republic’s priority is survival and its leaders’ priority is to stay in power.”

Still another is to “remember that conspiracy theories have great currency – and are sometimes true.”

Limbert has not given up hope for improved US-Iran ties. “Under the right conditions, with balanced judgment and sound negotiating strategy, we can still reach understandings that suit the interests of both sides. Most important, we do not have to be friends to do so,” he writes. “After all, if Americans and Iranians could never agree on anything, then today I and my embassy colleagues would probably still be captives in Tehran.”

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