Talking with Tehran Has Repeatedly Been Tried and Failed

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Talking with Tehran Has Repeatedly Been Tried and Failed

Sep 30, 2009 5 min read

Former Visiting Fellow, Allison Center

James Phillips was a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation.

Despite last week’s damning revelations about Iran’s continued duplicity on the nuclear issue, the Obama Administration remains wedded to engaging Iran, which has broken numerous attempts at engagement in the past. Yesterday, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, responding to criticism of the Obama administration’s plans to start talks with Iran tomorrow in Geneva, defensively argued that the Bush Administration had refused to talk to Iran and stated “It resulted in a whole lot of nothing.” This statement is factually inaccurate. It promotes the misconception that the Bush Administration made no effort to resolve the Iran nuclear issue through negotiations.

In fact, the Bush Administration, as well as prior U.S. administrations, made repeated efforts to approach Iran on a wide range of issues, but have been consistently rebuffed by the Iranian regime. Gibbs should consult Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who acknowledged as much in his comments last October at the National Defense University when he noted that “Every administration since (the Iranian revolution) has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed.”

Past efforts to engage Iran not only have failed but some have ended in disaster, as Michael Ledeen outlined in a strong op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today. The Carter Administration dispatched National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to meet with Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan in Algeria on November 1, 1979, which provoked Iranian hardliners to seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran three days later, precipitating the Iranian hostage crisis. The Reagan Administration dispatched National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane to Tehran on a secret diplomatic mission but he was stood up by the Iranians and his diplomatic mission was exposed by a rival Iranian faction. The Clinton Administration reached out to Tehran in its second term by lifting some sanctions and President Bill Clinton wrote a letter to Iran’s President Khatami, but reportedly never received an answer.

Contrary to Gibb’s glib remark, there were more attempts to engage Iran during the administration of George W. Bush than during any other administration. The Middle East Forum documented 28 separate meetings that involved direct or indirect contacts between Bush Administration and Iranian officials. On Iran’s nuclear program in particular, the Bush Administration sought to handle the issue primarily through multilateral diplomacy, which have been underway with little progress since 2003. In view of the following list of meetings and events on the Iranian nuclear issue, it is difficult to see why the Obama Administration believes that this time the outcome will be different:

October 2003 – The foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Great Britain travel to Tehran and persuade Iran to agree to stop enriching uranium and to sign the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The EU-3 also dangle the prospect of economic concessions if Tehran cooperates fully with the IAEA. Iran turns over a declaration to the IAEA admitting to 18 years of covert atomic experiments, including the unreported uranium enrichment at Natanz, although it continues to deny that this was for a weapons program

November 24, 2004 – Secretary of State Colin Powell said “The United States has been supportive of the Europeans’ efforts.”

July 19, 2005 – Iranian President Mohammad Khatami proclaims that Iran will not forsake the right to produce nuclear fuel and that suspension of enrichment will not be permanent

December 25, 2005 – Tehran formally rejects an offer from Moscow to enrich uranium for its nuclear program in Russia. Iranian officials insist upon Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil.

January 10, 2006 – Iran resumes nuclear research, triggering Western condemnation

March 29, 2006 – The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopts a statement calling on Tehran to halt its nuclear work.

March 30, 2006 – The five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany warn Iran that it must heed the U.N. statement insisting that it stop its nuclear work or face isolation. Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki dismisses the warning. IAEA Director-General ElBaradei urges Iran to be more forthcoming but also says he thinks sanctions at this time would be unwise.

May 31, 2006 – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announces that the U.S. is willing to join the EU-3 talks with Iran if Tehran agrees to verifiably suspend uranium enrichment activities.

June 6, 2006 – EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana meets in Tehran with senior Iranian government officials and presents them with fresh proposals aimed at persuading Iran to abandon its uranium-enrichment program.

June 30, 2006 – Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki says Iran will not respond to the international incentives package before August, despite U.S. and EU pressure for Tehran to answer by July 5.

September 9–10, 2006 – Two days of “productive” EU–Iranian talks end inconclusively with a vow to meet again the following week.

October 4, 2006 – European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Javier Solana says four months of intensive talks have brought no agreement on suspension of Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities and adds that the dialogue cannot continue indefinitely.

February 25, 2007 – President Ahmadinejad says that Iran’s nuclear program is unstoppable and, in a show of its growing technical prowess Iran reportedly fires a rocket into space for the first time.

April 10, 2007 – Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki says that Iran will not accept any suspension of its uranium enrichment activities and urges world powers to accept the “new reality” of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program

July 19, 2008 – Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns accompanied Solana and representatives of the P5&1 to meet with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Geneva but no progress is made.

August 2, 2008 – An informal deadline lapses for Iran to respond to an offer from the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia for talks on its disputed nuclear program.

March 20, 2009 – U.S. President Barack Obama calls for “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” Iran cautiously welcomes the overture, saying that it wanted to see “practical steps.”

May 25, 2009 – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejects a Western proposal for Iran to freeze its nuclear work in return for a freeze on further U.N. sanctions and rules out further talks on the issue.

September 25, 2009 – President Obama announces that western intelligence agencies have uncovered a covert Iranian uranium enrichment plant and warns that “Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow.”

September 30, 2009 – Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, made clear that Iran has ruled out discussions about the newly revealed uranium enrichment facility or halting its uranium enrichment efforts. “We are not going to discuss anything related to our nuclear rights, but we can discuss about disarmament, we can discuss about non-proliferation and other general issues,” Salehi told a news conference. “The new site is part of our rights and there is no need to discuss it,” he said, adding Tehran would not abandon its nuclear activities “even for a second.”

Sources for timeline:

The Heritage Foundation Iran Working Group, “Iran’s Nuclear Threat: The Day After” The Heritage Foundation Special Report #53, June 4, 2009

“Bush Administration Contacts with Iran Direct and Indirect” Middle East Forum, November 10, 2008

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal