If you read the list of signatories to the Iran Project’s April 2013 call for more virile diplomacy with Iran, you’ll see an impressive collection of diplomatic practitioners. There are a few exceptions: a retired general, a couple of lobbyists advocating trading with everyone, and a former national security adviser. But for the most part it’s retired diplomats and politicians, men and women who believe that almost all problems can be resolved by sitting around a table and talking.

I’m all for it. Indeed, I’ve done it. In the mid-1980s I talked to some important Iranians on behalf of the Reagan administration. It wasn’t all bad. At least one American hostage came home, probably as a result of those talks and the actions that followed. Talking can certainly be useful.

I’m certainly not the only American official to talk to the Iranians. Talks — negotiations, if you prefer — have been going on virtually nonstop since the Revolution of 1979. Jimmy Carter tried very hard to maintain good relations with Iran after the fall of the Shah, and Barack Obama has been begging Tehran for a deal, beginning even before he was elected president. But the “relationship” — as the Iran Project likes to call the war Iran has waged against the West since the theocratic fascist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini seized power in Tehran — remains unchanged. No president has managed to successfully resolve any of the big issues, whether the Iranian nuclear program or the plethora of Iranian and Iranian-sponsored killers who have gunned down, tortured and blown up Americans in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

The Iran Project talks as if direct US-Iranian negotiations would be something new and potentially game-changing, if only the United States approached the matter properly. One is obliged to doubt it. Why should this method succeed now when it has failed constantly for 34 years?

To make its case credible, the Iran Project does a good deal of violence to history. It never mentions — hardly anybody does — the most dramatic failure, which took place (surprise!) in George W. Bush’s second term. In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Nicholas Burns, believed they had reached an agreement with Iran (represented by Ali Larijani): the Iranians would stop enriching uranium, and the Americans would lift sanctions. Larijani failed to show up for the signing ceremony at the UN. The whole thing is in a long BBC documentary, complete with Burns on camera confirming the unhappy story.

Other rewrites of recent history abound:

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  • The Iran Project praises the Iranian regime for being extremely helpful in our invasion of Afghanistan and the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, ignoring the fact that the regime sent teams of assassins from Iran to target American forces in Afghanistan.
  • It repeats the false notion that Iran is totally at odds with al-Qaeda, even though top al-Qaeda leaders, including key military commanders, have lived in Iran for more than a decade, and several al-Qaeda operations, such as those carried out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his cohorts in Iraq, were ordered by the mullahs.
  • It repeats the false allegation that the United States played a primary role in the 1953 uprising against Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq (termed “democratically elected” even though he was actually appointed by the Shah).
  • It reinforces the widely rejected notion that George W. Bush walked away from a “bold” offer from Tehran (passed to Washington via a Swiss diplomat, not presented directly by an Iranian official) to normalize relations.

There’s more, invariably spun to put the best gloss on Iran’s intentions and behaviour, or edited to remove examples of Iranian aggression or bad faith. Hezbollah is treated as an independent actor, rather than as an arm of the Iranian regime, and Islamic Jihad, like Hezbollah an Iranian creation, barely makes an appearance. Nor is there any mention of the vast quantities of Iranian bullets and explosives all over Africa. Et cetera, et cetera and so forth.

The Iran Project repeatedly and earnestly swears that it is not opposed to “pressure” on the Iranian regime; it says it only wants a more vigorous diplomatic approach. But that is not quite true; it is opposed to anything that the Iranians might interpret as American support for regime change, which is, at least in my opinion, the best possible outcome of a sensible Iran policy. It’s best for us, best for the Iranian people and best for the world at large. It’s also an invaluable element for successful negotiations, since the mullahs may not care about the misery of the Iranians, but they care a great deal about their own ability to rule and enrich themselves.

If you want to talk to the Iranians, by all means do it. But you have to start with an accurate picture of the Iranian regime, and you have to grant the likelihood that Iran doesn’t want a deal with us. The Iranians act and speak as if they want us dead or dominated.

After all, those mobs in the street chanting “Death to America” likely mean just that.


Michael Ledeen is a Freedom Scholar for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a leading nonpartisan institution focusing on national security and foreign policy, based in Washington. A distinguished academic, he is former official of the Reagan administration and author of more than 30 books; his latest is Virgil's Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miracles (Transaction Press).

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