Whenever pundits run out of ideas on how to deal with the Khomeinist regime, they come out with a cliché: talk to Iran!
And, because the contemporary world has a short memory, most people find the suggestion genial. It is as if no one ever talked to the mullahs before!
The truth, however, is that all powers, including the United States and the European Union, have talked to the mullahs whenever the latter wanted it.
The history of the Khomeinist regime since its inception in 1979 shows that whoever tried to engage in negotiations with the outside world, especially the United States, met with an end that few would envy.
The first contact between the US and the mullahs was established in November 1978, soon after Khomeini set up shop in a suburb of Paris. George Cave, the CIA’s Iran specialist traveled to Paris and met Khomeini’s close aides at the time: Abol-Hassan Banisadr and Ibrahim Yazdi. The message from President Jimmy Carter was one of support for the ayatollah and his Islamic Revolution.
When the Shah’s regime collapsed, the early signs were encouraging for Carter. Khomeini’s first Cabinet, under Mahdi Bazargan, included five ministers who had immigrated to the US from Iran and had become US citizens.
The Carter administration saw the Khomeinist revolution as the first step towards creating what Zbigniew Bzrezinski, the National Security Advisor, described as “a green Islamic belt” around the Soviet Union. The idea was that, in time, the “belt” would, become a noose that, when pulled, would strangle the Soviet empire.
Eight months after Khomeini had seized power, Bazargan met Bzrezinski in Algiers and obtained promises of US aid, and a resumption of military supplies, in the context of shared anti-Communist sentiments. Bzrezinski told Carter that Bazargan was “a man with whom we could do business.”
A few days later, however, a band of militants raided the US Embassy in Tehran and seized its diplomats hostage. Bazargan and Yazdi, foreign minister at the time, were kicked out, never to return to power.
The first victims of the “talk to the US” curse, they were not the last.
The new champion of “talk to the US” was Sadeq Qutbzadeh, an adventurer who had become an associate of Khomeini in exile. As foreign minister he opened a secret channel with Carter and met the latter’s emissary Hamilton Jordan in Paris where they discussed a strategic partnership against the USSR. Soon, however, Qutbzadeh was kicked out, and eventually put to death on Khomeini’s orders.
The next champion of “talk to America” was Sadeq Tabatabai, a brother-in-law of Khomeini’s son Ahmad. A businessman and dandy, this second Sadeq was the rising star of Khomeinist politics for a few months before he, too, vanished. Struck by the “talk to America” curse, his political fortunes never recovered; and he ended up back in golden exile.
Meanwhile, Banisadr, also affected by the “talk to America” curse , was dismissed by Khomeini as President of the Islamic Republic, and forced to flee to Paris aboard a hijacked jetliner.
The mantle of “talk to America” was passed to Abbas Amir-Entezam, who had been Bazargan’s deputy.
As Khomeini’s ambassador to Sweden, he opened a secret channel with the Americans and tried to settle bilateral problems through negotiations. He was recalled, charged with treason and thrown into prison where he languished for a quarter of a century, becoming the world’s oldest political prisoner.
Another victim of the “talk to America” was Behzad Nabavi who, as deputy prime minister, negotiated the release of American hostages with the US Assistant Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Algiers. Although, Nabavi obtained a good deal for the regime, the fact that he had talked to the Americans was enough to wreck his career. Soon he was out of office, relegated to the margins of the establishment where he has lingered as a loyal opponent of the system ever since.
A similar fate awaited Mir-Hussein Mussavi-Khamenehi, an interior decorator who served as prime minister of the regime in the early 1980s. Through one of his assistants, Abbas Kangarloo, Mussavi opened a secret channel to Washington, and was making progress, when the ayatollah pulled the carpet from under his feet. The post of prime minister was abolished altogether, and Mussavi was kicked out of officialdom never to return.
Some Khomeinist figures managed to avoid the consequences of the “talk to America” curse by blaming others.
Hashemi Rafsanjani, a businessman-cum-mullah who had sent his son Mahdi to talk to the Americans in Washington, was crafty enough to claim that he had just wanted to probe Washington’s secret channels with others including Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri.
When the Reagan administration sent a secret delegation, including Amiram Nir of the Israeli Mossad, to Tehran, headed by Robert MacFarlane, Rafsanjani ordered Qurban-Ali Dorri Najaf-Abadi, a mullah loyal to him, to look after the visitors, thus avoiding direct involvement.
When the secret was revealed by Monatzeri’s agents in Lebanon, the mullahs became involved in an open struggle that shook their regime. Montazeri lost and, barred from power, was put under house arrest.
Sometimes the mere suggestion that the regime should talk to the US has been enough to wreck a promising career.
One was Ayatollah Abdallah Nuri, arguably the most honest mullah in the Khomeinist camp, who served as Interior Minister on two occasions.
But when he suggested in a speech that the Islamic Republic should negotiate a deal with the US, he was transformed from a rising star into a falling comet. Thrown into prison and tortured, he was released, then put under house arrest, and excluded from the ruling elite.
Some mullahs have learned the lesson.
One example is Muhamamd Khatami, the mullah who acted as president between 1997 and 2005. Through Giandomenico Pico, a respected Italian diplomat, Khatami opened a channel to President Bill Clinton and persuaded the Americans to ease sanctions on the Islamic Republic and heap praise on Iran’s history and culture.
But when he realised that he might be struck by the curse, Khatami backed out of the deal brokered by Pico, and tried to cover himself with anti-American speeches.
Since the seizure of power by Khomeini, Iran ahs suffered from schizophrenia. There are two Irans. Iran as a nation-state would have no trouble solving it problems through diplomatic channels with all nations, including the US. But Iran as a cause, as a vehicle for Khomeinism, cannot negotiate, let alone, compromise with anybody.
Next time you hear a pundit say: “talk to Iran”, you might want to ask: Which Iran?