It was almost two years ago when Barack Obama unveiled his hope for establishing a dialogue with Tehran. Since then, his circle of admirers have presented that hope as an epoch-making innovation, a kind of magic wand that, once waved, would transform the Khomeinist regime from wolf to lamb.
Last Monday, however, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former President of the Islamic Republic and still a key player in Tehran’s complex political game, decided to set the record straight.
Addressing a congregation marking the Eid al Adha (The Feast of the Sacrifice) in Tehran, Rafsanjani reminded the world of a “thirty-year long history of American efforts to talk to us.”
“It is thirty years that you have always wanted to talk to us,” he said, addressing Obama. “And it is thirty years that we have refused to talk to you. How could you expect us to talk to you now that you are fixing even heavier preconditions for such talks [to take place]?”
Rafsanjani recalled the dialogue started by President Jimmy Carter in the hope of obtaining the release of American hostages in Tehran. The mullahs refused to give Carter the one thing he most wanted: freeing the hostages in time to ensure his re-election.
Rafsanjani then referred to the secret mission led by Robert McFarlane, President Ronald Reagan’s special emissary to Tehran in 1985, this time to seek the release of American hostages held by Iran’s Hezbollah agents in Beirut.
“Have you forgotten that Mr. McFarlane came to Tehran with an Irish passport?” Rafsanjani asked. “Have you forgotten that the Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini] ordered us not to talk to him and sent him back?”
McFarlane’s mission failed despite the fact that he had brought with him gifts designed to show Washington’s goodwill. These included hundreds of US-made anti-tank missiles that a few months later helped Iran send its forces into Iraqi territory. McFarlane had also brought a key-shaped cake, a copy of the bible autographed by Reagan for Khomeini, and a Colt side-gun for Rafsanjani.
American efforts to talk to the mullahs in Tehran did not end there. The first President George Bush went out of his way to entice the mullahs into negotiations. His National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft spent a great deal of time and energy in building a bridge to nowhere. The mullahs saw all that as a sign of American weakness, ordered the seizure of more hostages and intensified their campaign of terror against US allies in the region.
President Bill Clinton went a step further by apologizing to the mullahs for unspecific wrongs that the US had supposedly done to Iran. He lifted some of the sanctions imposed by Carter, Reagan and Bush, and ignored FBI reports documenting Tehran’s involvement in attacks against American targets in the region.
Presenting his scheme with the grandiose title of “The Grand Bargain”, Clinton offered the mullahs what amounted to a mini-Yalta agreement under which Iran would secure its own zone of influence in the region in exchange for recognizing a similar zone for the US.
The whole scheme was supposed to be made public in the year 2000 with an “accidental” meeting and handshake between Clinton and Muhammad Khatami, the mullah who at the time acted as President of the Islamic Republic, in the corridors of the United Nations in New York. When the agreed day arrived, however, the mullahs kept Clinton waiting in the UN building, pacing the corridors for 20 minutes, before informing him that the “accidental” encounter had been vetoed by Iran’s “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei at the last moment. The leader of the world’s “only superpower” had been stood up by a mid-ranking mullah from the desert town of Yazd.
George W Bush was the only US president to rule out talking to the mullahs from the start. His administration did include Iran in international consultations concerning a range of issues- from ending the civil war in Tajikistan and stabilizing the situation in Transcaucasia to toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ending of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. However, Bush ruled out bilateral talks because he had learned a crucial lesson from the failures of his predecessors. He knew that the mullahs had tantalized successive US administrations with the prospect of talks only to make sure that they faced no American moves against their regime. Once they were sure of that, they had no further interest in talks. However, even George W Bush was to end up being seduced by the prospect of a deal with the mullahs. In May 2006, his new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice surprised the world by offering direct unconditional talks with the mullahs. Tehran simply ignored the American move. Rice will be leaving office without having received a formal response to her offer.
In his sermon, Rafsanjani invited the new US leader to simply accept the Islamic Republic as a “model for the Muslim world.”
“You claim to be from the African continent and the race of the oppressed American blacks,” Rafsanjani continued. “You should not repeat things better said by people like Bush.”
Rafsanjani showed that he has a far deeper understanding of the problem than Obama.
“Your problem is not with our nuclear program or human rights,” he said. “Your problem is with the very nature of our regime.”
For all that, it is quite possible that Tehran will welcome Obama’s offer of direct talks in a bid to obtain assurances that the US will not help those who seek regime change in Tehran. However, one thing is certain: once the mullahs obtain what they want they will not be prepared to offer any concessions. Obama’s head has a good chance of ending up next to those of his predecessors who deluded themselves into believing that they can make a fair deal with the mullahs.
Remember, Rafsanjani has already given the warning.