The Politics of Dignity: Why Nuclear Negotiations With Iran Keep Failing

A memo to the American delegation to Baghdad on understanding their Iranian counterparts

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A Tehran resident washes "Yankee Go Home" graffiti from a wall on August 21, 1953, two days after a U.S.-backed coup elevated the Shah. (AP)

No one in the U.S. government asked for my advice on how to approach the nuclear talks with Iran today in Baghdad. Why should they? The negotiators are experts in diplomacy and in the tricky science and politics of nuclear development, which I, as a journalist and historian, am most definitely not. But maybe that's part of their problem -- for all the emphasis on nuts-and-bolts deal-making, the larger sweep of Iranian history, and the unstated cultural assumptions that both teams of negotiators carry with them, can get lost. So, had they asked for my advice, here's what I would have written:

You are going into a meeting that may decide the fate of the Iranian nuclear crisis. Your performance could help determine whether Iran moves closer to the ability to build a bomb, whether Israel attacks the Iranian facilities, and, ultimately, whether or not the U.S.gets drawn into another disastrous foreign conflict. You've studied up on the physics; you know your  high-enriched uranium from your elbow. Well done. Now you need to do the hardest thing of all: put yourself in the shoes of the man sitting across the table.

Everything about your respective backgrounds has taught you to distrust one another. For him, your foreign policy is decided in Tel Aviv and your liberal democracy has brought about moral collapse. He recalls 1953, when the CIA toppled a beloved Iranian prime minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, in favor of a dictator-Shah, and the 1988 downing of an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes.

You, on the other hand, see him as the agent for a despotism that brutalises its own citizens. The key date for you is 1979, when the U.S. embassy was seized by revolutionary students and a superpower insulted. Over the years, these memories have fed a sometimes-irrational fear of contamination; the diplomatic freeze is so complete, neither government encourages its diplomats to make small talk during coffee breaks.

There is an unresolved argument over the extent to which the Islamic Republic in its current form represents ordinary Iranians or merely imposes itself over them. Either way, even if your negotiating partners espoused reformist opinions, nuclear negotiations would be no less fraught. As Iranians tend to see it, based on my travels there and conversations with Iranians of all stripes, the contest is between might and dignity.

For the first half of the twentieth century, the United States seemed on the side of both of those forces. There is a memorial in northern Iran to the Nebraskan Presbyterian missionary Howard Baskerville, who was killed in 1909 while fighting alongside patriotic constitutionalists against an earlier Shah. Also fondly remembered is Morgan Schuster, the American financial adviser whose attemptin 1911 to guide Persia (as it was then known) off foreign dependence was sabotaged by Russia and Britain, which feared losing their significant influence. Eight years later, President Woodrow Wilson opposed the quasi-protectorate that Lord Curzon, Britain's foreign secretary, wished to impose on the country. Come the middle of the century, there was much goodwill for the Americans to squander.

And squander it they did, on August 19, 1953, when the CIA took down the democratic, secular Mossadegh. His crime had been to wrest control of the country's oil industry from the British company that controlled it. From their position as keepers of Iranian oil, British officials and oilmen had been able to manipulate successive governments and the monarch himself. Independent Iran was a myth.

Mossadegh and his nationalists saw the country's great asset in an idealistic, almost romantic light. It would be better, they said, for the oil to remain underground than for it to be the cause of Iran's humiliation. And yet, if managed by Iranians, oil could represent not only prosperity, but also pride and aspiration.

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Christopher de Bellaigue is a London-based writer on the Middle East. His most recent book is Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup.

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