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.

Following nationalization, the indignant British took their case to the Americans, convincing the Eisenhower administration that Mossadegh was a Communist patsy. (He was not; he was a democrat, and so refused to suppress Iranian communists.) The CIA coup of August 1953 was catastrophically successful. Mossadegh was brutally defenestrated, and the Shah, whom Mossadegh had reduced to a ceremonial role, vowed never again to tolerate a powerful prime minister.

The coup destroyed America's good name in Iran, but its mastermind, the CIA officer Kim Roosevelt, never appreciated how. He completed his account of events, Countercoup, in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, when the U.S. embassy was in Iranian hands and anti-American sentiment there was at its peak. Countercoup lacked even a modicum of national self-awareness -- showing the sort of American-centric mind-set that today's negotiators would want to avoid. "No one," Thomas Powers wrote in a withering review of the book, "likes to see his country pulled and prodded by outsiders." This was what the CIA had done, and Roosevelt in his account added insult to injury by depicting Iran as absurdly easy to suborn -- its feeble nationalists no match for American derring-do, its public opinion purchasable with a few measly dollars.

August 19, 1953,was much more complicated than the American narrative, as presented in Countercoup, suggests. Mossadegh was undone as much by his own conscience as he was by the CIA. He could have easily stamped out the coup by calling out his supporters, but he chose political martyrdom over the bloody civil war for which the CIA had planned.He achieved redemption while livingout the remainder of his life under house arrest; in the meantime, the Shah, with American help, was getting up his bucolic dictatorship.

Mossadegh is little liked by the leaders of the Islamic Republic (too westernised, too liberal), but his view of oil has relevance to today's nuclear programme. Over and above any strategic value in having an ambiguous nuclear capability, Iranians tend to regard the ability to make decisions on their own soil and regarding their own resources as coterminous with national dignity. Mossadegh referred to the "moral" aspect of oil nationalisation; Tehran's rhetoric on the nuclear issue aims for a similar, high tone. There is broad agreement among ordinary people, whatever their feelings for the Islamic Republic, that the right to enrich uranium is not the West's to confer or withhold. The summer of 2009 saw huge protests against the Islamic Republic, but a Rand survey from 2010 found that 87 percent of Iranians support the civilian nuclear program, with 97 percent calling it a "national right."

The West's rhetoric, as heard in Iran, has barely advanced from the old British contempt for Mossadegh. American and European officials reveal more than they intend when they speak of using "carrots and sticks" to change Iran's "behaviour" -- as if the countrywere a hormonal teenager. Turkey and Brazil probably did not use such language when they secured Iran's agreement in 2010 to place, in a sort of offshore escrow, some of the country's enriched uranium -- which would have created space for more substantive negotiationswhile removing some of the immediate risk. It is no coincidence that these countries, like Iran, are regional powers seeking more clout in an increasingly multi-polar world. In the event, the Obama administration rejected the Turco-Brazilian plan, which would have hindered its push for sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.

The Iranian crisis is only superficially about enriching uranium. In fact, it is a crisis of trust, a deep and long-running ideological disagreement, between a big power and a medium-sized one. Only trust would bring about a lasting fall in tensions; in the current climate of mistrust, both sides have every incentive to assume, and prepare for, the worst. And that will not come if there is no respect: for the other's achievements, history, and point of view. Building trust can start in a pause between meetings -- over the coffee machine, even. Isn't that called diplomacy?