'Rational' Americans vs 'Irrational’ Iranians

John Limbert's "Negotiating with Iran"


'Rational' Americans vs 'Irrational’ Iranians
by Examiner

Negotiating with Iran
Wrestling the Ghosts of History
John W. Limbert
United States Institute of Peace Press (2009)

I picked this book to read after finishing the author’s Shiraz in the age of Hafez, a scholarly monograph I found delightfully informative: a must-read for those Hafez lovers who are curious about the historical – if not necessarily socioeconomic – landscape of his enduring poetry. As his books attest, Ambassador Limbert knows Iran and Iranians better than most Americans (even some Iranian-Americans): He is fluent in Persian, lived and taught in Iran for more than a decade, married an Iranian, and researched the history and urban architecture of Shiraz, the city of roses and poets. His latest expedition in Iran’s biogeography ended on Jan 21st, 1981, after more than 14 months captivity in the hideout of the infamous coup orchestrator, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr, in the hands of notorious student followers of the Imam’s line.

Negotiating with Iran (NwI) was published when hopes were high and change appeared possible: an African-American had been elected as the U.S. president, and neo-cons were in retreat. The newly sworn president had promised to replace face-to-face negotiations with America’s adversaries, for the preemptive wars his predecessor favored. Thus, a textbook (or even a cookbook) for training the new generation of American negotiators, who would face their Iranian counterparts, was urgently needed. And, who was more qualified to write such a book than Professor Limbert of the U.S. Naval Academy? A year later however, hopes are dashed and a different type of change has taken place. Mr. Obama has been debriefed. He has assimilated his new work environment. Negotiation plans are shelved. And, closet neo-cons, comfortably seated in the new cabinet, are busy pushing their Plan B – as though, the election was a routine change of guards at the mausoleum. On the Iranian front, after a widely disputed presidential election, reformists have been marginalized and hardliners are in full control – as though, the election was a coup.

Is there any reason to remain optimistic about the prospect of a negotiated settlement with Iran, after witnessing Obama administration’s reaction to the recent Brazil-Turkey-Iran nuclear pact? No. Then, why should one read NwI, and why now? For an Iranian-American reader the book’s subject is timeless; it’s personal. Hence, the answer is - in a nutshell - curiosity: How objective someone with Limbert’s life-changing experiences can be? Does he suffer from Stockholm syndrome, or is he just sympathetic toward Iranians? Is he a politically correct observer of everything Iranian, or an ex-hostage filled with anger and hate? Is Shiraz a clue to what one can find in NwI? The answer to these questions lies somewhere between all-of-the above and none-of-the-above: a mix of ingredients whose proportions depend on the reader’s position in the political spectrum of Iranianhood.

Limbert argues that today’s impasse the two nations find themselves in has much more to do with what he calls ‘historical and cultural constants’ of Iran than to the two seminal events often mentioned as the bases for mutual demonization, namely the 1953 coupd’état, and the 1979 embassy siege. He asks, “How have Americans and Iranians come to expect the worst and perceive almost nothing but malevolence in each other? How have both sides concluded that the evidence of history proves, beyond any reasonable doubt, the other side is devious, irrational, arrogant, bullying, and so on – in short, the very personification of wickedness? And why, after almost thirty years, are Americans and Iranians unable to get beyond these caricatures of each other and admit that denunciation, accusation, finger-pointing, and sterile rhetoric –presented with the rationality of second-graders exchanging insults on the playground – have accomplished nothing?” (p. 182).

‘Myth-perception’ is the reason, Limbert asserts. He once asked his Political Science students – who had been studying U.S.- Iran relations in his class – how they believed most Americans saw Iranians? Their answers included ‘emotional’, ‘devious’, ‘obsessed with the past’, ‘obsessed with religion’, ‘unreliable’, ‘incomprehensible’, ‘vindictive’, and ‘fanatical’. Then he suggested a role reversal - how they thought Iranians might view Americans? ‘Belligerent’, ‘sanctimonious and hypocritical’, ‘calculating’, ‘godless and immoral’, ‘exploitive’, ‘materialistic’, ‘bullying’, ‘arrogant’, and ‘meddling’ were the answers. (pp. 190 – 192)

After presenting an abridged version of Iran’s 3000-year-long history (pp. 15 - 30) [BTW, not the same rendition you and I had read in our history textbooks], he observes, “The Iranian plateau is covered with monuments that inspire both pride and despair. They bear witness to Iranians’ past glories and achievements. At the same time, they serve as daily reminders of how far Iranians have fallen from the height of their ancestors’ triumphs.” “However one describes Iran’s history since the eighteenth century CE, the country has certainly not been a world power. During that time it has preserved its few shreds of independence only by playing powerful foreigners off against each other and by yielding to superior force.” [NB. These are two of Iranians’ characteristics Limbert calls ‘mard-e rendi’] “For the last three hundred years, Iran has been a pawn in the games of others who have ignored Iran’s sovereignty; frustrated its desires to take control of its own affair; and bought, betrayed, and subverted Iranian politicians, who were often only too ready to serve foreign masters.” (pp. 31 – 32)

In Limbert’s view, Iranians regard negotiations not as “a means of communication and reaching agreement”, but an “’instrument of survival’ often against much stronger adversaries with ambitions against Iranian territory, independence, and resources.” (p. 35) To educate his readers about Iranian negotiators’ proclivities and aversions, Limbert presents in detail case studies of four negotiations Iranians have participated in since the end of the Second World War. The common feature of these negotiations is Iran’s weak position. In the first case, the Azerbaijan crisis of 1945 – 1947, veteran politician, Ahmad Qavam outmaneuvered the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin: At the end of WWII, the Soviet Union refused to withdraw its forces from Iranian territories they had occupied during the war, until Iran’s government grant them exploration rights and oil concessions in the northern provinces (the resumption of The Great Game); Azerbaijani and Kurdish separatists took advantage of the Soviets’ presence. Qavam, however ensnarled Stalin in a Gordian knot: Iran’s parliament had lately passed a law (sponsored by the influential MP, Mohammad Mosaddegh), that forbade the government from signing any concession agreement as long as any part of Iran was under foreign occupation. The only way for the Soviets to win a concession was to withdraw first. They conceded. Separatists were defeated. Iran’s sovereignty was re-established. The parliament rejected oil concessions to the Soviets. Case closed.

The second case, the oil nationalization crisis of 1951 –1953, is a cold case. It had much less to do with the rejection of the 1949 Gass-Golshayan agreement that had raised Iran’s royalty from 22 to 33 cents per barrel, or with oil prices and tax rates per se, than with much “larger, complex, and symbolic issues of Iranian’s sovereignty, national pride, and perceptions of personal and national respect.“ (p. 62) “Mosaddegh must have been well aware that the British regarded him as an irrational, xenophobic, and mendacious representative of a degenerate Iranian aristocracy. Beyond all that, he and many of his countrymen also understood how the British had long regarded Iran and most Iranians with contempt. Those patronizing attitudes (or Mosaddegh’s perception of them) strengthened his certainty that Iran’s salvation lay less in the details of a new oil agreement than in freeing itself politically and psychologically from British domination, specifically in breaking the economic and political power of the [Anglo-Iranian Oil Company] and in undoing its immoral and illegitimate agreements with previous Iranian governments.” (p. 71) The endgame was predictable: American mediation metamorphosed into machination; uncompromising Mosaddegh was overthrown, and replaced by those who were willing to go along with the new world order. Mosaddegh gambled Iran’s oil revenue for independence, and lost both. The terms of the ‘consortium agreement’ Iranians signed in 1954 were less favorable to Iran than that offered by the British envoy Richard Stokes, and rejected by Mosaddegh, in 1951. (p. 72) The British were not much of a winner either. Their share in the new ‘consortium’ was reduced to 40%. The ‘honest brokers’ were awarded 40%, and the rest went to the Dutch and the French. (p. 78)

In the third case, Limbert discusses the Embassy hostage crisis of 1979 – 1981. In the October 1979 Algiers meeting with senior provisional government officials, Americans oblivious to the tectonic shift taken place in Iran, insisted on maintaining the status quo. According to the Defense Secretary Gate (speech in the National Defense University, September 29, 2008), President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinsky told Iranians, “We will accept your revolution. We will recognize your country. We will recognize your government. We will sell you all the weapons that we had contracted to sell the Shah. We have a common enemy to the north. We can work together in the future.” (p. 91) Iranians, who had learnt the previous week the Shah had been admitted into a medical facility in New York, and were fearful of a repeat of the 1953 coup, demanded the Shah’s extradition, “Give us the Shah.” Americans refused. That ended the negotiation. Three days later the embassy was seized. Ever since, “if not openly attacking Iran, the United States has done its best to make life difficult for the Islamic Republic and has made no secret of its desire for some other kind of regime in Tehran.” (p.105) The following year, “on September 9, the German ambassador in Washington told Secretary of State Edmond Muskie that Sadeq Tabataba’i, brother-in-law of Khomeini’s son Ahmad, had contacted the German embassy in Tehran seeking to enter negotiations with American representatives to arrange the release of the hostages. (p. 114) ”On September 15 and 17, [then Deputy Secretary of State,Warren] Christopher and Tabataba’i held secret meetings in Bonn.” (p. 115) On September 22, 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. (p. 116)

In the fourth detailed case study, Limbert covers the failure of Iranians in the Lebanon Hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal of 1985 – 1986, and the end of Iran-Iraq war. “By April 1988, [Iranians] were facing a direct military threat from United States naval and air forces now, to all intents and purposes, openly allied to Iraqis. In the Persian Gulf, the United States no longer even pretended to be neutral.” (p. 138) In July 1988, Americans shut down the Iran Air Airbus passenger plane. (p. 143) “In August 1988, less than two years after the last shipment of American arms in October 1986, an exhausted Islamic Republic was on the brink of collapse and was forced to accept a humiliating cease-fire after rejuvenated and resupplied Iraqi forces inflicted decisive defeats on the Iranian military.” (p. 137) After the defeat and expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait in March 1991, a UN-sponsored committee of European professors identified Iraq as the instigator of the Iran-Iraq war, in accordance with the Paragraph 6 of UN Resolution 598. The UN released their report on December 9, 1991, after the last American hostage in Lebanon had been released, ‘upon Iranian recommendation.’ (pp. 145 -147)

Whether it was Mosaddegh of the Oil Nationalization crisis, Khomeini of the Embassy crisis, or Hashemi-Rafsanjani of the Lebanon hostage crisis, Limbert avows, “a search for justice remained the center of Iran’s negotiating position.” “Divine justice (adalat) is one of the principles of religion that Shia Islam adds to those three it shares with Sunni Islam (prophethood, monotheism, and the last judgment).” (p.152) In a section titled ‘Understand that justice, often in a harsh version, in the abstract is extremely important’, he warns the prospective American negotiator that, “Iranian representatives may frame their demands, not in specific or quantitative terms but in terms that claim, ‘All we are seeking is justice’ or ‘We want our rights.’” To explain Iranians’ concept of justice he quotes an early twelfth-century Islamic historian’s writing, “There is no kingdom without an army, no army without wealth, no wealth without material prosperity, and no material prosperity without justice.” (p. 173) However, he does not shy away from attributing the summary executions in the aftermath of 1979 revolution to that same concept.

In another advice for the novice titled, ‘Remember that conspiracy theories have great currency – and are sometimes true’, he offers the following observation: “Iranians may seem reluctant to accept simple and straightforward explanation for events. They often prefer more complex accounts, if only because these are interesting and creative. Behind the surface of events, Iranians often see hidden hands pulling strings and manipulating the world to some subtle and malevolent purpose. To some royalist Iranians, for example, Iran’s 1978 – 1979 Islamic Revolution was the product of foreign conspiracies to remove a shah who had become too powerful and too independent-minded for the taste of his Western friends. According to one version of this theory, President Carter and his allies no longer believed the shah could be a reliable buffer against Soviet expansion and sought to replace him and make Iran part of a green belt of Islamic regimes, which could use religion to resist godless Communists.” (p. 174)

* * * * *

Reviewer's notes – Despite Limbert’s unquestionable mastery of the subject, commendable intentions and deep affection for Iranians, it should be recognized that this book is written by an American diplomat for (primarily) American readers, in the vernacular they are at ease with. NwI’s goal is not to make waves, or to challenge their self-perception, worldview, or institutionalized narrative. For an astute Iranian-American reader however, NwI, with its mild tint of Orientalism and a patronizing tone, is somewhat unsettling: not necessarily offensive, but more like an alarm clock going off in a hazy Sunday morning. There is a palpable sense of irony in NwI that can hardly escape the prying eyes of an ex-pat. For example, both ‘successes’ of Iranian negotiators that Limbert points to – the Azerbaijan crisis of 1945 –1947, and the 2001 Bonn Conference – happened to benefit the U.S.’s geopolitics, Iranians’ interests notwithstanding. The happy ending of the Azerbaijan crisis was a victory for the U.S. on the cusp of the Cold War; the Bonn Conference helped install the U.S.-picked government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. The ‘failures’ of Iranians detailed in NwI are the ones seen damaging to Americans. The Iranian hostage crisis – we are told - denied President Carter his chance for re-election; the Lebanese hostage crisis almost destroyed Reagan’s presidency. Had it not been for the revolution, the oil nationalization crisis would have been conveniently considered a ‘success’ too (and Iranians’ subsequent failures would have been avoided, as well). ‘Success’ and ‘failure’ are in the eye of the beholder, after all.

On a more serious note, a book written for a specific target audience is bound to have omissions, ambiguities and loose ends. NwI would have been a more appealing book had it also covered the ‘historical and cultural constants’ of the West, which played an equally significant role in the failure of the bilateral negotiations as did Iranians’. In its absence, NwI appears to be merely a collection of words of wisdom - do’s and don’ts - for the prospective American (by definition, ‘rational’) negotiators, persuading them to approach their Iranian (‘irrational’) counterparts with utmost sensitivity in order to avoid any outburst of emotions on the part of Iranians that may breakup the negotiation, and leave the mission unaccomplished. As Mosaddegh once said, “Tant pis pour nous.” (p. 59)

On justice, nationalism and tragedy: “The British side, and eventually the American mediators, came to see the Iranian insistence on justice as too subjective and too absolute to be a basis for an agreement. After all, what did justice mean? It was too imprecise a term for Western lawyers and accountants.” (p. 84) And, what was this ‘too subjective and too absolute’ justice that Iranians were demanding? According to Limbert, “Rather than play the game by the rules, the British would turn over the board. An even greater tragedy was that the British convinced their American allies – who early in the crisis seemed to understand Iranian nationalism and to be making a good-faith effort to resolve a dispute between two of Washington’s friends – to join London’s efforts against Iranian nationalists.” (p. 85) So, now you have it, boys and girls. That ‘too subjective‘, ‘too absolute’ and ‘too imprecise’ demand of ‘irrational’ Iranians that ‘Western lawyers and accountants’ had problem comprehending, and Americans first understood and later didn’t understand, had to do with ‘nationalism’. It is not that after 2000 years of Judeo-Christian and secular scholarship on these subjects, the West doesn’t know what justice is, or what nationalism is all about. Those credited with articulating the formalism known as the ‘rule of law’ sans justice, know exactly how difficult it will be to justify slavery, genocide, colonialism, globalization, and other elitist contrivances, as long as that confounding concept of justice is aspired to. NwI’s unapologetic dismissal of justice reminds me of a quote attributed to the great American poet, Robert Frost, “A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.”

The English dictionary defines ‘tragedy’ as, “a consequence of tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances.” Granted, the 1953 coup could be regarded as the fault of irrational Iranians and British cheats. What about the other dozen or more regime changes in the past century or so the U.S. has been involved in? Whose “tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability” can be blamed for those egregious acts? Is it too difficult for a learned professor of Political Science to acknowledge that the coup of 1953 was merely a generic episode in the conflict between haves and have-nots over some finite and non-renewable resource? Is it too onerous to drop ‘rational vs. irrational’ demagoguery, and admit that those negotiations were bound to fail because antiquated Manichaeism was no match for the post-modern Machiavellism?


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by آشنا on

I have always seen Mr. Limbert as a fuzzy diplomat with lots of “words of wisdom” but not much substance. Thank you for showing me that I was not wrong.


The Bully & the Meek


Universal power politics is no different than children playing in schools playground.  The bigger, stronger, the Bully rules the playground.  And if the bully’s father is the principle, then the odds of dominance becomes unbeatable.  Such has been the case since World War II, the emergence of present superpowers, the US, Russia, England, France representing today’s Machiavellian period. Their strategy is that Middle Eastern Countries with valuable resources are to be contained by whatever means possible.  Some are obedient monarchs such as Saudi Arabia, to be protected.  Some are trouble makers such as Sadam Hossein, are to be eliminated.  Some possess potential to cause havoc in the area, kick and fight for their independence such as Iran, are to be contained with delicate maneuvering with war as the last resort.  That appears to be the current World affair.  But I see a change in horizon with emergence of China, India, Japan and Yes Iran (If they ever get released from the claws of the Islamic Republic).  It is obvious that United States does not want a Middle East super power other than Israel.  But a Democratic Iran (with or without nuclear) is better than the irrational Islamic Republic (with or without nuclear).  US, is dragging itself down by spreading thinner and thinner through its military endeavors.  Adding Iran to the list is ill advised.  US must come off its war horse, and use prudent strategy of regime change by openly supporting the Iranian people and tightening the economic screw on the Islamic Republic.  While the later is in process, the former in reality is ignored.             


Excellent review, insightful commentary

by gunjeshk on

Excellent review, insightful commentary. Iranians and Americans both have a lot of hard work to do if they are to truly understand one another. Unfortunately, after the June 12 election protests most Americans view their antipathy toward Iran as fully justified. I have to add that the regimes rhetoric does nothing but reinforce the deep concern that many Americans feel toward Iran.

Although Limbert's book may have flaws, i.e. " . . .it should be recognized that this book is written by an American diplomat for (primarily) American readers . . ." we could only dream that Americans might take relations with Iran seriously enough to undertake a reading of the history covered in this book.