De-Demonizing the Islamic Republic of Iran

by Henry Precht

“Next Steps on Iran.” That was the title of the [seemingly] countless memos that we in the State Department’s Near East Bureau sent to the Secretary and the White House during the chaotic months between the revolution and the hostage crisis in 1979. Our aim was to chart a course that would connect the US with the Khomeini regime and begin in small ways a more normal relationship. We failed. I hope, that the post-Nuclear Deal Iran Desk is working feverishly on a paper suggesting Next Steps towards a country that can be once again be important to the American position in the Middle East.

Unburdened by the bureaucratic need to clear my thoughts with sundry agencies and bureaus, I offer my thoughts on how the Department might occupy itself with Iran in the months ahead.

1.  Take a few months’ break from the details of constraining Iran’s nuclear program. Expectations will be high and the initial proposals from either side will be correspondingly unrealistic. Too many eyes — foreign and domestic — will be peering over the shoulders of negotiators; too many knives will be sharpened to plunge if agreement prospers; too many voices will be primed to cry, “I told you so; you can’t trust those snakes!” So, time out. Let’s change the subject for a bit and hope to move on.

2.  Instead, the US should encourage the modest signs of good will that have appeared on both sides — actually they’ve been visible among Iranians for decades. That would mean:

  • easier access for journalists, academics and selected members of the Congress/Majlis to visit, speak and report home;
  • giving the nod to conferences, athletic events and cultural exchanges;
  • offering an enlarged number of scholarships for study at the other’s universities;
  • engaging each other in discussions of mutual problems, e.g., drug interdiction, climate change;
  • encouraging conversations in the private sector about possible future investments, e.g. in oil field management, nuclear plant safety, agriculture — necessarily without commitments as long as sanctions prohibit;
  • monitoring rhetoric to phase out or tune down “Death to America” and to resist unnecessary, hurtful adjectives.

3.  Involve Iran in seeking solutions to regional problems — Iraq, Afghanistan and, most important, Syria. Try working with Tehran and Riyadh to patch up their relations. Make sure Tehran understands that continued goodwill gestures towards Israel will make life easier for Iran in the US.

4.  Over the umpteenth cup of tea, let Rouhani and Co. know that a lighter hand internally would be of high significance over here. Releasing more political prisoners and detainees will pay extra dividends with some in Congress.

5.  Share our planned approach with Europeans and enlist them in trying to bring Iran in from the cold.

6.  Finally, as relations warm, suggest opening an American consular office for visas and other technical matters in Tehran.

Once this memo is leaked — and it may be before reaching its intended recipient — it should be defended robustly as an effort to nudge Iran towards full and conforming membership in the world community.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.



  1. All of this is sound advice coming from such an eminent and experienced diplomat who knows Iran well. Probably the most important step is for each side to deal with other side as flawed human beings rather than as Satan or evil beings. There is a great deal of provocative material, from books and articles to fictitious movies in the United States that portray Iranians as terrorists and worse which need to be curtailed, and Iran certainly also needs to change its disgusting language towards America and Israel.

    In addition to all the collaboration that is mentioned in the article, many years ago Iran invited the United States to join it as a partner in its nuclear program. Under the Shah, the United States had offered to build at least eight nuclear reactors for Iran. Why not pursue Iran’s offer and provide some state of the art reactors that would also involve US scientists in supervising Iran’s nuclear program. There is a great deal of room for cooperation.

  2. Henry I thought this piece was exceptionally sensible, and would like to link up with you for e-mail chatter. You will recall that I replaced you in Tehran in 1976. I have an interesting exchange with a number of Foreign Service colleagues, and would like to add you to that group.
    Cheers, Bob.

  3. Dialog, among those who know, especially those who understand the issues, not the rhetoric of the moment. A new beginning to a M.E., with rational thinking, instead of the saber rattling from the warmongers. As each day goes by, we can breath easier, as the cold gives way to the warming of relations between the U.S. & Iran. A switch from the past beginnings of this new century, all in the details.

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