John Limbert: U.S. and Iranian Diplomats “Unable To Get Beyond Their Classic Responses”

Naval Academy professor John Limbert, the Obama administration’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran, paints an interesting, if disquieting, picture of the U.S.’s failed attempts to negotiate with Iran in a preview of his upcoming U.S. Institute of Peace Iran Primer. (Laura Rozen blogged about Limbert on Friday.)

Limbert, who was held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Hostage Crisis, shows that while both the U.S. and Iran have made several attempts at diplomacy, longstanding misunderstandings between the two countries and domestic political obstacles have all stood in the way of meaningful negotiations. He lists these as:

  • Never say yes to anything. You will look weak. Insist the other side must change first.
  • Anything the other side proposes must contain some subtle trick. Its only goal is to cheat us.
  • The other side is infinitely hostile, devious, and irrational. Its actions prove its implacable hostility.
  • Whenever the smallest progress is made, someone or some diabolical coincidence will derail it.

Limbert summarizes the major opportunities, and wasted attempts at outreach, during the Obama administration as:

  • During his campaign and after taking office, President Obama repeatedly declared his determination to break the 30-year downward spiral in U.S.-Iranian relations.
  • During his first two years in office, Obama twice wrote Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but did not receive a response to his second letter. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad twice wrote Obama, but did not receive a reply.
  • Iran, beset by internal political battles, has had trouble changing the patterns of the past. At the same time, the Obama administration faced congressional pressure to take tougher action against Tehran.
  • Both sides claim the other is not responsive to its messages, and both risk falling into the familiar, dysfunctional ways of the past when confronted with perceived intransigence by the other.

The preview for Limbert’s Iran Primer is well worth a read for those who want an understanding of both the Obama administration’s Iran policy for the past two years but also those seeking insight into why U.S.-Iran relations have been so fraught with mistrust and misunderstanding for the past 30 years.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.