US-Iranian Relations after Lausanne

by Henry Precht

For the best view of the prolonged US-Iran negotiations taking place in the Alps of Lausanne, you might step back about 35 years and contemplate the view from the Alborz Mountains in Tehran. It was then—as with greater caution now—that the U.S. was trying to fashion a new relationship with Iran on the wreckage of the past.

“Start over, and make a new beginning” were the instructions from the Carter White House to U.S. diplomats approaching the new government in Tehran. From the past loomed the shadows of Mossadeq, Nixon/Kissinger, and Brzezinski. In the present were the wandering shade of His [once] Imperial Majesty, the chants of “Death to America,” and the choking fog of distrust. Iranians abused human rights and spewed bitter rhetoric; we withheld arms transfers and appeared to plot regime change. Somehow leaders who knew little of each other were to put together a bright new connection.

All those unrealistic hopes came crashing down with the crisis that broke out when Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy and 52 American diplomats and citizens. Hard-liners—mainly on their side, but not entirely so—sought to turn the student demonstration into a lasting rupture in relations. They succeeded. Eight years of a costly war between Iran and Iraq followed by sanctions, isolation and a variety of other torments helped to keep the relationship between Washington and Tehran toxic.

Back to the Future

An agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program and easing sanctions is now being devised. Who knows? There may well even be an exchange of non-embassy diplomatic missions to facilitate future contacts. War might be avoided if Israeli and Saudi ire can be tamped down and Iranian ambitions remain restrained.

The struggle over how close the relationship can be constructed will begin as soon as Secretary of State John Kerry returns home. Iran’s hierarchical political structure will keep its hardliners in line most of the time. No such constraints will affect Washington’s neocons, theresurrected veterans of the Iraq invasion. Obama’s Affordable Care Act might serve as an instructive model: opposition to a new connection with Iran will be relentlessly played out in the Congress, in the courts, and in the media for a long, long time. Will our professorial and austere president have the stomach to stay the course? It won’t require his finely honed basketball skills but tough, heavyweight wrestling.

I think Obama will try hard for a new beginning with Iran, however hesitant he might appear. Iran is hardly any American voter’s favorite country. Nevertheless, as he is doing with the restoration of relations with Cuba, the president will succeed if he moves steadily and diligently as well as slowly and quietly.

Obama’s treatment of Iran after Lausanne will adhere to his (unfairly judged) Middle East policy. His moves in the region have been, despite the jibes of critics, quite consistent. The president has committed to cleaning up the messes left behind by his predecessors. Passing on a region in better shape than he found it is an important, if not an ennobling goal. The image might be of the proverbial street sweeper cleaning up behind a parade of (mainly Republican) elephants. The president’s misfortune is that the mammoth messes seem to spread. Ending the Iraq occupation calls forth ISIS; leaving Afghanistan summons home the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the unaddressed and festering problems of autocracy, corruption, and poverty in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen have found loud and tumultuous voice in the unhappy aftermath of the short-lived Arab Spring. Unable to restore the old, albeit quite unsatisfactory order, or to devise an improved model, Obama has applied patches where he could, such as restarting arms shipments to Egypt. His hope is for a bit of calm and better luck. But we shouldn’t expect any new ideas, any second version of his 2009 Cairo speech to the Arab world.

New Challenges for Obama

For a long time anything new in the policy line had to pass the “Is it okay with Israel?” test. Now maybe, after the Netanyahu exchanges, that litmus test will no longer prove such an important barrier.

But stay! Another master is rising to assert leadership resting on heaps and heaps of lucre: Saudi Arabia for the first time in its history is swinging its weight.

Riyadh is calling shots and paying for them wherever a Shia bows to pray either to Ali or an Ayatollah. Washington stands mute, silently wringing hands over excesses, but uttering hardly an audible word of rebuke when tanks roll into Bahrain or bombs fall on Yemen. We humbly get in line to help the new regional superpower with logistics and intelligence.

Standing out of the way, Iran displays great moderation—a quality much in demand but rare in 1979—in reaction to the Saudi rise. Despite the ”Iranian-backed” epithet that the media religiously glues (without evidence) on the Houthi tribe, Tehran’s interest in Yemen has historically been sporadic and cursory at best—nothing like its compulsion to help neighboring regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.

Appealing to and negotiating with proud Iranians these past years must have been wearing on Obama. Those on the other side of the table have learned since 1979 that revolutionary righteousness counts for much less than yielding a point or two here and there in dealing with a more powerful antagonist. It remains to be seen whether the agreement’s opponents in Congress will gauge its worth to be more-generous-than-hoped-for campaign contributions from Iran’s American enemies.

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. Saudi rise but it will hit the ground soon just watch and enjoy

  2. Fall out from the time being. Do we or don’t we, that is the question on everyone’s lips. All things considered, these few months left for the “O” regime, should be spent in the boldest possible way, regardless of who don’t like it. After all, he is the P.O.T.U.S., so anything less, cheapens the office. Stand aside at the U.N., don’t back Netanyahoo, let him sink or quit. The fact that war in the M.E. has been a disaster for the U.S., war with Iran would prove to be the mother of all disasters, IMHO.

Comments are closed.