When Silence Is Hardly Golden

by Henry Precht

The recent telephone conversation between Presidents Obama and Rouhani — and their positive descriptions of the exchange — are precisely on target for bringing an end to the Iran-US Cold War.

Distrust has been the background noise for that conflict for more than 35 years. It need not have been so.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the US observed a restriction on dealing with Iranians that was virtually unique in our diplomatic relations: we refused to have contact with the sovereign’s opponents. Even on American soil we declined to sit with anti-regime Iranian students. Once in the 1970s, an enterprising political officer in Tehran made an appointment to call on a prominent bazaar mullah. The Ministry of Court called Ambassador Richard Helms and said the visit would be unwise. The appointment was cancelled. In 1975, visiting Senator Charles Percy was briefed at the American and Israeli embassies. The latter told him that the mullahs were the regime’s greatest threat. Such an analysis was never heard from the Americans.

Come the revolution of 1978 and it soon became apparent that we were in touch with only one-half of Iranian politics — the losing half. Slowly, cautiously, Embassy political officers began to talk to oppositionist Mehdi Bazargan and his friends. In Washington, however, Deputy Secretary Warren Christopher forbade me as an Iranian desk officer to meet with Ibrahim Yazdi who was on his way to serve Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris.

That gentleman, leader of the revolution, remained off limits until about a month before the end game. Bill Sullivan, ambassador in Tehran, proposed that Washington send a representative to meet with the Ayatollah. President Jimmy Carter agreed. Retired Ambassador Ted Eliot was picked to do the job of explaining US policy towards the conflict and urging a more moderate approach for the revolutionaries. The Shah was informed and shrugged, “A great power must protect its interests.”

Carter and his advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski left for the Guadeloupe summit of world leaders and returned with an altered perspective: the call on Khomeini was cancelled without explanation. Sullivan — on a secure phone line — cursed eloquently whoever made that “stupid decision.”

Would it have made a difference if there had been an American meeting and exchange with Khomeini? Might it have overcome the abiding conviction of the Iranian revolutionaries that we were unalterably committed to the Shah’s rule?

Perhaps not. Many on the wrong side of the barricades were convinced that Washington was determined to keep Iran as a subservient ally. But a meeting might — just might — have generated some reflection and questioning of customary wisdom. With follow-up meetings, talks could have led to a more moderate and balanced view of the American role in the region. As it was, in the months that followed, Iranian officials regularly scolded American embassy personnel for “not accepting the revolution.” Assurances to the contrary did not ring true when we refused even to talk to the revolution’s leader.

That was the backdrop for Washington’s efforts to construct a new and more normal relationship with Tehran. In the spring of 1979, Washington named a new ambassador, Walt Cutler, and Charge Charles Naas prepared to depart. Naas proposed that he seek a meeting with Khomeini to absorb the angry old man’s ire but leave the precedent of an exchange for Cutler’s benefit. Washington approved. Iran’s interim prime minister, Bazargan, was enthusiastic; here was evidence that the US was taking a new, fresh attitude towards the revolution. Perhaps a first step towards easing distrust? We hoped so, too.

But it was not to be. The Iranians executed a wealthy Jewish businessman and friend of the Shah, one of a series of judicial murders against the old regime. Led by Senator Jacob Javits, the US Senate quickly condemned revolutionary Iran in a resolution that was drafted without Executive Branch input.

Khomeini was furious at the perceived insult and interference in Iran’s affairs. He was also cautious. “Don’t break relations with them,” he told his associates. “But make them know they can’t treat us like the puppet Shah.” The agreement for Cutler as ambassador was nullified; the visit of Naas to Khomeini was cancelled.

Distrust blossomed. Washington had lost two openings to explain its policy toward Iran and gain a clearer insight as to where the country was headed. When the embassy was seized in November, we Americans had no established connection with the one man who might have ended the crisis. We could only shout at each other across an ocean.

Obviously, talking to an antagonist alone can’t fundamentally alter a relationship. But it can enhance understanding and cast doubt on dogma. Distrust breeds where one doesn’t hear, “on the other hand” or, “have you thought about the issue from this perspective?”

Not talking opens doors and windows to those who would further embitter a relationship out of ignorance, accident or design. The US-Iranian connection is replete with long periods of destructive silence.

If tensions between Tehran and Washington are to be eased, it is imperative that leaders in the two capitals keep up the flow of exchanges — at the most senior level and also between cadres of officials on both sides. Before too long, that would mean reopened embassies and revitalized exchange programs.

Iran is a land nurtured by poetry and rhetoric. Free speech is a prime American value. Relying on these aural talents, it is time for a continuous and growing exchange between the two nations.

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.


One Comment

  1. I come away with the feeling that the Israelis had something to do with canceling of the talks during Carters term in office. Just as today with Netanyahoo and his repeating of the Nuclear card, trying to influence whether rapprochement goes on between the U.S. & Iran, which if it does succeed, will probably leave him out in the cold. Netanyahoo seems very keen on the warmongering front, as well as sending the U.S. to back up his ranting. New approaches need to be tried, for the tired old ones have seen their day, with nothing to show, except death and destruction, suffer of the innocent.

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