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July 07, 2008

What Reagan and Shultz Can Teach Us About Talking to Iran
Posted by The Editors

Our guest poster is Michael McFaul a Hoover Senior Fellow, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Center of Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law at Stanford University.

In their column on National Review on June 24, 2008 called  “10 Concerns about Barack Obama,” William Bennett and Seth Leibsohn, begin their list of attacks on Senator Obama by writing that “Barack Obama’s foreign policy is dangerous, naïve, and betrays a profound misreading of history.”  In arguing against any engagement with Iran, William Bennett and Seth Leibsohn point out that “Ronald Reagan met with no Soviet leader during the entirely of his first term in office.”

This statement is factually correct.  And there was most certainly a big debate within Reagan Administration about whether to talk with the leaders of the Evil Empire. However, Bennett and Leibsohn imply in their piece that this debate was only resolved after the Soviet Union met some preconditions to talks and changed internally, that is after, as they write, that Reagan “was assured Gorbachev was a different kind of leader – after Perestroika, not before.” 

In fact, the debate about engaging the evil empire was resolved three years before Reagan met with Gorbachev.  The debate and the resolution in favor of talking to the leaders of the evil empires is meticulously chronicled in George’s Shultz’s memoir, Turmoil and Triumph: Diplomacy , Power, and the Victory of the American Ideal (1993).  Just the title of Chapter 25, "Realistic Reengagement with the Soviets," underscores how misleading the Bennett and Leibsohn rendition of  history is.

When they first came to Washington, many foreign policy advisors within Reagan administration advocated the Bennett and Leibsohn position and did not want to have any contact with the Soviets, even though every American president since the recognition to the USSR in 1933 had met with their Soviet counterparts.  When George Shultz became Secretary of States in 1982, he began to challenge this policy of disengagement, arguing that United States needed to engage both the Soviet leaders but also Soviet society.  As he writes in his memoirs about the start of the New Year in 1983, “I wanted to develop a strategy for a new start with the Soviet Union. I felt we had to try to turn the relationship around: away from confrontation and towards real problem solving.”  (p. 159) Shultz is writing about his thinking two years before Gorbachev comes to power.

Shultz’s idea for a turn towards engagement met resistance in the Reagan administration. Again, from his memoirs: “I knew the president’s White House staff would oppose such engagement. There was lots of powerful opposition around town to any efforts to bridge the chasm separating Moscow and Washington.”  After listing the opponents to direct negotiations, which included Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and CIA head Bill Casey, Shultz affirmed that “I was determined not to hang back from engaging the Soviets because of fears that the ‘Soviet wins negotiations’.” (p. 159).  Sound familiar? Instead the word, Iranians, for Soviets and you capture the essence of the debate today.

Shultz, as we all know, won this debate, convincing Reagan about the need to start talking directly to the Soviets (again well before Gorbachev came on to the scene). A subtitle of Chapter 12 of Shultz’s memoir is A President Ready to Engage. (p. 163).  In early February 1983, Shultz even floats the idea of meeting directly with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin for a private chat, to which Reagan responds, “Great”, and then adds “I don’t intend to engage in a detailed exchange with Dobrynin , but I do tell him that if Andropov is wiling to do business, so am I” (p. 164). (Remember Andropov died in 1983 and his successor, Chernenko, also did not serve long as the Soviet leader before dying in 1985. from 1983-1985, there was a real crisis of leadership inside the Soviet Union, a factor that contributed to the lack of direct talks at the highest levels).  Speed forwarding again to today’s Iran debate, which presidential candidate sounds more like Reagan?

Shultz’s approach toward engaging the Soviets offers another profound lesson for today’s Iran debate. Shultz never let the negotiations focus just on arms control.  That played o the Soviet’s strengths.  Rather, he insisted on an expanded agenda that always included human rights and democracy. Again, from his memoirs, "We were determined not to allow the Soviets to focus our negotiations simply on matters of arms control. So we continuously adhered to a broad agenda: human rights, regional issues, arms control, and bilateral issues." (p.267). This same approach is needed for dealing with the Iranian regime today.

Finally, Shultz never saw negotiations or expanding contacts with Soviets and Americans as a concession to Moscow or a signal of legitimacy for the communist dictatorship. In the debate about opening consulates in both countries – a move that some hardliners at the time saw as a sign of weakness – Shultz firmly supported the idea as a change in the American national interest. As he quotes from a memorandum that he wrote in 1982, "I believe the next step on our part should be to propose the negotiation of a new U.S.-Soviet cultural agreement and the opening of U.S. and Soviet consulates in Kiev and New York...Both of these proposals will sound good to the Soviets, but are unambiguously in our interest when examined from a hard headed American viewpoint."(p. 275). Exactly the same could be said about Iran today. 

Historical analogies can only go far.   Many dimensions of U.S.-Iranians relations differ radically from Cold War relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  But when observers do roll them out, getting the facts right should be precondition to the substantive date about their relevance.


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Another factor is that Reagan was willing to listen to the advice of allies such as Mitterand and Thatcher, who advocated talking to Gorbachev. The Bush administration and also it seems John McCain have ignored the advice of our allies when it comes to talking with Iran.

Your comparison is interesting although I agree that the analogy may be limited. We had diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1983 and a decision to talk was more of a decision to renew contacts after a period of tension that followed a series of strategic arms and other agreements under previous administrations. We do not have formal relations with Iran today and the only official contact we have had since 1979 was the visit of the Librarian of Congress to Tehran shortly after the US elections in November 2004. For an American President or senior foreign policy official to initiate talks with Iran now would be a significant departure for the United States, although certainly not unprecedented if we remember the visit of Henry Kissinger to China in 1971 and the Nixon visit that followed.

The debate over preconditions that currently surrounds the question of talks is not in my view the real problem. The problem is what we would actually say to Iran in higher-level meetings held without preconditions. We could certainly raise issues such as human rights, regional problems, arms control, and bilateral concerns, as you recommend, but it is not clear to me what we could say on these matters that we have not already conveyed. Do you have any further thoughts, particularly on the subject of arms control?

For nearly 30 years, Republican and Democratic administrations followed bi-polar "carrots" and "sticks" policy approaches that emboldened Iran’s fundamentalists and failed to moderate the behavior of the Islamic republic. Appeasing the regime allows them to take advantage of U.S. benevolence in a Chamberlain-Hitler type appeasement that empowers the hardliners to take as much as they can get while never backing down, legitimizes the regime’s authority as the West plays into their demands, and sells out Iran’s dissidents who strive for democracy and are disillusioned with the regime’s mismanagement of the economy and social functions. Threatening the regime with saber-rattling fuels and increases the hardliner’s bellicose rhetoric, provides a pretext for additional security against the "Great Satan," and undermines civil society and the vibrant democratic movement in Iran as the regime clamps down. Instead of allowing our elected political leaders to alienate the Iranian people’s trust and support for the U.S, we should be asking ourselves, whether the U.S. using every tool at our disposal to maximize our foreign policy objectives to achieve our strategic interests?

Both policies failed to moderate the regime's behavior because they focus on the symptoms of the problem instead of the disease itself, the belligerent and bellicose nature of the Islamic republic. While both strategies are well intentioned, without leverage, the U.S. may never effectively actualize these policies.

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