US 'How To' Guide on Talking to Iran - in 1979 - Emerges from WikiLeaks

Article excerpt

A WikiLeaks cable written three months before the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran is at times insightful and at times sweeping in its condescension about the 'Persian psyche.'

As top Western diplomats sit down at the negotiating table with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva, they will have no shortage of advice, some of it freshly culled from the trove of secret US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.

Pointed, sometimes insightful, though also sweeping at times in condescending assumptions or schoolteacher-ish advice, the releases show a narrow snapshot of US diplomacy and America's perceptions of one of its most enigmatic foes.

Coping with the Islamic Republic since it came into being with the 1979 Islamic revolution has been a top priority of Washington - but also one of its most challenging battles. Less than three months before the US Embassy in Tehran was overrun by militant students, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, diplomats posted there crafted a "how-to" guide to negotiating.

Some elements of the Iran analysis have in the past three decades been revised or changed in practice - if not in text, as so far, few other similar documents have been leaked. Yet the confidential cable notes the "special features" of negotiating with Iranians, and reads, "We believe the underlying cultural and psychological qualities that account for the nature of these difficulties are and will remain relatively constant."

The cable posits that, "Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism" stemming from the "long Iranian history of instability and insecurity which put a premium on self-preservation." The result, the cable says, is "an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one's own."

A time of little love for Americans

The Aug. 13, 1979, cable came at a time of great change in Iran, and little sympathy for Americans, when Islamic revolutionaries had toppled the pro-West Shah and were consolidating their power. Militant students had already once made their way into the US Embassy in February - and been forced to leave. "Death to America" was a common slogan; US flags were increasingly burned.

In that troubled milieu, the cable portrays Iranians as almost impossible to deal with or even to befriend, and as acting irrationally at times with a "socalled 'bazaar mentality' so common among Persians, a mind-set that often ignores longer term interests in favor of immediately obtainable advantages and countenances practices that are regarded as unethical by other norms."

More than a few Iranians might not recognize themselves in the two-page description. But among the "lessons," the cable concludes: "Finally, one should be prepared for the threat of breakdown in negotiations at any given moment.... Given the Persian negotiator's cultural and psychological limitations, he is going to resist the very concept of a rational (from the Western point of view) negotiating process."

The view today: a regime bent on self-preservation

In sharp contrast, US and Iranian analysts alike have come to view Iran's foreign policy for decades as relatively cautious and rational, if prone to exaggeration in public declarations. They see a regime determined to preserve itself, above all else.

A changed American view of Iranian rationalism was noted in the late 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate, which has never been officially superseded. It determined that Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003 "in response to international pressure [which] indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon..."

1979: a pervasive unease about the world

Yet some aspects of the 1979 cable are as recognizable today as they would have been from the start of the revolution, and in fact decades before. …