How to Engage Iran

What Went Wrong Last Time — And How to Fix It

Members of the Iranian air force re-enact Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's arrival to Iran in 1979. (Courtesy Reuters)

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, two major schools of thought have influenced Iran's foreign policy toward the United States. The first maintains that Iran and the United States can reach a compromise based on mutual respect, noninterference in domestic affairs, and the advancement of shared interests. Those who hold this view acknowledge the animosity and historical grievances between the two countries but argue that it is possible to normalize their relations. The second school is more pessimistic. It deeply distrusts the United States and believes that Washington is neither ready nor committed to solving the disputes between the two countries.

Having worked within the Iranian government for nearly 30 years, and having sat on the secretariat of Iran's Supreme National Security Council for much of the decade before 2005, I was involved in discussions about both of these two approaches. My first personal experience in these matters dates to the late 1980s, when the critical issue facing the United States and Europe was the release of Western hostages in Lebanon. During that period, Iran received dozens of messages from Washington proposing that each side, echoing U.S. President George H. W. Bush's 1989 inaugural address, show "goodwill for goodwill."

That year, Bush offered then Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani a deal: If Iran assisted in securing the release of U.S. and Western hostages in Lebanon, the United States would respond with a gesture of its own. In response, Tehran emphasized its expectation that the United States would unfreeze and return billions of dollars in Iranian assets that were being held in the United States. The Iranian leadership also came away from discussions believing that Israel would reciprocate by releasing some Lebanese hostages, specifically Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, the leader of Hezbollah.

Then the two schools of thought came into play. Rafsanjani believed that this deal could be a confidence-building measure that would lead to rapprochement with the

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