Iran’s Poker Game: What Can Direct Talks Achieve?

If reports of direct talks between the U.S. and Iran are true, what will be achieved?

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Stringer / Reuters

Iran's parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani holds a news conference at the Iranian embassy in Ankara on Jan. 12, 2012

In 10 visits to Iran from 2002 to 2006, I was summoned to the office of a government official only once. The office had airy ceilings and a gorgeous silk carpet. It was in a palace that had belonged to the brother of Shah Reza Pahlavi, who used it as a casino. The preferred game was said to be poker, specifically five-card stud. And, true to tradition, on the March day I showed up, its current resident laid some cards on the table.

Ali Larijani, then the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, took a seat on the sofa and announced that Iran was ready to talk directly to Washington. The immediate topic, he said, was Iraq, which in the spring of 2006 was being pulled to bits by sectarian warfare. But Larijani made it clear Tehran had an appetite to open the discussion to the whole range of issues that had kept Iran and America enemies for more than a quarter-century: “If Americans stop making trouble in the region and take a more concrete look at what they’re doing, many things can happen.”

Nothing did, of course, but the Iranian appetite for what’s often called a grand bargain is useful to bear in mind in light of the weekend’s New York Times report that Tehran and Washington are on the cusp of direct talks once again. This time, the topic at hand is Iran’s nuclear program. But the Times reports that the Iranian side would prefer to open the floor — “to broaden the agenda to include Syria, Bahrain and other issues that have bedeviled relations between Iran and the United States since the American hostage crisis of 1979.”

The article also hints that the Iranian official promoting direct talks is Larijani, which makes sense. Though he’s held a variety of top positions — including head of state broadcasting and his current job as Speaker of the Majlis, or Iranian parliament — Larijani’s power has always stemmed from his access to the man who runs Iran: Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, the cleric who has held the title of Supreme Leader since 1989. The other thing to know about Larijani is that in Iran, he’s a “pragmatist,” the rough equivalent of Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush who warned against neocon adventures in Iraq, among other things. “I believe we need to retain our idealism but ally it to realism,” Larijani told the Financial Times in an interview last month. “I believe our revolutionary ideals are achievable while our policymakers maintain a rational approach.” He has a doctorate in Western philosophy and for years has been the closest thing Khamenei has to a personal envoy to the non-Islamic world, the portion of the globe that Khamenei so mistrusts. (For insight on that, there’s no beating Karim Sadjadpour’s Reading Khamenei: The World View of Iran’s Most Powerful Leader, on the Carnegie Endowment site.)

Iran, as the Financial Times interview makes clear, remains interested in some brand of a grand bargain — putting all issues on the table and coming to an all-in-one ultimate accommodation with Washington. The hope was also there when a moderate was Iran’s President: diplomats answering to the mild-mannered Mohammed Khatami, who preceded the populist hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President, put a considerable amount of energy into finding a winning equation, as Nick Kristof and others documented, actually publishing what appear to be work papers exchanged between governments in an effort to define who would concede what. But President George W. Bush dismissed Iran’s overture, and after President Obama’s campaigning on a promise to reach out to Iran, his personal letters to Khamenei early in his Administration failed to coax a new diplomatic opening between governments trapped not only by opposing perspectives on the world but also by their own traditions of uncompromising rhetoric. Instead, Khamenei used the missives as a rhetorical device in his Friday sermons, and Obama found himself free to invoke with a shiny new credibility the threat of military action against the mullahs’ nuclear program.

Everyone says they would prefer to negotiate an end to the nuclear crisis, but it’s hard to be hopeful: talking past each other is what the two countries have done for 33 years, ever since the 1979 revolution that swept aside the U.S.-backed monarchy made hostages of 52 Americans held 444 days inside an overrun embassy (aside from the six U.S. diplomats whose rescue from the Canadian embassy was adapted into the movie Argo) and produced an authoritarian theocracy of impressive durability. As the decades unspooled, each side has found ample reason to believe the worst about the other, their operating assumptions amplified in the echo chambers constructed years earlier and reliably producing slogans of tinny shrillness that might not sound true, but pass for received wisdom in the absence of any independent input.

Oddly enough, Iraq was one place that saw the rote assumptions challenged, at least in first blush of the U.S. occupation. Not a year after the invasion, U.S. troops were still stationed in the country’s south and on its desert highways often encountered busloads of Iranians making their way to the Shi‘ite pilgrimage cities of Karbala and Najaf (where Larijani was actually born, his ayatullah father having been driven out of Iran by the Shah). In an extraordinary instance of people-to-people diplomacy, the pilgrims returned to Iran telling their families and neighbors that the American GIs were not the monsters they had grown up hearing described. They were, in fact, sweet young men who went out of their way to help Iranian travelers, digging into their flapped pockets to offer car fare to one stranded pilgrim and sending another home with a soldier’s own inhaler for his asthma, plus a spare for the road. I heard the stories from ordinary people gathered for free yogurt and games at the anniversary-of-the-revolution street fair. But if word had percolated up to the top levels of the government — or survived the insurgency that just weeks later erupted across Iraq’s south, with the support of Tehran — it was no longer in evidence two years later, when I was summoned to Larijani’s office.

“Americans have a lot of interest in this region provided that they humiliate others,” he said, and offered an example of his own from Iraq. In the town of Balad, north of Baghdad, he said, American soldiers had ordered Iraqi civilians to line up, then broken the legs of one and put a cigarette out in the eyes of another. I listened, wrote down his words, then told him that I found that hard to believe, that I’d been living in Iraq for most of the past year, operated a string of Iraqis as reporters across the country and really would have expected to have heard of such an atrocity, at least as a rumor. “There are witnesses,” Larijani replied. He held up a red plastic folder. “I was told by those who were witnesses. We had eyewitness reports from the event, and also we have some sources in Iraq, respected local leaders who came to us and made complaints about how they are being treated on the ground.”

Whatever the two sides choose to put on the table in direct negotiations — and the Iranians consider themselves the world’s best bargainers — it’s hard to believe a bit of back-and-forth would hurt. Sunshine is nature’s disinfectant, and the airing of even the stuffiest views counts as ventilation.