Last week’s telephone chat between President Obama and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, could be the beginning of a process that will change Iran and rearrange power relationships in the Middle East. Its greatest impact, however, may be in the United States.
For generations, Americans have resisted the idea of dialogue with perceived enemies. If that is now changing, history is being made.
Obama is acting on the principle that countries seen as enemies or rivals are precisely the ones with which the United States should negotiate. This is a radical departure from American tradition.
America’s resistance to negotiation has its roots in the belief that since the United States is so strong, it can dictate terms to other countries rather than having to compromise with them. This view was set in stone more than half a century ago by the two extraordinary brothers who directed American foreign policy during the height of the Cold War: Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles.
The Dulles brothers militantly opposed any negotiation with the Soviet Union. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the new Soviet leader, Georgi Malenkov, asked to meet with his Western counterparts. Prime Ministers Winston Churchill of Great Britain and Joseph Laniel of France were eager, but John Foster Dulles was absolutely opposed. No summit was held.
Foster Dulles believed that negotiating with Soviet leaders would give them a chance to “utter platitudes about peace,” which would be a “great gain” for their side. He made various disarmament proposals but privately admitted that they were only “an exercise in public relations.”
In 1954 Dulles attended a conference in Geneva to discuss the fate of Vietnam. China was represented by the visionary diplomat Zhou Enlai, and before Dulles left Washington, he was asked if he would be willing to meet Zhou. “Not unless our automobiles collide,” he replied.
Dulles was so eager to isolate China that he refused to allow an American zoo to import a Chinese panda, and approved the prosecution of a stamp dealer for selling Chinese stamps. “Unfortunately,” he explained, “there are governments or rulers that do not respect the elemental decencies of international conduct so they can properly be brought into the organized family of nations.”
Eventually these taboos broke down, and the United States was able to negotiate substantial agreements with both the Soviet Union and China. The taboo against contact with Iran, however, survived for 34 years until Obama broke it with his phone call.
Not everyone is pleased. Hard-liners on both sides, accustomed to the paradigm of hostility, are working feverishly to block reconciliation. They reflect the enduring power of the Dulles approach: don’t talk, don’t negotiate, and ultimately we will win.
The supreme irony is that the Dulles brothers were principally responsible for setting off the chain of events that drove Iran and the United States apart. As corporate lawyers, they were outraged when the Iranian leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, nationalized his country’s oil industry. Their first joint project after taking office in 1953 was organizing a plot to overthrow him. It succeeded. Iranian democracy was destroyed, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi established a royal dictatorship, and his repression ultimately led to the 1979 revolution that brought fanatically anti-American fundamentalists to power.
If the Dulles brothers had not carried out this operation, the religious regime in Iran might never have come to power. Once it did, American leaders embraced the Dulles approach and adopted a policy of confronting, isolating, punishing, and sanctioning Iran rather than seeking to draw it out of its isolation. At least twice, in 2003 and 2010, Washington refused to respond to peace feelers from Tehran.
The Dulles brothers believed the United States could promote its interests by applying coercive power, and did not need to stoop to negotiating. The spectacular failures of American military adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have made that approach difficult to sustain.
No single telephone call can break a habit that has paralyzed a great nation’s diplomacy for generations. Last week’s conversation between American and Iranian leaders, however, suggests that Iran and the United States are not fated to eternal hostility, and could even negotiate their way toward partnership. The Dulles era may have just ended.