The Foreign Service Journal, September 2010

62 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 0 How to Talk to Tehran Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History John W. Limbert, United States Institute of Peace Press, 2009, $14.95, paperback, 215 pages. R EVIEWED BY D AVID T. J ONES Iran has succeeded Russia as the embodiment of Winston Churchill’s fa- mous description: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Ever since the country’s revolutionary gov- ernment held 53 U.S. diplomats — in- cluding the author of this book — hostage from 1979 to 1981, the world has sought ways to understand and deal with Tehran. And as the regime appears to be moving steadily toward obtaining nuclear weapons capability, that task becomes ever more urgent. There may be no American better positioned than Ambassador John W. Limbert to meet that daunting chal- lenge. Prior to joining the Foreign Service in 1973, Limbert had already earned a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies fromHarvard and lived in Iran for several years, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer and later as an English in- structor. A fluent Farsi speaker, he has pub- lished two earlier books about the country: Iran: At War with History (Westview Press, 1987) and Shiraz in the Age of Hafez (University of Wash- ington Press, 2004). He wrote Negoti- ating with Iran after retiring from the Senior Foreign Service, and before being recalled by the current adminis- tration to serve as deputy assistant sec- retary of State for Iranian affairs. His opening chapter, summarizing the country’s history and culture, will be especially useful to the general reader. Still, Limbert emphasizes, such back- ground will not necessarily explain why Iranians take a particular position. To explain, he presents four case studies of Iranian negotiating experi- ences: the Azerbaijan crisis of 1945- 1947, the oil nationalization crisis of 1951-1953, the Embassy Tehran host- age crisis of 1979-1981 and the efforts to free Western hostages in Lebanon during the 1980s. (Casual readers might opt to skip these chapters, which are interesting but occasionally opaque.) At the heart of the book are “14 Steps to Success” to follow when ne- gotiating with Iranians, whether the issue at stake is diplomatic, commer- cial or political. Limbert is a student of the “Getting to Yes” school of diplo- macy, and he peppers the text with ob- servations drawn from his experience. Many of his 14 principles are stan- dard operating practice, such as locat- ing valid interlocutors, talking to officials who can actually make deci- sions, and crediting them with per- sonal intelligence and an ability to define their own national interests. Others suggest ways to handle Iranian national characteristics that tend to frustrate American negotiators: vague presentations featuring “political the- ater and flamboyant gestures;” a sus- ceptibility to conspiracy theories; and a tendency to overplay their hand. Limbert argues that for 30 years both sides have been trapped in a downward spiral: by demonizing each other and expecting the worst, we get just that. While he acknowledges that re-engaging will be a difficult and time-consuming process requiring re- alistic expectations, he believes that progress will be possible once we start expecting success instead of failure. In that regard, however, it may be useful to recall some Chinese history. Imperial China was comprehensively exploited and partially occupied by European powers and Japan. The United States participated only tan- gentially in this exploitation, but did support Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist faction throughout its civil war with the At the heart of the book are “14 Steps to Success” to follow when negotiating with Iranians. B OOKS