Russia is about to discover the duplicity that has marked Iran's diplomacy for four decades. The Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention was just a piece of paper, signed to please Russian President Vladimir Putin, who now can join the club of those deceived by the mullahs. Pictured: Putin meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, on November 1, 2017. (Image source: kremlin.ru)
"Talk to Iran!" This is the advice some Western politicians have bandied around since 1979, when the mullahs seized power in Tehran. The 40th anniversary of the Khomeinist regime has provided fresh opportunity for that slogan to be promoted again in the European Union and the United States.
The argument is that the alternative to "talk to Iran" is war, something which few would desire. It is also claimed that "talk to Iran" helps a never-defined "moderate reformist faction" to defeat "hardliners" in the power struggle that has raged in the Islamic Republic from the start.
I have exposed those claims as fallacious and need not repeat my arguments here. I thought to return to the topic because the new German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, repeated the "slogan" as if he were Columbus discovering the New World.
At the annual Munich Security Conference last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif revived talk of "critical dialogue" to lead a debutant Maas up the garden path.
By the mid-1980s Hans-Dietrich Genscher's "critical dialogue" had morphed into a process in which the Europeans and the mullahs came together to criticize the United States. In Genscher's "dialogue," the mullahs promised not to conduct terrorism in Europe. They broke their pledge by launching attacks, including assassinations, in Austria, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. They also promised not to seize more European hostages, but went on doing so regardless. Since then hardly a day has passed without the mullahs holding some European hostages.
"Talk to Iran" was also tried by successive US administrations, starting with Jimmy Carter's. In 1980 the mullahs signed an accord with Carter not to seize any more American hostages in exchange for unfreezing Iranian assets blocked by Washington after the 1979 capture of the US Embassy in Tehran. Yet, to this day, Iran has always held American hostages, and today is holding 14.
Western powers aren't alone in having tried the "talk to Iran" formula in the hope of forging a modus vivendi with a regime that, because it is not at peace with its own people, cannot be at peace with anyone else. At one point, the Saudis tried to improve ties with the Khomeinist regime.
They helped Iran organize the Islamic Summit in Tehran, hoping to persuade the mullahs to become part of the normal world. They coordinated oil policies and, as a further sign of goodwill, granted Iran an unprecedented Hajj quota. The reward was the Khomeinist attack on Khobar and, later, the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy and consulates in Iran.
Turkey had a similar experience. It created a security commission with Iran and closed its borders to Iranians fleeing to exile. Iranian opposition figures were expelled or, in some cases, left to be kidnapped by hit squads from Tehran.
Turkey also became a major element in Tehran's sanctions-busting operations. The mullahs repaid Turkey by granting the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) bases in the Qandyl Mountain region just inside the Iranian border. They also created a Turkish branch of Hezbollah, smashed by the Turks a decade later.
The "talk to Iran" slogan reached a summit with the so-called "nuclear deal".
To concoct it, President Barack Obama circumvented the United Nations Security Council, ignored the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and sidelined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to produce something tailor-made to please the mullahs.
As a further sweetener, he also smuggled cash to Tehran. And yet, by the time Obama left the White House, the mullahs had not fulfilled their commitments under the "historic deal."
Some analysts affirm that the mullahs wouldn't dare treat Russia in a cheat-and-retreat way because Russians are not so easily fooled. To back that view, they cite an incident in Beirut in 1984, when Tehran ordered Hezbollah agents to capture four Russian hostages to punish Moscow for its support for Saddam Hussein.
The narrative is that the Russians called Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-pour, Khomeini's ambassador in Damascus, who was also the founder of the Lebanese Hezbollah, and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: Release the Russian captives or we'll seize four hostages from your staff!
Not desiring a taste of their own medicine, the mullahs relented and Russian hostages were released. Now here is a scoop: Russia is about to discover the duplicity that has marked the mullahs' diplomacy for four decades.
Last August, President Hassan Rouhani signed the Caspian Sea Legal Status Convention, a text written by Moscow to give Russia a monopoly on military presence in the inland sea. President Vladimir Putin hailed that as a major victory for Russian diplomacy. However, it is now clear that the mullahs have put their machinery of deception in high gear to do to Putin what they did to many American, European, Turkish and Arab leaders.
To start with they refused to present the "convention" to the Islamic Majlis, the ersatz parliament, as a draft law to secure its legal status, something that the other littoral states, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan have done. The foreign ministry has also withdrawn a Persian translation of the text, promising a more accurate version.
This week the Iranian Foreign Ministry's legal department declared that the "convention" Rouhani signed becomes "operational only after all littoral states have established their borders in territorial waters", a process that could take years.
According to Reza Nazar Ahari, Iran's point man on Caspian Sea issues, negotiations would be held two or three times a year in the five littoral capitals until agreement is reached.
Speaking in Baku, Azerbaijan, Ahari insisted that a common Caspian space, beyond territorial waters, should be established in which activity is possible only with the unanimous approval of littoral states.
Russian military monopoly is made conditional on agreements that may never be reached.
In other words, the "Convention" was just a piece of paper, signed to please Putin, who now can join the club of those deceived by the mullahs. There he would find Heiko Maas, an enthusiastic novice.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.