You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

This Offensive Memo from the 1970s Could Be Key to U.S.-Iran Negotiations

Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Here’s a story that might help Americans remain patient during the current and often befuddling nuclear negotiations with Iran: A few years ago, an undercover Homeland Security agent posing as a black market arms dealer began negotiating with an Iranian broker working on behalf of his Ministry of Defense. The Iranian sought $90,000 worth of American-made radar microchips, dime-sized devices that could help his nation’s air force pinpoint and shoot down U.S. and Israeli fighter jets. After agreeing on a price, the Iranian and the American began to haggle about the deposit. Each time, the American agreed to a deposit price, the Iranian emailed back to propose a new amount. Almost comically, the Iranian changed the deposit from $9,000 to $6,000 to $3,000, and each time, the undercover agent agreed. But even at $3,000, the Iranian sent no money.

The undercover U.S. agent nearly gave up, assuming the Iranian was a scam artist or a small fry. Then one day the Iranian unexpectedly wired $3,000. The sting was on, and the Iranian naively carried his laptop into a meeting with the undercover U.S. agents. The data provided a treasure trove about Tehran’s illicit procurement process and the sting, codenamed Operation Shakespeare, became a raging (though secret) success.

The lesson? “The Iranians do not negotiate in a linear fashion the way we do,” the undercover U.S. agent recalled. “We think we understand them. We don’t. Their logic is not our logic. We connect three dots in a straight line with a ruler. They don’t. What they say makes sense in their reality, but not ours.”

I had a similar experience with the same Iranian broker as I researched my new book about Operation Shakespeare. At the outset, the Iranian told me it would be best if we co-wrote the book. When I declined, he said that he would require advance review on certain topics. Again, I declined. Eventually, he agreed to talk to me with no strings attached. A few weeks later, I received a lengthy contract from him in the mail, proposing how we would co-write the book. I ignored it. Within a month, we resumed our interviews as if he’d never sent the contract.

During a lunch shortly afterward, I related these stories to a senior European diplomat who has served in Washington and Tehran. The man smiled, lowered his voice and asked me if I knew about a 1979 cable written by Bruce Laingen, the senior U.S. diplomat in Tehran at the time. “It’s the best American analysis I’ve ever seen of the way the Iranian mind works,” he whispered.

I learned later that the cable, titled simply “Negotiations,” has been passed around for decades, as a counterprogramming guide of sorts among diplomats, business executives, potentates and others who face off with Tehran. It was first cited by columnist Jack Anderson in 1980 and more recently by the likes of neo-con Elliot Abrams. Thirty-five years later, the tone of the cable—full of cultural stereotyping and pop anthropology—is enough to make you cringe, sounding more like the work of an officer of the British Empire than a diplomat from a leading democracy. All the same, it’s a good bet it’s been read by everyone involved in the current nuclear talks.

The Laingen cable begins innocuously enough: “We suggest that the following analysis be used to brief both U.S. government personnel and private sector representatives who are required to do business with and in this country.” Much of the rest of the language in the memo is blunt and insensitive even by the pre-PC standards of the 1970s. And yet it’s easy to see why, especially after the assist from WikiLeaks, it continues to circulate internationally.

After a short preamble, the 988-word cable dispenses with diplomatic niceties: “Perhaps the single dominant aspect of the Persian psyche is an overriding egoism. Its antecedents lie in the long Iranian history of instability and insecurity, which put a premium on self-preservation. The practical effect of it is an almost total Persian preoccupation with self and leaves little room for understanding points of view other than one’s own.”

The memo traces this unease back centuries. “The Persian experience has been that nothing is permanent and it is commonly perceived that hostile forces abound. In such an environment, each individual must be constantly alert for opportunities to protect himself against the malevolent forces that would otherwise be his undoing. He is obviously justified in using almost any means available to exploit such opportunities.”

The cable concludes with blunt advice:

  1. “One should never assume that his side of the issue will be recognized, let alone that it will be conceded to have merits.”
  2. “One should insist on performance. Statements of intention count for almost nothing.”
  3. “Cultivation of good will for goodwill’s sake is a waste of effort.”
  4. “One should be prepared for the threat or breakdown in negotiations at any given moment and not be cowed by the possibility. [An Iranian negotiator] is going to resist the very concept of a rational—from the Western point of view—negotiating process.”

While it’s hard to imagine anyone writing about Iran in the same language these days, the memo nevertheless offers insights that cannot be dismissed simply because they are insensitive, or worse. Consider, for example, that each of the four points above stand at odds with any American diplomat’s core beliefs—that empathy, fulfilling promises, promoting goodwill and Western-centric logic will win the day.

To a degree, Laingen’s memo mirrors the advice of a British informant involved in Operation Shakespeare. This septuagenarian arms broker—who gave himself the awkwardly colonial codename “The White Man”—made six business trips to Iran between 1980 and 2010. Mostly, he met Ministry of Defense officials in Tehran but he also negotiated arms deals with Iranians in Dubai and elsewhere. Later, as an informant, he trained U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officers. He gave them advice not unlike Laingen's: remain firm but patient; don’t get blinded by Western logic or notions of compassion, including the assumption that an Iranian will understand (or care) that the United States still harbors harsh feelings about the 1979 embassy takeover; don’t worry about why one aspect of a deal works and another gets scuttled. It’s foolish, the White Man said, to try to blindly apply your own notions of logic to another culture.

And yet, he added, Iranians may be insecure, but they are more pragmatic than the West believes. With threats on every border, they are willing to overlook the past to secure the future. Are Americans?