The tragic earthquake in Iran has evoked yet another wave of quick-fix fantasy about the Iran-U.S. relationship. Many are claiming that this disaster gives us the chance to show Iran we are decent, caring people and gives Iran the chance to signal its readiness for a breakthrough in relations.
We do the right thing by helping the quake victims. But this gesture will cause no material improvement in our relations with Tehran. The Iran-U.S. relationship has suffered too many man-made disasters to be easily restored. To achieve that end, Iran and the United States will need to work with discipline for a considerable time to clear away the rubble of the tragedies that have shattered their relations during the past decade.
The Islamic Revolution need not itself have led to the breakdown in Iran-U.S. relations. But the seizure of the U.S. Embassy, the long detention of our hostages, the abrupt termination of economic relations, Iran's support for terrorist acts against the United States (including the taking of U.S. hostages in Lebanon), the secret arms sales, the Gulf War, the shootdown of Iran Air 655 and the sabotage of Pan Am 103 are too formidable a set of political shocks to be erased through any amount of goodwill, let alone a modest, humanitarian gesture.
Former president Reagan and his secretary of state George Shultz supported the view that the place to start the process of reconciliation was to negotiate settlements of claims pending in the Iran/U.S. claims tribunal in The Hague. Iranian and U.S. lawyers had daily contact concerning these claims since 1982 despite the otherwise hostile relations between their governments. Such negotiations were fully defensible, moreover, so long as each settlement served U.S. interests. To the extent that Iran reacted positively to this process -- and I expected a positive reaction based on my contacts with Iran's lawyers -- that would be a political bonus. And if they were led to secure the release of U.S. hostages, so much the better.
Despite high-level support, however, we did not implement an initiative to settle these claims during the Reagan administration. We came close to conducting such talks, but they were sabotaged by the push for dramatic, quick-fix solutions. In September of 1986, for example, while I was in The Hague telling Iranian lawyers that the United States refused to return some $200 million in military equipment that Iran had previously purchased, National Security Council staffers were arranging to sell Iran new equipment (at three times its retail value) in exchange for the release of U.S. hostages.
On another occasion a session with my Iranian counterpart, scheduled at U.S. request, was canceled because Iran refused to meet with U.S. officials at a high political level. Iran's unwillingness to work with us on a high political level was the reason legal talks should have been permitted to proceed.
We paid dearly for failing to negotiate. On the purely practical level, we pushed losing legal arguments in the Tribunal until it ruled against us. We did this to avoid being accused in Congress and the press of agreeing to give Iran anything, even something Iran deserved. In the process, we squandered valuable leverage, which we could have used to obtain benefits for the United States and U.S. claimants. And our conduct, though technically proper, evoked ill will.
About a year ago, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker approved the opening of serious settlement discussions. No doubt, their decision was made easier by the end of the Gulf War and the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini. But Iran had been prepared to proceed for several years despite those factors. The key change was Bush and Baker's willingness to adopt and hold firm to an open, long-term negotiating process in the face of occasional criticism and speculation that we were negotiating for the release of hostages. Their support was essential also in overcoming continuous, internal bureaucratic opposition based on self-protection and inertia.
We have gained greatly from negotiating. In regularly-scheduled meetings, during a period of 10 months, we settled some 2,400 of the 2,600 remaining tribunal claims. We reduced the anticipated life of the tribunal from about 25 years to about three years. And while difficult cases remain to be resolved, continued progress at the same pace could result in settlements of nearly all remaining matters within the next year.
In addition to clearing away the rubble of their multibillion-dollar economic relationship, Iran and the United States will have to deal with the losses caused by the Iran Air shootdown, and (to the extent Iran was responsible) the bombing of Pan Am 103. Iran should meanwhile have completed laying the groundwork for resuming commercial relations with American oil companies and should have made substantial further progress in its efforts to secure the release of all American hostages. Progress on all these matters will be necessary to create an environment in which open political contacts can be renewed.
A long and arduous process of reconciliation with Iran has no appeal to quick-fixers. But it is the strategy most likely to succeed. We should take every opportunity along the way to show goodwill. But both sides have scores to settle, and no generous gesture or crazy adventure can substitute for the tough negotiations that lie ahead.
The writer served as legal adviser to the secretary of state from June 1985 to June 1990.