WASHINGTON – Hasan Rouhani, a 37-year-old senior foreign affairs adviser in the Iranian government, and his country’s future president, sat with a delegation of White House officials in what was once the Hilton hotel in Tehran. It was May 27, 1986, and Rouhani had come to secretly broker a deal, at great political and personal risk.
The U.S. team’s ostensible purpose was to persuade Iranian leaders to assist in the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, something Rouhani was willing to do in exchange for the United States selling missiles and weapons systems to Iran. But the group of senior National Security Council staffers, including a then little-known Marine lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, had a second and arguably more ambitious goal: to forge a new political alliance with moderate Iranian leaders.
The man to whom U.S. officials are now turning as the best hope for a rapprochement with Iran showed himself to be a shrewd negotiator, ready to usher in a new era of openness. But he was also willing to subvert that goal and string the Americans along to get what he wanted – more weapons. If there is a window into how Rouhani thinks today and how he will approach negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, it may be those few days he spent in high-stakes talks with the Americans.
Rouhani knew that helping to free the hostages held by Hezbollah was a top priority for President Ronald Reagan.
But Rouhani and his cohort, a group of lower-level functionaries in the regime, kept turning the conversation back to weapons. The Americans had pledged to have a plane full of missile parts on its way to Tehran within 10 hours of the hostages’ release. The Iranians wanted the missiles first. When it was clear that wouldn’t happen, they offered to help secure the release of two hostages and said that after further negotiations they’d try for two more.
The bartering frustrated the Americans. North was overseeing the arms sales. But the higher strategy was led by Robert “Bud” McFarlane. Freeing the hostages was a priority, but McFarlane worried that it threatened the chances of what he called the “new political development” with Iran’s moderates.
McFarlane hoped that Rouhani was the key to success. A prior day of negotiations with the lower-level officials had revealed them to be a bunch of amateurs.
“As it turned out this man was a cut above the bush leaguers we had been dealing with,” wrote McFarlane of Rouhani.
The account of the negotiations is contained in a near-verbatim transcript published in the Tower Commission report, which later investigated the arms sales.
Rouhani finds himself once again extending a hand to American leaders but also keeping them at arm’s length.
For all the distance between the two sides, Rouhani looked for ways to bring them closer together. He pledged that he’d continue pressing for the release of hostages held by terrorists in Lebanon.
This is what the Americans had wanted, but they didn’t want to lose the diplomatic momentum. North wanted McFarlane to talk face to face with Iran’s speaker, prime minister and president. Rouhani said it was far too soon for that.
“Can a secret meeting be arranged with McFarlane and your leaders?” North asked.
“You can be sure that this will be conveyed,” Rouhani said, adding that after the U.S. hostages were free and the military equipment had been delivered, “there will need to be more positive steps.” Later, he added, “We have to prepare the people for such a change. Step by step. We need to prepare the nation. Meetings between U.S. and Iranian leaders will take place in this context. If you are serious about solving problems, I am sure official trips and high-level meetings will take place.”
Those meetings never came to pass. McFarlane spoke privately with Rouhani the next day. “It was a useful meeting on the whole,” he cabled back to Washington. “I made it clear that regarding Iran we sought a relationship based upon mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.”
But it had become clear that both sides were talking past each other over the sequence of events that had to happen before the hostages could be finally released. The Iranians made contact with the hostage-takers, but now they were making extraordinary demands. McFarlane saw immediate release of the hostages as unconditional. Whoever may have told Rouhani otherwise had been mistaken.
“My judgment is that we are in a state of great upset,” McFarlane reported back, “schizophrenic over their wish to get more from the deal but sobered to the fact that their interlocutors may have misled them.”
Later that night, McFarlane and Rouhani again met privately. The talks fell apart.
Rouhani left and returned the next morning. “You are not keeping the agreement,” McFarlane said. “We are leaving.”
The Americans headed for the airport. As they boarded their plane, an Iranian official pleaded with them, “Why are you leaving?”
McFarlane said the Iranians had failed to honor their commitment. “This lack of trust will endure for a long time. An important opportunity was lost here.”
North could see that McFarlane felt defeated. He wanted to bolster McFarlane’s spirits. So when the plane landed in Tel Aviv to refuel, North told McFarlane a secret: All was not lost. The prior arms sale to Iran had resulted in an unexpected profit. North and his colleagues at the White House had secretly diverted the money to the contra guerrilla forces in Nicaragua, who were fighting to overthrow the socialist government.
McFarlane would later tell investigators his first reaction upon hearing what North had done: “Oh sh–.”
Congress had repeatedly tried to block the flow of money to the contras and had passed a law barring the intelligence community from sending any funds. What North had just described, and what McFarlane was hearing for the first time, was the covert scheme that would become known as the Iran-Contra Affair. It resulted in felony indictments against North, Adm. John Poindexter and other administration officials, and it threatened Reagan with impeachment. McFarlane pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.
The affair dashed any hopes for a new dawn with Iran. But even if it had never become public, the gap of trust between the two sides was probably too great to bridge. It can be measured to this day.