The Iranian government continues to enrich uranium despite Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's generous package of incentives--and in defiance of the U.N.'s Aug. 31 deadline. Still, European officials hold out hope for the success of diplomacy. On Sept. 15, Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, said, "We are really making progress. Never before have we had a level of engagement . . . as we have now." Diplomats will look for any hopeful sign from Iranian President's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's forthcoming U.N. speech. But can talk work? Successful diplomacy requires that both sides negotiate in good faith and honor commitments. That Tehran's track record undercuts confidence should not surprise. From its very inception, the Islamic Republic has eschewed diplomatic norms.
On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for 444 days. Warren Christopher, deputy secretary of state during the crisis, called the Iranian move a "flagrant violation" of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. But Iranian officials endorsed the seizure. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini praised the students. His successor as supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, showed support with a visit to the embassy soon after its seizure. Ironically, while the Iranian leadership often demands apologies for transgressions both real and imagined, it continues to uphold the righteousness of hostage seizure, underscoring official contempt for diplomatic convention.
Still, the embassy seizure might be long forgotten had Tehran's disdain for diplomatic norms been the exception rather than the rule. In 1986, former U.S. national security advisor Robert McFarlane's traveled to Tehran. While the Iran-Contra Affair is remembered today for the Reagan administration's attempts to circumvent Congressional prohibition of funding of the Nicaraguan resistance, it also illustrates the inadvisability of trusting Tehran. President Reagan sought to win the release of American hostages in Lebanon but, as soon as Washington compensated Tehran for its bad behavior, its militias accelerated hostage seizure. Diplomatic enticement--bribery by another name--backfired. But diplomacy is not just about incentives; it is also about trust. What could have been just a failed initiative turned to scandal when, on the seventh anniversary of the embassy seizure, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, today the chairman of the Expediency Council, broke a pledge of secrecy and revealed the meetings to the international press.
Iranian authorities showed diplomatic duplicity once again after Khomeini issued a declaration calling for author Salman Rushdie's death. Four months before Khomeini's death, then-president Khamenei demanded that Mr. Rushdie apologize in exchange for cancellation of a religious edict ordering his murder. Mr. Rushdie apologized, but the Iranian government nevertheless kept the bounty in place. President Khamenei was insincere, his diplomacy was a tactic. By winning an apology, he confirmed Mr. Rushdie's guilt.
Iranian lying should not surprise; what should is how often Western governments fall prey to it. The British government demanded that Tehran lift the bounty on Mr. Rushdie's head as a precondition to re-establish relations. On Sept. 24, 1998, the Iranian government said it would do nothing to harm Mr. Rushdie. No sooner had London and Tehran exchanged ambassadors, than Iranian authorities once again reversed themselves.
For U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, the cost of Iranian lying is high. While Iranian diplomats pledged not to destabilize Afghanistan and, indeed, cooperate in its reconstruction, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps sent in operatives disguised as school teachers to further instability. As Afghan President Hamid Karzai struggled to wrest control away from warlords, Afghan commanders intercepted a dozen Iranian agents and proxies organizing armed resistance.
In Iraq, too, Iranian diplomacy has been duplicitous. Prior to the Iraq war, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif, pledged Iranian noninterference to British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Zalmay Khalilzad, then President George W. Bush's envoy to the free Iraqis. But, Iranian journalists now describe how, days after Saddam's fall, the Iranian leadership dispatched 2,000 Revolutionary Guards replete with radio transmitters, money, and supplies. On Nov. 18, 2003, Mr. Kharrazi again pledged good behavior. He lied outright; his promise coincided with a new deployment of Iranian intelligence across Iraq. The Revolutionary Guard stepped up its training of Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. Hasan Kazemi Qomi, previously Iran's liaison to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, became Tehran's top diplomat in Baghdad. Mr. Qomi assured diplomats that "Iran will not accept anything that destabilizes Iraq." Four months later, Iraqi forces captured 30 Iranians fighting alongside Sadr's militia.
Earlier this month, I traveled to the Middle East to meet Shiite tribal leaders and urban notables from southern Iraq. They described how Iran has transformed its consulates in Karbala and Basra into distribution points for everything from money to shaped charges. That Tehran uses diplomatic pouches and protocols to safeguard its network reflects their insincerity. While the West approaches diplomacy with sincerity, the Islamic Republic mocks diplomatic convention to shield subversion.
Iran's nuclear program raises the stakes of its deceit to U.S. national security. There is little doubt that Tehran's nuclear program is not peaceful. On Feb. 14, 2005, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary-general of Iranian Hezbollah, promised, "We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that." In February 2006, Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom theologian well-connected to the Islamic Republic's staunchest ideologues, called Iran's possession of nuclear weapons "natural."
Iran's nuclear program has advanced through the trust of diplomats and their willingness to provide hard currency in the name of dialogue and engagement. Between 2000 and 2005, European Union trade with Iran almost tripled. Tehran invested much of this money in arms and nuclear infrastructure. For more than a decade, through both the Rafsanjani and Khatami administrations, Iranian authorities hid the existence of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and a heavy water plant at Khondab. That Western diplomats label Mr. Rafsanjani a pragmatist and Mr. Khatami a reformer underscores the danger of judging Iranian officials by style rather than action.
In February 2003, the Iranian authorities opened the secret plants to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. Their subsequent report was damning: Not only had the Iranian government designed the Natanz facility to house at least 50,000 centrifuges, but Tehran had the import of almost a ton of uranium from China, and could not account for missing processed uranium. During subsequent inspections, Iranian authorities repeatedly changed their stories when asked about the origin of weapons-grade uranium traces. Subsequent inspections exposed other lies. Finally, on Sept. 24, 2004, the IAEA Board of Governors, after recalling a litany of Iranian mistruths, found Iran in breach of its Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement. While Iranian officials have made many subsequent pledges to cooperate, their actions belie their words. They have yet to abide by the Additional Protocol's inspection standards and, earlier this year, turned away IAEA inspectors from Natanz in violation of the NPT.
While diplomacy necessarily involves talking to adversaries, Washington should not assume that the ayatollahs operate from the same set of ground rules. During his long exile in Najaf, Khomeini endorsed taqiya, religiously sanctioned dissembling. From his perspective and that of his followers, the ends justify the means. Hence, Khomeini saw nothing wrong when he told the Guardian newspaper, just months before his return to Iran, "I don't want to have the power of government in my hand; I am not interested in personal power." Tehran may still conduct diplomacy to fish for incentive and reward but, at its core, Iranian diplomacy is insincere. The Iranian leadership will say anything and do anything to buy the time necessary to acquire nuclear capability. That Foggy Bottom still advises against any strategy that might undercut the possibility of some illusionary breakthrough signals triumph not of realism but of negligence. Diplomacy cannot succeed if one side is playing for real and the other only for time.
Mr. Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is co-author, with Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave, 2005).