National Security

When Rouhani Met Ollie North

… and strung the White House along to get more weapons.

Hasan Rouhani, a 37-year-old senior foreign affairs advisor in the Iranian government, and his country's future president, sat with a delegation of White House officials on the top floor of what was once the Hilton hotel in Tehran. It was May 27, 1986, and Rouhani had come to secretly broker a deal with the Americans, 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, which consisted 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, such as Rouhani and his bosses, the men who ran the country.

In those meetings, the man to whom U.S. officials are now turning as the best hope for a rapprochement with Iran, after more than three decades of hostilities, showed himself to be a shrewd negotiator, ready to usher in a new era of openness. But he was also willing to subvert that broader 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 in May he spent in high-stakes talks with the Americans over hostages and the countries' shared futures.

Rouhani knew that helping to free the hostages held by Hezbollah, the terrorist group with which Iran held some influence, was a top priority for President Ronald Reagan. The U.S. president had personally committed to the families that he'd do whatever it took to rescue their loved ones. A televised homecoming would be a political triumph for Reagan.

"By solving this problem we strengthen you in the White House," Rouhani told North and his colleagues. "As we promised, we will make every effort."

But it would not come without cost. Rouhani and his cohort, a group of lower-level functionaries in the regime, kept turning the conversation back to the subject of 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.

Rouhani did believe in the broader mission. "You did a great job coming here, given the state of relations between us," Rouhani told the Americans. He thought they could start to work together, though it would be slow going. "I would be surprised if little problems did not come up. There is a Persian saying: Patience will bring you victory -- they are old friend. Without patience, we won't reach anything. Politicians must understand this."

But the bartering over missiles frustrated the Americans. North had handled all the logistics for the meeting and was overseeing the arms sales. But the higher strategy was led by Reagan's former national security advisor, 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. The Iranians had shown up an hour late at the airport to greet McFarlane and his team, who were traveling under false identities to keep the mission a secret. When they finally started talking at the hotel, the Iranians were by turns hospitable and paranoid. In one minute they were welcoming the Americans with pledges of "goodwill" between their countries. In the next, they were accusing the Americans of reneging on their agreement to send a fresh round of missile parts to Tehran.

"At bottom, they really are rug merchants," McFarlane told National Security Advisor John Poindexter in a cable later that night. The Americans needed to "get beyond their level [of authority] if we are to do any serious business here."

McFarlane's hopes were answered the next day when Rouhani showed up. "As it turned out this man was a cut above the bush leaguers we had been dealing with," wrote McFarlane, who, when he was still serving in the White House, had helped set up the initial arms-for-hostages exchange.

"We are ready to listen in all areas," Rouhani told his guests. "Though we knew we won't agree in every area, we will agree on some subjects."

The account of the negotiations is contained in a near-verbatim transcript written by a National Security Council (NSC) staffer who was part of the U.S. delegation. It was published in the Tower Commission report, which later investigated the arms sales.

The transcript shows that Iran's leaders were afraid they'd be deposed if more hard-line elements in the regime or the public at large discovered they were meeting with the Americans. Howard Teicher, the NSC staffer who wrote the account of the meeting, told Foreign Policy that Rouhani used a pseudonym to protect himself in case the details of the discussion leaked. In the Tower report, Rouhani appears only as "senior foreign affairs adviser."

"Our relations are dark. They are very bad," Rouhani told his guests. "Maybe you don't like to hear it, but I must be outspoken. The Iranians are bitter." He urged caution. "As a government, we don't want to be crushed tomorrow. We want to stay in power and solve these problems between us." Rouhani reminded the Americans that many of his countrymen called the United States "the Great Satan."

Many still do. Today, Rouhani finds himself once again extending a hand to American leaders but also keeping them at arm's length. Reportedly, the Iranians called off a possible encounter between Rouhani and President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week for fear of how the photo-op would go over back in Tehran.

"They still cannot overcome their more immediate problem of how to talk with us and stay alive," McFarlane wrote in 1986. "But from the tenor of [Rouhani's] … statements, conviction, and knowledgeable expression of what is possible in the way of a stable cooperative relationship, I believe we have finally reached a component Iranian official -- and that's good."

The Americans and the Iranians bonded most strongly over their mutual foe, the Soviet Union. Although the USSR had formally recognized Iran's revolutionary government in 1979, the relationship turned toxic when the Soviets began supplying arms to Iran's archenemy, Iraq. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had also judged the communist regime incompatible with Islam.

Teicher gave Rouhani a summary of the Soviet military threat to Iran -- the number of divisions that were able to strike the country, the frequency of cross-border strikes from Afghanistan into Iran. North said the Soviets would try to expose the secret talks between Rouhani and the White House, and he suggested that the two sides install a secure communications line. (Unbeknownst to Iran, the Reagan administration was running its own secret interactions with Iraq. The Americans knew Iraq used chemical weapons against Iranian troops but did nothing to alert Tehran. This subject was apparently never discussed in the meetings.)

Rouhani was glad to have the tactical information about Soviet forces. And he was eager to get more U.S. weapons to counter the military threat to his country. He indicated that "mujahideen" fighters training in Iran were already attacking Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

But even in their shared animosity for the communists, the strains of mistrust were evident. Iran felt existentially threatened, and Rouhani didn't think the Americans fully appreciated that. They needed to do more to help Iran defend itself, with U.S. weapons.

"I am sorry to be so harsh," Rouhani said. "But I need to be frank and candid to overcome differences.… I am happy to hear you believe in an independent sovereign Iran. We are hopeful that all American moves will be to support this dialogue. But we feel the whole world is trying to weaken us. We feel and see the Russian danger much more than you. You see the threat with high technology [apparently a reference to nuclear missiles]. We feel it, touch it, see it. It is not easy to sleep next to an elephant that you have wounded."

For all the distance between the two sides, though, 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 Poindexter. "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, including the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. 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 told Poindexter, "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. "McFarlane concludes they're just stringing us along," Teicher wrote in his notes.

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."

The plane left Tehran shortly before 9 a.m.

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 shit."

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, Poindexter, and other administration officials, and it threatened Reagan with impeachment. McFarlane pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges associated with the scandal.

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. When Secretary of State John Kerry meets with his Iranian counterpart in New York this week to discuss Iran's nuclear program, it will be the first face-to-face discussions between senior leaders of both countries since that meeting in Tehran, 27 years ago.

Wikimedia/Ron Galella, Ltd/WireImage

National Security

Forget the Handshake

Here's what the United States really wants from Iran.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has been on a charm offensive in recent weeks, penning an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for an end to "the age of blood feuds," telling NBC News that he hoped to meet President Obama, and even wishing Jews around the world a happy new year. Something that was unimaginable even a few months ago suddenly seems possible: a far-reaching nuclear deal that could end decades of hostility between the United States and Iran.

We know what Iran would want out of any agreement: freedom from the Western sanctions that have decimated its economy and international recognition that it is entitled to have a civilian nuclear program. More specifically, Iran would want the United States and its allies to lift the measures that have led foreign countries to significantly cut their purchases of Iranian oil, reducing Iran's monthly oil revenues by nearly 60 percent over the past two years, and that have forced overseas financial institutions to freeze their ties with Iran's central bank, driving the value of its currency down to historic lows and effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system.

We also know the broad terms of what the United States would want: clear evidence that Iran had dropped its pursuit of nuclear weapons and would no longer have the equipment or radioactive material necessary to start it up again. That would require Tehran to agree to a long list of specific American demands. The likeliest ones are below.

Stop Enriching Uranium. The most important single ingredient for a nuclear weapon is a large quantity of enriched uranium, and Iran has been steadily amassing more and more of it. The country is estimated to possess 185 kilograms of uranium that has been enriched to a purity level of 20 percent, enough to make about 18.5 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium. If Iran amasses 250 kilograms of the lower-level uranium, that would be a red line for the Israelis, because the amount could be used to produce 25 kilograms of the more potent uranium -- just enough to build a single nuclear weapon.

David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, which has closely tracked Iran's nuclear program, says that a deal would almost certainly require Iran to stop enriching uranium up to a purity level of 20 percent and then to either sell some of its current stockpile or put it under international supervision.

Close Down a Nuclear Plant. U.S. officials would also demand that Iran shutter one of its two known enrichment facilities, Natanz and Fordo. Natanz is an older facility that has long been used to produce uranium enriched to low levels of purity. Fordo, a more sophisticated facility, is of enormous concern to American and Israeli policymakers because it's buried deep underground and would be difficult to destroy by air. The German newspaper Der Spiegel has reported that Rouhani is ready to decommission Fordo, a potentially major concession, but the Iranian government has denied any willingness to shutter the facility.

Cut Back on Centrifuges. Last month, the outgoing chief of Iran's nuclear program said his country had 18,000 of the centrifuges needed to enrich more uranium, with about 9,000 of them already fully operational. Any agreement between Washington and Tehran would put in place new limitations on the number and quality of those pieces of machinery. Albright says that one potential compromise would be for Iran to keep using the centrifuges that are already up and running while dismantling the roughly 9,000 that aren't yet in use. That would be a face-saving measure for Iran that could also reduce Western fears of Iran being able to increase more and more of the uranium it would need for a nuclear bomb. Colin Kahl, who formerly served as the Pentagon's top Mideast policy official, said a deal that put new restrictions on Iran's uranium enrichment activities without also reducing the number of its centrifuges would be largely toothless. "If you cap their enrichment but don't do anything else they'd still have a breakout capability," he said.

Install More Cameras. Kahl said that any deal would also need to include the installation of video cameras capable of round-the-clock surveillance of every one of Iran's nuclear facilities. The imagery would be transmitted back to the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna, giving the organization's technical experts the ability to watch what was happening at the plants and make sure no weapons-related work was taking place there. Right now, he said, IAEA inspectors can only physically inspect Natanz and Fordo every week or two. The West would also likely insist that Iran ratify the IAEA's so-called "additional protocols," which would allow for unannounced inspections of all of the country's nuclear facilities. Those are far from airtight solutions, however. When North Korea decided to restart its nuclear facility at Yongbyon in 2008, Pyongyang simply took down the cameras and ordered the IAEA's inspectors to leave the facility.

Shutter the Heavy Water Reactor. In 2002, Albright's organization revealed that Iran was building a so-called heavy-water reactor near the city of Arak. That kind of plant can be used to produce plutonium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. The facility has not yet been completed, however, and Albright says that the West would insist that Arak be completely shut down as part of any deal. There's a simple reason for that: Once operational, bombing the plant could lead to massive radiation leaks, potentially poisoning tens of thousands of Iranians. If no deal is struck, Albright says, Israel would strongly consider destroying Arak before it came online. Kahl notes the United States could try to forestall an Israeli strike by offering to provide Iran with a light-water reactor, which would provide the same amount of energy as a heavy-water plant without being able to produce the high-quality plutonium needed for a bomb.

There's ample reason to be skeptical about the prospects for any kind of agreement. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields all real power in the country, and it's far from clear that he is genuinely interested in a deal or willing to give Rouhani the authority to negotiate one. Israel's top leaders believe that Rouhani is trying to fool Western countries into signing an agreement that would "preserve Iran's ability to rapidly build a nuclear weapon at a time of its choosing -- the so-called breakout option." Even if a deal is signed, Israel could easily decide to bomb Iran anyway if it felt Tehran was continuing to work towards developing a nuclear weapon under the eyes of a gullible international community. On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties would almost certainly band together to fight any effort to lift the current sanctions on Iran.

But set aside that pessimism for a moment and consider the prospect of a deal being reached. Kahl, the former Pentagon Middle East official, said that no agreement, no matter how detailed, could permanently persuade Iran to fully abandon its decades-long quest for nuclear weapons. Still, he said, a flawed agreement would be better than no agreement at all.

"I don't believe that an ideal deal is possible," he said. "But a good enough deal is a heck of a lot better than either going to war or accepting an Iranian bomb. The alternatives to a deal would be far worse."

Spencer Platt/Getty Images