Gates discussed the recent history of U.S.-Iranian relations in answer to a question posed by a student at the National Defense University.
“I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years,” Gates told the students.
The secretary spoke of the first high-level meeting between Iranian and U.S. officials after the Ayatollah Khomenei took leadership in the country in 1979.
Zbigniew Brzezinski — President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor — told the Iranians that although it had supported exiled Shah Reza Pahlavi’s rule in Iran, the United States would accept the revolution, would recognize the new Iranian government and would follow through on arms sales contracted by the shah’s government, Gates said.
Brzezinski noted the United States and Iran had a common enemy – the Soviet Union – and said the two nations could work together.
“Their response was, ‘Give us the shah,'” Gates told the students. The exiled leader was in the United States at the time for medical treatment. Each side repeated its position a couple of times, and finally, Gates said, “Brzezinski stood up and said, ‘To give you the shah would be incompatible with our national honor.’ And that ended it.”
Three days later, Iranian radicals seized the American embassy in Tehran.
“Each administration since then has reached out [to the Iranians] in one way or another, and all have failed,” Gates said. “But the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.”
The United States is working with Russia, China and allies to put pressure on Iran to stop uranium enrichment and other activities that destabilize the Middle East and the world. This probably is the best way forward, Gates said.
In 2004 and 2005, Gates and Brzezinski chaired a Council of Foreign Relations group that urged the United States to reach out to Iran. The Iranian leader at the time appeared moderate, Gates said, and it was worth the effort. Iran also was sending strange signals to the West – cooperating in some areas over Iraq and not in others.
“The opportunity to engage in a dialogue should they stop their enrichment in some kind of verifiable way is not an unreasonable pre-condition to high-level talks,” Gates said. “I think this is a case where we have to look at the history of outreach that was very real under successive presidents and did not yield any results.
“Until the Iranians decide they want to take a different approach to the rest of the world, where we are is probably not a bad place.”