Closing UK Embassy in Tehran–There is a cost… | Charles Duelfer

Closing UK Embassy in Tehran–There is a cost…

Closing the respective embassies in Tehran and London may have been inevitable for political reasons, but there is a cost to this action.  Two governments that already have a poor understanding of one another will now have even less contact and data to base critical decisions.  Having examined in depth the previous case of Iraq and the United States, it is clear that massive miscalculations based on gross misperceptions on both sides contributed to the Iraq tragedy.  The absence of an embassy drastically reduced the number of officials who had any real grasp of the other government.  There was astonishing ignorance at senior levels and costly errors were made.  It may feel good to slam the embassy door shut, but there is a loss of knowledge and understanding that can be critical. The United States had full diplomatic relations with Saddam’s Iraq from 1984 until the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  A cadre of diplomats, businessmen, and academics had regular dialogue—formal and informal–with real Iraqis in both Washington and Baghdad.  The former Iraqi Ambassador, Nizar Hamdoon (who died in a New York hospital in June 2003), was widely known and could interpret Baghdad to audiences in the US.  Perhaps more importantly, he interpreted Washington to Baghdad.  On both sides, during the 1980’s there were people who knew each other and had a tactile sense for the realities of both countries.  There were people who had a sense of the real dynamics in each country. However, from 1991 until 2003, relations were cut.  During that time, individuals with direct knowledge moved on.  During that period the misperceptions of each government grew uncorrected by the regular direct contact of officials when diplomatic relations are ongoing.  Consequently, politically expedient images of the opposing country grew unmodified by diplomats charged with reporting from their assigned posts.  In Washington, Saddam became a one-dimensional cartoonish image—a crazed monomaniacal ruthless dictator—end of story.   Of course he was a dangerous dictator, but he also ruled a complex country and produced important results inside Iraq.  Such data were unexamined but would have provided a fuller image of the problem subsequently confronted when he was removed. Likewise, and in many ways more challenging, was the task for Iraqis to explain Washington to Saddam.  Pity the poor Iraqi who had to explain how decisions were made in Washington—Congress, lobbyists, journalists and, yes, to some extent the president all have their say. We learned from debriefing Saddam just how malformed his model of Washington was.  His limited frame of reference provided him only a very distorted image of Washington decision processes. Even Tariq Aziz, the relatively worldly former Deputy Prime Minister asked me informally in 1998, “What is an intern?”  This was in the context of the Monica Lewinsky scandal then-breaking in Washington.  Try to explain to Saddam that the last super-power is tied up in knots over some young inconsequential intern. Absent contrary information and views, Saddam sustained a model of Washington that was based upon his experiences.  For example, he assumed presidents could act with far more freedom than is the reality.  He considered that President Bush, the son of the former president would be acting based on familial objectives.  And he had a simplistic notion of the influence of Israel on Washington’s behavior.  Baghdad also assumed that the United States knew more than we really did.  Their default assumption was that we must know the true extent of Iraq WMD programs.  After all, the US has a massive intelligence system with unknown technical capacities.  So Saddam evaluated US statements and actions assuming Washington was aware of his WMD status. And in Washington, assumptions about Saddam became progressively simplified as direct access atrophied.  The influence of external opposition groups became disproportionate because there was so little access to Iraqis living inside Iraq.  The repetition of the horrors of the regime dominated.  However, it would have been useful to examine the question, “What good things has Saddam done in Iraq?”  Whilst Iraq had an active embassy in Washington, it reminded interlocutors that there was a broader picture to the Saddam regime. There is a natural tendency to simplify the image of opponents.  There is a natural tendency to focus on the particularly absurd or horrible.  Media reporting focuses attention on such.  Often it is only embassy reporting that provides real context.  And they provide a pool of officials that have first-hand knowledge of the regime and that can be invaluable to decision-makers.  It was the Iraq embassy in Washington that would explain to Baghdad the difference between the Hollywood image of the United States and reality.  And, an operating American embassy in Baghdad would have been more attuned to the stability that, albeit at great cost, Saddam enforced on Iraq. Today, we risk becoming more ignorant of the dynamics inside Iran just at the time when progressively more critical decisions may be taken.  Maybe this is always the case, but we should remind ourselves that the uncertainty band of our knowledge is very large may become larger still.

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