The election of Joe Biden as US President raised hopes that the US and Iran could achieve an immediate breakthrough in reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, business recovery is proving to be more difficult than it might seem, and both sides are at a dead end. Washington, which withdrew from the deal in 2018, urges Tehran to start talks on restoring compliance with the deal and addressing other problem areas. Tehran declined an initial offer to talk. On Thursday, she reiterated her demand that Washington first lift the sanctions.
To clarify their point of view, Iranian officials repeated a certain phrase: “Goodwill creates goodwill.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used this phrase in a January article in Foreign Affairs and has been repeating variations on it since then. Other senior officials have confirmed him.
For many Western politicians, Iran’s use of this term may be inconspicuous. But in the annals of US-Iranian history, the sentence – coined by former US President George HW Bush – has a special resonance. The Iranian top diplomat not only deliberately cites a former US president, he also remembers a misunderstood and ultimately failed diplomatic game from 30 years ago. Iran’s appeal to the term requires a closer look at what “goodwill creates goodwill” means as a diplomatic strategy, why it has failed, and how it might be applied to the current circumstances.
When Bush took office in January 1989, Iran was at the bottom of his political agenda. The Iranian nuclear program was nascent, its regional influence was limited, and it was hovering from a devastating eight year war with Iraq. But Bush was determined to free US citizens held hostage in Lebanon, and the government believed Iran had influence over the militia groups that orchestrated the kidnappings. So he asked Tehran for help.
In his inaugural address, Bush referred to US citizens held abroad with the words: “Help can be shown here that will be remembered for a long time. Goodwill creates goodwill. “Bush wanted Iran to take the first step to ease tensions between the two countries. Thereafter, the United States would exchange unspecified Iranian concerns. Bush added, “Good faith can be a spiral that goes on forever.”
The administration of George HW Bush urged the United Nations to also convey the message privately to Iran and issued a guideline instructing the government to “be prepared for a normal relationship with Iran”. To illustrate his seriousness, Bush told the government of Oman, a frequent interlocutor with Iran, that the release of the hostages was essential for improved relations with Tehran.
Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani accepted the offer and concluded that it was worth the effort to clean up an irritant in relations with Washington. But it took time – and money – to deliver. Over the next three years, eight US citizens held hostage were released and the bodies of two other people who died or were killed in custody were returned. The last hostages were released in December 1991. The UN special envoy, the indefatigable Giandomenico Picco, explicitly promised Tehran and Rafsanjani that their release would be facilitated. The then young Iranian diplomat Zarif was also closely involved. Bush repeatedly thanked Iran for its support.
Even today, some analysts claim that Bush did nothing in exchange for Iran’s efforts. This is wrong. The United States took several “goodwill” measures in 1990 and 1991. They lifted a ban on US companies’ imports of Iranian oil, resolved a pending claim for undelivered military equipment in The Hague, and supported the release of a final United Nations report accusing Iraq of triggering Iran-Iraq -War. The United States was not only motivated to return the favor for the release of the hostages. Washington also tried to convince Iran to play a productive role in the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
At the time, Washington had no direct diplomatic channels with Tehran. Former Secretary of State James Baker told me the United States had tried to start talks, but Tehran refused. Still, Washington decided that Tehran expected more “goodwill” and launched a secret policy review in late 1991 or early 1992 to determine how to proceed.
By April 1992, however, Washington decided that Iran would become more, not less, dangerous and not deserve additional “goodwill” measures.
The White House was particularly concerned about Iran’s links to the assassination of former Iranian Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar in France and a devastating truck bombing at the Israeli embassy in Argentina. More alarming, Iran had accelerated the pace of its attempted acquisitions of nuclear materials and technology from Argentina, China, Germany, India and Russia. A senior Iranian official raised the possibility that all Muslim nations should develop nuclear weapons. The CIA issued a public assessment that “Tehran intends to acquire nuclear weapons capability,” despite recognizing that the threat was many years away.
For the administration of George HW Bush, the situation had changed fundamentally, despite the aid from Iran with the hostages. For Tehran, the United States had betrayed its word and ruined a possible opening.
Today, Tehran appears to be relying on that episode to send a clear message that Washington must take the first step, just as Bush suggested decades ago that Iran must do so. However, it is worth remembering that, like most opening requirements, it is likely to prove flexible over time. After Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei insisted that this was the “final” approach, he dropped his request in later comments.
The episode “Goodwill Generates Goodwill” also contains additional lessons that Iran may not have wanted to broadcast.
First, it has been shown that uncoordinated, positive action is not the basis for a sustainable relationship. Tehran may want the United States to return to the JCPOA first, or at least make a first gesture. Outside of negotiation or at least clear communication, however, the effects of unilateral goodwill measures can be extremely limited and ripe for misperception.
When US officials consider whether to incentivize Iran to return to negotiations, they should consider the risks and benefits of such an approach, especially in terms of how Iranian officials might interpret such reach. Movement that is too lukewarm may be viewed as offensive or not considered a gesture of goodwill at all. In an interview on Khamenei’s website, Ali Larijani, the former Speaker of Parliament, appeared to be referring to such a situation and warning Washington not to “fool Iran with a chocolate”. Last week, another senior Iranian official used a similar metaphor in the Financial Times, warning Washington that smaller steps would be tantamount to giving Tehran “a candy”.
On the other hand, too generous a move can undermine the negotiating position of the United States or cause significant domestic setbacks. This does not mean that unilateral contact is not justified – just that caution is required. Smaller, carefully elaborated and targeted measures could still be worthwhile – but only if they enable a formal dialogue and are not intended to replace it.
Second, the “goodwill creates goodwill” experience underscores that sustained de-escalation between Washington and Tehran cannot be achieved simply by focusing on the immediate problem, be it hostages in the 1990s or today’s nuclear problem. This underscores the importance of the Biden administration, which is securing itself from Iran before re-entering the nuclear deal, not only to negotiate the extension of the scope of the agreement, but also to discuss the full range of Iranian activities that the United States as feel problematic. If not, the episode in the 1990s shows that other subjects invade, be invited or not. Once again, goodwill would not create goodwill.