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Shadow Government

How Not to Negotiate With Rogue Regimes

“I am a Marxist Leninist and I will be one until the last day of my life.” — Fidel Castro, January, 1967. “[As] Comrade Fidel [Castro] stated, we have] the willingness to discuss and solve our differences without renouncing any of our principles.” — Raúl Castro, December, 2014. The 114th Congress finds Republicans in command ...


“I am a Marxist Leninist and I will be one until the last day of my life.” — Fidel Castro, January, 1967.

“[As] Comrade Fidel [Castro] stated, we have] the willingness to discuss and solve our differences without renouncing any of our principles.” — Raúl Castro, December, 2014.

The 114th Congress finds Republicans in command of the House and Senate for the first time in eight years. When it convenes, its agenda will inevitably include how to deal with Cuba and Iran — two sides of the same coin of a foreign policy of giving up too much too soon in the Obama administration’s negotiations. A bipartisan consensus is emerging critical of trying to moderate rogue regimes, and that it is necessary to take a tougher negotiating approach with such regimes.


Although the wording is different, the remarks above suggest Raúl is a Marxist Leninist like his brother, and intends to keep Cuba as a communist state. President Barack Obama, however, is seemingly betting that normalization of relations will lead it to become a constitutional democracy with improvements in the prison and detention centers, arbitrary arrests and detentions, police and security apparatus, arrest procedures and treatment of detainees, and fair public trials, which were all listed as being denied by Havana in the State Department’s Human Rights Report for Cuba.

Instead of holding out for some of these requirements in secret talks, Obama has gambled that opening up Cuba to talks with the United States would change the nature of the regime: Either the Castro brothers will have an epiphany or moderates will emerge to prevail over the current leaders. In the context of economic woes facing Havana, Washington could have used that leverage to squeeze Havana on human rights for the Cuban people as a condition for normalization, as our Shadow colleague Will Inboden has written.

In a July 2014 visit to Cuba, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to write off $32 billion in Cuban debt to Russia. However, it was prior to the precipitous plunge in the ruble, and Moscow has other problems on its plate: The price of crude oil fell from about $100 during Putin’s visit to below $50 per barrel on Jan. 6.

Havana’s ally Venezuela has also been hit by the same falling oil prices and is unlikely to increase aid. Caracas now provides subsidized oil supplies to Cuba, but political changes may result in less assistance. Havana’s bilateral trade in goods and services amounted to some 21 percent of Cuba’s GDP in 2012 — only 4 percent of Venezuela’s GDP. There is a failure of Team Obama to take advantage of the strong negotiating position of the United States in view of the worldwide economic situation and to take seriously the rhetoric of revolutionaries.

Obama’s search for a moderate government in Havana recalls similar behavior of President Eisenhower; his State Department also played down revolutionary rhetoric. But Eisenhower corrected his policy toward Cuba shortly after Castro’s fiery words were matched by his deeds.

About a week after the fall of pro-American Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, U.S. officials recognized the new interim government. Fidel Castro’s rebel army helped overthrow Batista but the State Department believed Washington could work with new “moderates” in the provisional government and protect American interests in Cuba. Although some nations extended recognition, outreach by the United States was a critical signal the West could do business with Prime Minister Fidel Castro, the real power behind the interim government; Castro later became president and engaged Moscow instead of Washington.


President Jimmy Carter abandoned the Shah of Iran, made overtures to the interim government, and ignored the Iranian people as represented by Massoud Rajavi, leader of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran. Consider the analysis of historian Ervand Abrahamian, Professor of Iranian and middle-eastern history and politics; he is not known as a friend of the Mojahedin. Abrahamian states that moderate Muslims led the revolution but were ousted by extremists like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In the Aug. 19, 1981, edition of the Washington Post, former Undersecretary of State George W. Ball stated, “Masud Rajavi … is the leader of the [Mojahedin] movement. Its intention is to replace the current backward Islamic regime with a modernized Shiite Islam drawing its egalitarian principles from Koranic sources rather than Marx.” Rather than working with moderate Iranians in opposition to the Islamist regime, successive U.S. administrations treated the regime as if it could be moderated. (The current controversy of whether funding by the Mojahedin buys support from high-level former American officials is a subject for a later post.)

Like Eisenhower’s short-term outreach to Cuba, Carter received nothing in return from Iran’s Islamists. According to strategist and former sergeant Stephen Hughes, William Sullivan, Carter’s ambassador to Iran, once said, “Khomeini is a Gandhi-like figure.” Carter’s U.N. ambassador, Andrew Young, he claims, said Khomeini is “some kind of saint.” During 1979 and 1980, so-called students under control of the Iranian regime seized as hostages 55 American diplomats and held them for 444 days, taunting, “The U.S. can’t do a damn thing.”

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, argued late last month that Washington’s Cuba turnaround appears to have convinced Tehran that intransigence pays.

Going Forward

As Iran and six world powers prepare to resume low-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva on Jan. 15, wide gaps remain in their positions. Tehran has received another segment of its frozen oil revenues under the interim nuclear deal that allows partial release of blocked Iranian funds.

On human rights, Tehran continues to violate international norms of decency, with hardly a word from Washington about arbitrary arrests of Kurdish civil rights activists, detentions of Americans without trial, and increased public hangings. The State Department Human Rights Report for Iran cites, “disappearances; cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including judicially sanctioned amputation and flogging; politically motivated violence and repression, such as beatings and rape; harsh and life-threatening conditions in detention and prison facilities, with instances of deaths in custody; arbitrary arrest and lengthy pretrial detention” among many more violations. When Tehran is “getting away with murder,” as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg argued after his Dec. 30 interview with Obama regarding Iran, now is the time to hold Tehran accountable.

Despite violations of human rights norms, Obama maintained, during a Dec. 29 interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, that a nuclear agreement would help Iran break through international isolation, “and it would be a very successful regional power that was also abiding by international norms and international rules, and that would be good for everybody.” Israel, the Gulf States, and several other allies of the United States, however, would beg to differ.

Past instances of reaching out to “moderates” in revolutionary regimes like Cuba and Iran has proven that epiphanies are a fool’s errand. And failing to take advantage of the strong negotiating position of the United States with the global economic environment hurting both rogue regimes does not make for a sound American policy, as congressional hearings are bound to show.


Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

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