“Can’t anybody here play this game?”
–Casey Stengel on the New York Mets, 1963
Marx tells us that history happens first as tragedy and then as farce. He was predicting what has occurred between the U.S. and Iran—first forty years ago and then today—when the children take over and the adults choose to disappear.
Forty years ago in Tehran, I saw children left to run amok. A day after the U.S. Embassy was captured, I was tied to a chair in the ambassador’s house. Outside the embassy walls, crowds were chanting and from the radio came the magnificent, mournful notes of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary.” Not a promising situation.
My embassy colleagues and I could take some comfort in the fact that we were still alive and unhurt. Our hope was that, as soon as possible, adults in Tehran would take control of the situation, expel the “Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line” from the embassy compound, and set us free, either to continue service in Iran or leave the country.
Vain hopes, as it turned out. There were no adults in Tehran to take charge of anything. Instead of doing what they should have and ending the outrage, those Iranians responsible for our safety—as protected persons in their country—chose to participate in and exploit it. They encouraged the children to run wild.
As our hours became days, then weeks, and then months, the adults never showed up. The last straw for me came in early December, about a month into the occupation, when I received a care package from home. Among other things, it contained books: War and Peace, Brothers Karamazov, and Middlemarch. Average length about 1,000 pages.
The message was clear. “While you’re waiting for the adults to act, you’ll have plenty of time to read.” (In the interest of full disclosure, I could never finish Eliot’s massively boring /Middlemarch/, even under those circumstances.)
Today, forty years later, that bizarre history is repeating itself as farce. Watching the “sanctioning” melodrama starring the U.S. government and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, I ask the same question I did forty years ago: “Where are the adults?”
Today I have the same answer: “There aren’t any.” Anyone who spoke the obvious truth that the embassy occupation was a disgrace ended up silenced and denounced. Instead, many senior officials joined that most popular of Iranian institutions—the hezb-e-baad, the “party of the winds”—and became part of the chorus that praised the wisdom of idiocy.
Why did the Trump administration take the bizarre action of sanctioning the Iranian foreign minister? It is not the action of a responsible adult. It resembles the action of an impulsive, frustrated child, who lashes out when he cannot have his way.
An adult deals with reasons and consequences. He asks, “What is the purpose of an action?” “What will it accomplish?” “What are its effects and implications?” Instead, we have an action based on spite, petty-mindedness, intemperate language, and thoughtlessness. The only justification is, “It feels good.”
What are Javad Zarif’s sins that earned him sanctions? In the view of this administration, there are two.
First, he fell victim to President Trump’s obsession with his predecessor. Zarif’s crime was to have been a principal negotiator of the 2015 nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) between Iran and six other countries, including the United States. The Trump administration has attacked the agreement with special venom, not for its contents, but for its connection to former President Barack Obama. Zarif is collateral damage.
Since it can only denounce, but cannot act, against the JCPOA’s American architects (Obama, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz), who are now private citizens, the Trump administration has vented its spleen against the main Iranian negotiator, who is still an official of his government. If Trump, National Security Advisor John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cannot act against Obama, they will go after Zarif.
Second, like it or not, Zarif is an effective spokesperson for his country and his government. That government may be unsavory, brutal, and repressive, but, in the end, he is doing what any diplomat is expected to do: argue his government’s views as best he can. Like a defense lawyer with an obviously guilty client, he still has a professional responsibility to fulfill.
The fact that Zarif is articulate is a challenge to this administration. Contrast his style with that of Secretary Pompeo at the American University of Cairo in January 2019 when, instead of laying out a policy, he ridiculed his predecessors in front of a baffled and embarrassed foreign audience. His only purpose was to tell the world that his boss is a master negotiator. A most unprofessional performance.
The administration is not punishing an individual. It is rejecting the entire idea of diplomacy. Of course, it is no secret that Trump and company despise the practice of diplomacy, with its careful choice of language, and its emphasis on listening, empathy, and credibility. Like Casey Stengel’s 1963 Mets, they don’t know how to play the game and have chosen chest-beating and self-righteousness instead. Zarif may have a terrible case to argue, but he argues it as a professional.
We learned that Senator Rand Paul recently invited Zarif to meet President Trump at the White House. As Alice would say, “Curiouser and curiouser.” So far, there’s no sign the Iranians are ready for such a meeting. What did the president expect? Does he not realize the depth of mistrust that exists when his Secretary of State issues surrender demands to the Iranians and his national security advisor is a paid shill for the same Iranian opposition group that paralyzed the supreme leader’s right arm in an assassination attempt?
Where are the adults in the Trump administration? Nowhere to be found, apparently. Officials are competing to show their boss who can be the most childish.
One winner of that competition is a writer on the Department of State’s Persian-language twitter account. He or she referred to Zarif as “the supreme maaleh-kesh,” using a coarse Persian term for “fixer” or “cleaner of messes.” The term also conveys a connotation of “pimp.”
Was there no adult supervising this person writing for an official U.S. Government outlet? Was it wise to use such an insult against someone the president wants to meet? Obviously not. Without that supervision, the children were left free to run amok.
Such a vulgar phrase has no place in diplomacy or on an official U.S. government account. Furthermore, if someone is going to use such a phrase, they might consider how it could apply to someone like Roy Cohn, Michael Cohen, or even certain high officials in the current administration.
The president says he wants to talk to Iran. If he does, he will need to use some basic diplomacy. But publicly unloading on Zarif is not diplomacy. Words carry power, and adults choose their words carefully. Children do not.
First published in Lobe Log. Cartoon by Ed Wexler.
John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service Officer and academic. In 2018 he ended twelve years as Class of 1955 Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. During a 34-year diplomatic career, he served mostly in the Middle East and Islamic Africa (including two tours in Iraq), was Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and served as deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Iranian affairs. Beginning in 1964, he worked in Iran as a university and high school teacher, and later served at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where he was held hostage in 1979-81. He has authored numerous books and articles on Middle Eastern subjects.