Hasan Rouhani, a 37-year-old senior foreign affairs advisor in the Iranian government, and his country's future president, sat with a delegation of White House officials on the top floor of what was once the Hilton hotel in Tehran. It was May 27, 1986, and Rouhani had come to secretly broker a deal with the Americans, at great political and personal risk.
The U.S. team's ostensible purpose was to persuade Iranian leaders to assist in the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, something Rouhani was willing to do in exchange for the United States selling missiles and weapons systems to Iran. But the group, which consisted of senior National Security Council staffers, including a then little-known Marine lieutenant colonel named Oliver North, had a second and arguably more ambitious goal: to forge a new political alliance with moderate Iranian leaders, such as Rouhani and his bosses, the men who ran the country.
In those meetings, the man to whom U.S. officials are now turning as the best hope for a rapprochement with Iran, after more than three decades of hostilities, showed himself to be a shrewd negotiator, ready to usher in a new era of openness. But he was also willing to subvert that broader goal and string the Americans along to get what he wanted -- more weapons. If there is a window into how Rouhani thinks today and how he will approach negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, it may be those few days in May he spent in high-stakes talks with the Americans over hostages and the countries' shared futures.
Rouhani knew that helping to free the hostages held by Hezbollah, the terrorist group with which Iran held some influence, was a top priority for President Ronald Reagan. The U.S. president had personally committed to the families that he'd do whatever it took to rescue their loved ones. A televised homecoming would be a political triumph for Reagan.
"By solving this problem we strengthen you in the White House," Rouhani told North and his colleagues. "As we promised, we will make every effort."
But it would not come without cost. Rouhani and his cohort, a group of lower-level functionaries in the regime, kept turning the conversation back to the subject of weapons. The Americans had pledged to have a plane full of missile parts on its way to Tehran within 10 hours of the hostages' release. The Iranians wanted the missiles first. When it was clear that wouldn't happen, they offered to help secure the release of two hostages and said that after further negotiations they'd try for two more.
Rouhani did believe in the broader mission. "You did a great job coming here, given the state of relations between us," Rouhani told the Americans. He thought they could start to work together, though it would be slow going. "I would be surprised if little problems did not come up. There is a Persian saying: Patience will bring you victory -- they are old friend. Without patience, we won't reach anything. Politicians must understand this."
But the bartering over missiles frustrated the Americans. North had handled all the logistics for the meeting and was overseeing the arms sales. But the higher strategy was led by Reagan's former national security advisor, Robert "Bud" McFarlane. Freeing the hostages was a priority, but McFarlane worried that it threatened the chances of what he called the "new political development" with Iran's moderates.
McFarlane hoped that Rouhani was the key to success. A prior day of negotiations with the lower-level officials had revealed them to be a bunch of amateurs. The Iranians had shown up an hour late at the airport to greet McFarlane and his team, who were traveling under false identities to keep the mission a secret. When they finally started talking at the hotel, the Iranians were by turns hospitable and paranoid. In one minute they were welcoming the Americans with pledges of "goodwill" between their countries. In the next, they were accusing the Americans of reneging on their agreement to send a fresh round of missile parts to Tehran.