11/20/2013 04:49 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

The Tehran Tango

In February 1979, I got a frantic call from a colonel in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran saying radical students were breaking in clearly intent on violence and destruction. He asked for permission to destroy our cryptography apparatus and files. I gave him permission and it was done. We somehow also managed to get all of our people out of Iran in the days ahead. The same was not true for more than 60 embassy personnel who were taken hostage. A few were released for health and other reasons, but 52 of them were held for 444 days. It was a continuing crisis and daily ordeal for everyone, especially the hostages. Eventually, they were released unharmed.

The current standoff between Iran and western nations over Iran's determination to build nuclear weapons summoned memories of those stressful days. We have long had an intimate but troubled history with that nation. Iran was a key ally of the U.S. during the Cold War, but our ties depended on our relationship with the Shah who was very much a Mideast potentate. Many Iranians despised the Shah and resented our influence. Their growing disenchantment finally burst forth as an expression of Islamic nationalism that has established what has become essentially a theocracy in their country.

I do not regard the religious fervor of the Iranian leadership as a critical flaw -- I am a religious man myself -- but it does underscore the importance of our tradition of separation of church and state. Throughout the Islamic world, people are trying to establish prosperous, modern nations based on the Koran and it really doesn't work very well. The fatal flaw of this approach is its assumption based on the Koran that Islam is the only true religion and everyone who is not Islamic is a heretic. This message does not travel very well.

Now we are once again engaged in a battle of wills with the theocratic government in Tehran that is determined to build nuclear weapons while continuing to insist that our ally Israel must be destroyed. Given the fanatical mentality of the Iranian government, we can only assume they mean what they say. Thus, we have brought tremendous economic pressure on them via economic sanctions to abandon their nuclear weapons program.

That pressure is having an impact. The Iranian economy is on the ropes. The new President of Iran Hassan Rouhani has opened negotiations presumably offering to give up its nuclear weapons program in exchange for relief from the economic sanctions. But there is a tradition in Iranian culture of trying to obfuscate disagreements with doubletalk, and that may be what their government is attempting to do now.

If we cut a deal with Iran it better be a good one with viable safeguards because if it isn't, the game is up. It took years to rally world support for the sanctions. I seriously doubt if the political will would be there to go through it again. In fact, I am quite certain it would not be.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.