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Former US diplomat fosters US-Iran ties behind the scenes

William Luers has spent years pursuing a quiet “track 2” dialogue bringing American and Iranian officials and scholars together, some of whom have close ties to officials in the Rouhani administration.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani held an off-the-record dinner last month in New York with an elite group of former US officials. Among the guests were three former US national security advisers and a former secretary of state.

Rouhani spoke generally about the potential for further US-Iran cooperation if a nuclear deal is reached, but did not delve deeply into the details of the nuclear negotiations underway between Iran and six world powers as they seek to conclude a deal by Nov. 24.

In comparison to a similar gathering last year with the then newly inaugurated Rouhani, which was “full of hope and excitement and a sense of history being made,” a US expert who attended the Sept. 23 dinner told Al-Monitor that what struck him most this time was that US-Iran relations have “become more normalized.”

If the positive trajectory of the relationship that followed Rouhani’s replacement last year of the Holocaust-denying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues, some of the credit will go to a soft-spoken former US ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Venezuela, William Luers.

Along with fellow veteran US diplomats Thomas Pickering, William Miller and Frank Wisner, Luers has spent the past dozen years pursuing a quiet “track 2” dialogue bringing American and Iranian former officials and scholars together, some of whom have close ties to officials now in the Rouhani administration.

Luers and his fellow ambassadors have also co-authored several reports analyzing prospects for better US-Iran relations including a new report by the Iran Project that projects enhanced opportunities for the United States and Iran to pursue cooperation on mutual concerns such as fighting Islamic State militants, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, if there is a long-term nuclear accord.

Despite continued obstacles to the agreement, Luers remains optimistic. “I just don’t believe either side is going to walk away from a deal,” Luers told Al-Monitor Sept. 24. “They are too close.”

“Without Bill's [Luers] energy, leadership, drive and commitment, this would not have taken place," Pickering said at an Iran Project lunch in New York Sept. 18, launching the group’s latest report. “He has kept us moving through good times and bad.” (The bad times include not just geopolitics. Last winter, Luers, 85, contracted a life-threatening illness while on vacation with his grandchildren in Uruguay, but after some months has recovered.) On prospects for US-Iran relations, Pickering said, "We take a long view.”

“Bill has been the indefatigable, laser-like focused driver of the process,” said Stephen Heintz, the president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and a member of the Iran Project, which Luers directs. “Bill’s whole life was about the art and purpose of diplomacy to reduce tension and prevent conflict,” Heintz said. “And he became one of the really great practitioners of diplomacy.”

The path to expanded US-Iran diplomatic ties drew from Luers’ and his colleagues’ diplomatic experience dealing with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, he explained.

“I went into the foreign service mainly because I wanted to deal with the Soviet Union,” Luers told Al-Monitor in 2013, in one of a series of occasional conversations over the past year on his work on Iran. “I studied Russian and Marxism … I became a diplomat because of an obsession with how to work better with the Soviet Union.”

For the first 15 years of his diplomatic career, Luers worked on the Soviet Union, living in Moscow from 1962 to 1965, heading the State Department’s Soviet Affairs desk, then serving as deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe, and US ambassador to Czechoslovakia (1983-86).

As US envoy in Prague, Luers became good friends with then dissident Vaclav Havel, who later invited Luers to attend his inauguration, which he described as one of the most exhilarating experiences of his career. “So I became involved in the idea of how to deal with adversaries,” Luers said. “And so I took that as my principal interest and obsession, and teach a course at Columbia [University] on talking with the enemy how to position oneself psychologically … and understand what they want, knowing what you want.”

After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1986, Luers served as president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for 13 years. In 1999, he became president of the United Nations Association of the United States (UNA-USA), during which time Iran’s ambassador to the UN was Mohammad Javad Zarif, the charismatic, US-educated diplomat who now serves as Rouhani’s foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator. 

It was during Luers’ tenure at the UN Association (UNA), and Zarif’s as Iran’s envoy to New York that the plan for a “track 2,” unofficial dialogue among former US and Iranian officials and scholars got underway, and the Iran Project was born.

“The origins of the project were a conversation Bill and I had in my office in December 2001,” Heintz told Al-Monitor.

Luers was on the board of Heintz’s Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and he and Heintz were old friends from their Prague days. As president of the UN Association, Luers said their group, through his then deputy, Suzanne DiMaggio, had developed a rapport with Iran’s then permanent representative to the UN, Zarif, as the UN Association was trying to support Iran’s then Reformist President Mohammad Khatami’s idea for a Dialogue of Civilizations.

“So he [Luers] and I then started a conversation that maybe we could do something jointly on US-Iran relations,” Heintz said. “We kind of very quickly started thinking about a track 2 process.” Zarif was said to be supportive of the idea.

The Iran Project’s efforts to start the dialogue with the Iranians got off to a rocky start, however. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) offered to host the gathering, and the first meeting was set for March 2002. But the Iranian participants, ex-Iranian officials at think tanks and scholars canceled after President George W. Bush called Iran a member of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address. A rescheduled meeting, planned for June 2002, was also canceled by the Iranians, after another perceived US snub, when the White House said it had no interest in relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s government but would pursue dialogue with the Iranian people.

Finally, the first meeting happened in December 2002, at a small hotel outside of Stockholm. “It was very tense,” Heintz said. The Iranians “showed up with a small group, maybe three people … They were very wary. We were curious and wondering what this would all amount to.”

“But what happened at the meeting is that there was an agreement that this process should really take place,” Heintz said. And the group proceeded to hold 12 meetings, mostly in Stockholm, from 2002 until 2006, after Ahmadinejad came into office. “That was the reason it stopped,” Heintz said.

The agenda at the meetings followed the same pattern. “We would start with a kind of presentation by both sides, the current political context in each of the two countries, in the US and Iran, on the nuclear file,” Heintz said. “The nuclear issue was the single biggest part of the agenda.” Also covered were the topics of support for terrorism, Middle East peace and, eventually, sanctions.

In the first meetings, “the Iranians came with a pre-packaged set of messages, and there was not very much difference of opinion among them,” Heintz said. But that started to change as the process got traction.

“They were pretty clear with us, and we with them, that in between meetings … we would be making the rounds in Washington just to share insights, what we were learning and get reactions, with the White House and State Department and Capitol Hill,” Heintz said. “And they were doing the same thing in Tehran.”

“That made the conversations a lot more interesting and useful to everybody,” Heintz said, adding that he believes the Iran Project’s track 2 work did contribute to the opening up of the track 1, government to government US-Iranian contacts that got underway secretly in March 2013, and which gathered pace after Rouhani came into office in August 2013.

With their meetings on hiatus during the Ahmadinejad years, the Iran Project’s US participants moved to step up their publications and educating the US public and policymakers, beginning with a landmark 2008 article in the New York Review of Books revealing the dialogue they had been holding with the Iranians since 2002.

“For over five years, a group of former American diplomats and regional experts, including the authors of this article, have been meeting directly and privately with a group of Iranian academics and policy advisers,” Luers, Pickering and MIT arms control expert Jim Walsh revealed in the 2008 New York Review of Books article, titled "A Solution for the US-Iran Nuclear Standoff."

“Some of the American members of this group believe that there is now an opportunity for discussions on the single most important issue in the US–Iran relationship: Iran’s nuclear program,” they wrote. “We believe that the Iranian government would seriously consider a proposal for direct talks with the United States on issues beyond Iraq.”

A new opening

Five years after the article appeared, Rouhani was elected president and Zarif appointed Iran’s foreign minister. Rouhani and Obama quickly authorized their deputies to begin intense bilateral consultations on reaching a nuclear accord.

Beyond track 2 work and report writing, the Iran Project has also stepped up its work to reach Washington policymakers and media outreach, supported by Luer's deputy Iris Bleri. The track 2 dialogue with Iran has resumed under the management of DiMaggio, who now heads the New America Foundation’s Iran and Asia programs.

Even with regular US-Iranian diplomatic contacts on the nuclear issue underway for the past year, the track 2 process still has value, especially to think through issues not yet on the official agenda, DiMaggio said.

“The benefit of track 2 is not only the substance, but also the relationships built over time,” DiMaggio said, noting that a key proponent of the dialogue on the Iranian side has been Zarif.

Luers agreed the building of relationships plays a key role in managing ties between governments, even adversaries, especially over time. “This has been a journey, with some great satisfactions,” Luers said. 

“When Rouhani was elected ... [and] when I realized that Zarif was going to be foreign minister ... I said to myself, here we go again,” Luers said. “If I can watch this hostility begin to unravel, it will be a great source of satisfaction.”

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