Indeed, while many Iranian diplomats and politicians, especially those who participate in so-called Track II conferences, appear sincere in their outreach to Americans, it has always been officials like the late Qassim Suleimani or Rafsanjani-era intelligence chief Ali Fallahian who control the levers of power. They more than Mohammad Khatami or current President Hassan Rouhani are the true face of the Iranian state.
The list continues. The West harbored a brief democratic hope for Russia during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. Perhaps, however, they would have been better prepared to face the Russian threat if they had paid more attention to his director of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Putin. Likewise, Washington might not have engaged so naively for decades with China had they focused instead on the activities of its security services.
Of course, the opposite is true. Nothing symbolized the fact that Iraq had turned the corner on its sectarianism than Mustafa Kadhimi’s tenure as head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Services. Pundits can debate his effectiveness as prime minister, but as intelligence chief, he quietly rooted out those seeking to use government offices to wage sectarian war on opponents, cracked down on torture, and provided a vision for an Iraqi state guided by nationalism rather than sect or ethnicity.
Certainly, sometimes the role of intelligence services is to get their hands dirty to protect the broader system from attack. Not all adversaries operate overtly nor can some enemies be defeated with diplomatic nicety. But there is a difference between unsavory but legal acts an intelligence chief sometimes must undertake in the shadows versus those intelligence chiefs who essentially consolidate power while seeking to maintain the illusion that the state acts independently. To differentiate between the two is often easy, even if it might ruffle diplomatic feathers. Until the State Department is willing to make such a call, however, the effectiveness U.S. diplomacy will continue to suffer.