From a small, cramped suite of offices in downtown Washington, Trita Parsi is trying to enlarge the debate in the United States about America’s troubled — and troublingly uninformed — relationship with Iran.
Parsi, who leads the National Iranian American Council, told The Washington Diplomat that the current discussion obsesses over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, narrowing American options to either tougher economic sanctions or a military attack.
But Parsi argues that the U.S.-Iranian relationship should be viewed from a wider lens to include more careful thinking and creative policies — regardless of the outcome of Iran’s presidential election this month.
“We know very little about Iran because we haven’t had a diplomatic relationship in 30 years. Not a single sitting American diplomat in the Foreign Service has served in Iran. Not a single one,” he pointed out. “Our image of Iran in the United States has tended to be a limited one. The image that many Americans have is the one on CNN that focuses on anti-American demonstrations. But it is a far more fascinating, nuanced, complicated society with a very ancient civilization.”
Engaging, precise and focused, Parsi is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. Born in Iran, Parsi moved to Sweden as a young boy with his family to escape political repression in Iran. His father was an outspoken academic who was jailed by the Shah of Iran and later by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Since then, Parsi has worked to shed light on the complex dynamics in Iran’s relations with the United States, its neighbors and the world. After receiving a master’s degree in international relations from Sweden’s Uppsala University and another master’s in economics from the Stockholm School of Economics, Parsi worked at Sweden’s mission to the United Nations. Then he moved to the United States and earned a doctorate in foreign policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He was also an adjunct professor at SAIS and is currently an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Parsi founded the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in 2002 as a nonpartisan, nonprofit, nonreligious organization based in Washington to organize Iranian-Americans into a more cohesive and civically active community. Parsi said that although Iranian-Americans are well integrated into U.S. society, especially economically, their participation in civic society has lagged behind.
The NIAC’s mission is to change that. It has a staff of 10 and an annual budget of about 0,000 — three-quarters of which comes from the Iranian-American community, while about a quarter comes from prominent foundations such as the Ploughshares Fund and Open Society Institute.
NIAC urges dialogue and engagement between the United States and Iran — an approach the group says can improve U.S. security by helping to stabilize the Middle East and strengthen moderates in Iran.
But for decades, the U.S.-Iranian relationship has been a turbulent one, Parsi said, citing the hostage crisis that began in 1979. Another difficult period emerged during the presidency of George W. Bush, who famously, and provocatively, called Iran part of an “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.
The Bush administration described Iran as a “profound threat to U.S. national security interests,” a view that was shaped by Iran’s nuclear program and its military assistance to armed groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to the Palestinian group Hamas and Lebanese group Hezbollah.
For its part, Iran contends that its nuclear program is for electricity generation and that enrichment is its right as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many analysts also believe that Iran’s political leaders view nuclear weapons capability as a way to end the country’s vulnerability to, and domination by, great powers. Conversely, others say Iran covets nuclear weapons to dominate the Persian Gulf. Critics also fear that Iran will attack Israel or possibly transfer its nuclear know-how and materials to extremist groups or rogue countries.
To prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout, the Bush administration organized multilateral economic pressures on Iran while also offering potential cooperation if it complied with international demands to suspend its enrichment of uranium.
But Parsi says that approach only strained ties and resulted in a one-dimensional view of Iran. “The problem with the Bush administration was that the nuclear issue was seen as the only issue and Iran was solely looked at through the prism of enrichment. We lost a tremendous amount by taking that approach,” he charged. “I think the Bush administration’s decision to insist on setting preconditions for negotiations caused the United States to lose more than six and a half years of very, very precious time, and we have to make up for that very quickly.”
And so far, the new U.S. president seems to be wasting no time in that department. During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama advocated more robust diplomacy with Iran, and he has promised to expand direct engagement since assuming office (also see “Obama Tentatively Reaches Out to Unclench Enemies’ Fists” in the April 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat). Obama sent a conciliatory message to the Iranian people on March 21, offering his greetings on the Persian New Year, and he has said the United States would participate in face-to-face multilateral meetings with Iran on its nuclear program — without preconditions.
Parsi gives Obama high marks for improving the tone of the conversation, but thinks the president’s work is complicated by a continuing push in the U.S. Congress for stiffer economic sanctions on Iran.
“The Obama administration has done a wonderful job of changing the atmospherics. If Congress imposes more sanctions, which would clearly be viewed as a hostile act in Iran, it would undermine Obama’s own efforts at diplomacy and probably undermine the chance for diplomacy,” he said.
A pre-emptive military strike by Israel could also hinder Obama’s outreach to Tehran. Parsi in fact has long studied Israel’s interactions with Iran. He did his doctoral thesis on Israeli-Iranian relations under professor Francis Fukuyama at Johns Hopkins. He is also the author of “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the U.S.,” which was published in 2007 and won rave reviews for its insights into this pivotal triangular relationship.
Based on more than 130 interviews Parsi conducted with top officials from all three countries, the book posits that America’s policies in the Middle East, whether its push for stability in Iraq or peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, must be understood within the context of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry — a misunderstood relationship that has not always been antagonistic, according to Parsi. The book contends that contrary to conventional wisdom, Iran and Israel are not entangled in an ideological clash, but rather a resolvable strategic conflict based largely on behind-the-scenes geopolitical interests.
Parsi charts the many years of Israeli-Iranian collusion, both open and covert, that took place until the early 1990s, when the two began viewing each other as enemies. Today of course, the rivalry has reached a fevered pitch, with Israel warning that military action may be the only option to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, which it says would pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Yet Parsi does not believe that Israel has the military capability to successfully eliminate Iran’s nuclear program. Nevertheless, he said the threat of military action creates an environment that makes diplomacy less likely to succeed. It may even prevent diplomacy from being pursued in the first place despite Obama’s early rapprochement.
“The president is faced with a lot of difficult obstacles when it comes to diplomacy. You have spoilers in Iran, you have spoilers in the region and amongst our allies. And there are elements in Congress and elsewhere who may not seek to spoil, but their recommendations would certainly ensure they are spoiled.”
Parsi also derides the long history of U.S. sanctions on Iran as a clear failure. “There is no evidence the sanctions policy in the United States has worked. If the sanctions policy had any success, why is Iran more powerful, more problematic, with a nuclear program far more advanced than before? We can’t say the sanctions have worked. They’ve completely eliminated trade between the U.S. and Iran. There is nothing there,” Parsi argued.
“But with all the economic pain the sanctions have imposed on the Iranian economy, there has not been a single instance in which that pain has translated into a desirable change in the Iranian government’s policies. The sanctions have been effective in hurting the Iranian economy, but they have failed to change the Iranian government’s behavior.”
To that end, Parsi is convinced U.S. sanctions have actually undermined those in Iran who are most inclined to be receptive to overtures from Americans, especially young people, pointing to a strong tendency in Iran to blame the United States for its economic woes.
The confrontational attitude between the two nations may change if Iran elects a new president in June to succeed the fiery and controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although Parsi said the outcome of the president race is almost impossible to predict.
“Within the limits of who can participate as a presidential candidate, the competition is fierce and unpredictable. No one expected [Mohammad] Khatami — he was a librarian — would win in 1997. And four years ago, very few, if any, gave Ahmadinejad any chance. He was seen as some kind of relic from prehistoric times, talking about Islamic values. Yet he came out of nowhere and won,” Parsi said.
“If there is a new president, it would further improve the atmospherics. It would create political opportunities,” he added. “But I don’t think there would be any significant shift in the Iranian red lines or its negotiating position. I foresee there will be very limited change in the negotiating position on the hard issues — Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear issues.”
Still, Parsi is a strong proponent of aggressive diplomacy between the two nations, saying it’s in the interest of both nations to engage.
“The U.S. needs Iran. It needs it for Afghanistan, for Iraq, for Persian Gulf security. And Iran needs the United States. Without access to American technology, without access to American investment, Iran is not going to be able to live up to its full potential. There seems to be the grounds for some sort of a deal between the U.S. and Iran,” he said, citing the daunting geopolitical challenges both nations confront in the region.
“Iran is a key player in Afghanistan, and what happens in Afghanistan has a significant impact on what happens in Pakistan and Pakistan right now is a major challenge. If the government there collapses, a lot of nuclear weapons could end up in the wrong hands. Iran has a significant impact on that and has very similar interests as the U.S. when it comes to these issues. Should we not be willing to work with Iran to achieve stability even if we have differences on nuclear issues?”
Parsi admits that Iran’s nuclear program is a critical part of the equation, but he stresses that it should not be the only item under review. Rather, he says a broad agenda would give both sides flexibility and maneuverability.
“It’s important that the negotiations include a long variety of issues. This is not to make them so complicated that nothing can succeed, but because the reality is that there are linkages between Iran’s security perspective to nuclear issues, to what they are doing in Iraq, to what they are doing in Afghanistan. You can’t exclude things.”
And Parsi believes that a helpful start would be if the Obama administration lifted restrictions on U.S. diplomats meeting with their Iranian counterparts, and vice versa.
“Part of building trust in diplomacy is to increase contacts between the two countries. It is not helpful for the two countries to be reading each other’s intentions from such a far distance and with occasional go-betweens,” he said. “They need to sit down in candid conversations rather than under the pressure of a summit. It makes sense for every American diplomat in Rio, Santiago, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Europe and Africa to able to interact, gather their impressions of Iranian intentions, and report back to Washington. That would be a very useful step.”
But setting artificial deadlines for diplomacy would not be useful, Parsi added, urging patience instead. “We are in a very tricky situation. Obama has fixed the atmospherics to a very large extent. But more and more questions are being raised, not just in Tehran but amongst U.S. allies, about what the United States is willing to give. What is in it for Iran? The administration is either keeping its cards very close to its chest or it doesn’t have any cards — they don’t know what they are willing to offer,” he said.
“It would be very useful for the Iranians to respond with a couple of nice gestures. But at the end of the day, nothing will get done until they actually sit down and talk. It is unrealistic to think the other side will do a huge substantive shift in their policies before talking.”
Parsi does not minimize the difficulty of improving the relationship between the United States and Iran or the complexity of the path ahead. But he is hopeful.
“I don’t think there has ever been a better opportunity than now. But that doesn’t mean that this very capable American president with the right perspective will have enough time, energy and resources to do what is necessary to resolve things, given all the other issues he has to focus on,” Parsi conceded.
“The one thing we can conclude with some certainty regarding Iran is that we are not going to get a diplomatic solution quickly. It’s just not going to take place. We’ve given sanctions 30 years. How can we expect diplomacy to yield results in 12 weeks? We need realistic expectations about how long diplomacy would take to be successful.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.