Obama’s crash course with Iran

A new book charts the president's efforts at diplomacy, and the reasons they were destined to fail

Topics: LA Review of Books, Barack Obama, Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Democratic Party,

Obama's crash course with IranPresident Barack Obama speaks during a fundraiser at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) (Credit: AP)
This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

IT IS HARD TO over-enthuse about this book. No one who wants to understand why the dispute over Iran’s nuclear activities has proved so intractable can hope to find a better-informed, more balanced or more readable account.

Los  Angeles Review of Books
At one level, Trita Parsi’s A Single Roll of the Dice is an account of what happened in the 18 months after President Obama came to office promising a fresh approach to Iran. At a deeper level it is an analysis of the many factors that have bedevilled Western handling of the nuclear issue, and which continue to this day to impede rational policy-making and fruitful diplomacy.

Dr. Parsi believes Barack Obama was sincere when, during the 2008 Presidential campaign, he suggested that the US should talk to its adversaries to resolve differences, and that Obama’s offer of engagement on his first day in office was genuine. Yet by the late autumn of 2009 the President had abandoned all hope of a diplomatic breakthrough and had adopted his predecessor’s nostrum of sanctioning Iran into submission to America’s will. How did this come about?

Through a combination of factors, is the answer Parsi offers. Iranian mistrust of US politicians, and doubt whether the new President would be able to overcome opposition in Congress and in allied capitals precluded conciliatory, or creative responses to Obama’s initial extension of the hand of peace. The outcome of a review of Iran policy on which the new administration embarked closed down many options for diplomacy and saddled engagement with objectives and tactics that lengthened the odds on diplomacy yielding results. The disputed Iranian election in June 2009 (which Parsi believes was fraudulent) and the subsequent harsh repression of protests reduced US Congressional tolerance for engagement and sapped the President’s will to fight for a diplomatic approach.

Even so, the administration’s opening gambit could have resulted in the two sides taking their first steps out of a “paradigm of enmity” (Parsi’s phrase). The US offered to provide fuel pads and a security upgrade for an aging research reactor, one that produces medical isotopes, in exchange for Iran selling some of the low enriched uranium it had produced at the Natanz plant. President Ahmedinejad was in favor of the agreement, but domestic opponents objected. Within weeks the US lost patience, in effect transforming a confidence-building proposal into a take-it-or-be-sanctioned ultimatum — which Iran rejected.

Two of the most illuminating chapters in this book are those which recount how reluctant three of America’s most significant allies were to sign up to a fresh approach in 2009, and how well they succeeded in derailing Obama’s opening attempt at statesmanship. The positions held by those allies — Israel, UK, France — in early 2009 are, broadly, those they hold today. So these chapters help to explain why the Obama administration’s renewed emphasis on engagement earlier this year has, so far, fared no better.

The most demanding of the allies in 2009 was Israel. Recapitulating his remarkable study of the triangular relationship between Israel, the US and Iran, published in 2007 (Treacherous Alliance), Parsi documents the dramatic shift in the Israeli view of Iran that took place in 1992. Throughout the 1980s Israel had ignored the anti-Zionist vitriol that poured from the lips of Iran’s new revolutionary leaders and had sought to revive the alliance that flourished under the last Shah. Israel had even found ways of helping Iran to hold its own in the eight-year war launched by Saddam Hussein in 1980, despite the US siding with Saddam.

But the 1991 end of the Soviet threat to US interests in the Middle East, and a sense in Tel Aviv that Israel had been more of a burden for the US than an asset in the 1991 Gulf War, led the 1992 Israeli Labor government to embark on a campaign to convince the US that Israel remained a necessary Middle East ally. They did so by portraying Iran as a major threat to US interests in the region. Suddenly Iran’s aggressive rhetoric, tolerated for 13 years, was cast as an indicator of Iranian intentions, and Iran’s leaders were caricatured as “mad mullahs.” “What changed the nature of the [Israeli-Iranian] relationship from a tacit alliance to open enmity was not the Iranian revolution but the geopolitical changes that swept through the Middle East in the early 90s” is how Parsi summarises this momentous transformation.

In the last months of George H.W. Bush’s administration, US officials were reluctant to concede that Iran represented anything more than a small-scale potential threat to Israel and to US interests. But the first Clinton administration embraced the new Israeli vision with enthusiasm and set the US on an adversarial course that lasted through George W. Bush’s terms. In 2009 Israeli leaders feared that Barack Obama’s offer of engagement might herald abandonment of that course and that rapprochement between the US and Iran would come at Israel’s expense. They mobilised their formidable powers of persuasion to influence the incoming administration’s policy review in directions that would all but doom the new policy to failure. They argued for an unrealistic deadline for diplomacy to bear fruit, and they also insisted that Iran must not be allowed to retain a capacity to enrich uranium, knowing full well that in 2005 Europe’s Iran diplomacy had foundered on the clash between Europe’s refusal to tolerate any uranium enrichment and Iran’s refusal to give up its “right” to enrich.

On this Israel was not alone; they enjoyed support from not only the UK and France, but at least two other important allies, from US counter-proliferation experts, and from “hawkish Clinton-era officials” who, according to Parsi, peopled the White House. All shared the Israeli worst-case fear that an enrichment-capable Iran would become a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran, and would then cross the threshold and become a nuclear-armed Iran – this despite Iranian assurances to the contrary, Iranian readiness to submit all its nuclear activities to international inspection, and US intelligence estimates that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme had ceased in 2003.

Other European allies were readier than Britain and France to rely on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to restrain Iran. They realised how much Iran stood to lose, politically and economically, if it was caught a second time in serious breach of a treaty to which all but four states (Pakistan, Israel, North Korea and India) are parties. But their voices counted for little in the White House in the early months of 2009.

One other set of allies was also trying to restrict the new President’s open-mindedness: the Gulf Arab monarchies. Their starting-point was more ambivalent than that of Israel. They knew how much they stood to suffer if nuclear tensions were to lead to war with Iran, and so they could see merit in an attempt to lower the temperature. But they too feared a rapprochement between the US and Iran. The consequences, they reasoned, would include enhanced Iranian subversion of the Gulf monarchs’ Arab subjects and Iranian “hegemony” over neighbouring Arab states.

All these influences combined to muddy the new administration’s objectives and saddle it with unpromising tactics. According to Parsi, the White House decided that “the destination of the journey would be a function of the journey.” Crucially, the core dilemma — whether or not to tolerate an Iranian enrichment capacity — was left open, an early deadline for a deal (October 2009) was set, and further sanctions were to be threatened if Iran declined to concede US demands.

At the end of 2009, after Iran had rejected the US ultimatum, three countries — Japan, Turkey, and Brazil — attempted to salvage a deal: Japan in January 2010 and Turkey and Brazil in May presented the US with Iranian-approved fuel-swap proposals that seemed to meet US criteria. They failed to appreciate how inflexibly the administration was now resolved on coercion. All three were told to get lost. Turkey and Brazil took their revenge by voting against the UN sanctions resolution to which the administration devoted its exertions from January to June 2010, though this did not prevent its adoption in June 2010. A year later, at a conference I attended in 2011, Brazil’s (by then ex-)foreign minister was still smarting over what he saw as US duplicity and betrayal.

Parsi addresses the question of the willingness of Iran’s Islamic leaders to negotiate at all. It is sometimes suggested that their hostility to the US has become so central to their national identity that cutting a deal would be life-threatening. The reality is more subtle, Parsi suggests. Iranian policy-makers look at the nuclear question through the prism of national security, and not through that of national identity. They believe Iran’s long-term security requires cultivation of the so-called Arab Street, since they believe ordinary Arabs will one day supplant royal elites at the head of the Gulf Arab states. Any deal that involved toleration of Israeli occupation of the West Bank — abhorred on the Arab Street — or acceptance of monarchical subjugation of ordinary Arabs would be a deal-breaker.

Related to that is another question: is a narrow nuclear deal a realistic goal, or can the nuclear dispute only be resolved as part of a “grand bargain” between the US and Iran? Negotiation theorists recommend broad agendas to maximise the scope for trade-offs, and Parsi doubts the feasibility of an isolated nuclear deal. That said, a broad agenda could well be strewn with too many potential impasses to be helpful.

Though Parsi understands why the Obama administration was so quick to pull the plug on engagement in the autumn of 2009, he draws attention, rightly, to the importance of patience and persistence in any attempt to resolve acute political differences by diplomacy. He reminds readers of the acres of time required to finalise a normalisation of relations with Libya in 2006 (the process got underway in 1999) and Vietnam (1991-1995); and that the 1998 Belfast Peace Agreement was the product of five years of painstaking mediation by Senator George Mitchell. The pattern of Iranian nuclear diplomacy since 2003 — intermittent meetings — has fallen far short of what might stand a chance of resolving such a complex and psychologically fraught issue.

Parsi also addresses the problem of trust-building. He quotes an experienced Brazilian diplomat as stressing that it is idle to wait for trust to develop before sitting down to negotiate. On the contrary, the essential thing is to ensure that any agreement contains provisions for verification, as these enable compliance to become a breeding-ground for trust. This idea was familiar to US negotiators during the Cold War, when ideological opponents of communism thundered against the folly of believing that the Soviets or Chinese could be trusted, much as the contemporary war party decries the notion of trusting Iran.

Without losing the admirable balance that characterises every page of this book, Parsi hints broadly at the idiocy of the so-called “dual track” approach that has been the hall-mark of the West’s Iran nuclear policy. He quotes a former senior Obama official as saying “A train can’t run on two tracks” and a Turkish diplomat as pointing out that negotiations are bound to fail “when you put coercion and intimidation ahead of respect”. Since 2003 the West has been obsessed with applying “pressure”. None of this pressure has induced Iran to do the West’s bidding, but American and Israeli politicians continue to clamour for it. As Talleyrand once observed of the Bourbons after the French Revolution, these politicians “have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing.”

These politicians refuse to understand two things. One is that Iranians are conscious of being heirs to one of the greatest of Asian civilisations and are determined to reverse the decline that set in some three hundred years ago, as the Japanese, Turks and Chinese are doing or have done. Realising such an ambitious vision of national regeneration precludes succumbing to coercive pressure from kids who arrived on the block only a few centuries ago and have thrown their weight around rather a lot of late. (This, incidentally, is why a secular democracy, resulting from regime-change, is hardly likely to be more willing than the Islamic Republic to forego the pride and sense of security that almost all Iranians draw from Iran’s nuclear achievements.)

The other is that coercion is never likely to deliver a lasting solution. Machiavelli once wrote: “I do not believe that forced agreements will be kept either by princes or by republics.” Imposed agreements can only be enforced for as long as the balance of power remains favourable to the enforcer, and even then may require vast expenditure. Voluntary agreements, on the other hand, based on reciprocity and compromise, tend to last.

The final chapters of the work are devoted to analysing the reasons why engagement failed in 2009 and to drawing lessons from which future forays into diplomacy can benefit. I would urge any American who wants to form an independent view on how to react to political clamour for war with Iran to read these chapters.

This is a scholarly work, meticulously researched. But this is not the scholarship of George Eliot’s Casaubon: it is neither hermetic nor irrelevant. This scholarship is highly germane to one of the most dangerous international issues of our time, and it makes only the most reasonable of demands of the intelligent reader. A gem.

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