Linda S. Heard talks to Trita Parsi – the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council
The US has been sending out mixed messages concerning Iran lately. Until recently, the rhetoric of the Obama administration was unwaveringly caustic. The President made it clear on a number of occasions that a nuclear-armed Iran would not be tolerated, adding that all options were on the table.
More recently however the American authorities announced that talks held in Tehran with the P5 + 1 and the G-8, comprising the world’s richest nations, had been ‘useful and constructive’. They consequentially agreed to offer Iran a package of inducements in return for proof that the Iranian nuclear programme is in fact peaceful.
As the sanctions start to affect the economy and the currency of Iran – and with the prospect of US/EU sanctions against Iran’s oil industry coming into force in July – Tehran is now signaling that it might be willing to compromise.
Israel’s hawkish Netanyahu-led government fears that President Obama is keen to enter into some kind of accommodation with Iran that would allow it to enrich lowlevel uranium; and this is also of concern to Saudi Arabia and various other Gulf States. The actual state of affairs is opaque and it’s fluctuating, but in an attempt to get more insight into what’s going on, Al Shindagah talked to the Iranian-born founder and president of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi. An expert on Iranian foreign policy and the geopolitics of the Middle East, Parsi has extensive experience, having worked on Capitol Hill and with the United Nations.
He is also the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States for which he interviewed more than 130 senior decision-makers. His latest book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran uncovers the true reasons for the apparent stalemate between the two feuding nations and heaps blame on both the US and Iran for lacking persistence and perseverance.
Parsi is a proponent of US-Iranian engagement arguing that it would help to stabilise the Middle East and boost moderate elements within Iran. Here is Trita Parsi in his own words:
Q:Since you wrote ‘Treacherous Alliance’ indicating your belief that although the US/Israeli alliance and Iran are hegemonic competitors, their agendas are inextricably linked and, on occasion, they’ve entered into secret accommodations over the decades, do you feel that your assessment still stands today?
TP: Strategic competition between the US/Israel alliance and Iran has continued. The biggest change is what has happened in the region with the Arab uprisings, as the context and stakes of the competition have altered as a result.
Even if the nuclear impasse is resolved, stiff competition for dominance and order in the region remains. Iran continues to challenge the US; and Israel is increasingly concerned that the US is shifting its regional strategy in a manner that reduces Israel’s centrality.
Q:Do you believe that Iran is pursuing the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and if so, would a nuclear-armed Iran pose a real threat to Israel? Or is the nuclear issue a red herring when the actual threat is Iran’s dissemination of its ideology as well as its funding or arming of Arab Shiites?
TP: The consensus of the US, the EU and the Israeli intelligence services is that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability, but has yet to make a decision to build a weapon.
From Israel’s perspective, a nuclearcapable Iran would be problematic since it would shift the balance of power in the region to the detriment of Israel; reduce Israel’s strategic maneuverability; and render a compromise between the US and Iran more likely – which Israel fears will further undermine Israeli security.
Q:Do you think President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the occupied UAE island of Abu Musa was his way of making a statement, and if so, what did his visit signify?
TP: This visit probably had more of a domestic political motivation and was part of his efforts to court a new Iranian- Persian nationalist constituency.
Q:Iranian conservatives made considerable gains during the recent parliamentary elections and this was at President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cost. What is driving the country’s return to conservatism?
TP: The country as a whole is not becoming more conservative, but the political elite is. The latest elections were played out in a way that aimed to strengthen Khamenei and clip the wings of Ahmadinejad.
Q: What are the chances that the Iranian people will launch a revolt in a similar manner to the Arabs during the so-called Arab Spring? Is there currently an appetite for overthrowing the regime or are the people deterred by the government’s willingness to crackdown on protests?
TP: The people are highly discontented with the regime. They’re under a lot of pressure, but opportunities to resist have been few and far between. However there is a strong desire for political liberalisation and freedom. It’s just waiting for an opportunity to show itself.
Q: Do you believe Netanyahu’s statement that the only way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is to impose a military strike, is genuine in light of the fact that former Israeli intelligence chiefs are of the opinion that attacking Iran would be madness?
TP: The threat of bombing by Netanyahu was primarily intended to pressurise the US to attack and, secondly to, at a minimum, render a compromise between the US and Iran less likely.
Q:Should Israel attack Iran, is it likely that the US will be dragged-in to the conflict and, if so, what would be the likely consequences?
TP: If Israel attacks and the damage to the nuclear programme is extensive with high collateral damage, Iran will likely respond and escalate the conflict. Obama’s ability to resist pressure to join the war is limited. Iran’s strategy since the Iran-Iraq war is to never fight a war on its own territory again, so it will expand and escalate during the early phases of the conflict. As such, there is a risk of total war.
Q:Can you clarify President Obama’s position on attacking Iran? And if he is re-elected, do you think he will be more likely to take action or less willing to become a war president?
TP: Obama has drawn the line not at nuclear weapons capability (enrichment) but at the acquisition of nuclear weapons. As a result, he will not go to war with Iran over continued enrichment. But if credible evidence emerges that Iran is going ahead with plans to acquire a nuclear weapon, there is a good possibility that the red line will be crossed.
Q:Is it possible that Obama is acting out of the belief that ‘If you can’t bite the hand of your enemy, then you should kiss it’ with his support of the P5 + 1 dialogue with Iran that has been vaunted by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton as ‘constructive’?
TP: I wouldn’t describe it as such, but it’s clear that an attempt at diplomacy is being made since the alternative is war, which neither the US military nor Obama wants.
Q:If Mitt Romney, who appears to be open to sending US forces into Iran, is elected president, will he soften his stance in relation to Iran or go for the military option?
TP: It very much depends on what happens over the next few months. If attempts by the US at diplomacy are successful in pushing the conflict to a new plateau, it is likely to be a temporary situation and President Romney may neither have the ability nor the desire to reverse it back to a crisis.
If diplomacy fails, then the question will be whether Romney will shift the US red line back to nuclear weapons capability. That would mean war.