National Iranian American Council founder Trita Parsi

The founder-president of the National Iranian American Council—the largest Iranian American organization in the U.S.—describes his expectations for the upcoming U.S.-Iranian talks.

An expert on U.S.-Iranian relations, Trita Parsi is founder-president of the National Iranian American Council, the largest Iranian American organization in the U.S. He's also author of the award-winning book, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States. Parsi was born in Iran and was four years old when his family moved to Sweden to escape political repression. As an adult, he moved to the U.S., where he received his Ph.D. in international relations. He previously worked for the Swedish Permanent Mission to the U.N. in New York.


Tavis: Trita Parsi is the president of the National Iranian American Council whose previous books on U.S. relations with Iran include “Treacherous Alliance”.  His latest is called “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran”.  He joins us tonight from Washington.  Trita, good to have you back on the program.

Trita Parsi: Thank you for having me again.

Tavis: Let me start by asking the obvious, what your expectations are for these conversations this weekend.  Are they high?  Are they low?  What are your expectations?

Parsi: I think we should keep our expectations low.  I don’t think we should at all expect necessarily a breakthrough, but if the two sides manage not to just come to the table, but actually stay at the table, then perhaps we can have a little bit higher expectation of some sort of an outcome.  But ultimately, it’s really gonna depend on whether both sides are ready to compromise.

I want to emphasize both sides.  In the past, we have seen how domestic politics in both countries have made it very difficult for the various parties to actually compromise and that has led to the current stalemate that we’re finding our selves in.

Tavis: Is that why your expectations are so low now?  Because of the domestic agenda here at home?

Parsi: Well, partly because at the end of the day we’re coming to the table now, the two sides are coming to the table, at a time in which the stakes are probably higher than they ever have been, yet domestically the maneuverability of the two sides are probably more limited than they have ever been.  So in that sense, it’s perhaps a little bit unfortunate and that means that we have to have low expectations.

Tavis: When you title a book “A Single Roll of the Dice”, it’s a bit off-putting because, in diplomacy, real, true, authentic diplomacy, there’s never just a single roll of the dice.  So why call the book “A Single Roll of the Dice”?

Parsi: Well, it’s actually a quote from one of Obama’s own officials who described the strategy of the Obama administration, that by the time they had managed to get everyone to come to the table in October 2009, Obama had run out of political space at home to the extent that the entire policy became a gamble on a single roll of the dice.

It either had to work right away or not at all.  Obama simply did not have the political latitude to be able to continue this effort and, unfortunately, there’s almost never any success in diplomacy if it is a single roll of the dice.  It needs patience.  It needs sustenance.

I’m very pleased to see that there’s gonna be another attempt now and, hopefully, will be a process, not just another one-off meeting.  But it was quite fascinating to see that one of Obama’s own officials describe the policy as such.

Tavis: For those who don’t know the back story here, why has the president, Obama, that is, why has he been handicapped in such a way where he was, to your point, to his administration’s point, that they had to have a nice roll on a single opportunity?  Why have his hands been tied?  Why has he been handicapped in ways that other presidents have not been?

Parsi: Actually, no.  Other presidents have been as well.  The difference perhaps is that Obama made the boldest attempt at breaking the deadlock compared to other presidents.

But even that attempt, which did take place at an unprecedented opening in the political landscape, was not bold enough perhaps or not sustainable enough to be able to break through 30 years of enmity.  We have to keep in mind, of course, the same thing needs to happen on the Iranian side.

I would say that, in 2009, the one factor that cost Obama more political space and maneuverability than anything else was probably what the Iranians themselves did in the fraudulent elections of 2009 and the massive human rights abuses that followed.  That really did harm the president’s ability to continue with his diplomatic effort.

Tavis: So you started earlier by suggesting that your expectations are low for talks this weekend, but even beyond this weekend, given the fact that you acknowledge that Iran hurt itself in ways that compromised these talks or compromised our effort at diplomacy, why do you believe or do, in fact, you believe that they could ever come to the table and have authentic conversations if they keep being handicapped by their own domestic politics?

Parsi: Well, the thing is, while both sides have been handicapped by their own domestic politics, both sides have at times shown an ability to be able to move forward with diplomacy and even make compromises.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that neither side have been able to do it at the same time as the other side has been able to do it.  They need to be able to make those compromises at the same time.

In October 2009, the Iranians couldn’t come to the U.S. primarily because of their own domestic political infighting that was taking place at that time.  But only six months later, they did manage to come to the U.S. when the Turks and the Brazilians did mediate and manage to get them to put their signature on the treaty.

At that point, however, it was only six months left before the congressional midterm elections and then Obama was in a different domestic situation and could not show the same type of flexibility that he could six months earlier.

The question is now are they coming to the table with the same level of determination, political will and flexibility in order to make it happen now?

I think there’s some factors that potentially would suggest that this time around may be different, may be different in a positive way.  The president really does not want to see a military confrontation between Iran and the U.S. or between Israel and Iran.

It would have devastating effects both for nonproliferation, regional stability, but also for the economy in the United States.  We are already paying $.25 extra per gallon of gas today as a result of the sanctions that have been imposed on Iran.

In addition to that, probably additional $.25 because of just the tensions that exist.  A sitting president does not need gas prices to be this high if he wants to win re-election.  So the president has a deep interest in trying to de-escalate the situation.

The Iranians have an interest in being able to see what kind of compromises the U.S. is willing to offer, but also to avoid a continuation of the many different sanctions that are being imposed on the Iranians.

Tavis: You said a few things now, Trita, that I want to go back and get right quick.

In no particular order, number one, the president has been very clear that he thinks we can survive without Iran’s oil, so why should we believe that he’s concerned about those gas prices if he boldly states that he thinks we can go it alone?  That is to say, without any input of oil from Iran.

Parsi: Well, it’s not any input of oil because what we’re doing right now, we’re cutting approximately, I think, 20 or so percent of Iran’s total export or perhaps a bit more.  But nevertheless, there is a belief that the markets can handle that.

The reason why we’re having high oil prices is not necessarily because of a reduction of the supply as a result of the Iran sanctions.  It’s more because of the risk premium that is added to the price of oil as a result of the very high tension and the risk of a military confrontation.

And the president has been quite clear that he finds some of these bellicose statements coming out both from the Republican primaries as well as from the Iranians and the Israelis to be very problematic because it’s shooting up the oil prices which hurts the U.S., but actually benefits the Iranians.

Tavis: What are the U.S. demands at this point?  For this weekend, what are we putting on the table?

Parsi: Well, we’re not putting that much on the table, it seems at least.  At least there’s not been a lot of public conversations about what the administration is willing to put on the table.  There’s some pretty extensive demands being made, however.

We want the Iranians to stop 20 percent enriched uranium.  We want them to give up the stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium that they do have right now and we also want to make sure that they close a new facility that they have called the Fordow facility that is deep underground.

Those are not necessarily bad demands.  In fact, I think they make a lot of sense both from an nonproliferation perspective and also from a political perspective.

The question what is the likelihood that the Iranians are gonna say yes to these rather extensive demands if there are no incentives put on the table, if there are no offers to lift some of the existing sanctions, if some of the future sanctions that are in the making are not postponed or deferred?

The real question is going to be will there be a balance between the demands and the incentives that are put on the table?

Tavis: And what is the incentive for the U.S. to offer incentives?  What is the incentive for the U.S. to tone down, to back down, on some of these sanctions?

Parsi: I would think that sanctions are gonna be a critical component here.  Now, of course, for the president to lift some of the U.S. sanctions, it’s gonna be very, very difficult in an election year mindful of the fact that most of these sanctions actually go through Congress.

But there’s some sanctions that even the U.S. may be able to play with when it comes to using waivers, etc.  But then there are also European sanctions that probably can be touched a little bit more easily than the American sanctions, as well as some Asian sanctions.

So I think there’s some instruments to be played with here if there is sufficient political will on all sides to be able to strike a compromise.  I think this is very important.  A solution is not gonna be found unless both sides agree to some painful concessions.

Some political cost at home is going to have to be paid in order to get a deal and, if there isn’t enough of a will to pay that cost, then we’re gonna see this conflict escalate to a higher level than it already is and it’s very difficult to see how much higher it can get before it actually translates into a military confrontation.

Tavis: It’s one thing to ask what we’re putting on the table.  Let me ask it another way.  What does Iran want from us?

Parsi: I would suspect that sanctions would be one critical component.  Obviously, they do want to see an acceptance of the fact that the Iranians have enrichments on their soil in the future as well, particularly enrichment below five percent, and that would be quite a valuable concession, mindful of the fact that the U.S. for quite some time has refused to accept any enrichment in Iran.

But this is going to be a very, very tricky negotiation.  The trickiest part of it is not to take a technicality of the issue itself.

It’s actually because of the political factors around it that it makes it very tricky.  That administration is in a rather difficult position in the sense that, on the one hand, they have to deal with the demands of the Iranians and the activities of the Iranians.

On the other hand, you have the Israelis who are threatening to actually attack Iran which is something that the U.S. military is dead set against because they think it would be counterproductive.

Then you also have other states in the security council such as France that have positioned themselves to the right of Obama.  This has made it quite a difficult balancing act for the administration to pursue.

Tavis: Let me close with an unfair question.  I’ve only got a couple minutes to go here.  Why is that the U.S. should have access to nuclear weapons and other nations do not?

Put another way, if we believe that mutual deterrence works, then what’s the problem with other folk having the same access that we have if they can produce it?

Parsi: Well, Iran is a signatory of the nonproliferation treaty.  By signing it, it has foresworn nuclear weapons, but has also gained access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  It is not so that Iran has a right to a nuclear weapon particularly mindful of the fact that it has signed this treaty.

It does, however, have a right to nuclear technology.  It does have a right to be able to pursue peaceful nuclear technology and the position of the Bush administration was to deprive Iran of that right, arguing that Iran’s behavior in the past in which there is some quite credible suspicions that it did engage in weapons activities had eliminated Iran’s right.  It had negated Iran’s right in that aspect.

Reality is that the world will probably not be a better place if there were more nuclear weapon states particularly in the Middle East, mindful of the already very high tensions.

Ultimately, a solution needs to be found that takes us towards a nuclear-free WMD zone in the Middle East as a whole, which means that we do have to address some of the even trickier political aspects of this, which is the Israeli nuclear arsenal, something that obviously is not on the table right now and it probably won’t be for a while.

But it’s difficult to see a long-term solution unless we address that issue.  The question is, can you address that right away or do you have to work your way towards doing so?

Tavis: The new book from Trita Parsi is called “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran”, out just in time for this weekend’s high stakes talks between the U.S. and Iran about nuclear weaponry.  Trita, good to have you on the program.  Thanks for your time.

Parsi: Thank you for having me.

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Last modified: April 16, 2012 at 2:08 pm