Professor and Author Trita Parsi

The author discusses his latest book Losing an Enemy.

Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States, winner of the 2010 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, and A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, which was named Best Book on the Middle East in 2012 by Foreign Affairs.

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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley

Trita Parsi is the president of the National Iranian-American Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group advocating dialog and engagement between the U.S. and Iran. His latest is called “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy”. Trita, good to have you back on this program.

Trita Parsi: Thanks so much for having me.

Tavis: With the president in Asia, so much to talk about tonight. We will get to all of that in just a second after we talk about what the president himself, of course, could not avoid, this horrific news out of Texas, this church shooting.

And it’s fascinating that you happen to be our guest tonight in part because every time we have a conversation, it’s always about the Muslim ban, it’s always about terrorism, international terrorism, terrorism from without, and here again another conversation we have to have tonight about domestic terrorism. What do you make of what happened in Texas?

Parsi: I’m just heartbroken as everyone else. I grew up in Europe, so I have to tell you I have a little bit of a hard time understanding why it is that we believe that the right to bear arms is above the right for children to live.

Tavis: And yet, this conversation about the Second Amendment is as difficult, impossible a conversation to have, as is the conversation about the U.S. and Asia.

Parsi: Yeah. And if you go back to what you said earlier on, you know, there is so much that appears to be done in order to defend against terrorism and there is an expectation that we can get that down to zero. I think that’s a nice goal, but we’re doing a lot of different things that actually doesn’t do anything to help that the Muslim ban is an example of really not targeting any of these things.

Take a look at what happened in New York. The gentleman in New York who did that horrific crime in New York was from Uzbekistan. That country’s not on the list and would not have been effected and clearly was ineffective.

Moreover, that person was like almost every other domestic terrorist that has done things in connection with ISIS. He was radicalized in the United States. He was not radical and then came here and then committed a crime. He was radicalized while he was here.

So we’re going overboard at times and doing things that actually are counterproductive on that. But then when it comes to the domestic terror that is happening, that is happening with greater frequency, we’re not doing much at all.

Tavis: Do you think that these conversations about Iran and Iraq and North Korea and the travel ban, the countries on the list, do you think that conversation is overshadowing or somehow keeping us, blocking us, preventing us from having the kind of conversation about domestic terror that we ought to be having?

Parsi: I think absolutely, because what happens is that media decides to focus on this issue making people think that that is a very, very significant threat. In fact, making them believe that it’s a far greater threat than it is.

It is a threat, but it has to be seen in proportion, whereas we’re not doing that with some of the domestic issues. We immediately explain that away by saying, “Well, that’s because of a mental disorder or this was a long wolf thing, etc.”

We’re in a way kind of downplaying what actually oftentimes appears to be a greater risk than what is happening coming in from the outside. This is not an argument that we should neglect any of these, but there’s a disproportionate attention given to one and far less given to the other.

And this ultimately is a problem. It’s the same thing when it comes to the Muslim ban. The reason why it’s counterproductive is because it’s focusing on the wrong thing and, as a result, taking our eye away from the real issues that we should be focusing on, that could be effective in preventing these types of terrorist attacks.

Tavis: And what do you make of the fact that, again, while we seem to make Muslims the boogey man, you have here again white males walking into churches killing people, whether it’s Dylann Roof in South Carolina or this most recent one over the weekend in Texas.

Is there something about that reality that makes us uncomfortable having the conversation about white males shooting in churches when we seem to go overboard in a fear of Muslims?

Parsi: Whenever something is done by some person that we easily put into the category of “other”, we believe that that person then represents every one in that other, whereas when it comes to someone who, in this case, happens to be white that is doing it, we see that person as an individual. We believe that probably he had some problems, probably some mental issues, etc.

Tavis: Lone wolf, yeah.

Parsi: Lone wolf, and we go down that path. We don’t do that when it comes to others, and I think this is a significant problem because we’re essentially assuming that a whole category of people are responsible for these types of things, which is not the case, of course. And we will ultimately not be able to resolve it if we are pursuing that type of a collective punishment type of approach. You will only make matters worse.

Tavis: You mentioned that you grew up in Europe. I want to ask a question before we move on to the president’s trip to Asia. I wonder whether or not you think that the conversation about guns in this country is ever going to — whether the needle is ever going to move?

Because one day, it’s New York, one day it’s Vegas, the next day it’s Texas, yet the conversation, the needle just doesn’t seem to move on this conversation.

Parsi: From someone who also has the outside perspective because I grew up there, I can tell you that the rest of the world is just dumbfounded looking at the United States. We see with what efficiency, if a problem arises, where you immediately move to some sort of a solution. You know, there is a reason why we have seatbelts in cars, etc., etc. But on this one, we’re just absolutely stuck.

And I think the Sandy Hook one was, I think, a bit of — what’s the best word to use here — but one of those examples that I think caused a lot of people to lose faith and hope that this actually could be resolved through the regular political processes in the United States.

When something that horrible happens and we still didn’t manage to get any more sensible laws on the books, I think a lot of people from the outside have a great difficulty understanding why the United States is stuck in this.

Tavis: Well, I’m one of those persons. I’ve said so, so many times on this program that, if we didn’t get serious when they killed white babies in Sandy Hook, and if we’re not serious about it after they shoot up a church in South Carolina, and another church in Texas, then I don’t know what it’s going to take for us to get serious about this conversation about guns in America, but I digress on that.

Let me go across the water now, way across the water, across the pond, to the president’s trip to Asia. Do you have high expectations, low expectations, or no expectations at all from this trip?

Parsi: I have very low expectations. I think what we have seen so far is that this is a White House that at the top of it, at the helm, does not understand international relations, does not understand the complexity, does not understand what actually diplomacy means.

As a result, is not capable of playing that leadership role that the United States not only has played, but many allies in that region — I mean, South Korea, Japan — all of them are very eagerly — they’re seeking American leadership because, clearly, they don’t have the capacity to be able to handle a North Korea with nuclear weapons on their own. But at the same time, they’re terribly worried because the language that Trump is using is only ratcheting things up.

His threats, his way of using Twitter to be able to conduct this has caused a tremendous amount of anxiety because they’re terrified. They’re the ones who are going to be all dead if there’s a nuclear disaster taking place right now. So they want a measured approach. They want some wisdom in all of this and that is profoundly lacking right now.

Tavis: So Putin was in Iran last week and it seems to me that the way that the president is playing the Iran Nuclear Treaty issue has left an opening for Putin and Russia.

Parsi: It has left an opening for almost everyone. Here we had a deal. I would call it a triumph of diplomacy. It was tremendously difficult to get. There was a very big risk because almost no one believed except for some people in the White House and some supporting organizations that there was a diplomatic path here.

And we managed to essentially prevent what was very clearly — we managed to resolve what was clearly an international crisis on the verge of a military confrontation, to resolve that peacefully through diplomacy without a single shot being fired, without a single, angry, infantile four a.m. Tweet being sent off.

And now we’re taking that and we’re turning that triumph into a disaster by the president decertifying this deal, which then is causing all of these other countries that were part of the deal — this was not just between the U.S. and Iran. Russia was there, France, Germany, England, China.

They’re all now joining essentially with the Iranians and the United States is being isolated. So Putin’s response to Trump decertifying the deal was that he flew to Tehran and he signed $30 billion dollars of investment contracts.

The French who otherwise have been very tough on Iran and remain tough on Iran just announced, I think, a day or two after Trump decertified the Iran deal, that Macron is going to be making a visit to Iran next spring. This will be the first visit by a French president to Iran since 1976. This is all coming as a result of them trying to protect the deal, buffer the deal, by moving closer to Iran.

Tavis: And what do you make of the fact that the president did decertify it, but he didn’t completely implode it, but he kicks it over to Congress basically to do something about it? What do you expect to happen there, if anything?

Parsi: So it’s interesting that you mention that because a lot of people expected he was going to implode it right away. He is imploding and he’s just doing it in two steps rather than in one step. He’s kicking it off to Congress, I think, with the hope to make sure that he can share the blame for the ensuing disaster with Congress or perhaps even blame the whole thing on Congress.

What he’s done right now — and this is very important for the public to understand — he’s gone to Congress and he’s working with Senator Cotton to what they call “fixing the deal.”

But the reality is that they’re trying to unilaterally change the terms of this multilateral agreement. No one single country can just on its own change the terms of an agreement that seven countries negotiated over the course of several years.

Imagine if the Iranians, if their Parliament passed a law and said, well, all of the commitments Iran has, we’re not going to honor them until the United States leaves Iraq, until the United States stops selling arms to Saudi Arabia.

That would be a clear violation of the deal and that is exactly what is being prepared in the Senate right now to essentially change the terms of the deal which is a violation.

This will cause the deal to collapse even though it’s not that type of an immediate effort to collapse the deal. And that’s tremendously dangerous. No other country in the Security Council or the countries that are party to the deal are in agreement with this.

Tavis: You mentioned North Korea earlier in this conversation. How do you read what the president has said of late about North Korea?

Parsi: Again, I think there’s a problem here, which is that I think Trump believes that he can bluff his way to a solution here, and that’s just simply not the way this thing works. There’s a certain parallel to what was going on with Iran in which I believe the United States adopted unrealistic positions early on and then had to essentially walk them back.

And that is a problem because they ended up in some ways actually costing the U.S. a better solution precisely because they had taken such exaggerated positions.

In the case of Iran, it was a zero enrichment objective. In the case of North Korea, the insistence that there’s never going to be able to have nuclear weapons, despite the fact that they do, and that regime change will remain on the table. As long as we stick to those positions, we’re not going to see any solution to what’s going on in North Korea right now.

And if on top of that, the president kills the Iran deal or continues this path of imploding it, why would North Korea or any other country, for that matter, strike a deal or a compromise with the United States when the U.S. has proven itself not to be trustworthy?

The Iran deal was only struck two years ago. It’s been working. Eight times now, the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed the Iranians are living up to their end of the bargain. Still, Trump is imploding it. What that track record, why would anyone else, particularly North Koreans, go along with diplomacy?

Tavis: Is the president going to be successful in getting China where he wants them to be on the North Korea question?

Parsi: Not if he’s doing what he’s doing on Iran. I think at the end of the day, that credibility that is needed in order to be able to get the Chinese to move, is simply not there right now.

So I think, if you take a look at what Obama did when he decided that he’s really going to try to pursue diplomacy with Iran, he first recognized that in order to have successful diplomacy, I have to help create an atmosphere that is conducive to diplomacy.

That meant a much different language when he was talking about Iran. There was no more emphasis that all options are on the table. He took away terms that didn’t translate well to Persians, such as, you know carrots and sticks because he wanted to signal, “I am actually serious about diplomacy. I want to make this work.”

We’re seeing the exact opposite. Every time Donald Trump is Tweeting about this, we’re doing the exact opposite. We’re moving further and further and further away from any chance for real diplomacy.

Tavis: To the text, “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy”, you referenced a moment ago, Trita, to the extent that Obama’s diplomacy worked on Iran, what made it work?

Parsi: More than anything else, I would say a tremendous political will and dedication to see this come to a solution. Diplomacy is not easy. Diplomacy with Iran is not easy. If one was willing to give up after the first bump in the road, then it would never have worked. Instead, one had to have that type of grit to make sure that something like this would work.

Towards his second term, Obama really did show that dedication. I have to say, a lot of people were quite surprised because previous attempts at diplomacy had been abandoned within the first three months at the first bump in the road. This time, it was very different.

There are reasons why it was different because I think the president had come to the conclusion correctly that, unless we found a diplomatic solution on this issue, the United States would either have to choose between accepting a de facto nuclear Iran or go to war with Iran.

And war with Iran would be an absolute disaster and nuclear Iran would be an absolute disaster. The only chance of preventing that from happening was to really double down and show the commitment to diplomacy that neither Iran nor the United States up until that point had ever shown before.

Tavis: Let me ask this question in the reverse, the inverse, which is what does Iran make of Donald Trump? We know what Trump thinks of Iran [laugh]. If there is a prevailing viewpoint about Donald Trump inside Iran right now, what is that?

Parsi: I would say that what their view of Trump right now is that they believe that he is way over his head, he’s incompetent, he’s not capable, but that actually, in some ways, makes him more dangerous because he’s impulsive.

He doesn’t seem to have the capacity of being able to look at complex problems from several different angles before making decisions. But at the same time, the Iranians are currently benefiting because Donald Trump is isolating the United States.

He is achieving the next to impossible task of making the Iranians look good and reasonable. Just take a look at Donald Trump’s speech at the U.N. in which he as threatening to obliterate North Korea, making all of these kinds of threats.

And then you had the Iranian president speak the day after. Usually, it would be the opposite. The Iranian president, particularly under Ahmadinejad would make some outlandish, extremely horrific and venomous comments and the United States would play the reasonable party. Now it’s completely the reverse.

The Iran president played a very reasonable role, give a very modest and not at all a high-rhetoric type of a speech and they’re actually enjoying this moment at this point. Not saying that they’re going to be comfortable in the long run, mindful of some of the things that Trump might do, but so far, they have actually come out stronger out of the things that Trump has been doing.

Tavis: How do they know who to listen to? Trump or Tillerson?

Parsi: I don’t think they take Tillerson particularly seriously.

Tavis: You don’t think so?

Parsi: I don’t think it has anything to do with Tillerson whether he’s competent or not, but the reality is when we have — when the conversation in Washington is whether Tillerson did or did not call the President of the United States a moron, rest assured the Secretary of State of the United States does not have any credibility on the international scene.

Tavis: That’s [laugh] — that’s…

Parsi: There’s no way around that. That’s the way it is.

Tavis: There may not be any way…

Parsi: It’s not a judgment of him.

Tavis: No, I got it. There may not be any way around it, but that’s scary.

Parsi: It certainly is, and this is why I mean so far the Iranians have been benefiting from what Trump has been doing.

Tavis: Yeah. Politically inside of Iran, how do you expect in the coming months they will take advantage of that? They’re benefiting at the moment. How do you expect they’ll take advantage of that, though?

Parsi: Well, so far, the political balance has not shifted dramatically in the sense that Rouhani is still there, but if the deal actually gets killed, if Donald Trump moves forward with this plan, and if the Europeans cave and they actually go along with the U.S. position, which so far, they are resisting tooth and nail, then ultimately that will have a very negative impact for the moderate forces in Iran who are responsible for making sure that this deal would come about, who are responsible for agreeing to compromise as that Iran previously have been very reluctant to agree to.

And that risks bringing about the situation in which Iran wants, once again, will be headed with some of the much more hardline elements.

We all remember all of the problems that Ahmadinejad created with his aggressive and belligerent tone. But there’s also a deeper problem. You have right now a scenario in which a lot of the young people in Iran were tremendously supportive of this deal. They want to connect with the outside world.

They want to make sure that they can be part of globalization and be no different from any other country. They really are yearning for this. This deal was so critical for them because it reduced the risk of war. It brought about a promise of the U.S. and Iran losing each other as enemies. And now all of that almost has been reversed.

But it’s not been reverse because Iran did something wrong. It’s not been reversed because the hardliners in Iran sabotaged it. It’ been reversed because of what Trump has done and this has had and will probably have a very negative effect going forward, which is these young people tended to be quite skeptical of the Iranian hardliners.

When the Iran hardliners said we don’t want to have a negotiation with the U.S. because we don’t trust the U.S. The U.S. will never honor its word, they were skeptical of the hardliners. Now in their view, the hardline narrative has started to be vindicated because it is Donald Trump that is killing this.

So the hardliners feel vindicated, not just in their own eyes, but in the eyes of young Iranians who were actually quite positive about the United States, who wanted to be friends with the United States, who believed that most of the problem was actually on the Iranian side, not on the American side. These are people, you know, they’re running tech companies in Iran who are copying Uber. Iran has its own Uber and all these different things.

I can assure you, if you go to their offices, there are not pictures of any hardline Ayatollahs on their walls. There’s pictures of Steve Jobs on their walls. And these are the people that we risk losing by killing this deal. That’s a generational loss.

Tavis: So if Trump is emboldening the hardliners potentially inside the country and, to your point about the young people and a healthy sense of skepticism, I guess the question is what happens when that skepticism turns to cynicism?

Parsi: That would be very dangerous because then you’re suddenly going to have an Iran which is 80 million people, a very powerful country in the region, that will have turned away from the United States not because of hardline elements, but because of a majority element have done so. And this is, I think, a significant loss for both Iran and the United States.

That’s part of the reason my book is called “Losing an Enemy”. It’s not because this deal ended the enmity between the United States and Iran, but because it paved the way for a path in which they could lose each other as enemies if they continued on the path of diplomacy.

And we have to ask ourselves, when was the last time the United States lost an enemy in the Middle East? It’s been quite a while, I would say. We had that opportunity. We maybe be able to resurrect that opportunity, but it necessitates that we first honor the nuclear deal and that we go back to diplomacy.

Tavis: The Middle East is always, for lack of a better metaphor, a chess game. Never checkers, always much more complicated, so it’s a chess game. How significant a peace in the Middle East is the relationship with Iran?

Parsi: It is quite central, I would say. It’s very clear now Iran’s influence in the region has been growing mainly as a result of — critics of the nuclear deal would say it’s because of the nuclear deal. I think that’s quite incorrect.

The real thing that unleashed Iran’s power in the region is the Iraq War because the United States moved in, took out Saddam Hussein, lethal enemy of Iran, took out the Taliban in Afghanistan, also a lethal enemy of Afghanistan.

Then the United States failed to stabilize these two countries, which then further gave the Iranians leverage and maneuverability. Right now, they’re in a much more powerful position than they were in before.

And I think the Obama administration came to the conclusion that, at the end of the day, despite the many, many problems the U.S. and Iran have outside of the nuclear deal itself, we have to find a way to work and reach deals and agreements with them. There are areas of common interest. For instance, the United States and Iran indirectly collaborated in order to defeat ISIS.

They’re too big of a player in the region to be able to ignore or to believe that we can indefinitely contain. In fact, containment tends to make them more problematic, not less. It’s the equivalent of the idea, can we contain China on a global scale? No one really believes that because that’s impossible. On a regional scale, Iran is the China of the Middle East.

Tavis: Finally, is it possible to get back to losing Iran as the enemy or has the damage already done by Mr. Trump irreparable?

Parsi: I think it’s possible, but we’re running out of time. We need to make sure that this deal does not collapse and that means that Congress, if it choose to vote for new sanctions or measures that would change the terms of the deal, in my view, that’s the equivalent of Congress giving George Bush authority to use military force in Iraq in 2002.

It is a vote that will take us to war. If that happens, I think, unfortunately, we’ll have Iran as an enemy for quite some time.

Tavis: Trita Parsi’s new book is called “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy” as President Trump makes his way through Asia. Trita, good to have you on the program. Thanks for you sharing your insights.

Parsi: Thanks so much for having me.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 7, 2017 at 4:14 pm