KGOU

Trita Parsi On The Politics Behind The Iran Nuclear Deal

Mar 9, 2018

Iranian-born Trita Parsi advised the Obama administration during the restoration of diplomacy between Iran and the United States. It began with a phone call between President Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in 2013 and culminated with what’s known as the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Parsi’s latest book,  "Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy," offers an inside look at the deal.

“I know that today, mindful of what's going on, it sounds like a hopelessly naive title for a book,” Parsi told KGOU’s World Views. Still, he insists reaching an agreement was a victory in and of itself.

“Whether subsequent administrations turn against that deal and sabotage it doesn't change the fact that this was an astonishing victory for diplomacy to be able to reach this deal in the first place,” Parsi said. The deal, he said, proves diplomacy is “far more effective than any other policy option.”

The 159-page deal limits Iran's nuclear capabilities in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. The agreement has been politically charged, but its future is murky due to opposition from President Donald Trump. According to Parsi, terminating it would only strengthen radical voices within Iran.

“If that path proves to actually not work because the Trump administration undermines the deal, it's going to be the other side in Iran that is going to get strength, those who say 'no you can't compromise with the West, you can only meet force with force,'” Parsi said.

Parsi knows the consequences of living under a radical-driven, repressive Iranian regime. His father, a non-Muslim academic, was imprisoned twice during Iran’s 1979 revolution.

The deal, however, does not address issues outside non-proliferation, like domestic human rights abuses and regional policies, such as Iran’s support for Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad. Parsi says that’s drawn criticism from some Middle Eastern countries, even though they pushed back against a broader agenda during negotiations.

Parsi maintains the best way forward is engagement.

“We have one example of the United States being able to dramatically and significantly change a core Iranian policy and that is through this nuclear deal which was achieved through multilateral diplomacy. We have plenty of examples of the United States not being able to change Iranian policies.”

Rather than attempting to renegotiate the deal and threatening to terminate it, Parsi suggests the U.S. join the Turks, Russians and Iranians at Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Along with his books, Parsi advocates for engagement with Iran through his organization, the National Iranian American Council.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

Parsi on the false notion that the Iranians will get 150 billion dollars of American money:

That is not true. We're talking about money that Iran Iran's money that was frozen in bank accounts around the world in Japan and Switzerland that were frozen as part of the sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Iran. And, as a concession in order to get the Iranians to agree to cut down their nuclear program from 22,000 centrifuges to 5,000, to get them to ship out 98 percent of their low enriched uranium, that money, their own money was given back to them. So when he chooses to only use these kind of lines in his public criticism without actually articulating something that is actually more valid it doesn't leave you with the Russian that he actually has a deep understanding of this.

Parsi on whether the deal is working:

The body that is overseeing this deal is the International Atomic Energy Agency. They're the police. They're the referee. They just issued their 10th report last week reiterating that the Iranians are living up to the deal. So, from that end it is working. Their pathways to a nuclear bomb but have been blocked. War with Iran, at least as long as this deal is remains in place, has also been averted. There's a flip side of it that is not working and that is the Trump administration's implementation and adherence to the deal. They are violating the deal right now.... The deal clearly states that sanctions have been lifted and nothing can be done to undermine what is now legal and permissible trade… Trump himself at the G-8 meeting actively went and pressed other countries not to trade with Iran even though that was the incentive to make the deal work. So, unfortunately, the Trump administration is in violation.

Parsi on how the deal’s collapse could affect Iranian politics:

If this deal is undermined, the Rouhani government will suffer a tremendous embarrassment and probably be the end of them, because they put all of their eggs in the basket. Not just the idea of a nuclear deal, but it's about the idea that Iran can resolve its problems with the West through diplomacy by making compromises. If that path proves to actually not work because the Trump administration undermines the deal, it's going to be the other side in Iran that is going to get strength, and those who say 'no you can't compromise with the West, you can only meet force with force.' And if that's the type of Iran we want, well, that's the type of Iran we might get if we pursue continue on the current path.

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TRANSCRIPT

Suzette Grillot: Trita Parsi welcome to World Views.

Trita Parsi: Thank you for having me.

Grillot: Well it's great to have you back, actually. You spend a good amount of time now. Three or four times you've come here to Oklahoma. It kind of catches you I don't know. It draws you back. Well Trita, you recently published a book about the Obama administration's work with Iran, and it's entitled Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Now, I'm going to bring us up to the present because we all know that this is you know we're in questionable relations again today with Iran. But you know there had been so much optimism about where we were headed, given Obama's engagement with Iran. So can you just kind of set us up a little bit. Tell us a little bit about your book, and then maybe we can then talk about what's going on today.

Parsi: Sure. I know that today, mindful of what's going on, it sounds like a hopelessly naive title for a book to call it “Losing an Enemy: A Triumph of Diplomacy.” But I deliberately chose that title because, first of all, it was a triumph of diplomacy. Now whether subsequent administration turns against that deal and sabotages it doesn't change the fact that this was an astonishing victory for diplomacy to be able to reach this deal in the first place, that showed that diplomacy could work and also show that it's far more effective than any other policy option. Please note, it's not called “Lost an Enemy.” It's “Losing an Enemy.” It's a process, and it's an uncompleted process. That was also chosen because one of the things that became quite clear in the debate 2015 when the deal was struck and there was some opposition in the Iranian parliament and there was plenty of opposition in the U.S. Congress and plenty of opposition in Israel and Saudi Arabia. It became clear that one of the things that actually was most disturbing to the critics of the deal was not the details of the deal. It wasn't whether the restrictions were long enough, whether the Iranians were keeping too many centrifuges. It was the fact that something had been done that had shaken up his enmity between the United States and Iran. And there were elements in all of these different places who preferred to keep Iran or to keep the U.S. as an enemy, and their biggest fear was to lose this enemy, rather than fearing the consequences of the deal or whatever shortcomings they believe it had.

Parsi: And I think this is part of the reason why we are where we are now because those forces were not strong enough to be able to undermine the deal in 2015. But with a change of administration, they've been given this opportunity and they're taking good advantage of it.

Grillot: So there was no surprise, from your perspective, that we would be taking a step backward here, and perhaps regaining an enemy, or at least keeping an enemy.

Parsi: It's nevertheless been a bit of a surprise to me the extent to which the  current administration has gone on this, but also, to be very very frank, how superficial the opposition to the deal has been. I mean there's people in the administration who are very much opposed to the deal because they believe that they have unfinished business with Iran due to what happened in Iraq. There's people in the administration who believe that ultimately this is changing the balance of power in the region or accepting a change in the balance of power at the U.S. should not accept. These are I think all interesting critiques of the deal there's a degree of basis for it. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I can understand it. But then you have the most important person in the administration whose opposition seems to simply be driven from the fact that he opposes the deal because it has Obama's name on it. That's something that it was surprising to me.

Grillot: But he says it's a bad deal. I mean, that's why he keeps saying.

Parsi: He's never been able to articulate publicly what about this deal that that is so bad except for some things that he's keen on mentioning that are false, such as the idea that the Iranians got 150 billion dollars of American money. That is not true. We're talking about Iran's money that was frozen in bank accounts around the world, in Japan, in Switzerland, that were frozen as part of the sanctions that the Obama administration imposed on Iran. And, as a concession in order to get the Iranians to agree to cut down their nuclear program from 22,000 centrifuges to 5,000, to get them to ship out 98 percent of their low enriched uranium, that money, their own money was given back to them. So when he chooses to only use these kind of lines in his public criticism without actually articulating something that is actually more valid it doesn't leave you with the Russian that he actually has a deep understanding of this.

Grillot: So then fundamentally the agreement, in your mind, works. It's working. It would work if we continue to pursue it. The stepping backward now under the Trump administration is going to do more harm I would presume? Is this your perspective?

Parsi: Absolutely. The body that is overseeing this deal is the International Atomic Energy Agency. They're the police. They're the referee. They just issued their 10th report last week reiterating that the Iranians are living up to the deal. So, from that end it is working. Their pathways to a nuclear bomb but have been blocked. War with Iran, at least as long as this deal  remains in place, has also been averted.

There's a flip side of it that is not working and that is the Trump administration's implementation and adherence to the deal. They are violating the deal right now. And that's the problem it's partly problematic because it's hardly reported but they are in clear violation when McMaster in Munich said that you can't trade with Iran because that's like cutting a check to the IRGC... The deal clearly states that sanctions have been lifted and nothing can be done to undermine what is now legal and permissible trade. Otherwise essentially we're giving the Iranians a concession and then we're undermining it at the same time the language of the deal is quite clear on that. What McMaster said is a violation. Trump himself at the G-8 meeting actively went and pressed other countries not to trade with Iran even though that was the incentive to make the deal work. So, unfortunately, the Trump administration is in violation, and I'm very worried that that eventually will cause the deal to collapse altogether. And if it collapses, I think we should be very clear on where we will be.

Prior to this deal there was essentially only two options.Either the United States will go to war with Iran, or it would strike some sort of a compromise on this issue. Or it would have to accept that Iran was a de facto nuclear power, which obviously neither the Obama administration nor the Trump administration wants to do. If we destroy this deal we're going back to not that situation but to a worse situation, because at least in that situation there was a diplomatic option. If we undermine the deal we have no credibility to go back to the negotiating table, and then we're only faced with either war or accepting Iran as a nuclear power.

Grillot: Now, to be fair, this deal is really about nuclear weapons, it's about nuclear capability. All of the restrictions and everything is focused on that purpose. But there has been some criticism that it doesn't go far enough in terms of facilitating any kind of political change in Iran. I mean obviously there are a lot of people who want, you know, a change of regime in Iran, want to see measures that will lead to that type of outcome. Now you've done some work in the past where you've focused on trying to boost the role of moderates in Iran. And so where are we on that? What about this issue of regime change in Iran?

Parsi: Sure. It's a great question. Let me take the first part of it. You mentioned that there has been criticism that the deal doesn't address geopolitical matters, such as you know Iran's policies in the region, and it's a common criticism particularly from Republicans, from Israel and Saudi Arabia. I find it a bit bizarre because I remember I advised Obama administration during the negotiations. And even prior to this diplomacy really getting into high gear I was pushing and arguing in favor of a broader agenda, an agenda that actually would be including some of these other things. On the counter side of my argument was the Israelis and the Saudis, who were pushing to only have the nuclear issue beyond the agenda the Saudis in particular did not want to see the United States talk to Iran about any of the non-nuclear issues. So it is a bit astonishing to see them being on the forefront of arguing now all of this deal is bad because it doesn't deal with those other issues. I thought that the former head of the Mossad, Efraim Halevi, was quite honest and effective in October of last year at a panel in New York. When asked about this issue he said it's very simple. The reason the Obama administration only focused on this is because we asked them to only focus on this, and he was sitting next to the former head of the Saudi intelligence ministry and was complaining about this.

The Obama administration had additional reasons for not going in that direction, and that is the fact that it had the calculation, which I think was a fair calculation, that the only way to be able to get a deal was to make sure that the rest of the Security Council was united. If there was divisions within the Security Council the Iranians would be quite astute at playing the various powers against each other. And that would make it much more difficult, if not impossible, to get a deal.

There's essentially only one issue the Security Council could agree on, and that was to prevent Iran from having a pathway to a bomb. If you included human rights, or if you included Syria the Iranians the Russians the Chinese are much closer to each other on those issues they are with the United States. So it would have complicated matters tremendously. That doesn't mean however that these issues should not be addressed. They should be. The question is how? Well we actually know how now. We have one example of the United States being able to dramatically and significantly change a core Iranian policy and that is through this nuclear deal which was achieved through multilateral diplomacy. We have plenty of examples of the United States not being able to change Iranian policies. So if we truly are genuinely concerned about Iran's regional policies, well we know that diplomacy can work, and we know that all of these other options based on urgent threats etcetera have not worked. So, if we're genuine, why are we not going back to the negotiating table and talking about these things? There is a process. It used to be in Geneva. The U.S. could be involved in it. It chose not to. It moved to Astana. And it's right now only the Turks the Russians and the Iranians.

Parsi: So there are pathways to be able to address these concerns, but I'm left a bit baffled. If we genuinely are concerned about this, why are we not pursuing the most effective route? On the issue of the Iranian moderates without a doubt, I think your question is quite correct. If this deal is undermined, the Rouhani government will suffer a tremendous embarrassment and probably be the end of them, because they put all of their eggs in the basket, not just the idea of a nuclear deal, but it's about the idea that Iran can resolve its problems with the West through diplomacy by making compromises.

If that path proves to actually not work because the Trump administration undermines the deal, it's going to be the other side in Iran that is going to get strength, and those who say 'no you can't compromise with the West, you can only meet force with force.' And if that's the type of Iran we want, well, that's the type of Iran we might get if we continue on the current path.

Grillot: Obviously this is a very complicated issue, and in some ways it seems really unrealistic to think that you would go from like zero to 100 and right in this relationship when not when we've been at odds for many many.You know you mentioned that the Saudis the Israelis the Russians the Turks.I mean clearly the Saudis the Israelis the Russians Turks and others have something to say about what's happening here. But is the power more on the side of the domestic audience more so than the regional one?

Parsi: No. I would say I think you're quite correct that there is a domestic audience, but that domestic audience tends to be driven by, or heavily influenced by, the concerns of some of the regional allies. You obviously do have a lot of people inside government whose job is non-proliferation, but the average American is not, you know, read up on those issues, is not waking up in the morning and thinking about these issues. You do have average Americans that are very concerned about Israel's security, however, and Israel has been saying for the last 25 years that Iran's nuclear program is an existential threat, and, as a result, managed to make sure that this became a top issue in the United States and globally as well. This is a process that started in the mid-1990s. I wrote about in my first book, had extensive interviews with the Israelis about how they did it and also about their concerns. They were very worried, because on the one hand they wanted this to be a global issue, but they were the only ones sounding the alarm bells about Iran's nuclear program in the 1990s. So they were afraid that if they're the only ones sounding the alarm bells it will come across as an Israeli issue and not as a global issue. So we're constantly balancing that. But I think they were actually quite successful because had it not been for what they were doing this issue would not have gone on top of the U.S. national security concerns.

Grillot: Well to finish up here, Trita, I mean what are we to expect do you think? Do we have any hope that this relationship that it will turn around?

Parsi: I think we're going to see some very dramatic things happening in the next couple of months that will tell us the final direction of this. I think the American public definitely can have a say in this in the sense of their own conversations with their lawmakers et cetera.

I think what's really important to keep in mind is that this is a matter of war and peace. If we go in a direction that is not carefully thought through, that rips up tremendously difficult diplomatic achievement, we will very likely end up in a situation in which war increasingly will become inevitable, and war with Iran will not look like war with Iraq. War with Iraq was an easy military feat. It was the aftermath that was tremendously difficult. On the Iranian front, even the military aspect is going to be very very difficult because it will not be a U.S. Civil War. It will be a full scale regional war. And what I'm worried about is that most Americans don't even understand what is at stake here. We're focused on North Korea because it's more imminent and it's obviously extremely dangerous. But, to be frank with you, the likelihood of war with Iran is probably higher.

Grillot: All right well, Trita, on that rather somber note, thank you so much for being here and sharing your thoughts.

Parsi: Thank you for having me. Thank you.

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