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Have the diplomatic efforts of the Obama administration toward Iran failed? Was the Bush administration's emphasis on military intervention, refusal to negotiate, and pursuit of regime change a better approach? How can the United States best address the ongoing turmoil in Tehran? This book provides a definitive and comprehensive analysis of the Obama administration's early diplomatic outreach to Iran and discusses the best way to move toward more positive relations between the two discordant states.
Trita Parsi, a Middle East foreign policy expert with extensive Capitol Hill and United Nations experience, interviewed 70 high-ranking officials from the U.S., Iran, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Brazil—including the top American and Iranian negotiators—for this book. Parsi uncovers the previously unknown story of American and Iranian negotiations during Obama's early years as president, the calculations behind the two nations' dealings, and the real reasons for their current stalemate. Contrary to prevailing opinion, Parsi contends that diplomacy has not been fully tried. For various reasons, Obama's diplomacy ended up being a single roll of the dice. It had to work either immediately—or not at all. Persistence and perseverance are keys to any negotiation. Neither Iran nor the U.S. had them in 2009.
— Jon Stewart
— Barbara Slavin
— David Shorr
— Julian Borger
— M. Dorraj
You cannot prevent and prepare for war at the same time. —Albert Einstein
Tim Guldimann arrived in Washington in early May 2003. As the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, he served as caretaker of American interests in Iran because the United States does not have an embassy there. He visited the U.S. capital every few months to brief American officials on the latest developments in the Islamic Republic. But this was no ordinary visit. In Guldimann's possession was an Iranian document offering something many at the time believed was unthinkable: comprehensive negotiations between the United States and Iran.
Guldimann's visit to Washington came only weeks after U.S. troops had sacked Baghdad and ended Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule. In less than two years, the George W. Bush administration had defeated both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq's Republican Guard. Iran was encircled. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were now deployed on Iran's eastern and western flank. Tehran could very well be next on the Bush administration's list of targets. Though Washington had shown minimal interest in talking to the Iranians, Tehran made a final effort to get the Americans to the negotiating table. An offer for comprehensive negotiations was prepared by Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran's ambassador to Paris, and it eventually won the approval of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The proposal spelled out the contours of a strategic realignment between the United States and Iran based on the resolution of all major points of contention between them. To make sure that Washington understood Iran's seriousness, the negotiation proposal was given to the Swiss ambassador—the recognized and authentic intermediary between the United States and Iran in the absence of direct diplomatic channels—to be hand-delivered to the U.S. Department of State.
The proposal astonished the Americans. The Iranians put all their cards on the table, declaring what they sought from Washington and what they were willing to give in return. In a dialogue of "mutual respect," the Iranians offered to end their support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and pressure them to cease attacks on Israel. On Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite group in Lebanon that Iran had helped to create, Tehran offered to support its disarmament and transform it into a purely political party. The Iranians offered to put their contested nuclear program under intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate any fears of weaponization. Tehran would also sign the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and even allow extensive American involvement in the program as a further guarantee and goodwill gesture. On terrorism, Tehran offered full cooperation against all terrorist organizations—above all, al-Qaeda. Additionally, Iran would work actively with the United States to support political stabilization and the establishment of a nonsectarian government in Iraq.
What probably astonished the Americans the most was Iran's offer to accept the Beirut Declaration of the Arab League—that is, the Saudi peace plan from March 2002, in which the Arab states proffered collective peace with Israel, recognizing and normalizing relations with the Jewish state. In return, Israel would agree to a withdrawal from all occupied territories and accept a fully independent Palestinian state, an equal division of Jerusalem, and an equitable resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem. Through this step, Iran would formally recognize the two-state solution and consider itself at peace with Israel. This was an unprecedented concession by Tehran. Only a year earlier, hard-liners in Tehran had dismissed the Saudi initiative, arguing that an Israeli return to the pre-1967 borders would be an unjust solution for the Palestinians. The laundry list of policies that Iran was willing to discuss and amend was nothing short of an American wish list of everything that needed to change about Iran.
In return, the Iranians wanted members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization of Iranian origin based in Iraq, handed over to them in return for the al-Qaeda operatives Iranian authorities had captured. At a more strategic level, the Iranians wanted to reach a long-term understanding with the United States that involved ending all U.S. sanctions; respecting Iranian national interests in Iraq and supporting Iranian demands for war reparations; respecting Iran's right to full access to nuclear, biological, and chemical technology; and, finally, recognizing Iran's legitimate security interests in the region. The proposal also spelled out a procedure for step-by-step negotiations toward a mutually acceptable agreement.
Guldimann delivered the proposal to the State Department and briefed U.S. officials on his conversations with Iranian officials. To ensure that the proposal would reach the president's desk, the Swiss ambassador also gave a copy of the proposal to Republican congressman Robert Ney of Ohio, who in turn delivered it directly to Karl Rove, Bush's special adviser. Ney, a fluent Persian-speaker who had lived in Iran prior to the 1979 revolution and favored diplomacy with Tehran, received a call from Rove within a few hours. Rove wanted to be sure of the authenticity of the proposal, which he called "intriguing," and promised to deliver it directly to the president. While few had expected the Iranians to initiate such outreach efforts, the response of the Bush White House was even more stunning.
Many in the State Department recognized the proposal for what it was: an authentic offer for negotiations approved by the highest authorities in Iran, partly motivated by America's strength in the aftermath of—at that time—successful military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by Iran's sense of vulnerability. Some senior officials favored a positive response to Tehran, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage. But Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld denied them an opportunity to debate the pros and cons of the issue. Their argument was simple but devastating. "We don't speak to evil," they determined. Not one single interagency meeting was set up to discuss the proposal. "In the end," Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff told me, in a harsh reference to the neoconservatives, led by Cheney and Rumsfeld, "the secret cabal got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran."
The hard-liners in the Pentagon and the vice president's office did not disagree that Iran's decision to make a proposal blatantly opposed to its official ideology was a sign of its weakness and sense of vulnerability. But negotiating with Iran was simply wrong, they contended, because America could get what it wanted for free by simply removing the regime in Tehran. If, on the other hand, talks were initiated and America accepted Iran's assistance, Washington would be put in the awkward situation of owing the ayatollahs. Why talk to Iran when you could simply dictate terms from a position of strength?
An opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted. Many former Bush administration officials admit that the nonresponse was a mistake. The proposal had come at an opportune time—Tehran did not yet have a functioning nuclear program, it was not swimming in oil revenues from soaring energy demands, and it was not enriching uranium. In fact, its centrifuges were not even spinning. To those in the administration opposed to the neoconservative agenda, it was difficult to fathom how such an opportunity could have been dismissed. "In my mind it was one of those things you throw your hands up in the air and say, 'I can't believe we did this,'" Wilkerson said.
But merely rejecting the proposal was not enough. The hardliners in the Bush administration apparently wanted to add insult to injury. Instead of simply turning down the Iranian offer, the Bush administration decided to castigate the Swiss for having delivered the proposal in the first place. Only a few days after its delivery, Washington rebuked Guldimann and the Swiss government for having overstepped their diplomatic mandate. The message to Tehran was clear: not only would the Bush administration refuse Iran the courtesy of a reply, it would punish those who sought to convey messages between the two countries.
Only a few months later, an insurgency erupted in Iraq that simultaneously emboldened Iran and entangled the United States. While Tehran's influence began to rise because of its ties to the Shia in southern Iraq and to the Kurds in the north, Washington's maneuverability began to shrink. With its outreach to Washington rejected, Iran instead opted to pursue a more aggressive policy, challenging U.S. interests and expanding its nuclear enrichment program. Mired in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington was increasingly incapable of stopping Iran from expanding its influence and reach in the region. With the Bush administration refusing to engage in diplomacy, sanctions failing to change Iran's policies, and military action remaining a deeply unattractive option, the Bush administration had few policy options left beyond issuing various empty threats.
Soon enough, even some of the most hawkish figures in Washington's foreign policy establishment began to recognize the foolishness of this squandered opportunity for diplomacy. But recognizing the mistake was not enough. A new president had to occupy the White House before diplomacy would be given a chance.
The thirty-year-old U.S.-Iran enmity is no longer a phenomenon; it is an institution. For three decades, politicians and bureaucrats in both countries have made careers out of demonizing each other. Firebrands in Iran have won political points by adding an ideological dimension to an already rooted animosity. Shrewd politicians, in turn, have shamelessly used ideology to advance their political objectives. Neighboring states in the Persian Gulf and beyond have taken advantage of this estrangement, often kindling the flames of division. Israel and some of its supporters in the United States, in particular, have feared that a thaw in U.S. relations with Iran would come at the expense of America's special friendship with the Jewish state.
But the strategic cost to the United States and Iran of this prolonged feud has been staggering. Harming both and benefiting neither, the U.S.-Iran estrangement has complicated Washington's efforts to advance the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s, win the struggle against al-Qaeda, or defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and the insurgency in Iraq. Still, the strategic cost of this enmity has oftentimes been dwarfed by the domestic political cost to overcome it. In Washington, the political cost for attempting to resolve tensions with Iran has simply been too great and the political space too narrow to justify starting down a fraught and uncertain path to peace with Iran. Political divisions, in turn, have paralyzed Tehran at key intervals, with vying political factions not wishing to see their competitors define the outcome of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement or get credit for reducing tensions.
The hostility has been institutionalized because either too many forces on both sides calculate that they can better advance their own narrow interests by retaining the status quo, or the predictability of enmity is preferred to the unpredictability of peace making. Thus, over the years, this antipathy has survived—and hardened—because the cost of maintaining the status quo has not outweighed the risk of seeking peace—until 2008, that is.
With the election of Barack Obama, the stars aligned for a radical shift in U.S.-Iran relations. Tensions between the United States and Iran had risen dramatically during the Bush administration, putting the two countries on the verge of war. While the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq put American troops on Iran's eastern and western borders, respectively, the defeat of the Taliban and the end of Saddam Hussein's reign also removed two of Iran's key regional rivals from the strategic chessboard. Freed from the burden of its long-standing enemies, Iran was now a fast-ascending power that astutely took advantage of America's inability to win the peace in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran's advancing nuclear program added more fuel to the fire. Increasingly, Iran's rise, combined with America's painful predicament in the region, rendered a continuation of the U.S.-Iran rift too costly. Iran and the United States were gravitating toward a confrontation that neither could afford.
Meanwhile, the American public had turned against not only president George W. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and occupation of Iraq, but also the ideological foundation of Bush's worldview. Previously, Beltway hawks maintained that negotiations and compromise were not mere tools of diplomacy, but rather rewards that should be granted only to states that deserved an opportunity to talk to the United States. Inspired by this philosophy, Bush refused to engage with Iran during his entire presidency, even on issues of such importance as Iraq and Afghanistan (with the exception of episodic instances of brief diplomatic outreach for tactical purposes). Moreover, the neoconservative philosophy, viewing the United States as the source of legitimacy at home and abroad, dictated that talking to the autocratic rulers in Tehran would help legitimize Iran's theocratic and repressive government. But while refusing engagement with Iran upheld a sense of ideological purity for the Bush White House, it did nothing to address the growing challenge that Iran posed to the United States in the region. During the Bush presidency, Iran amassed more than 8,000 centrifuges for its nuclear program while expanding its influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.
This reality was widely acknowledged in the United States toward the end of the Bush administration. In March 2006 Congress appointed a bipartisan Iraq Study Group to assess the Iraq war and to make policy recommendations. One of the group's key endorsements was direct U.S. dialogue with Iran over Iraq and the situation in the Middle East—a stark refutation of the Bush White House ideology. And in September 2008, only two months before the U.S. presidential elections, five former secretaries of state—Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Henry A. Kissinger, and James A. Baker III—called on the United States to talk to Iran.
Then-Senator Obama recognized that unprecedented political space had emerged for new foreign policy thinking. So rather than shying away from the issue of diplomacy with Iran, Obama took the unusual step of making engagement with U.S. adversaries a central part of his foreign policy platform during the 2008 presidential election—something that, under normal circumstances in Washington, would have been considered political suicide. In the televised presidential debates, Obama boldly declared that it was "critical" that we "talk to the Syrians and the Iranians," and that those saying that the United States "shouldn't be talking to them ignore our own history."
Finally, the persona of Barack Obama himself was an important factor. He was a most unlikely candidate—and the most difficult one for the Iranian leadership to dismiss or vilify. Born to a Kenyan Muslim father and a American Midwestern mother, Obama spent most of his childhood in Hawaii and, later, in Indonesia, after his mother was remarried to an Indonesian. Having been exposed to both the Muslim and Christian religions, having grown up in a Third World country shortly after it had won its independence from colonial powers, and having the middle name Hussein—the name of one of the most revered figures in Shia tradition—Obama simply did not fit the Iranian stereotype of American, "imperialist" leaders—arrogant, ignorant, and incapable of empathizing with the grievances of Third World states against Western powers.
Clearly, Obama recognized the historic opportunity that lay before him. Only twelve and a half minutes into his presidency, he sought to seize it by extending America's hand of friendship in the hope that Iran would unclench its fist.
We live in a neighborhood in which sometimes dialogue ... is liable to be interpreted as weakness.
—Israel's foreign minister Tzipi Livni, declaring her opposition to U.S.-Iran diplomacy, November 2008
Millions around the globe were glued to their TVs to watch President Obama's message of hope on Inauguration Day 2009. In Tehran, however, decision makers were looking for a key buzzword in the new president's speech: mutual respect. Obama didn't disappoint. "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect ... we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," Obama said in his address to the 1.5-million-strong crowd on the Washington mall. "Mutual respect" has become an almost mysterious term in U.S.-Iran relations. The Iranians have repeatedly stated that improved U.S.-Iran relations can come about only when the two countries negotiate with each other as equals, with "mutual respect." The rather ambiguous term has often bewildered U.S. officials who do not understand what exactly the Iranians are demanding of the United States. "What does this 'mutual respect' mumbo-jumbo mean?" an American lawmaker once asked me. "Why don't they just say what they want?" While from the American point of view the U.S.-Iran conflict is rooted in policy differences and opposing visions for the Middle East, to the Iranians it is very much about discarding an uneven relationship—that between a master and a servant. The term "mutual respect" is so critical to Tehran that the Iranians even included it in their 2003 negotiation offer to the Bush administration (see chapter 1).
But the Iranians were not the only ones listening for signals in Obama's articulated vision for U.S.-Iran relations. Washington and Tehran may be the main actors in this drama, but plenty of other states also follow every twist and turn of their dysfunctional relationship. While some of them welcomed the Obama administration's promise of a new approach toward international affairs in general, and its policy toward Iran in particular, most feared what such change could bring about.
Excerpted from A Single Roll of the Dice by Trita Parsi Copyright © 2012 by Trita Parsi. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 8, 2012
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