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A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran

Why the west’s policy on Iran has failed.

A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran
Trita Parsi
Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99

A recent satirical piece on the Daily Squib website had Henry Kissinger remarking that anyone who could not hear the drumbeat of war in the Middle East must be deaf. The rhetoric of candidates in the Republican primaries in the US might indicate that war has already started. It requires a feat of memory to recall that Barack Obama, at the start of his presidency, offered the hand of friendship to Iran. Subsequent diplomatic efforts to reach agreement ran into the sands, however. Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, argues that diplomacy with Iran did not fail but was prematurely abandoned.

Parsi is no apologist for the Islamic Republic – its record on human rights is appalling – but he believes that Iran's view of its national interest, far from being irrational, is pragmatic. He reminds us of the country's attempt at a "grand bargain" in 2003, when it offered the west almost everything it could have wanted: co-operation with nuclear inspectors, ending support for Hamas and changing Hezbollah into a purely political force. The offer was rejected and Iran was dubbed part of the "axis of evil". It has become necessary for US neoconservatives to assert that this offer was not genuine because, according to them, it was not authorised by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the former president Mohammad Khatami has confirmed that the initiative was authorised by Khamenei. What is also undeniable is that Iran gave material support to the US in Afghanistan.

That certain vested interests take such pains to deny or gloss over these events tells us much about the geopolitical background. Israel is concerned about President Ahmadinejad's rhetoric but also worries that a rapprochement between the US and Iran would be made at the expense of its special relationship with the Americans.

Hardline Iranians have a similar analysis but with different conclusions. They fear that a resolution to the nuclear issue would leave them too close to the US and that they would lose their influence, as Egypt did after Camp David. Iran pursues soft power in the Arab world in the belief that the monarchical dictatorships will eventually be overthrown and its long-term security is best served by aligning itself with the Arab street rather than the rulers.

It would require imaginative diplomacy to cut through all these Gordian knots. Unfortunately, western policy towards Iran has become institutionalised. As one US state department official put it: "Thirty years of doing something in a certain way is pretty powerful."

John Limbert, a former member of the Obama administration, has described US diplomacy on Iran as follows: "Never walk through an open door. Instead, bang your head against a wall. Second, never say 'yes' to anything the other side proposes. Doing so will make you look weak." Limbert should know. He was a hostage for 14 months during the Tehran embassy siege in 1979-81.

No such inhibitions were shown by Turkey and Brazil, which in 2010 offered to negotiate with Iran. Parsi describes how the two countries talked to Iran as equals and without threats. Iran signed up to a deal similar to the one it had refused when put forward by the US. The arrangement was that Iran would ship out 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium to be held in escrow in Turkey and returned two years later as nuclear fuel. The Iranians had previously feared that their uranium might be stolen but were happy to trust the Turks. This time, the US rejected the deal on the grounds that it was an Iranian tactic to buy time, which infuriated the Brazilians and the Turks.

Neither Brazil nor Turkey voted for UN sanctions against Iran. Brazilian diplomats viewed the Iranian nuclear programme as the effort of an emerging country with a long history of dependence to protect itself against great powers using international institutions to impose their will on weaker nations.

Brazil is itself a nuclear state that enriches uranium and had a nuclear weapons programme that it dismantled. The Brazilians feared UN action on Iran would act as a precedent, defining enrichment as a military activity. President Lula stated in 2010: "Iran has the right to conduct its own experiments, provided they are for peaceful purposes." In a recent issue of the NS, Hans Blix underlined that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had not concluded that Iran was making a weapon or had reached a decision to make one.

The west's insistence that Iran abandon enrichment on its soil increasingly looks unrealistic. Iran has already developed the know-how and is not going to abandon it. Mohamed ElBaradei, a former director of the IAEA, has also said that he does not "believe the Iranians [have] made a decision to go for a nuclear weapon but they are absolutely determined to have the technology, because they believe it brings you power, prestige and an insurance policy". Parsi argues that the west should accept Iran's right to enrich but negotiate the tightest possible regime of inspection, so that any diversion of material for weapons purposes would immediately be detected.

Parsi believes that Obama has not exhausted diplomacy. At times, both sides have shown goodwill. But at other times, both have been overtaken by events. The disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election and the subsequent brutal suppression of the Green Movement changed the politics and exposed Obama to criticism that he was not supporting the opposition. For Obama, there was no domestic political gain in pursuing the policy.

In Iran, the turmoil after the disputed election made it impossible to respond to the proposed fuel-swap offer. Attempts by Ahmadinejad to do so were criticised by rivals. Even Mir Hossein Mousavi, leader of the Green Movement, attacked him. "Is this a victory or a lie, portraying surrender as victory?" And, as ElBaradei commented, "Everybody is trying to outbid the other by turning this issue into a national pride issue."

In 2012, we are continuing a beefed-up version of the strategy that has failed so many times before. A novel justification has been put forward for "crippling sanctions", namely that they will persuade the Israelis not to bomb Iran. ElBaradei, Mousavi and the Nobel Prizewinner Shirin Ebadi have all pointed out the risks of sanctions, the humanitarian impact on innocent people and the potential for undermining the pro-democracy movement and turning Iran into a failed state.

Washington's containment policy is accompanied by other measures such as cyber warfare, sabotage and, allegedly, the murder of Iranian scientists. Iran seems to be retaliating by targeting Israeli diplomats. The spiral continues.

Containment without mechanisms for dealing with crises creates a situation in which any incident can escalate out of control. During the cold war, the US had links to the Soviet Union. Today, the US has a legal ban on its officials meeting Iranian officials. The risk is a miscalculation with disastrous consequences.

Albert Einstein once remarked that a sign of madness was to keep on doing the same thing while expecting different results. Anyone who doubts that the west needs a new policy towards Iran should read this book.

Lord Lamont was chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93 and is chairman of the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar