Founder and president of the National Iranian American Council Trita Parsi fears we’re headed for war over Iran’s nuclear program, but says it’s not too late to turn back.
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Do you think we’re heading towards a military confrontation between Iran and the United States, or Iran and Israel?
Absent any concrete action to get us off the current trajectory, yes: I believe war is going to increase in likelihood. I think there are three ways that war could start right now between the United States and Iran or Israel and Iran.
One is that the United States, Iran, or Israel could decide to start a war. I find that unlikely. Clearly, the Obama administration is not gunning for a fight, and is doing quite a lot to try to avoid it. I don’t think the Israelis are likely to start it, despite all the hype coming out of the Netanyahu government. And U.S. intelligence doesn’t find it likely that the Iranians themselves are going to initiate something.
The second risk is that there will be an accident in the Persian Gulf – an incident that would spiral out of control because there are so few de-escalatory mechanisms in place. It’s very difficult to predict that.
The third risk, which I think is the greatest risk, is that the current trajectory of a dual-track policy that both Iran and the United States have continues. That dual-track policy essentially says that while they negotiate, they will increase the pressure on the other side. Well, so far, every time one side has increased the pressure, the other side has retaliated by increasing its own pressure. There’s a limit on how far this can go without it leading to a military confrontation. The dual-track policy, in essence, is a one-way street towards a confrontation. To me, that is now the most likely scenario. And speaking to western diplomats, it’s become quite clear to me that this is a very serious fear that they have as well.
When President Obama was first elected, he promised he was going to reach out to Iran. It’s been four years, and the relationship between the two countries seems to actually be worse. What happened?
I think the Obama administration did have a genuine desire to move this in a better direction. But they had limited time. They thought they had to get a breakthrough within the first year of their term. And Obama’s political maneuverability was compromised in that first year by several different factors, one being what the Iranians themselves did in the 2009 elections, with massive fraud and human-rights abuses that ate away a huge chunk of the president’s political space.
There was also pressure and opposition from U.S. allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, that simply did not trust that a negotiated settlement would be beneficial to them, and thought it would put them in a more problematic position.
By the time we got to 2010, however, diplomacy had actually succeeded: The Turks and the Brazilians did manage to get the Iranians to agree to a fuel swap that was built on an American idea and proposal. However, by that time, the Obama administration had shifted gears and was focused on sanctions.
Here we are two years later, and it’s quite clear that sanctions were the wrong choice, because both sides are now in a worse situation than they were two years ago.
Do you believe Iran has the “right” to develop a nuclear-energy capability?
Iran does have a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop peaceful nuclear energy. It also has obligations. I think part of the problem in the past has been that the West has taken a position that is not supported by international laws: that Iran has to give up all of its enrichment capabilities.
The Iranians managed to rally much of the world to their support, mindful of the fact that if the West had succeeded, it would have changed the rules of the game – it would have changed the meaning of the NPT. There was significant opposition to that among several non-nuclear states, because in their view, the deal with the NPT was that they would forsake nuclear weapons, but in return, they would have the right to peaceful nuclear energy – the development of it, and also the right to get assistance from the West when it came to that.
So they have the right, but having the right and having the world trust that they only use the right for peaceful purposes are two different things. The Iranians need to be much more transparent. The solution really lies in an approach in which the Iranians have enrichment capabilities, but under the strictest possible inspections in order to make sure they cannot divert that in a military direction.
Do you think the Iranians have a right to develop nuclear weapons the same way other countries have?
No. At the end of the day, the Iranians are signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That means they have forsaken nuclear weapons. As a result, the international community is entitled to do everything it can to make sure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons and violate that treaty.
At the same time, the Iranians say they are not pursuing this weapon, and the intelligence in the West says they currently have not made a decision to build a weapon. What you have is a problem in which there is a significant amount of mistrust and lack of confidence. And that lack of confidence can only be bridged through diplomacy that is given time to succeed, and an inspection and verification-based solution.
How does Israel’s nuclear capability factor into this situation?
I don’t think the Israeli nuclear-weapons program has actually been a key factor driving the Iranians to develop their nuclear program. On the contrary, I think Saddam Hussein’s ouster has been the primary driver of this. We’ve seen some changes in what the Iranians are doing since 2003, when Saddam was defeated.
Having said that, I think the narrative that the Iranian government has been able to launch inside Iran has been somewhat effective for them, which is to say that there’s a huge double standard in the international community. Countries such as India, Pakistan, and Israel in Iran’s neighborhood have nuclear weapons. Iran, on the other hand, can’t even have enrichment, or peaceful nuclear energy.
This narrative has had a lot of receptivity on the Iranian streets because there has long been a sense among the population that the West is trying to prevent Iran from living up to its full potential.
If Iran did have a nuclear weapon, would that be a threat to world peace?
I think the spread of nuclear weapons is a problem, period. We would have a more dangerous and problematic world if we had more nuclear-weapon states in the region. I don’t believe, though, that it would be some sort of Armageddon or the end of the world.
However negative it would be if the Iranians were to get a nuclear weapon, there are still plenty of options to resolve this peacefully and prevent a nuclear weapon in Iran without firing a single shot. Those diplomatic options need to be exhausted instead of having a hysterical debate in which the issue is framed as having to choose between two very bad options: bombing Iran or accepting a nuclear bomb in Iran.
The Israelis are asking Obama to draw a line in the sand, and are threatening to draw their own line. What do you think the consequences would be if Israel decided to strike the enrichment facility, or any place inside Iran?
It’s first important to note that Israel itself has not drawn a clear official line – it wants the United States to draw one, but it hasn’t drawn one for itself. It’s had several unofficial red lines in the last 10 years, and the Iranians have crossed every single one of them without any significant consequences. In fact, the only consequence has been that the Israelis have lost credibility, because they put up lines that they could not enforce.
I think the Obama administration wants to make sure it doesn’t put up a line that it can’t enforce, but also make sure it doesn’t put up a line that would trap it into a war that it doesn’t believe would do any good on this issue.
If the Israelis were to attack, however, and were to be somewhat successful in destroying the program – or setting it back, actually, because a full destruction of it is not possible, according to the U.S. military – and there were a lot of collateral damage, I think you’d see the Iranians responding very aggressively, and an entire war in the region, which is precisely why the U.S. military is so dead set against a military strike by Israelis.
You said earlier that you think we’re most likely heading towards this military confrontation. So, how can it be avoided?
War is by no means inevitable. It can be avoided by making sure diplomatic efforts and financial investments lead to the solution.
The solution to this conflict is not particularly difficult to envision: The contours of it are quite known. The difficulty is in getting all sides to muster the necessary political will to travel on the road towards absolution.
There needs to be a lot of pressure. We’re in a situation right now in which it appears as if it’s less politically risky for a president to send thousands of troops into an unnecessary war to a certain death than to send a few dozen diplomats off to negotiate.
The political landscape needs to be reversed so that it is more costly to go to war than it is to go to peace. As long as the current situation remains, it is difficult to envision a change.
Trita Parsi is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, and the author, most recently, of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.