June/July/Aug 2017

A Little Respect

An account of the tricky nuclear negotiations with Iran

Suzy Hansen


Losing an Enemy:

Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy

by Trita Parsi

Yale University Press

$32.50 List Price

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While reading Trita Parsi’s history of the US-Iran nuclear negotiations, it’s hard not to wonder with horror—at every complicated twist and turn of the proceedings—how Donald Trump would manage a similar ordeal. The sometimes excruciating detail of Parsi’s book reminds us of all the tiny acts of diplomacy—and anti-diplomacy—happening right this very second behind closed doors, ones that could, in the case of Iran, be leading to unnecessary war.

One of the many eye-opening passages in Losing an Enemy comes midway through the book, when the Americans and the Iranians are still floundering for common ground. Parsi writes that a huge factor in the Americans’ decision to concede crucial demands (mainly, allowing the Iranians to continue enriching uranium for peaceful use) was that Obama genuinely feared the Israelis might at any moment invade Iran. “The fear of a surprise Israeli attack was so significant that a senior Pentagon official asked to have the moon cycle included in his daily intelligence brief,” Parsi writes, because the moon cycle determines the best conditions for night invasions. This fear peaked around the time of the 2012 US election, largely because of the boisterous claims by Benjamin Netanyahu that Iran was hell-bent on annihilating Israel entirely.

As president of the National Iranian American Council, a lobbying group set up in 2002 “to voice opposition to war with Iran and urge diplomatic negotiations,” according to the Washington Post, Parsi is not exactly a neutral observer.Regardless, his portrayal of the Israelis, and specifically Netanyahu, is useful, if only because it raises a question I rarely remember being addressed during the Obama years: How genuine a threat to global security—and to Israel—is Iran? In 2002, the International Atomic Energy Agency received reports that the Iranians were not fully disclosing their nuclear activities; in 2006, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions to pressure them to stop their uranium-enrichment program; and by the time Obama’s second term began, Iran had come close to being able to build a nuclear weapon. But throughout the negotiations, the historical basis or rationale for the theory that Iran harbored some deep desire to attack Israel, or to use nuclear weapons to achieve regional hegemony, was rarely clear. Parsisuggests, as he has in a previous book, AIPAC that these dark intentions were largely a myth.

Losing an Enemy begins with the first Gulf War, when, while courting the Arab powers to help them defeat Saddam Hussein, the Americans promised an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and sidelined Israel. The Israelis resented being downgraded as strategic partners in the Middle East. At the same time, the Iranians, unnerved that Saddam remained in power after the war, restarted their dormant nuclear program (even though Ayatollah Khomeini had once declared nuclear weapons “un-Islamic”). They felt it was their destiny to preside over the region and were, in Parsi’s telling, grievously insulted when the Americans didn’t invite them to the 1991 Madrid Conference on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis; at the time, national security advisor Brent Scowcroft said the Iranians were useless to the US because they had no influence over the Palestinians. According to Parsi, it was because of this insult that the Iranians, their pride wounded, reached out to “rejectionist Palestinian groups, in spite of the Shia-Sunni divide” and began to oppose “the very U.S.-led order in the region.”

The Israelis and Americans already saw Iran as a patron of terror because of Hezbollah, which was founded in the 1980s, and Israel’s case that the country was a threat was reinvigorated once Iran began directly supporting antagonistic Palestinian groups—Hamas, Islamic Jihad—as well. But Parsi insists that the sense of Iran as an international nuclear threat had far more to do with Israel’s domestic politics and the needs of its Labor Party. During the 1990s, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, deep in the trenches with a peace process they knew would be a hard sell to their constituents, were on the lookout for a new threat to distract them. They also believed that by demonizing Iran they could reassert Israel’s own importance to the West as the sole democracy in the Middle East. Only a few years after calling Iran a “strategic ally,” Rabin was saying, “Death is at our doorstep.” According to Parsi, the US government, as well as papers like the New York Times, was initially skeptical of this sudden hysteria, but by 1994, AIPAC had begun unrestrainedly lobbying against Iran in Congress, a Clinton administration desperate to keep the Israelis happy began to mimic their harsh rhetoric. As Dennis Ross put it, “From a political standpoint, nobody pays a price to be tough on Iran.”

Parsi’s version of this history has won praise from political theorists like John Mearsheimer and Francis Fukuyama. Not everyone agrees, though. Crisis Group analyst Nathan Thrall points out, for instance, that Iranian support for Palestinian groups began years before the Oslo Accords. He also notes that the fear of Iran certainly had some rational basis: There were the Hezbollah bombings of Buenos Aires’s Israeli embassy in 1992 and of its Jewish community center in 1994, and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, for which a US court found Iran guilty. What Parsi’s book does convincingly suggest, however, is that Iran is not some unique evil, greater than all others. He even quotes three successive directors of Mossad who share that view; one of them scoffed at the notion of Iran as an “existential threat” to Israel. It seems fair to acknowledge that Iran was a sponsor of violence in a manner little different from many other world powers: Russia, the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia.

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Secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, New York, April 22, 2016. State Department/Flickr.

The most illuminating part of Losing an Enemy is its account of the buildup of Iranian resentment in the twenty-first century. When the Americans invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Iranians, as patrons of the Northern Alliance, served as a go-between for the West and potential Afghan leaders. It came as a shock to them when, just months later in 2002, Bush put Iran on the “axis of evil.” Even so, by the time of the invasion of Iraq, the Iranians were so convinced that the Americans would need their contacts and networks in the region that they assumed they had a shot at a grand bargain. Through the Swiss, they sent a proposal: They were willing to end support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad; to disarm Hezbollah and turn it into a political party; to make peace with Israel; to cooperate on fighting terrorist groups; and to open up their nuclear facilities to international inspections. In return, they asked for an end to axis-of-evil rhetoric, respect for their interests at home and abroad, especially in Iraq, and recognition of their right to develop nuclear energy. As I read the details of this generous proposal, I actually assumed that the Bush administration must have rejected it because they thought the Iranians were bluffing. (Parsi suggests that perhaps the offer was made out of fear that America’s project of regime change might come to Iran next.) It was a rare opportunity. Condoleezza Rice and Richard Armitage both took the proposal very seriously. But according to Parsi’s interview with Lawrence Wilkerson, former secretary of state Colin Powell’s chief of staff, the response from Cheney and Rumsfeld was: “We don’t speak to evil.” And that was that.

The US’s attitude changed, though, shortly after Obama came to office. He sent a message of peace, saying: “We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.” The Iranians were surprised by this tone. So were the Israelis. Soon Netanyahu was undermining Obama publicly, and threatening an invasion if Iran made any further progress with its nuclear program. Obama came to believe that sanctions were necessary to placate the Israelis, stall for time to pursue diplomacy behind the scenes, and avoid a war. His administration arranged a secret meeting with Iranian representatives in Oman, and the race for a nuclear deal was on.

The next few years of negotiations do not always make for exciting reading. The dull, diplomatic language used so infuriatingly by heads of state can’t help but infect Parsi’s book—so much so that even the details of the Mossad assassination program of Iranian scientists are relayed with no emotion. (“The Obama administration may have found the assassinations a useful addition to the plethora of efforts to set back the Iranian program without resorting to war,” he writes, as if murdering scientists were just one of those options that’s always nice to have in your back pocket.) And even though he has a host of wonderful characters at his disposal—the determined, patrician, sometimes quixotic John Kerry; the emotional and proud Javad Zarif; the devilish and hilarious Sergey Lavrov—Parsi doesn’t have much fun with them. The dogged Politico reporter Indira A. R. Lakshmanan’s dispatches came much closer to capturing the circus:

They made 69 trips across the Atlantic together and celebrated nearly everyone’s birthday at least once overseas, far from their own families. Sleep-deprived and sometimes giddy, the U.S. team negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran imagined which Hollywood star would play them if the movie were ever made: They cast Ted Danson as Secretary of State John Kerry, Javier Bardem as Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, and Meryl Streep as State Department negotiator Wendy Sherman. Along the way, they suffered no shortage of casualties: Sherman broke her nose in Vienna when she crashed into a glass door late at night running to brief Kerry on a secure phone, and her pinky finger rushing from one classified briefing to another. Kerry, incensed after Iranian backtracking in May, slammed his hand on a table, sending a pen flying across the room at an Iranian deputy foreign minister, and then shattered his leg in three places after he slammed his bike into a curb the next day, frustrated and distracted.

Still, Parsi does include some colorful, even touching moments. There is the day when the mother of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, dies, and John Kerry is seen embracing Rouhani’s brother, Hossein Fereydoun, who is sobbing. And the diplomats get angry a lot: Zarif once exclaimed, “If we are talking about regional security, I should take every one of you to international courts for supporting Saddam!” The most famous of these exchanges comes when Zarif yells at the European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, “Never threaten an Iranian!”—and the droll Lavrov, who usually seems to be having a blast, adds, “Or a Russian!” Parsi repeatedly emphasizes the intensity of the Iranians’ need to be treated with respect by the West, even if that comes down to nothing more than tone of voice. In 2016, some American sailors are taken hostage by the Iranian military in the Persian Gulf and Kerry warns Zarif that the situation imperils the nuclear deal, which Zarif takes as a threat. He says to Kerry: “You don’t need to threaten me. You’ve committed a grave mistake. So I think what you need to do right now is to say, ‘We made a mistake. We’re sorry.’”

In the end, as we know, the US and Iran made a deal—one that allowed the Iranians to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, yet prevented them from building weapons, in exchange for lifting the crippling sanctions the West had placed on them. The Americans, Parsi suggests, had no choice. Obama wanted to withdraw from the Middle East and focus more on Asia, and he also wanted to disentangle the US, at least a little bit, from its Israeli and Saudi alliances. There was also the matter of Iran’s endurance. The Iranians had survived the scientist assassinations, the sanctions, and the isolation; despite all that, their nuclear program had even progressed. The fact was that the Iranians believed they could withstand a war better than the US, which they saw by then as a “limping giant” in the Middle East. That meant, at the very least, that Iran was willing to go to war if the negotiations didn’t work out. The Americans, who still hadn’t managed to extract themselves from Afghanistan or Iraq and were being pulled into Syria, were not really up for another invasion. They knew early on that they had to concede on the Iranians’ key demand—limited enrichment of uranium—or face a potential war. America no longer has the leverage or interest in the Middle East that it once did, and the nuclear deal, by the end of the book, doesn’t at all feel like a triumph. Instead, there is the melancholy sense of America beginning to recognize the contours of reality for the first time: that it has lost the illusory moral high ground on which it once based so much of its foreign policy, that its alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia are destructive, that Iran’s view of the situation is not irrational. In the scope of American politics, what Obama did was radical; in the scope of world politics, it feels like common sense.

The deal wasn’t perfect, of course. Some observers, from US Republicans to Arab leaders, still feel that the Iranians have the capacity for what they call “breakout” (the ability to produce enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon). Other critics complain that the negotiators did little to demand improvement on Iran’s human-rights record, nor did they address its sustenance of Assad’s war machine in Syria. One consequence of warmer Iranian-American ties, some say, was the alienation of Saudi Arabia, which may have prompted its barbaric invasion of Yemen, a war the Americans shamefully felt they needed to support. And then there’s the deal’s fragility. Parsi warns that American congressmen are still “stigmatizing” those who do business with Iran, and if Iranians see little economic improvement at home, they will begin to wonder why their country made so many concessions on its nuclear program, a feeling Iranian hard-liners will happily exploit. But the greatest threat to the deal is likely the new administration in Washington: Trump has put Iran “on notice,” whatever that means; has imposed new sanctions; and, as of April, has begun reviewing the deal itself. Throughout the election campaign, he was threatening to pull out of it entirely.

The Iran deal was not just about nuclear weapons. According to Parsi, it was the “final chapter of a thirty-five-year battle over the geopolitical order,” the moment when Americans at last accepted that Iran was a regional power. When the agreement was announced, the Iranians we had feared as our mortal enemies danced in the streets wearing T-shirts that said, “I Love USA.” Parsi’s book made me wonder whether there’s always such a disconnect between diplomatic posturing and reality, and whether we Americans—twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War—still spend too much time being scared of bogeymen who may not exist. Losing an Enemy should at least reassure us that a handful of men and women from these supposedly scary countries can preserve a sense of decency, and even put it in writing. Let’s hope that somewhere in Washington, too, a few decent men and women remain.

Suzy Hansen is a journalist and editor living in Istanbul. Her first book, Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, will be published this August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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