Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi is the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance and A Single Roll of the Dice.

Trita Parsi is the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance and A Single Roll of the Dice.


We’ll start with the big picture. Iran’s been in the press quite a bit recently. Why should the average American care about Iran?

Because Iran is sitting in one of the most importantly strategic regions in the world, it is right there in the Persian Gulf, in which about forty percent of the world’s oil is flowing through the Strait of Hormuz on a daily basis; any conflict with Iran or any tensions in that region has a direct impact on oil prices. Oil prices have a direct impact on gas prices in the United States, and when gas prices are high, the economy usually doesn’t do too well because job creation and everything else just becomes too expensive.

And maybe you can give us a brief history of the high points the milestones of the U.S. relationship with Iran?

I can talk about the low points in the U.S.-Iran relationship. Since 1979, when a group of radical left-wing students took American hostages, American diplomatic hostages in the U.S. embassy in Tehran, we have seen a very sharp decline in the relationship between the two states. Prior to that of course at the state level there was much more positive relations, but there were problems as well—particularly from the Iranian side.

There was a lot of anger towards the role the U.S. played in the 1953 coup against the democratically elected prime minister of Iran at the time, Mohammad Mosadegh. But, since 1979, we’ve seen a steady decline. We’ve seen the two sides engaging in an escalation and counter-escalation game; more and more sanctions. The Iranians are engaging in behavior that the U.S. views as both threatening to its national security and destabilizing for the region as a whole.

And, no side has managed to find a formula — or to produce the political will to pursue a formula — that could get the two states out of this cycle of confrontation.

Maybe you could walk us through the more recent history of Iran’s nuclear capabilities and the negotiations surrounding those.

Well, the Iranians started a nuclear program back in the 1970s with the encouragement of the United States. At the time, the U.S. actually argued that they needed to have nuclear energy and produce it on their own; otherwise Iran would never really become a modern state.

The Shah, however, was pursuing a program that clearly seemed to have additional intents; putting Iran on the verge of being able to become a nuclear weapon state—even though it didn’t seem to have made a decision to actually build a weapon. Once the new regime comes into play after the revolution in 1979, they first freeze that program.

But later on they restarted it, towards the mid or late 1980s. And since then, the Iranians have been beginning to amass technologies; learning how to enrich uranium, stockpiling low-enrich uranium, and it’s getting to a level in which particularly Iran’s major rival in the region, Israel, is sounding the alarm bells—that Iran is getting too close to being able to build a nuclear weapon. And it wants the United States to take action.

Can the U.S. live with a nuclear-armed Iran? Is it a direct threat to the U.S.?

Clearly a nuclear-armed Iran would not be a positive development for the region and there would be numerous negative consequences for this, and frankly, I think the Iranians would be the biggest losers. The biggest strategic negative is actually imposed on the Iranians themselves if they actually go and build a weapon.

But I don’t believe in this hysterical conversation that we’re having in the media here wherein it would be “Armageddon,” the end of times if that were to happen. We saw North Korea build a nuclear weapon. It was a very negative development; it clearly is a good thing to try and prevent that. But it wasn’t the end of the world, and the United States had not put a red line saying that if the North Koreans tested a weapon we would go to war. We do have that red line with Iran. I think we’re fortunate that we didn’t’ have that red line with North Korea.

I think there are ways to prevent a nuclear weapon in Iran. It’s not the ways we necessarily have been pursuing in the last decade or so. But it is something that should be done—we should try to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons because it would be a negative thing. But we shouldn’t scare ourselves into a “panic mode” by thinking that it would be the end of times.

With these red lines in place, are we on the path to war? Is the U.S. on a path to war with Iran?

We are on an escalatory cycle right now, and it’s very difficult to see that there is any exit ramp that the two sides have created for themselves to be able to find a way out of this. And reality is, a lot of wars, historically, started this way. It didn’t start with a decision of one side wanting war.

Plenty of wars occurred because they got stuck in an escalatory dynamic and, at some point, the governments no longer controlled the dynamic, the dynamic controlled the government. I think that is where the United States and Iran may be today.

Are there backdoor channels that can kind of act as relief valves between Israel, Iran, and the U.S.?

That’s part of the problem. There’s few examples in history where you have such a tense situation and so little communication between the two sides. Remember, it was critical for the United States to establish a hotline between itself and the Soviet Union during the Cold War because the cost and the price of war would be so devastating.

The mantra you often heard, and that you still hear amongst military people, is that the most important partner you have to talk to is your enemy. If you can’t talk to your enemy, you are in a very bad situation. And that, unfortunately, seems to be where the two sides are right now.

And as we see these escalating direct confrontations like Stuxnet, is there a risk that Iran will be pushed too far and is there a real risk of retaliation?

I think there is, because in this escalatory game there is a non-infinite number of escalatory steps that you can take without passing that threshold that actually brings you into a military confrontation. There are indications that the escalatory options are becoming fewer and fewer, and more and more dangerous. So the time to find that exit ramp seems to be running out.

What could Iran do as retaliation? Closing the straits? What’s a likely outcome?

We know one thing based on what happened in the Iraq-Iran war. Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, it became one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century. Much of that war played out on Iranian soil because of the Iraqi invasion of Iran.

Since then, the security doctrine of the Iranians is to enlarge any attack, any war that Iran is involved in; at the earliest possible stage, the Iranians will enlarge that war to make sure that as little as possible of that war takes place on their own soil. Take the battle elsewhere. As a result, if we get into a military confrontation, the arena of war will not be limited to the border of Iran. It’s likely to be throughout the region—and potentially globally, with Iran using some of its asymmetric capabilities.

What is the current U.S. policy toward Iran?

The policy that the United States has pursued for the better part of the last three decades has been one that is centered on pressure. At the end of the day, the United States has defined itself as being always in some sort of conflict — obviously not open warfare — but some sort of rivalry with the Iranians. And the Iranians have responded in kind.

But even when we have tried to shift towards diplomacy, its been a diplomacy that is still centered on sanctions, on pressure, on escalation of those types of pressures; and that type of coercive diplomacy simply does not have a positive track record of success — not just with Iran, but in general.

I think a process that is centered on diplomacy — in which obviously sanctions and pressure can be part of the mix, but they’re not at the center of the policy — has a higher likelihood of success, particularly mindful of one very, very central element of this problem. The Iranians are pursuing a nuclear weapons capability in the sense that what they’re doing is bringing them to almost having a nuclear weapon.

Why do countries pursue that option? There are several different factors, but the most important factors, of course, are a sense of threat and a lack of security. As long as that lack of security is there, as long as that sense of threat is there, their desire and their motivation towards going towards that line is going to be strong. If we have a policy that is focused on pressure, it is focused on telling them that there is a military option, that we may attack them; we’re not going to convince them to forgo a nuclear deterrence.

What does the average Iranian think about the U.S., the response to their desire to have to advanced nuclear capabilities?

I think the average Iranian wants to have a decent life. They want to be able to make a living, send their kids off to college, and have that level of stability — no different from the average American. To a certain extent, I would say the average Iranian is more aware of this conflict and some of its elements than the American population is. This is closer to home for the Iranians, obviously.

Polls show that there is support of the idea that Iran has a right and should have a nuclear enrichment program for civilian purposes. I have not seen any credible polls that show the Iranians support having nuclear weapon.

I don’t think the Iranians are happy with the price that they’re paying for this. At the same time, I’m not seeing any indications on their end that they’re willing to make any compromises in the sense of forgoing their entire right.

But bottom line is this is not on top of their agenda. Their agenda is topped with the same concerns as the average folks in the United States, in Europe and elsewhere. They just want to be able to live a decent life.

Is there a danger that the sanctions that the U.S. and other nations are applying are possibly turning public opinion against the U.S.?

I certainly believe not only is there a chance, but the sanctions have, created a situation in which there is a lot of negative sentiments towards the United States for imposing these levels of sanctions on them. When you have a situation where the Iranian currency has lost fifty percent of its value and is directly linked to the sanction’s pressure, that means that people lost half of their wealth.

That’s not going to make you particularly happy and I think, particularly among those who were very courageous and brave and opposed the Iranian government and the fraud in the elections, many of them asked themselves: When it’s so clear that the Iranian population has such severe differences with the Iranian regime, why does the West choose to put so much stress on the population, knowing very well that the population already is suffering?

Now you may hear some voices here and there saying out of their frustration that they would like to see West to do something to get rid of the regime, perhaps even supporting the sanctions. I don’t think that that is particularly strange.

But when it comes to the overall picture, I don’t think that there is any support among the population to see the outside world add more misery to their lives in the hope that their lives will become so miserable that at some point they decide to do a revolution.

If they’re inclined to do a revolution or if inclined to think that that is the way to change the situation inside the country; then arguably, they would have done it much earlier without being in that same misery. The reason why we’re not seeing that is because it’s a very, very complex situation. There are no easy options. But we do know one thing: the Iranian population, by and large, are extremely unhappy and do oppose the current regime in Iran.