x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A Single Roll of the Dice: sharp analysis of Iran diplomacy

Trita Parsi, the founder of an Iranian-American advocacy group, provides a sharp analysis of one of the world's most urgent and complex diplomatic problems.

A Single Roll of the Dice
Trita Parsi
Yale University Press
A Single Roll of the Dice Trita Parsi Yale University Press Dh91

As the founder of an advocacy group for Iranian-Americans, Trita Parsi has a wide network of contacts throughout the Middle East, and, clearly, he has reached out to that network to provide fascinating insights into the recent history of US-Iranian relations. He deserves credit for being scrupulously fair in laying out all the sides in diplomatic arguments, not just the ones that align with his organisation's viewpoint. But the problem with A Single Roll of the Dice is that Parsi, despite carefully pruning all these trees, misses the forest.

Never once does the book acknowledge what many already assume: that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. Theoretically, his thesis has some valid points even if it seems a nonsense to completely ignore that assumption.

Parsi asserts that sanctions will not work against Iran, military action would be a disaster, and therefore the United States must pursue negotiations more strenuously. As he writes, "containment without a sustained effort to resolve their conflict puts the US and Iran permanently on the verge of war". Moreover, he continues, the negotiations should include other issues besides Iran's nuclear efforts "such as the possibility of US-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan, stability in Iraq, and the human-rights situation in Iran".

The book focuses on the first 18 months of Barack Obama's presidency, when, in Parsi's view, each country threw away a crucial opportunity to alter what he calls their "institutionalised enmity". First, in the autumn of 2009, the Obama administration - breaking with 30 years of US policy - held direct talks with Iranian officials. The United States, Europe, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency thought they had a deal in which Iran would trade uranium that could potentially be enriched to weapons level in return for lower-grade fuel for its civilian reactors. However, Iran delayed, demanded changes and finally backed away. Then, the following spring, Brazil and Turkey managed to get the Tehran regime to accept a similar deal. But by then, the UN Security Council was steaming towards sanctions, and the other countries were no longer interested in signing any swap agreement.

To research all this, the author says he conducted more than 60 interviews "with diplomats, negotiators, and decision makers" from Brazil, the European Union, Iran, Israel, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States. He also read "confidential state documents of the parties involved" that he obtained from government officials or via WikiLeaks.

Presumably, he developed many of these contacts through the National Iranian American Council, which he established soon after the September 2001 attacks. According to its website, it is "a non-partisan, non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community" by (although it doesn't say so in these exact words) lobbying government officials. It opposes broad-based sanctions, criticises the current Iranian government's human-rights record and supports the populist protests in that country.

Thanks to this impressive research, Parsi provides a sharp analysis of Iran's domestic politics and a rare look into the mindset of its leaders. He dismisses the standard explanation - that Iran dare not negotiate because "enmity with America ... is one of the uncompromising pillars of the Islamic Republic" - as too simplistic. Rather, he writes, officials fear that negotiations would essentially "force Iran to adopt policies in the region that are aligned with those of Washington and, to a certain extent, Israel. Iran would lose its independence."

Any hope of rapprochement shrank dramatically after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial re-election in June 2009 and the government's violent clampdown on civilian protesters in the Green movement. That added internal politics to the hostile mix: Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, "has opposed talks with the US to rob his political rivals of credit", the book says.

The Arab Spring only intensified Tehran's reluctance to reach out to Washington. "Because the hardliners have calculated that the Arab street will ultimately overthrow the monarchial and pro-American regimes in the region," Parsi writes, "Iran's long-term security would be best achieved by aligning itself with the populace." Although that policy has not been universally applied - Tehran is still supporting Bashar Al Assad in Syria - the exceptions are really irrelevant to the US role.

Iran and the United States are not the only actors in this drama. A Single Roll of the Dice also delves into the motivations of Brazil, China, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others. For instance, Parsi echoes other experts in explaining that Saudi Arabia (among others) fears that a nuclear capability would "enhance Iran's ability to meddle in Arab affairs" and directly threaten their own survival.

More original is the book's analysis of why Brazil and Turkey undertook such a major effort to renew the swap deal, particularly since Brazil had no direct interests at stake. Again, Parsi dismisses the standard interpretation, that Brazil's government was conducting a "flirtation with Tehran's anti-imperialist message". For Brazil, he says, this was an opportunity to "prove its ability to resolve international problems and, in doing so, boost its chances for a permanent seat at the Security Council". As for Turkey, he continues, the White House "tended to overlook that much of Turkey's manoeuvring was aimed at checking Iran's attempts to fill [the] vacuum" of regional leadership that was created by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Parsi is least insightful when he tries to explore US decision-making, perhaps because he is too influenced by his own organisation's self-interest. He doesn't seem to realise just how powerful and painful the image of the American hostages in Iran remains, even three decades after the fact, and how that limits any president's room to move. He also overstates the influence of pro-Israeli lobbyists, especially in light of the chilly relationship between Israel and the Obama administration.

If the book's policy prescriptions are too reliant on wishful thinking, they nevertheless do raise some valid points. In particular, the author correctly points out that the United States and its allies "were not looking at the endgame". If the goal of sanctions is to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear intentions, success seems unlikely. And if not, then what is the goal?

Fortunately for the world - though unfortunately for Parsi's book sales, perhaps - a significant part of his thesis was out of date before the book was even published. Recently toughened US and European sanctions do, in fact, seem to be working. A new US law penalises institutions that deal with Iran's Central Bank, while the European Union has banned oil imports from that nation. No doubt as a result, the Iranian rial plummeted in mid-January to its lowest level ever against the dollar. Japan, South Korea and even China have said that they would buy less petrol from Iran, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf producers offered to help fill the gap. Although Iran threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, temporarily shooting waves of fear throughout the world, it subsequently indicated that it was open to renewing talks on the stymied nuclear swap.

What to do next remains the crucial question. The answer proposed by A Single Roll of the Dice - immediate talks that might or might not get to the issue of nuclear weapons development - seems somewhat optimistic. But since no one else has yet come up with a decent plan, it's unfair to blame this book for not solving one of the world's most challenging diplomatic problems.

Fran Hawthorne is an award- winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.