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A Candid Discussion with Trita Parsi


Trita Parsi on Sanctions and Iran’s Strategic Imperatives 


Trita Parsi is is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a non-partisan, non-profit organization through which Iranian-Americans could participate in American civic life. Dr. Parsi is considered a leading analyst and observer of US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States (2007), for which he conducted more than 130 interviews with senior Israeli, Iranian and American decision-makers. Treacherous Alliance was the silver medal winner of the 2008 Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Parsi is also the author of many articles and op-ed pieces in leading American and European newspapers and journals.  He is the author, most recently, of  A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (2012), for which he interviewed 70 high-ranking officials from the U.S., Iran, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Brazil—including the top American and Iranian negotiators. Dr. Parsi sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association to discuss Iran’s strategic imperatives in a new Middle East and the country’s upcoming presidential elections. 


In the current post-Arab Spring regional dynamics, do you think Iran is in need of
re-defining its key strategic imperatives? If so, what would those key strategic imperatives be and how urgent is it for a new administration to re-define them?

The Middle East is going through some very radical changes right now. On the one hand, the Arab Spring is changing the landscape politically. Contrary to Iran’s expectations, the fall of some of the pro-American regimes have not translated into a strategic advantage for the Iranian government. Tehran had based its analysis on the questionable assumption that the new regimes in the Arab world would distance themselves from the United States and move closer to Iran, precisely because of their Islamic bent. Instead, we have seen that their Islamic orientation has brought them closer to Saudi Arabia, at least thus far.

At the same time, the United States is reducing its footprint in the Middle East. Some would perhaps say that the United States is preparing a wider withdrawal from the region. In the short to medium term, this means that we will have far more instability in the Middle East, including regional rivalries playing out through proxy war such as what is happening in Syria right now.

In essence, the region will transition from the defunct American order to a new order that has not yet been defined. During the transition, there will be greater instability, more violent conflicts and potentially even the disintegration of certain states such as Iraq. Needless to say, all states need to recalibrate their strategies in light of these new developments.

In this year’s election dynamics, do you see any particular faction with a well-defined platform for and chance of mending relations with the United States?

At this stage, it’s too early to detect that. Little has been said that would indicate a new strategy and approach, expect a few candidates criticizing the policies and rhetoric of the Ahmadinejad government. Clearly, reversing the bombastic rhetoric of Ahmadinejad would be helpful to reduce the political toxicity that he carried, but that is in and of itself not sufficient to resolve the nuclear dispute.

NIAC has been in vocal opposition to sanctions on Iran on humanitarian grounds. It’s also supportive of greater engagement between Iran and the United States, arguing that engagement with Iran has greater chance of influencing the Iranian leadership’s behavior. If the United States eases the sanctions against Iran, what specific steps, in your opinion, the Iranian leadership should take to reciprocate the move by the United States?

The contour of a deal on the nuclear issue is clear: Iran must limit its enrichment to no more than 5%, implement the additional protocol, limit its stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium, and address its past activities etc. In return, the nuclear specific sanctions should be lifted and the file closed at the Security Council. A bolder approach would aim higher, and seek to address non-nuclear issues in the talks such as human rights in Iran and regional instability and by that seek to resolve conflicts between the US and Iran that go beyond just the nuclear file.

In a new reportNIAC demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the current sanctions and their ability to impact the Iranian leadership’s nuclear calculus. Can you elaborate on your findings and why we haven’t seen the changes in Iran’s nuclear posture as many in the West had expected? 

The main point of the report is to show why these sanctions have failed to shift Iran’s policy on the nuclear issue, in spite of the tremendous pain they have inflicted on Iran. One factor is because stakeholders in Iran are not convinced that changing the nuclear approach would lead to the West lifting sanctions, and as a result, they don’t see any incentives for themselves to push the government in that direction. As a result, Khamenei has not been under pressure from key constituents to shift the nuclear policy. Another related factor is the dominant narrative within the elite that essentially states that the West’s real goal is to keep Iran dependent, weak and technologically underdeveloped. According to this narrative, the issue is really not about enrichment, but Iran’s independence. Within the elite, there isn’t a potent counter-narrative that states that the sanctions are a reaction to Iran’s own actions and that if Iran wishes to end the pain of the sanctions, it should shift its nuclear policy. Those who wish to challenge Khamenei’s narrative don’t have much to hang their hat on right now because many of Iran’s efforts to reconcile have been rebuffed – such as the Turkey-Brazil mediation of 2010.

How would you assess the capacity of the Iranian leadership to reform itself from within and to move toward a more democratic and inclusive polity with a less corrupt economic management system?

Unfortunately, the political spectrum in Iran has, in the past eight years, contracted significantly and shifted far to the right. The prospects for internal change are as a result lower today than it has been for a very long time. At the same time, it is difficult to see how peaceful, non-violent change towards a truly democratic system can be achieved unless it is coming from inside the country. I think the key is not that it would or should be the regime changing or reforming itself, but that the change must come from within Iran’s society rather than from the outside. This is not just a point of principle, in my personal opinion, but also one of practicality: The experience in the Middle East in the past ten years shows that the West does not have the competence to bring about democratization in the region through coercive means. For democratization to be sustainable and in line with the desires of the Iranian people, it must be rooted in Iran’s own society.