Losing an enemy: Obama, Iran, and the triumph of diplomacy

Losing an enemy: Obama, Iran, and the triumph of diplomacy The nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1—the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany—is widely regarded as one of the most significant diplomatic achievements of recent times and a prime example of the efficacy of diplomacy when reinforced by a determined political will. Not surprisingly, it has resulted in a slew of accounts by those who were either keen observers or participated in the events in question. Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), is the author of two previous books on US–Iran relations. Parsi, a passionate advocate of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, charts the stages of this relationship until, as the title suggests, the United States lost an enemy and diplomacy triumphed. This is above all a narrative of redemption. Lest there be any doubt, the preface is headed by the quote—‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’—which Parsi helpfully attributes to ‘Jesus of Nazareth ca. AD 30’. This is a tale of salvation, replete with its own cast of heroes and villains and narrated with self-assurance by an author who, at the very least, had a front row seat. Parsi goes to some length to establish his credentials as an objective observer, noting the extensive interviews his book is based on—‘more than seventy’—and makes much of the access he enjoyed ‘as a witness and minor actor in the process’ (p. x). He adds that he was both consulted and briefed by US government officials while maintaining close contacts with the Iranian negotiators, not least the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He stresses that he is careful to warn readers when developments depend on one or two sources. To this access and professed methodological rigour he adds his own analytical understanding of Iranian cultural norms and behaviour. While this is all very reassuring, it is a conceit that is unjustified. The narrative is engaging, but it is the established narrative. For all Parsi's stated access, there is little material here that will be new to anyone who has had any interest in the negotiations. The book relates the abduction of the hikers in Iraqi Kurdistan; the Omani backchannel; John Kerry's gradual engagement until he is finally appointed US Secretary of State; and the triumphant election of President Hassan Rouhani. The problems with and contestations of this narrative are, however, never addressed. For example, in an interview with a newspaper in Iran, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, stated that Rouhani was shocked to learn of the extent of the negotiations and that, far from being a turning-point, Rouhani's election was but a staging post. Even Parsi concedes that ‘thanks to the Oman Channel’, the US and Iran had reached the finishing line of the interim agreement by September 2013—a few weeks after Rouhani's inauguration. Although one could argue that the crucial finishing touches were implemented by Rouhani in a matter of weeks, this seems unlikely. The heroes in Parsi's narrative are President Barack Obama, Kerry and Rouhani, along with the ubiquitous Zarif. They are the champions of diplomacy against the warmongers—chiefly the Israelis and their supporters in the Washington beltway—and the French, who, while not necessarily belligerent, are certainly petulant. The Iranians are by no means problem free and Parsi is clear that Rouhani had his own villains to contend with. He pulls no punches with respect to the inadequacies of Iranian politics and of the Green Movement in particular. However, these are presented as being incidental to the broader geopolitical challenges. Indeed, the political dynamic and debate within Iran is largely treated as secondary to the main narrative which focuses on the US and is dominated by English-language sources. Moreover, the overall sense is that the Iranians are much misunderstood. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's statements are described as being belligerent and uncompromising to ‘the untrained eye’, but containing openings to be found by those who seek. One particular example is Khamenei's much discussed case for ‘heroic flexibility’, which Parsi interprets as pragmatism and willingness to compromise. But of course an alternative reading—which is closer to the statement Khamenei actually made—is that in any engagement with an opponent, one may have to make tactical concession for strategic advantage. In fact, the metaphor Khamenei uses is that of a wrestler whose purpose is clearly to win, not to achieve some mutually acceptable compromise. Finally, the central problem with any attempt to narrate contemporary history, of course, is that of memory—all the more so when the narrative depends almost exclusively on interviews. This is by no means a problem particular to this case. In the absence of access to contemporaneous minutes, it is difficult to know who said what and when. And we know that in these negotiations, there were periods when no note-takers were present, as when Kerry and Zarif engaged in private talks. It is not surprising that there are contradictions in the interviewees' recollections about what was intimated, suggested and promised. A much more rigorous approach to the sources is therefore a necessity. None of us are exempt from the problems of memory. In the conclusion, Parsi recounts a conference where he claims the Iranian delegation suggested they could recognize the state of Israel subject to the Israelis joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This is an extraordinary claim which implies that the Iranians are not driven by ideology where the recognition of the state of Israel is concerned. Fortunately, this reviewer was also at the conference and my recollection is different. One of the Iranians, protesting double standards, pointed the finger at Israel. It was, as usual in these circumstances, noted that Israel was not a member of the NPT, to which the Iranian participant immediately responded that it should join. The enthusiasm rapidly receded when it was suggested that this demand, if publicly made, implied a formal recognition of the state of Israel. The suggestion stalled, and was quietly dropped. But then of course, that is my recollection, and subject to all the usual caveats. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Affairs Oxford University Press

Losing an enemy: Obama, Iran, and the triumph of diplomacy

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Publisher
The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0020-5850
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1468-2346
D.O.I.
10.1093/ia/iiy009
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Abstract

The nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1—the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany—is widely regarded as one of the most significant diplomatic achievements of recent times and a prime example of the efficacy of diplomacy when reinforced by a determined political will. Not surprisingly, it has resulted in a slew of accounts by those who were either keen observers or participated in the events in question. Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), is the author of two previous books on US–Iran relations. Parsi, a passionate advocate of diplomacy between the United States and Iran, charts the stages of this relationship until, as the title suggests, the United States lost an enemy and diplomacy triumphed. This is above all a narrative of redemption. Lest there be any doubt, the preface is headed by the quote—‘Blessed are the Peacemakers’—which Parsi helpfully attributes to ‘Jesus of Nazareth ca. AD 30’. This is a tale of salvation, replete with its own cast of heroes and villains and narrated with self-assurance by an author who, at the very least, had a front row seat. Parsi goes to some length to establish his credentials as an objective observer, noting the extensive interviews his book is based on—‘more than seventy’—and makes much of the access he enjoyed ‘as a witness and minor actor in the process’ (p. x). He adds that he was both consulted and briefed by US government officials while maintaining close contacts with the Iranian negotiators, not least the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He stresses that he is careful to warn readers when developments depend on one or two sources. To this access and professed methodological rigour he adds his own analytical understanding of Iranian cultural norms and behaviour. While this is all very reassuring, it is a conceit that is unjustified. The narrative is engaging, but it is the established narrative. For all Parsi's stated access, there is little material here that will be new to anyone who has had any interest in the negotiations. The book relates the abduction of the hikers in Iraqi Kurdistan; the Omani backchannel; John Kerry's gradual engagement until he is finally appointed US Secretary of State; and the triumphant election of President Hassan Rouhani. The problems with and contestations of this narrative are, however, never addressed. For example, in an interview with a newspaper in Iran, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, stated that Rouhani was shocked to learn of the extent of the negotiations and that, far from being a turning-point, Rouhani's election was but a staging post. Even Parsi concedes that ‘thanks to the Oman Channel’, the US and Iran had reached the finishing line of the interim agreement by September 2013—a few weeks after Rouhani's inauguration. Although one could argue that the crucial finishing touches were implemented by Rouhani in a matter of weeks, this seems unlikely. The heroes in Parsi's narrative are President Barack Obama, Kerry and Rouhani, along with the ubiquitous Zarif. They are the champions of diplomacy against the warmongers—chiefly the Israelis and their supporters in the Washington beltway—and the French, who, while not necessarily belligerent, are certainly petulant. The Iranians are by no means problem free and Parsi is clear that Rouhani had his own villains to contend with. He pulls no punches with respect to the inadequacies of Iranian politics and of the Green Movement in particular. However, these are presented as being incidental to the broader geopolitical challenges. Indeed, the political dynamic and debate within Iran is largely treated as secondary to the main narrative which focuses on the US and is dominated by English-language sources. Moreover, the overall sense is that the Iranians are much misunderstood. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's statements are described as being belligerent and uncompromising to ‘the untrained eye’, but containing openings to be found by those who seek. One particular example is Khamenei's much discussed case for ‘heroic flexibility’, which Parsi interprets as pragmatism and willingness to compromise. But of course an alternative reading—which is closer to the statement Khamenei actually made—is that in any engagement with an opponent, one may have to make tactical concession for strategic advantage. In fact, the metaphor Khamenei uses is that of a wrestler whose purpose is clearly to win, not to achieve some mutually acceptable compromise. Finally, the central problem with any attempt to narrate contemporary history, of course, is that of memory—all the more so when the narrative depends almost exclusively on interviews. This is by no means a problem particular to this case. In the absence of access to contemporaneous minutes, it is difficult to know who said what and when. And we know that in these negotiations, there were periods when no note-takers were present, as when Kerry and Zarif engaged in private talks. It is not surprising that there are contradictions in the interviewees' recollections about what was intimated, suggested and promised. A much more rigorous approach to the sources is therefore a necessity. None of us are exempt from the problems of memory. In the conclusion, Parsi recounts a conference where he claims the Iranian delegation suggested they could recognize the state of Israel subject to the Israelis joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This is an extraordinary claim which implies that the Iranians are not driven by ideology where the recognition of the state of Israel is concerned. Fortunately, this reviewer was also at the conference and my recollection is different. One of the Iranians, protesting double standards, pointed the finger at Israel. It was, as usual in these circumstances, noted that Israel was not a member of the NPT, to which the Iranian participant immediately responded that it should join. The enthusiasm rapidly receded when it was suggested that this demand, if publicly made, implied a formal recognition of the state of Israel. The suggestion stalled, and was quietly dropped. But then of course, that is my recollection, and subject to all the usual caveats. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

International AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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