Your Middle East
Last updated: 6 May, 2013

INTERVIEW: Trita Parsi on Iran-US relations

Trita Parsi clarifies why it is so difficult for Washington and Tehran to engage in dialogue and gives Obama advice on how to handle the current stalemate.

YME: In your latest book A single roll of the dice, which came out last year, you challenge the narrative that all diplomatic means have been explored – is there still time for diplomacy to succeed? 

TP: There is certainly time for diplomacy to succeed, but only if both sides make a complete political commitment towards finding a deal, in spite of the domestic political cost both sides will pay. Thus far, that commitment has been far from complete. 

Why do you think it is so difficult for Iran and the US to engage in direct talks and dialogue?

The US has on numerous occasions in the past two years sought a bilateral conversation with Tehran, which Iran so far has refused. This is largely due to the highly misguided notion in Tehran that agreeing to talk to the US directly is a bargaining chip in and of itself and Tehran should seek to maximize the utility of this chip. This approach to diplomacy is as counterproductive as the Bush administration’s notion that agreeing to talk to the other side was a “concession.”

How does the appointment of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel affect the US stand against Iran? 

With Kerry and Hagel, the team around President Obama has grown more patient and mature. They bring tremendous amount of experience to the table and this could prove highly valuable. But it’s important to recognize, at the same time, that no single individual can single-handedly undo the institutionalized enmity between the US and Iran. 

If you were Obama’s advisor how would you advise the President to handle the current stalemate?

I would triple down on diplomacy and focus first on reaching an agreement within the P5+1 on the contours of an end-game, and then begin talks with Tehran where the end-game would be defined and agreed upon before diplomacy begins on the inter-rim steps.

How do you think that the Iranian election will affect US-Iran relations?

The Iranians are currently paralyzed as a result of their elections and while the election outcome is unlikely to have a deep impact on it, a new president in Tehran that has no theories about the Holocaust and that doesn’t use the rhetoric that Ahmadinejad did against Israel will go a far way in changing the atmospherics between the two countries. And while some of the presidential hopefuls will be more flexible on tactical measures, expectations on how they may be able to change Iran’s red lines or bottom lines should be very, very modest.  

There are other channels for Iranian-US dialogue, for example wrestling, is it naïve to think that these can have a positive influence on the infected relationship between the countries?  

People to people contacts can be very helpful, but they can never replace the very patient and thorough diplomacy that Iran and the US must engage in now to resolve this issue. 

Trita Parsi is an award winning author and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on 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 (Yale University Press 2007), for which he conducted more than 130 interviews with senior Israeli, Iranian and American decision-makers. Treacherous Alliance is the silver medal winner of the 2008 Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations.