Webcast Recap

Trita Parsi discussed his latest book, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, focusing on the state of the Obama administration’s diplomatic relations with Iran, how a series of diplomatic failures led to the current state of affairs, and the steps that must be taken moving forward.

On February 1, the Middle East Program hosted a book discussion with Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and a former Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Parsi began his discussion by outlining the differences between the Bush and Obama administrations in their engagement with Iran. Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, the idea that talking with the enemy would somehow legitimize them shaped diplomatic policy. By contrast, Parsi explained, Obama reached out to Iran 12 minutes into his presidency, stating in his inauguration speech that the United States “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Obama promised he would seek to establish diplomatic relations with America’s foes. What normally would have been political risky, Parsi pointed out, proved effective in Obama’s campaign because of its contrast to Bush’s unpopular policy.

Parsi then delved into the diplomatic actions Obama readily pursued after he took office. U.S. allies initially thought Obama’s approach was refreshing, but after some time they began to become wary that Obama might undermine his allies in his eagerness to pursue a deal with Iran. Parsi explained, “many wished [Obama] well, but few wished him success.” While making encouraging statements, the Obama administration decided to wait until after Iran’s June 2009 elections to address negotiations with Iran in hopes that there would be a greater level of political stability. However, election fraud and extensive human rights abuses dealt another blow to American efforts, Parsi noted.

An opportunity for negotiations arose in the summer of 2010, when Iran sent a request to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for fuel for medicinal purposes. The United States and its allies took advantage of the situation to offer a swap, suggesting that Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) be used to provide the fuel pads. Negotiations began, but Iran did not agree with the deal. Parsi remarked that by November 2010, the United States decided diplomacy had run its course and resolved to add a sanctions track to force Iran’s hand. Meanwhile, Turkey and Brazil felt there was a chance for diplomacy and approached Iran. Though they reached an agreement with Iran after altering some provisions, because Russia and China agreed on sanctions, the United States pushed for sanctions.

Parsi explained that the administration had run out of political space for long-term negotiations due to a lack of political patience and mounting pressure from Congress to take action on Iran. Obama had to gamble on “a single roll of the dice,” meaning the policy had to work “right away or not at all.” Aside from disputes over the nuclear program, Parsi argued, there is an enmity between the two nations that has lasted 30 years and is not likely to be overcome quickly. Parsi maintained that because of this enmity, it is easier to misinterpret signals from the other side. Obama talked about talking to Iran often during his campaign, but when it came to his presidency, he briefly entertained strategic planning for engaging Iran.

Since there is no real diplomatic relationship between Iran and the United States, the United States does not have de-escalatory measures at its disposal, Parsi stressed. Parsi believes that the United States is closer to a military confrontation now than during the last few years of the Bush administration. In 2010, Obama wanted a quick political victory to use as a confidence builder for more in-depth negotiations. However, the negotiations were viewed strictly from a non-proliferation viewpoint that limited it to an all-or-nothing situation. “Treating this as an exhaustion of diplomacy is incorrect,” Parsi said.

By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program