US-Iran Relations: The Struggle Over Who Is In Charge
"Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States,"
Just a few days before the release of the National Intelligence Estimate, in a discussion with Trita Paris, Executive Director of NIAC , members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimated the probability of a US war on Iran of being about 50%. Parsi, the author of "Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States," still believes that “no peace –no war” is unsustainable. He says that the nuclear issue is one of the driving forces in a struggle between Iran and the US. “It’s a conflict about who is in charge,” says Parsi. “Even if they have common interests, they don’t have common interests on the issue of who is in charge.” Below you can read my conversation with Dr. Trita Parsi:
Omid:The risk of war seemed extremely high just two weeks ago. It is not something to be overlooked and I think it is dangerous for people read the headlines and think: “Well, the risk of war seems to be reducing,” or “it’s increasing,” and interpret the news as an indication that it’s going away. But it seems it’s not going away.
Trita:It’s been overhanging now for more than a year and a half. I think we have to take a step back and understand one thing. It’s not whether it will happen or not. It’s is it acceptable to have a risk for war being that high for such a long period. What does this do to the Iranian-American community for just the risk to be there, for the community to be in a perpetual state of fear? Will it happen? Will it not happen? Constantly losing sleep over it. And then imagine their fear for their relatives in Iran, to constantly be in that fear as well. And of course for the larger American community as well, it is not a healthy thing for two countries to be constantly on the brink of war for a prolonged period of time. So, even if the risk were to be reduced to 20%, it’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable.
We are in a situation right now that beyond it not being acceptable, it is not sustainable. The state of “no peace-no war” between the United States and Iran is not sustainable. It is either going to translate into some kind of a peace, or some sort of a war. But the middle-ground is shrinking and it is soon going to be eliminated because of geopolitical forces in the region.
Omid:The nuclear issue is one of the driving forces in this struggle, but it is not the key or only driving force. I think there is a geopolitical context that is more about where America’s position is in the region whether its hegemony is going to survive, and how it will survive if Iran is a rising power?
Trita: This is at the core of the tension. Let me give you an example of why I think this is more important than the nuclear issue or even Iraq. Because in many areas Iran and the United States have common interests, probably more common interests than many of America’s allies have with United States. Take Iraq for example. Iran is probably the only country benefiting the most from a democracy in Iraq, because democracy in Iraq, at least in the beginning, will be a census. That’s going to bring the Shiites to power, and that going to beneficial to Iran. It’s not beneficial to Saudi Arabia, it’s not beneficial to Israel, it is not beneficial to Jordan. These are the countries, at least Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have been playing a very negative role in Iraq. A very large number of the suicide bombers, the infiltrators, and the foreign fighters are Saudi, Jordanians, and Algerians. The United States is not talking about them; instead, it’s exclusively focusing on whatever Iran is doing. And if Iraq was truly the issue, then the United States would have worked more closely with Iran, and it would have addressed the negative role that Iraq’s neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are playing. Instead it is choosing not to do so. Part of the reason for that is that Iraq is not the central cause, Iraq is one of the arenas in which a much larger conflict is taking place, and that is the geopolitical conflict between Iran and the United States.
The US’ position, hegemony in the region, is weakened. Iran is rising and the US cannot afford to see Iran make advances in Iraq, even though they have common interests. It’s a conflict about who is in charge. Even if they have common interests, they don’t have common interests on the issue of who is in charge.
Omid: Given this approach, how can one interpret the recent situation at the Annapolis conference on peace in the Middle East? Iran and the Hamas were absent and presence of Syria was surprising without any compromise on Golan. Now, the major question is that while in a short run Iran seems to be left aside from the race, who is considered the winner or loser of this significant event in a long run?
Trita: I think in the long run, the biggest losers from this Conference were the entire region as a whole, as well as the United States. Because even if it temporarily increases the hope for peace, it is still not peace making that was at the center of this Conference. The center of this conference was to save the American moment in the region by creating an Arab-Israeli alliance against Iran. It’s balance of power politics, and I don’t think that the cards are in such a way that this policy would be successful for the United States, pursuing a policy aimed at creating an order in the region based on the exclusion of Iran or any other powerful country is not sustainable and it will not function. It doesn’t matter if we like Iran or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s Iran or if it’s Kuwait. If you pursue such a policy, you create incentives for those states to undermine your efforts, and there’s nothing that is easier to undermine right now than those efforts. So, in that sense I would say in the long run it is not a positive step, even if in the short-run it may raise hopes for peace-making temporarily.
Omid: On the other side, I think Iran has pursued a diplomacy that has not been multi-faceted (and uni-directional often times?). How does Iran’s diplomacy contribute to the current situation?
Trita: I think one of the key components of their diplomacy is to portray themselves as being much stronger than they are in order to deter the United States from attacking, because there has been a thinking in Iran which is an understandable thinking, that the only thing that could deter the US is to be as powerful as possible, because United States does not attack powerful states. So, instead of pursuing a more gentle face, a more compromising approach, this thinking will actually fit into the war machinery, will make Iran come across as weak, a more likely target, than if Iran is constantly having missile tests, military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and in Iran, speaking very tough, talking about revenge, talking about retaliation, using a very aggressive rhetoric, that that would be a more effective way of being able to deter the United States. That policy may have had a very serious backlash in the sense that that talk would also fit into the perception not only in the United States but also in the Region, that Iran is a threat, and if the Arab States for instance are sensing that Iran is a threat, that causes them to gravitate towards the American position, and that’s not helpful for Iran in the region.
Iran needs to pursue a more complex diplomacy in which on the one side it is making clear that yes, if there is a war it will be a difficult thing, it’s not going to be a cakewalk for the United States. But on the other hand, it also needs to do a very sophisticated maneuvering to show that there is willingness for negotiations, there are opportunities for resolving the issues. So far, that is certainly not the way it’s been coming across over here, mindful of the rhetoric of Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad has pigeonholed himself as a radical, and even when he may try genuinely to come across as softer, it has failed miserably in the United States and has been quite ineffective.
Omid: But the US could bring Syria to the negotiation table. Also, Annapolis showed Iran’s reliance on the Arab countries is a fragile strategy. The presence of Saudi Arabia and Syria in Annapolis especially surprised Iranian leaders.
Trita: Well, the success for United States was at the end of the day to manage to make the countries show up. But that, in and of itself, shows how weak the United States has become, that that would be a measure of its success. Ten years ago, it would have been an absolutely natural thing that every country would show up if the United States put on a conference. Now the measure of success is if they come or not. The measure of success is not what the outcome of the conference is; that is really reflective of how weak the United States’ position has become. In that sense, the fact that the Syrians came under these bizarre circumstances was a victory for the United States. It certainly did surprise the Iranians, and it certainly created an image that the alliance between Syria and Iran may not be as strategic, it may actually more expedient than strategic, but I think it’s too early to draw a conclusion on that, because at the end of the day, for Syria to come is one thing, for Syria to stay is a completely different thing, and they will only stay if there is a deal. If there isn’t a compromise on Golan, and we aren’t anywhere close to seeing that sort of thing happening. So far, I think the Bush administration can rejoice over their coming. I don’t think they will be able to rejoice over their staying.
Omid: It is hard to anticipate what the administration plans for Iran over the last year of Republican rule in the White House. Bush has called Iran a “serious threat” and on the flip side, Iranians are enriching uranium and seem defiant against the United Nation Security Council’s demand to halt their enrichment activities; additionally, the US is pushing for stronger sanctions. If this situation leads to a sort of confrontation, based on your information, what is the most likely time that it would occur?
Trita: When you ask the question what is the most likely time period it could happen, we come into some lower level political factors that have come in, including military factors, such as it’s probably easier to start a war in April than it is to start it in July, particularly if it’s going to be some sort of a mass movement of troops, particularly if it’s going to be some sort of land invasion included, which I don’t think would be the initial plan, but will most likely end up to be the case afterwards anyway, because war planning rarely works out the way that you had hoped for.
But there is now a lot of speculation saying that the President may be compelled by the Republican Party not to start a war, or military strike, in the middle of a Presidential campaign. That leaves him about two months, from November 5th, the day after the Presidential Elections in 2008, to January 21st, two and a half, three months in which a war could be started. It would be quite unprecedented for a US President to start a war at that stage. The most controversial things that have happened in the past during those months are if the President pardons a couple of people from jail, using his power to do so, and that creates some headlines. Starting a war is a different thing. Then again, this is an administration that in the past has shown tremendous propensity for doing unprecedented things, and even seeing a value, a shock value, in doing something that no one expected it would do. I would say that throughout this period, the risk of war would be quite great. Beyond that, even after the end of the Bush Administration, it would be foolish I think to think that the risk for war will be eliminated, because those forces going towards war are not just because of political factions and factions with certain ideologies. It’s also some geopolitical realities, and those geopolitical realities would remain and intensify even under a different administration. This is one point.
The second point is that even a different administration isn’t necessarily going to come in there with a completely different outlook on Iran. Many of them are using the same language as the Bush administration, and even if they wanted to, as some of them do, they are still stuck with past decisions that hinder and minimize their maneuverability. They come in there, and it’s not as if the playing field is open. There are a bunch of laws. There are sanctions. There are historical precedents. There is bad blood. There is mistrust. All of this is still there, and all of these factors minimize their maneuverability, and may force them to do things that they don’t necessary like to choose to do. I will give you an example. If the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) is on the terrorist list, what does this mean? Does it mean that United States cannot legally talk to the IRGC? Because it is forbidden for the Americans to talk to Hamas as they are on the terrorist list. And if that is the case, how can the United States pursue diplomacy with Iran, mindful of that fact that so many people in the Iranian government either are or have been tied to the IRGC? This would be a major obstacle that would be there even if there was someone like Dennis Kucinich or Obama that becomes the President. So there are other factors that I also think we have to pay attention to. There’s a tendency right now to put all the problems and all the blame on the Bush administration. I don’t want to defend the Bush Administration, but there are some problems that are going to live on, beyond them sitting in the White House.