Trita Parsi

This October, Trump Will Try to Start a War with Iran

Something extraordinary has happened in Washington. President Donald Trump has made it clear, in no uncertain terms and with no effort to disguise his duplicity, that he will claim that Tehran is cheating on the nuclear deal by October—the facts be damned. In short, the fix is in. Trump will refuse to accept that Iran is in compliance and thereby set the stage for a military confrontation. His advisors have even been kind enough to explain how they will go about this. Rarely has a sinister plan to destroy an arms control agreement and pave the way for war been so openly telegraphed.

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Is Politico Trying to Help Trump Bang the War Drums with Iran? Debunking Its So-Called Investigative Report

It is a sign of the times that when we need to march in defense of facts, of women deserving equal rights, and of science not being a Chinese conspiracy, we also have to defend something as self-evident as the undeniable value of the nuclear deal with Iran from 2015. But in a post-fact era, even diplomatic triumphs that saved the United States from both the threat of nuclear weapons and another endless war in the Middle East face perpetual relitigation.

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Seven Bad Assumptions We Make About Iran

Iran will be the top foreign policy challenge for the United States in the coming years. The Bush Administration's policy (insistence on zero enrichment of uranium, regime change and isolation of Iran) and the policy of the radicals around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (unlimited civilian nuclear capability, selective inspections and replacing the United States as the region's dominant power) have set the two countries on a collision course. Yet the mere retirement of George W. Bush's neocons or Ahmadinejad's radicals may not be sufficient to avoid the disaster of war.

The ill-informed foreign policy debate on Iran contributes to a paradigm of enmity between the United States and Iran, which limits the foreign policy options of future U.S. administrations to various forms of confrontation while excluding more constructive approaches. These policies of collision are in no small part born of the erroneous assumptions we adopted about Iran back in the days when we could afford to ignore that country. But as America sinks deeper into the Iraqi quicksand, remaining in the dark about the realities of Iran and the actual policies of its decision-makers is no longer an option.

A successful policy on Iran must begin by reassessing some basic assumptions:

1. Iran is ripe for regime change.

Not true. Although the ruling clergy in Iran are very unpopular, they are not going anywhere anytime soon. (A distinction obviously needs to be made here between the electoral survival of the Ahmadinejad government and the survival of the system as a whole.) The Iranian people certainly deserve a better government -- one that provides Iran's youthful population with a better economic future and respects human rights -- but the current choice Iranians face is not between Islamic tyranny and democratic freedom. It is between chaos and stability. The increased tensions with the United States over the past year have only strengthened the government's hold on power by limiting the space for prodemocracy activists (much as the 9/11 attacks paved the way for the passing of the Patriot Act and the weakening of Americans' civil rights). Whatever we think of the clergy in Tehran, we cannot afford wishful thinking about their imminent departure.

2. Iran is irrational and cannot be deterred.

Not true. Iran's foreign policy behavior is highly problematic for the United States, but a careful study of Iran's actions -- not just its rhetoric -- reveals systematic, pragmatic and cautious maneuvering toward a set goal: decontainment and the re-emergence of Iran as a pre-eminent power in the Middle East. Iran often conceals its real objectives behind layers of ideological rhetoric, with the aim of confusing potential enemies and making its policies more attractive to the Muslim nations it seeks to lead. At times it even simulates irrationality as an instrument of deterrence, the calculation being that enemies will be more reluctant to attack Iran if Tehran's response can't be predicted and won't follow a straight cost-benefit analysis. (Richard Nixon used the same strategy during the cold war, in what he called the "madman theory"; he sought to deter the Soviets by making them think he was slightly mad and unpredictable.) In reality, the United States -- and Israel -- have a long history of deterring Iran. During the Lebanon war of 2006, Israel signaled Tehran's leaders that it would retaliate against Iran if Hezbollah struck Tel Aviv with long-distance missiles. Tehran got the message. Despite many promises by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah to hit Israel if the Jewish state continued the bombardment of Lebanon, Iran prevented Hezbollah from using its long-range missiles. Deterrence worked, and an uncontrollable escalation of the war was avoided.

3. Iran is inherently anti-American.

Not quite. To Iran anti-Americanism is a means, not an end. Iran believes that its size and power position it to play a major role in regional affairs. This aspiration, however, clashes with America's aim of isolating and containing Iran. As long as public opinion in the Middle East remains largely critical of the United States, and as long as Washington continues to seek a regional order based on excluding Iran, Iran will likely play on anti-Americanism to make Washington's policy of exclusion as costly as possible and to rally existing anti-American sentiment around Iranian objectives. But if the strategic environment in the region changes -- with a different relationship between Tehran and Washington as a result -- the utility of anti-Americanism will fade away.

4. Enrichment equals a nuclear bomb.

Not necessarily. The current nuclear impasse is partly rooted in the questionable assumption that zero enrichment is the only route to avoid an Iranian bomb. While the optimal situation is one in which Iran does not enrich, this goal is no longer possible. But that does not mean that a small-scale Iranian enrichment program is tantamount to a nuclear bomb. According to nuclear experts like Bruno Pellaud, former deputy director general and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Department of Safeguards, intrusive inspections is the best tool to ensure that Iran doesn't divert its civilian program into a military one. Yet these inspections can only take place as part of a package deal with Iran that includes some level of enrichment. This makes reassessment of the zero-enrichment objective all the more important.

5. Iran seeks Israel's destruction.

False. As I explain in my book Treacherous Alliance, the Iranian clergy have strong ideological antipathy toward Israel, but ideology is not the primary driving force of Iranian foreign policy. The major shifts in Israeli-Iranian relations, from pragmatic entente in the 1960s and '70s to strategic rivalry in the 1990s, have occurred because of changing strategic -- not ideological -- realities. Whenever Iran's ideological and strategic imperatives have clashed -- as was the case in the 1980s, when the common threat from the Soviet Union and Iraq prompted Iran and Israel to pursue clandestine cooperation -- realpolitik has prevailed. Today, Iran's ideological and strategic imperatives largely coincide. Israel is seen as a strategic and an ideological threat, and as a result Tehran has actively confronted Israel. But Iran does not seek Israel's destruction, nor does its attitude toward Israel lack pragmatism. In 2002 Iran signaled that it was prepared to adopt a "Malaysian profile" on Israel in return for an end to Israeli and American efforts to isolate Tehran. Iran would, much like Malaysia, be an Islamic state that would not recognize Israel and would occasionally criticize it but would not directly confront the Jewish state. Iran and Israel would simply recognize each other's spheres of influence and stay out of each other's hair. The message was communicated to Israel through various channels, including a presentation by a senior Iranian military figure at a conference in Europe attended by several Israelis. Ze'ev Schiff, the late military affairs editor of Ha'aretz, told me that the consistency of Tehran's message "made it more clear that this was a policy" and not just empty talk. Though Iran has a new and more radical president today, it is still ruled by the same Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the concept of a "Malaysian profile" still enjoys support in the Iranian National Security Council -- President Ahmadinejad's venomous rhetoric notwithstanding.

6. The pressure on Iran is working.

Questionable. Pressure alone will not resolve the Iranian crisis. Iran has been under comprehensive U.S. sanctions since 1995. These sanctions have undoubtedly been effective in hurting the Iranian economy and have made Tehran's pursuit of its foreign policy more costly. But they have not forced Iran to abandon its policies. In fact, after twelve years of sanctions Iran is more powerful and more defiant than ever. Ratcheting up sanctions will be nothing more than a higher dose of a policy already proven to be unsuccessful. The combination of ineffective sanctions and unrealistic demands will get the United States nowhere.

7. Stability in the Middle East can be achieved only through Iran's isolation.

Quite the contrary. History teaches us that an Iran that isn't part of the region's security architecture will be more destabilizing than an Iran that has been incorporated into the region's political order. In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, instead of pursuing an inclusive security architecture for the Persian Gulf, Washington opted to sign bilateral defense pacts with the Arab Gulf states while pursuing a new order in the region based on Iran's prolonged isolation. The policy was called "dual containment," the idea being that the United States would advance the Middle East peace process by containing both Iran and Iraq. What Washington failed to recognize was that the policy of exclusion provided Iran with incentives to undermine U.S. efforts. And the weakest link in the American strategy was the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Without successful peacemaking between the Israelis and Palestinians, America's new regional order could not be achieved and Iran would evade prolonged isolation, Tehran calculated. Though Iran wasn't solely responsible for the collapse of the peace process, it did contribute to undermining it by supporting rejectionist Palestinian organizations at a time when the United States was at the height of its power and when Tehran was in a very weak position. Today the tables have turned. Iran is rising and the United States is mired in Iraq. Instead of repeating a policy that failed under the best circumstances, we must recognize that Iran's propensity to act as the spoiler will decline when it is included, not when it's excluded.

Iran poses a complicated challenge to America, but not an irresolvable one. Despite the tremendous distrust between the two countries, history shows that negotiations can work. In 2001 Tehran and Washington worked closely together to defeat the Taliban and install a new government in Afghanistan. Without Iranian help, the new Constitution of Afghanistan would not have been achieved, according to U.S. diplomats involved in the effort.

Similar cooperation, but on a lower scale, took place before the invasion of Iraq. In 2003 Iran sent the United States a comprehensive negotiations package, only to be snubbed by the Bush Administration. Clearly, success in negotiations can never be guaranteed. But neither can failure. We will never know whether we can succeed in negotiating with Iran until we try. And so far, beyond isolated instances, the Administration has not given broad negotiations a fair chance, nor has the United States pursued a policy of inclusion and regional integration. (A policy of sanctions and confrontation, on the other hand, is a proven failure.)

While hawks are presenting a wide array of arguments as to why we shouldn't talk to Iran -- including the notion that, given the quagmire in Iraq, the hand of the United States is now much weaker than it was several years ago, as well as the idea that Washington doesn't have anything to offer -- only Washington can offer Tehran what it really seeks: decontainment and reintegration in the Middle East. Iran wants a seat at the table and a say as a legitimate player in all regional decision-making. Iran can make it costly for the United States not to recognize it as a regional power, but it cannot gain its seat at the table without American agreement. This is an extremely valuable carrot Washington can offer Tehran in return for momentous changes in Iranian behavior. In fact, unbeknownst to decision-makers in Washington, America holds an ace up its sleeve. But this ace can be used only in the context of real negotiations.

These negotiations cannot be limited to Iraq or to the nuclear issue alone. The problems between the United States and Iran go well beyond these two issues. There is an underlying geopolitical imbalance that must be addressed. The previous order in the region has crumbled as a result of America's defeat of the Taliban and its subsequent failure to establish a coherent order in Iraq. Even if the nuclear issue and the Iraq calamity were to be resolved, the context that has given meaning to these problems to begin with -- the collapse of the previous order and the absence of an all-inclusive security arrangement -- will remain unresolved. Any agreement with Iran that does not address this fundamental issue is doomed to be short-lived.

Creating a new regional order, in which the carrot of Iranian inclusion is used to secure radically different behavior from Tehran, is neither a concession to Iran nor a capitulation of American (or Israeli) interests. Rather, it is a recognition that stability in the region cannot be achieved and sustained through the current strategy of pursuing an order based on the exclusion of one of the region's most powerful nations. To change Iran's behavior, we must change our own.

The Crisis Over 15 British Prisoners in Iran Leads to Anywhere But Peace

As the dispute over Iran's seizure of British sailors continues to twist and turn, what may have been an isolated incident at the outset is quickly developing into yet another move in the geopolitical chess game between the West and Iran.

The incident took place on Mar. 23 in a disputed waterway between Iraq and Iran. Fifteen British sailors were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and after a few short days of quiet diplomacy, both the British and Iranian governments resorted to fighting their case in public -- a move that significantly reduces the chance of a quick and smooth resolution to the dispute.

From the outset, the British authorities have insisted in stark categorical terms that the sailors were in Iraqi and not Iranian waters. On Wednesday, the British produced GPS coordinates to support their claim, even though the coordinates were from a helicopter that London says hovered over the Indian ship that the sailors had inspected, and not the GPS coordinates of the sailors themselves.

Iran was quick to produce its own evidence. The GPS unit of one of the British sailors, confiscated by the Iranian authorities, shows that the British were not only in Iranian waters at the time of the incident, but that they had crossed over into Iranian waters on five earlier occasions as well, according to Tehran.

Whether the British were in Iranian waters or not -- and whether the Iranians believe the British were in Iranian waters or not -- Tehran seems to be using the incident to regain leverage over the West in the confrontation over its nuclear programme and its rising power and influence in the Middle East.

Much indicates that both Iran and the U.S. have come to recognise that it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid some sort of diplomatic confrontation between them. This is particularly problematic for the George W. Bush administration, which for several years has adamantly opposed the idea of talking to Tehran.

The sudden realisation of the near-impossibility to avoid real diplomacy caused much anxiety in the Bush administration earlier this year. Washington had no shortage of contingency war plans with Iran -- but no contingency plans for diplomacy, and consequently no preparation for such negotiations.

So when the Iraq Study Group and Congress pushed the White House to recognise the need for diplomacy with Iraq's neighbours, including Iran, the Bush administration balked. It lacked leverage to negotiate with Iran, it said.

"Frankly, right at this moment there's really nothing the Iranians want from us and so in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant," Secretary of Defence Robert Gates explained. "The only reason to talk to us would be to extract a price, and that's not diplomacy, that's extortion."

If the U.S. lacked leverage over Iran, the answer lied in gaining that leverage. Instead of accepting the Iraq Study Group's recommendation to open talks with Iran, the Bush White House sought to increase the pressure on Iran to gain leverage -- in any way possible.

On Dec. 24, U.S. troops arrested several Iranian officials in Iraq -- of which at least two were diplomats. A few weeks later, an office the Iranians say was a consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan was raided. Another five Iranians were detained there. They are still held by the U.S. and Tehran has had no access to them.

In addition, Ali Reza Asgari, a senior Iranian official who served in the cabinet of former President Mohammad Khatami, went missing in Turkey in February. His family and authorities in Tehran say he was kidnapped by the Israelis. The U.S. says he defected.

Whether the arrested Iranians were diplomats or not and whether Asgari defected or was kidnapped, in two short months, the detentions of the Iranians, the imposition of financial sanctions on Iran and the passing of two Security Council Resolutions has seemingly provided the U.S. with the leverage it was seeking. Washington is suddenly feeling confident and is hinting a vague willingness to talk to Tehran from its perceived position of strength.

In this context, Iran's holding of the British sailors may serve as a signal to Washington that if seizing personnel from the other side is fair game for the sake of gaining leverage, then Iran can also play that game.

Rather than an act of desperation resulting from the onslaught of Western pressure, as some in Washington have interpreted Iran's actions, the arrest of the British sailors may have been a calculated measure to fight fire with fire -- but without targeting the U.S. directly (which surely would have caused things to escalate out of control.)

The revelation of what Tehran says is the second letter by the sole female sailor among the Brits, Faye Turney, seems to support this interpretation. The letter concludes with a call by Turney for British troops to leave Iraq. "Isn't it time for us to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?" it said.

The letter's linking of the seizure of the sailors with the larger political disputes in the region lends support to the interpretation that Iran is -- at least at this stage of the dispute -- seeking to regain the leverage it lost when the U.S. began targeting Iranian officials in Iraq.

Iran may feel justified in responding to Washington's pressure tactics by targeting British troops in the narrow waterways between Iraq and Iran. But it's difficult to see an end to this duel for leverage. If Iran gets the upper hand, Washington may further raise the stakes and embark on a new set of provocative actions. And if Washington regains the edge over Iran, chances are that Tehran will respond in kind.

As each side increases the stakes in an effort to gain the upper hand in a potential future negotiation, tensions in the region increase, as does the risk for an uncontrollable escalation. Rather than improving their negotiation positions, both sides are closing the diplomatic window through this risky game of one-upmanship.

Iran is Key to Course Change in Iraq

Both events open up opportunities for Washington to find new avenues to resolve its many problems with Iran. The key to the elections -- and to Iran -- is Iraq. In light of the soon-to-be published Iraq Study Group report, it is increasingly clear that headway can neither be made on Iraq nor the nuclear stand-off with Iran unless the two are linked.

The victory of the Democrats and the firing of Rumsfeld have shifted the balance between the pragmatists and the neoconservatives in the administration. As secretary of defence, Rumsfeld was closely allied with Vice President Dick Cheney in opposing every effort to open up diplomatic channels to Tehran.

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, it was Cheney and Rumsfeld who made sure that Washington dismissed Iran's May 2003 offer to open up its nuclear programme, rein in Hezbollah, recognise a two-state solution and cooperate against al Qaeda. Rumsfeld was also a driving force behind using the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iranian terrorist organisation opposed to the ruling clerics, to weaken Tehran.

Robert Gates, however, belongs to a different school of Republican foreign policy thinking. Gates' entrance and the Republican leadership's exit have created a precious opportunity to change the course on Iraq -- and on Iran. For years, the Bush administration has pursued a maximalist policy based on rejecting any links between the Iranian nuclear programme and the many other areas where the U.S. and Iran clash. By refusing any linkages, the Bush White House has aimed to gain maximum concessions from Iran in all areas without ever having to reciprocate or offer any concessions in return.

This was clearly seen in Afghanistan, where President Bush's envoy opened up talks with Iran to coordinate efforts to dispose the Taliban regime. Bush's intentions were purely tactical -- accept Iranian help in Afghanistan without permitting the cooperation to lead to a shift in attitude towards Iran. The Iranians, on the other hand, were hoping that their assistance in Afghanistan would have strategic implications with an entire new relationship between Tehran and Washington as the ultimate outcome.

Once Iran's help in Afghanistan was no longer deemed necessary, Washington's approach to Tehran cooled significantly, much thanks to the influence of Rumsfeld. Only weeks after the Bonn Conference in December 2001 where Tehran's assistance was crucial in finding a compromise between Afghanistan's many warlords, Bush put Iran into the "Axis of Evil". Tehran's goodwill gestures were for naught.

"Iran made a mistake not to link its assistance in Afghanistan to American help in other areas and by just hoping that the U.S. would reciprocate," Iran's U.N. Ambassador Javad Zarif, who was in charge of Iran's negotiations with Washington over Afghanistan, told IPS.

The Bush administration's insistence on rejecting all forms of linkages has made a bad situation worse. On the one hand, the lesson of Afghanistan for Tehran has been to run a very hard bargain with the United States where no help is offered for free. As a result, Washington has been left to deal with the deteriorating situation in Iraq all by itself.

On the other hand, Washington's efforts to put a halt to Iran's nuclear programme have run into a dead-end. Washington has reduced U.S.-Iran relations to a zero-sum game about enrichment. Either Iran has enrichment, or it doesn't. The Bush administration has not permitted any middle ground to exist in hopes that it could completely deprive Iran of all nuclear know-how.

But in this game of the winner takes it all, Iran has so far been winning. Washington has not even been able to get the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution imposing travel restrictions on Iranian officials involved in Tehran's nuclear programme.

Much indicates that the only way out of this dead-end is to do what Bush -- and Rumsfeld -- have refused to do all along: link Iranian cooperation in Iraq to Washington's willingness to find a compromise on the nuclear issue, where enrichment will be seen as a continuous rather than a binary variable. The White House refused such linkages in the past since it sought complete victories. Now, creating linkages is necessary in order to avoid complete defeats in both Iraq and in Iran.

James Baker's Iraq Study Group has already paved the way for dealing with Iran over Iraq, though Bush is yet to sign off on the idea of linkage. Earlier in October, Baker met with Javad Zarif at the Iranian ambassador's residence in New York. The meeting lasted three hours and was deemed as very helpful by both sides. Baker was told that Iran would consider helping the United States in Iraq if "Washington first changed its attitude towards Iran," a euphemism for Bush administration's unwillingness to deal with Iran in a strategic manner.

While the recent political earthquakes in Washington have raised hope that a shift in both Iraq and Iran may be forthcoming, President Bush is still the final decision maker. Neither a Democratic Congress nor a pragmatist in charge of the Pentagon is likely to change the course on Iraq and Iran unless the president recognizes the reality on the ground -- without Iran, the United States cannot win in Iraq, and without linking Iraq to the nuclear issue, Tehran's services are not available.


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