Obama and Iran: What Went Wrong

News | March 01, 2012


Warning that the chances for military action against Iran could be “50-50 for this spring,” Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, discussed his new book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran at the EastWest Institute on Feb. 27.

Moderated by EWI’s Andrew Nagorski, the conversation provided the audience a window into some of the previously unknown details of the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to Iran. With access to over 70 high-ranking officials from the U.S., Iran, Europe, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Brazil—including the top American and Iranian negotiators—Parsi explored the real reasons for the collapse of diplomatic efforts between the United States and Iran.

During his talk, Parsi laid out the series of events that unfolded in the first two years of the Obama presidency, starting with Obama’s offer, 12 minutes into his presidency, of the hand of American friendship to those willing to unclench their fist. However, the legacy of bitter distrust between Iran and the United States, and the skepticism of others that a deal could be negotiated, eroded any initial optimism.  As Parsi put it: “Many wished Obama well but few wished him success.”

Parsi pointed out that serious talks were delayed until after the 2009 Iranian presidential election. Then, when the widespread allegations of fraud triggered mass protests, it became increasingly difficult for Washington and Tehran to focus on the nuclear issue on its own terms.  For various reasons—including the continued technical progression of Iran’s enrichment capabilities and the hardening of attitudes towards Iran in the West—any deal needed to work right away. As a senior State Department official told Parsi, “Our Iran diplomacy was a gamble on a single roll of the dice.”

That roll of the dice came in the form of what was meant to be a confidence building measure, a nuclear fuel swap where Iran would ship out 1200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in return for fuel rods. The fuel rods were for its Tehran Research Reactor, which produces medical isotopes for Iran’s cancer patients.  The West and Iran could not come to terms, but then Brazil and Turkey stepped in to broker a deal they thought would be acceptable to both sides. By then, however, the facts on the ground had changed.  Iran had almost doubled its LEU since talks first began, and the U.S. had won international backing for strong sanctions. As Parsi explained, the Obama administration had opted for sanctions instead of a political deal because it believed diplomacy had failed.

Parsi argued that diplomacy was never pursued as far as it should have been, and unreasonably optimistic early expectations may have contributed to the failure of this effort. ”Negotiations such as these succeed not because the proposals are flawless or because both sides play fair, but because the many flaws associated with the talks are overcome by the political will to reach a solution,” he said.

With tensions and harsh rhetoric escalating on both sides amid increasing speculation about a possible Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Parsi warned that sanctions could backfire. One result could be that Tehran would walk away from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Since all of the current information the West knows about Iran’s nuclear program comes from IAEA inspections and reports, he added, this would create an even more dangerous situation where Washington and others would  be left guessing about what is really happening on the ground—and, in all likelihood, assuming the worst.

Click here to visit Trita Parsi's web site.