Diplomacy, Iran, and the bomb

By David Shorr | March 13, 2012

A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran
Trita Parsi
Yale University Press
304 pages, $27.50

In his new book on President Barack Obama’s Iran policy, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, Trita Parsi patiently untangles one of the great diplomatic morasses of recent years.

A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran
Trita Parsi
Yale University Press
304 pages, $27.50

In his new book on President Barack Obama's Iran policy, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran, Trita Parsi patiently untangles one of the great diplomatic morasses of recent years.

Any realistic case study of a difficult public policy issue must depict the attendant cross-pressures and trade-offs, and that is one of the singular strengths of this book. It is a familiar roster of key stakeholders with whom the makers of US Iran policy must contend — Israelis, the Arab world, Iranians themselves, Turks, UN Security Council members, Europeans, the American right wing — yet Parsi's tour through all the diplomatic twists and turns really reinforces the delicacy of the matter. Books like this offer a valuable reality check, one that is accessible to a broad readership.

By taking such pains to present a total picture, Parsi compiles a constructive critique of Obama's performance, no small feat for such a vexing subject. Parsi, a Middle East policy expert whose experience ranges from Washington to the United Nations, forthrightly describes how his own approach differs from that of the administration's and then bolsters his credibility by squarely acknowledging the dilemmas they faced, as well as their successes.

The crux of the issue, of course, is whether and how a peaceful resolution can be reached with Iran to guarantee the civilian character of its nuclear activities. As an encapsulation of Obama's strategy to combine the two tracks of diplomatic engagement and coercive pressure, Parsi gives an epigram from the policy's key architect, Dennis Ross: "The hybrid option is designed to concentrate the minds of Iranian leaders on what they stand to lose without humiliating them." At its outset, the Obama administration was eager to make a new diplomatic opening to Iran, yet Obama's tilt toward putting pressure on Iran was also clear to see. (Interestingly, Ross's quotation is from just prior to the 2008 election.) Obama's desire to show greater diplomatic flexibility than President George W. Bush was tempered by an underlying mistrust of Iran — a mistrust that Bush had notched upward but which was hardly his creation.

The Ross quotation was indeed a keen choice, so let's further unpack it. The Obama policy assumes Iran's leaders are disposed against the constraints of an agreement, preferring the freedom of action to master the uranium enrichment process. If it were left completely up to them, the Iranian regime would proceed as far as possible toward near-nuclear weapon status — a classic run-out-the-clock strategy (i.e., continue the nuclear program while negotiating). This does not mean Washington views the Iranians as implacable and determined to resist outsiders' demands for transparency and monitoring. The Obama strategy does assume, though, that Iran will only cooperate when the price of continued resistance (economic and political pressure) is deemed too costly. For the administration, the emphasis on the pressure track is about ensuring Iran is genuinely motivated for diplomacy, given how it has already run the clock down for several years.

Parsi plots out Obama's policy, as well as the moves of other key players, on the 2008-2011 timeline, focusing especially on two periods of heightened diplomatic activity. In September and October 2009, negotiators hammered out a nuclear fuel-swap agreement that would have moved the majority of Iran's low-enriched uranium out of the country in exchange for foreign-milled, civilian nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. For outside powers, the appeal of the fuel swap was that removing the uranium would have demonstrably left Iran without the makings of a bomb.

The negotiations seemed quite promising when representatives of Iran, the United States, the other four permanent UN Security Council members, Germany, and the European Union met in Geneva. But when talks fizzled shortly thereafter, the Obama administration started to line up support for a new sanctions resolution in the Security Council. Then, with the UN sanctions vote looming, in April and May 2010 the leaders of Brazil and Turkey stepped into the diplomatic breach to resurrect the fuel-swap deal. The 11th-hour mediation by President Lula and Prime Minister Erdogan did elicit an agreement from Iranian leaders, the so-called "Tehran Declaration," with detailed commitments for the removal of Iran's uranium. Once again, however, the effort came to naught, this time because the Obama administration was not satisfied with the agreement's terms — particularly its failure to increase the amount of uranium being removed proportionate to Iran's ongoing enrichment.

Parsi's bottom-line assessment of President Obama is that he gave himself a very narrow window for diplomacy and then, in effect, collapsed the policy down to one track: coercive pressure. Hence the book's title, A Single Roll of the Dice. Developments in Iran during that period hardly helped matters, with 2009 marking the year of the disputed Iranian elections, emergence of the opposition Green Movement, and brutal crackdowns. The criticism that Obama drew for his subdued response begs the question of whether the Green Movement actually wanted his vocal support. Gauging the views of movement leaders, Parsi determines that, at the height of the protests, they worried about support from Washington tainting them as aligned with outside powers — which was also Obama's reason for keeping his diplomatic distance.

For those who have followed the process closely, the book provides ample material to reexamine one's own appraisals of Obama's approach and gain a sharper sense of the issues. Take Parsi's critique that the administration built up the fuel swap into too harsh a test, ultimately becoming a self-defeating obstacle:

Though the fuel swap was supposed to be a confidence-building measure, it soon turned into a precondition for continued diplomacy; unless Iran agreed to the swap, no other diplomatic activity would take place. This approach, which in essence confused the strategic goal of establishing a functioning and sustainable diplomatic process with the tactical benefit of the fuel swap as a trust-building measure, was highly problematic.

What Parsi's analysis misses, though, is that confidence-building must serve a different function in the case of Iran from its usual tactical role. Given that Iran can keep developing uranium enrichment while pretending to negotiate, this raises the threshold for a functioning diplomatic process. Faced with Iran's strategy of running out the clock, confidence comes at a higher price. At this point, Iranian demonstrations of good faith indeed must be quite substantive, just to keep diplomacy from serving as a mere façade. The real significance of the fuel swap was the way it would have constrained Iran's ability to build a bomb; it was not turned into a fetish object by the Obama administration, as Parsi describes.

One of the ways Parsi makes his critique of Obama's impatient diplomatic style is to draw comparison with past US diplomatic successes. Examining the cases of the dismantlement of Libya's nuclear weapons program in the mid-2000s and normalization of relations with Vietnam a decade earlier, Parsi points out that those negotiations took seven years and four years respectively. But the diplomatic history of the Iranian nuclear program stretches back for nearly a decade of on-again-off-again talks. How, then, should we mark the passage of time in this case? And do we even have the luxury of four to seven more years of diplomacy — or will Iran become a virtual, or even an actual, nuclear weapon state in the meantime?

The prospect of Iran as a virtual nuclear power — without weapons but with the technical capacity to build them — raises the thorniest predicament of the entire process. The purpose of diplomatic negotiations is to pinpoint how far down the nuclear-technological road Iran will go. The heart of any agreement will be to determine the fate of Iran's (supposedly civilian) uranium enrichment activity — which, in and of itself, falls well within the bounds of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. For the Iranians, preserving their technological achievement is a bottom-line issue. For the Israeli government and many in the US Congress, walking Iran's technical efforts all the way back is likewise.

Of all the cross-pressures bearing down on Obama, the most sensitive by far is whether a diplomatic solution with Iran should provide for continued enrichment, albeit under tight international scrutiny. A Single Roll of the Dice gives an excellent behind-the-scenes glimpse of this issue within the issue. For one thing, continued enrichment was essentially the main backdrop for the fuel-swap talks. Much of Iran's interest in the swap was driven by the deal's tacit tolerance of enrichment, which naturally raised hackles in Israel. For its part, the Obama administration prefers to postpone the enrichment matter and deal with it in a later phase of negotiations. The weight of opinion among pragmatic observers is that it is unrealistic to expect Iran to relinquish its technological achievement. And Parsi offers a convincing case that Obama must explicitly acknowledge this reality, rather than continuing to dodge it.

With this book, Trita Parsi has given us an authoritative document on one of today's most urgent and nettlesome foreign policy challenges. He not only draws on the published record, but contributes original reporting from the vantage points of all the players, including the Iranian perspective. It will be edifying for a wide range of readers, from foreign policy specialists to anyone with a stake in the outcome — which is all of us.

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