Losing an ennemy

Trita Parsi has written a great book about what remains the most outstanding diplomatic feat of the 21st century. It is the first work to describe in detail the whole course of the extraordinarily complex international negotiation that led to the conclusion in Vienna on July 14, 2015 of the now famous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA—the arrangement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, UK, US), plus Germany to cap Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Even though we know the (provisional) end of the story, the book reads like a thriller, so high the tensions that built up as obstacles to an agreement repeatedly arose. This is certainly the case, among other examples, with the secret U.S.-Iranian diplomatic contacts that took place in Oman, the hectic final run of the negotiations in Vienna, and the epic battle in and around the US Congress immediately afterwards to protect the accord from its many and fierce critics.
The latest of what so far has been a trilogy of books written on the twists and turns of recent US-Iranian diplomacy, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy (Yale University Press) opens with a useful recap of the major findings in Parsi’s award-winning Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States (2010) and A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (2012).
The first four chapters of Losing an Enemy effectively set the scene for the drama of the successful negotiation to follow. Two introductory observations provide the key drivers of the whole storyline. The first one reads: “It would be erroneous to view these negotiations and the deal they produced solely as a nuclear matter. In essence, they formed the final chapter of a thirty-five-year battle over the geopolitical order in the region in general and Iran’s place in that order in particular.” And the second: “While the deal was based on a ground-breaking scientific formula, the real challenge to the negotiations was not technical but human.” These two sentences reverberate throughout the book.
The curtain rises on the first international conflict after the end of the Cold War: the 1991 Gulf War. Parsi rightly presents it as a seminal event in the new distribution of power in the Middle East. I remember personally how, with the disappearance of the Eastern bloc, the United States and its main allies looked around for new threats capable of legitimizing the maintenance of a global military posture. Neither China nor India was sufficiently powerful to pose a credible threat. Instead, it had to come from the vaguely ominous Islamic world, and more precisely the turbulent Middle East. In Parsi’s view, Israel played a critical role in focusing Western, and especially Washington’s, attention on that region.
For its part, Israel had lost its favorite bogeyman with the defeat of Saddam Hussein, the regional leader who wanted to offer the nuclear bomb to the Arab world. At that point, Israel’s neighbors no longer posed a credible threat, as indicated by their participation in the post-war Madrid Conference under the joint presidency of the United States and a somewhat absent-minded Soviet Union (which was to disappear altogether a few weeks later). There was “a feeling in Israel that, because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling, and we needed some new glue for the alliance,” Parsi quotes one eminent Israeli scholar as telling him in one of dozens of interviews cited in the book. “The new glue was radical Islam, and Iran was radical Islam.”
Despite its helpful neutrality in the 1991 war, Iran was not invited to Madrid, a snub that constituted the first lost opportunity to draw Tehran out of its isolation and encourage it to adopt a more cooperative attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, the Israeli leadership started developing an increasingly aggressive narrative depicting Iran as an “existential threat” to the Jewish state, and indeed, to the whole civilized world. As a resultaccording to Parsi, hardliners in Tehran opposed to the more open policies of then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gained strength, and, less than two years later, Iran forcefully rejected the Oslo agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The “dual-containment” policy adopted by the Clinton administration, which paired Iran with Saddam Hussein as a threat to U.S. national interests, marked the beginning of a long line of US efforts to make Iran a pariah state: politically, of course, and, more practically, through the application of comprehensive economic sanctions. Parsi digs up from the archives some emblematic declarations of the period that would become mantras under Trump more than 20 years later. There’s this nugget, for example, from Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher: “Iran is the world’s most significant sponsor of terrorism and the most ardent opponent of the Middle East peace process…The evidence is overwhelming: Iran is intent on projecting terror and extremism across the Middle East and beyond.” Sound familiar?
September 11 and After
Then came September 11. The author describes at length Iran’s highly effective policy of active collaboration with the United States and the international coalition in their drive to break the Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan. All of this, however, was to no avail as Iran found itself included in George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” in his January 2002 State of Union address. With the fall of Baghdad 14 months later came talk by senior Bush officials and other Washington hardliners of “real men” wanting to go to Tehran.
In the meantime, the world discovered the budding Iranian uranium enrichment program. Three European nations, having kept their embassies in Tehran, started speaking with officials there in an attempt to negotiate a compromise guaranteeing that such a program would not end up producing nuclear weapons. In this context, a senior European official confides to Parsi that “the need for EU involvement in the nuclear issue was not so much to contain Iran, but to contain America.” Iran was spared a possible invasion, but Europe’s engagement was fated to die a slow death as Washington insisted that Iran completely abandon its enrichment project, the so-called “zero-centrifuge” or “zero-enrichment” position that would stall progress on negotiations well into the next administration.
Barack Obama chose to explicitly renounce the long-standing US policy of “regime change” regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran and engage in a negotiated solution to the nuclear crisis. But these moves in themselves were insufficient to change the course of events, according to Parsi who devotes four (of 17) chapters to describing the highly intricate games deployed by and between a broad array of actors, almost all of them holding divergent visions and interests and trying to divert Obama from his goal.
From this gallery of portraits emerges the figure of Benjamin Netanyahu, ever resourceful when it comes to raising obstacles to possible US engagement with Iran. At the same time in Tehran itself, the increasingly rancorous conflicts between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad consistently worked against any opportunity for progress. Slowly, according to Parsi, “the political maneuverability Obama enjoyed on Iran when he first took office was completely eaten away by pressure from Israel and Congress, the fallout from the June 2009 Iranian presidential election, and Iran’s refusal to accept the Russian-American swap proposal in October 2009.” Meanwhile, the US administration’s “dual-track policy,” which combined diplomatic openings with new sanctions, proved fruitless when confronted with the steadfastness of Tehran’s negotiators and their sense that their nation was no less “exceptional” than any others, least of all the United States. The carrot-and-stick approach had its limits, particularly with a country with Iran’s history.
Finally, an Opening
Nonetheless, between the various pressures and mutual bickering that characterized the period from 2010 to 2012, Parsi highlights a range of factors that began creating opportunities for new thinking and initiatives. First, there was the gradual awareness that sanctions, however crippling for the Iranian economy and painful for Iranian society, were not impeding the advance of the nuclear program. The time was quickly approaching when Iran would have the capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium to build one or two atomic bombs in only a few months. Second, repeated Israeli declarations, in private and public, that Iran was reaching “a point of no return” that required drastic and possibly unilateral action were not well received in Washington, to say the least. “After years of unfulfilled threats,” Parsi writes, “the White House was terrified that Netanyahu finally was about to go through with his threat to bomb Iran and pull an October surprise on Obama—right before the US presidential elections.”
Third, Obama’s election to a second term offered him renewed political space that could be translated into greater flexibility at the negotiating table. Fourth, the departure of Hillary Clinton, who definitely had little or no empathy for the Iranian file, opened the door to her replacement by Sen. John Kerry, a man whose political experience, sensitivity to the fundamental questions of war and peace, genuine warmth of personality, and personal affinities with the Middle East made him almost uniquely fit for the task at hand. Finally, the direct involvement of perhaps the most highly respected leader of the Persian Gulf and beyond, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, provided Washington with a channel of unimpaired access to the highest levels of the Iranian government and indeed to the Supreme leader himself.
Thanks to Parsi’s thorough investigation, we have the first detailed insight into the secret meetings organized in Oman between the US and Iranian negotiators, as seen through the eyes of a number of the principals themselves. We have the date, the whereabouts, and the human environment in which William Burns, the deputy secretary of state, first introduced the ground-breaking possibility that Washington would accept an Iranian enrichment capacity. The “zero enrichment” mantra, which had up to then prevented negotiations from taking flight, was relegated to history.
The Final Push
But this by itself was still not enough. A final element for diplomacy’s success was still missing: the presence on the Iranian side of personalities with the political will and inner strength necessary to fully reciprocate the American opening. This came with the end of Ahmadinejad’s mandate and the election in May 2013 of Hassan Rouhani to the presidency. And Rouhani chose for the task the best negotiator available in Iran, a seasoned professional diplomat, Mohammad Javad Zarif. With them in place, things could start moving.
This brings us to the gripping narrative of the momentous period that began with the unprecedented phone call between the two presidents on September 27, 2013 to the JCPOA’s successful conclusion on July 14, 2015—a period filled with ups and downs, sound and fury, advances and stalemate in which the parties had to negotiate not only between themselves but, even more difficult at times, with the people in their own respective camps who were trying to derail the budding deal. For the Iranians at least, this was a strictly Iranian affair. But the Americans had to confront not only numerous and powerful opponents in Washington, but the Israelis and Saudis as well. Nor was it always easy to maintain cohesion among Washington’s five partners, according to Parsi’s exclusive account.
But the reward came with the enthusiastic welcome given to Zarif by the crowd assembled at Tehran’s airport for his return from Vienna. As for Kerry, his emotion-filled concluding remarks following those of his P5+1 colleagues were memorably captured by Parsi toward the book’s end:
Kerry spoke last. He reflected on his youth as a soldier in Vietnam and later as one of the foremost advocates against the war. How he had learned that war was the ultimate failure of mankind and that his desire to spare the younger generation what he had to endure in Vietnam was a major motivator behind his drive to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. “It was not a prepared statement, but it [was] a sentiment I had thought a lot about during the negotiations,” Kerry told me.
“I came back from Vietnam with the deeply held belief that we should never send our men and women in uniform into harm’s way unless we’ve exhausted every other option.” At the end of Kerry’s comments, half of the other ministers were teary-eyed. No one in the room doubted that they had avoided a war that would have left all of them, and all of their countries, worse off.
The story’s final twist, of course, addresses the epic battle over the pact’s fate in the US Congress. This battle witnessed the mobilization of both sides across the country, from the grassroots to the heart of the Washington elite. Netanyahu and his supporters were defeated by overconfidence in their own influence, especially among Democratic lawmakers, and by a wide-ranging coalition of arms-control, peace, human-rights, and religious groups, former high-ranking diplomatic, military, and intelligence officials, and regional specialists allied with a determined president who hammered home the message that the alternative to the JCPOA was most likely war.
Lessons of the Crisis
A last chapter takes the form of reflection on the decade-long history of the crisis, and also on the events to come. The conclusion strikes an optimistic note in spite of all the uncertainties presently looming over the JCPOA: “The norm in recent history has been that diplomacy settles a new peace after devastating carnage—not before. Instead, a global crisis was resolved peacefully through a genuine compromise in which all sides made politically costly concessions and the outcome doesn’t just resolve the immediate nuclear question, but also has the potential to transform the relationship between Iran, the United States, and the European Union.”
Parsi continues: “The Iran negotiations stand as a progressive counterpoint to the Iraq war: opponents of militant foreign policy can now not only criticize the errors of preventive military action, but also have a successful model for peacefully reconciling nations approaching the precipice of war.”
Losing an Enemy is a beautiful book, an important book for anyone who wants to penetrate the intricacies of Middle East diplomacy and diplomacy in general. Of course, further research on this outstanding case will follow. It will go deeper into the details of some aspects such as the failed negotiation of 2009-2010 for the provision of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, the positioning of Washington during the Iranian democratic upheaval after the 2009 elections, or the behavior of the European partners during the negotiations. But future researchers will have no choice but to build on the foundation provided by Parsi’s eminent book.
(published by the website Lobelog on July 6, 2017)

Rouhani's beautiful victory : what comes next?

Hassan Rouhani has undoubtedly won a brilliant victory in the presidential election, with a tally exceeding 60% of the valid votes cast in its first and only round (the 57% figure usually cited by the media included blank and invalid ballots). The result has exceeded the predictions of most experts. It provides Rouhani with a strengthened mandate to implement the campaign pledges that he already made during his first election in 2013 and that he reiterated during the latest campaign: more freedom for Iranian society and a more positive interaction with the rest of the world. These mutually reinforcing policies should lead to greater prosperity.
But this popular support won’t be enough to persuade the main pillars of the Islamic Republic—the Supreme Leader, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the judiciary—to acquiesce in such a program. For the conservative core of the regime, Rouhani has fulfilled his historical task by concluding the Vienna nuclear agreement of 2015 and would be well advised to confine himself henceforth to the management of current affairs.
Will the incumbent president be able to escape the curse that struck his two predecessors during their second terms? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, though supported initially by the most powerful elements of the regime, ended up at war with all his patrons and unable to take the slightest initiative. Before him, Mohammad Khatami had seen the ultra-conservative Guardian Council rescind all the progressive legislation passed by a friendly parliament. More recently, Ahmadinejad was barred from running in the last presidential election, as another former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had been in 2013. Since 2015, all Iranian media have been banned from even mentioning Khatami. In Iran, being a president of the Republic is indeed a risky proposition.
Of course, Rouhani could bet on the prompt demise of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, aged 77 and seriously ill, as an opportunity to reshuffle the cards of Iranian political life. But he would put himself entirely into the hands of providence. And Khamenei is almost certainly preparing the ground for two or three potential successors whose views are unlikely to differ significantly from his. Even if this succession were to come on short notice, there is no guarantee that Rouhani’s task would be made easier.
The Fights to Come
If Rouhani does not want to reach the end of his term of office discredited and rejected by his electorate, he will have to engage in some tough fights and be prepared to break some of the Islamic Republic’s most sacred crockery. Rouhani knows that internal and external openings tend to interact and that he will have to act simultaneously on both fronts. Fortunately, some steps forward, highly symbolic but also carrying tangible effects, are within his reach, whatever the formidable obstacles looming before him.
On the domestic front, for instance, the Law Commission of the Iranian parliament has already pronounced itself in favor of a draft amendment to the criminal code abolishing the death penalty for drug offenders. The adoption of such a bill by the parliament, if confirmed by the Guardian Council, would reduce the number of executions in Iran by about 90%, from at least several hundreds per year to a few dozen. Even if that would still be too many, it would mark the end of the disastrous image of Iran as the world’s first or second country for the number of executions per capita.
On the international front, two dramatic gestures would allow Iran to surprise even its most hostile adversaries and position itself as a regional trailblazer in the field of nuclear and ballistic non-proliferation.
Movement on Missiles
The first one would be to join the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). By ratifying a text that it already signed in 1996, Iran would incur no new obligations, as it has already renounced the development or acquisition of a nuclear weapon when it acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But it would set an example for its neighbors, and even beyond, as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and even the United States and China have yet to join the CTBT. At the turn of the century, Iran already authorized the CTBT Organization to install on its territory automated seismic stations designed to detect nuclear explosions. If this arrangement were reactivated, it would send an additional positive signal to the international community.
The second gesture would be for Iran to join the Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation adopted in The Hague in 2002. Iranian experts participated at the first preparatory meeting but dropped out later. In essence, this code requires its signatories to provide an annual declaration on the outline of their ballistic missile and space launch policies, disclose the number and characteristics of ballistic and space vehicles launched in the previous year, and provide advance notice of launches and test flights. In this age of worldwide satellite observation, such transparency measures would in no way jeopardize Iran’s ballistic defense decision-making autonomy. It could also exert a deterrent effect probably more effective than the usual bombastic declarations coming from Tehran on the subject.
The powerful IRGC manages the Iranian ballistic missile program, but Rouhani should be able to overcome its possible institutional resistance, much as he did in 2003 when dealing with the nuclear file. In that episode, he demonstrated that he had enough energy and political will to secure from the IRGC the cessation of some controversial nuclear activities. If he could convince the IRGC of Iran’s interest to adopt the Hague Code of Conduct , Tehran would position itself as the vanguard of its region, given that the kingdoms of the Arabic peninsula, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel have yet to join this agreement.
The Role of Others
These possible moves by Iran should, of course, be encouraged and also reciprocated in one way or another. At the very least, the present US administration should perceive them as a signal of good will. For its part, Israel could find in such moves an indication that the “Iranian threat” could become less “existential” than before, even if Netanyahu might find it difficult to publicly admit. Saudi Arabia, which has asked repeatedly for “deeds, not words,” would thus receive an appropriate answer. And of course, the P5+1 countries that concluded the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, United States—would bear a special collective responsibility to respond.

The last provision of the agreement’s preamble states that Iran and its six interlocutors, plus the representative of the European Union, shall meet at the ministerial level every two years, or earlier if needed. Two ministerial meetings have already taken place in New York, in September of 2015 and 2016 on the sidelines of the session of the UN General Assembly. Can we nurture the hope to see the next, and possibly fruitful, meeting in September this year?

The Optimistic Horizon About JCPOA Is Still There (an interview with Iran Review)

Q: In the last decade, after experiencing Sarkozy's and Hollande's quinquennium, many were convinced that there is a trend or a strategy in French foreign policy, divergent from the past when it was almost always against Iran. This belief covers a very wide spectrum, but the main concern is somehow the same as your friends' viewpoint in "Club des Vingt": Given its history and values, France should be a mediator of peace, not an interventionist or somehow a provoker of tensions. In your idea, what should be the true interpretation of French attitude toward Iran and whole MENA?
A: The French have obviously turned the page of the negotiation period relating to the JCPOA. The Iranians also, by the way, Laurent Fabius, the then-Foreign Minister, was warmly welcomed in Tehran at the end of July 2015, just a few days after the adoption of the JCPOA in Vienna. So there are no hard feelings lagging behind. It is possible that the Iranians remember that, after all, it was the French, in the person of the then-French Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who took in 2003 the initiative to open a collective negotiation with Tehran, at a time when the dominant mood in the West was rather to confront Iran. This negotiation had its ups and downs, it morphed into different formats, but it never stopped until the final result in 2015. Now, for the future, we will have in France, as you now, a new President, a new government, and a new Assembly by mid-2017. I am confident that the new teams will give a fresh look at the French policy in the Middle East. and engage in favor of progress and reconciliation in the region.
Q: Precisely, as for the elections worldwide, 2017 would be a determinant year, where people can turn the page of their destiny. What is your estimation about dynamics of presidential election in France? Do you expect that there will be a person among the candidates who will change the French strategy toward Iran and MENA? 
A: Experience shows that a country's foreign policy seldom makes in a short time a complete U turn. Whatever the next Administration, there will be elements of continuity and elements of change. We have at the present moment a very unusual presidential campaign, as one can see in the French population a pervasive feeling of distrust of the traditional parties and the old elites. But there is also a fear of overly populist endeavours, like the one advocated by Marine Le Pen. All in all, whoever the next President, I guess that there will be an evolution of the French position in the Syrian crisis, and that pragmatic considerations will take precedence over matters of principle.
Q: You accompanied the optimistic ambiance around JCPOA. The agreement was supposed to allow Iran to continue its civilian nuclear program, and pave the way for normalization of Iran's economic and diplomatic relations with the international community. How do you evaluate the proceeding? In your opinion the optimistic horizon still exists for both diplomatic and economic relations?
A: The optimistic horizon is still there  but it has visibly receded from the place and time it occupied in our original hopes. The observers, in Iran as well as abroad, realize now that it takes quite a while for the economy of a country to be redirected on the right track : in the case of Iran, it will take at least one or two more years, and not the few months that we thought about when the JCPOA was adopted. But there are encouraging signals like, among many others, the significant rise of the Iranian steel production. The same reasoning goes for the opening of international relations. One has to remember that there was a lapse of seven years between the visit of Nixon to China and the reopening of the US and Chinese embassies!
Q: Maybe an important question about JCPOA philosophy is whether it has made any change in European or global view of the Iranian position or not? You saw the future of the agreement with Iran, depending on Europeans just as much as Trump. The idea of Europeans being independent and keeping their rational distance from U.S. is brilliant, but is it a call for reuniting Europe or is it due to the importance of JCPOA? If Trump  leaves the agreement regardless of the costs, what will guarantee the continuity of the Europeans’ engagement?
A: Up to now, the European Union has demonstrated a strong attachment to the JCPOA in front of the fluctuating positions of the new US President, and this is true also of the United Kingdom, in spite of the looming Brexit. I am convinced that the firm declarations of the European countries issued in the recent months, seperately as well as as together, are playing at this very moment a significant deterring effect on the American temptation to withdraw from the JCPOA. This political pressure must be maintained, as the danger comes from the Congress as much as from the President. It must be clear for the Americans that leaving the JCPOA would open for them a big risk to find themselves isolated from the international community. This is a kind of risk that nobody, even the US, can take lightheartedly. Let us keep up with this line of conduct as each passing day without crisis reinforces the sustainability of the JCPOA.
(April 9, 2017)