Robert Scheer, Trita Parsi on U.S. Iran Policy
Listen to the full interview in the player above, and read the transcript below. You can also find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
RS: Hi, I’m Robert Scheer, and this is Scheer Intelligence. I know the title sounds pretentious, but the intelligence comes from my guests. And today it’s Trita Parsi, who is the founder and president of the National Iranian-American Council, but more important, he is the author of a number of very serious books evaluating the situation in Iran in relation to the United States: Treacherous Alliance and A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran. And his most recent book is Losing An Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy—ah, wish it were true. That’s not part of his title—
RS: —that’s my observation. [Laughs] So, Trita Parsi, welcome. And this very optimistic, in terms of world peace, title of your book seems to be torn to shreds by Donald Trump, our president, who seems determined to keep Iran as more or less a permanent enemy. What do you make of it?
TP: I think you’re quite right, and that’s actually my point. My point in the book is that at the end of the day, this did present a pathway towards losing an enemy, but that requires that there is also a desire to lose an enemy. And when these choices came up, it actually stopped being about the nuclear deal and whether that was strong enough or not. It actually came down to the fact that elements both in Iran, certainly in Washington, and absolutely in Riyadh and Tel Aviv, did not want the United States and Iran to stop being enemies.
RS: Yeah, and this is a familiar story in most of international relations. There’s, first of all, there’s an economic interest in keeping a state of enemies’ intentions, so you can have what President Eisenhower famously referred to as the military-industrial complex. And without enemies, it’s hard to justify increased spending on weaponry, which we’re doing right now. It is also convenient to the political-agenda folks, and here Trump, who’s considered soft on Russia—no longer communist Russia—and who’s doing a dance with still-communist China, and he’s very cozy with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which is a dubious alliance right there. And then, so, you got Iran to kick around. And I should mention, by way of introduction of your own background, you came through a kind of Cold War education. Your father was a well-known academic in Iran, and then with the coming of the Ayatollah—he had run into difficulty with the Shah, but then with the coming of the Ayatollah, you left, your family left Iran. I think you were about, what five years old, or?
TP: Yeah, I was about four, four-and-a-half.
RS: Yeah, OK. And you went to Sweden, and you were educated, basically, in Sweden. And then you worked with the Swedish Foreign Ministry, I guess, at the U.N., the permanent delegation to the U.N. You worked on issues affecting Iran, and I gather you went back about 10 years ago for a visit.
TP: Yeah, I was back for my dissertation. For instance, I was there doing extensive interviews about Iran’s relations and the secret ties that they had with Israel during the 1980s.
RS: Right, which was the subject of one of your most important or controversial works. But let me just say, in terms of this Cold War background, you then ended up getting your doctorate at the Paul Nitze School of International Relations, right, at Johns Hopkins. And for those who don’t know Paul Nitze, who I think rose to be secretary of the Navy—was that, did he have other—
RS: Yeah. And I knew Paul Nitze; I mean, I interviewed him and so forth. And he was really one of the harsher hawks. And then on your doctoral committee you had Zbigniew Brzezinski; was he not on your doctoral committee—
TP: He was on my doctoral committee.
RS: —and he was national security advisor to Jimmy Carter. Who, you know, we’ve learned quite a bit lately, in addition to being the father of a well-known journalist daughter, but we’ve learned lately he was really quite instrumental in getting the U.S. involved with Afghanistan under Carter. And actually, the U.S. going in a heavy way into Afghanistan six months before the Russian invasion. And this is an adventure that continues, sort of manufactured, in part, by the hawks. And so when I look at your educational trajectory, you were—and then Francis Fukuyama, who was very famous, but also quite hawkish in his outlook at one point—you were schooled by people who truly believed in most of what was said about the Cold War, including what was said about events in Iran. Is that not true?
TP: I had the benefit, I would say, to be able to study under people who had very clear perspectives, but at the same time, were not so locked into those that they were not open to other perspectives. In the case of Professor Fukuyama, for instance, I think he himself has said publicly that his understanding of Iran changed somewhat as a result of the work that I was doing under him.
RS: Yeah, and I understand that, and obviously your work has influenced quite a few people, for the better, I would say. But let me raise this question of the whole sort of ideological structure of this Cold War that has dominating our thinking, our economic outlook, our expenditures, and so forth. And every time I look at any facet of it, whether it’s a policy towards red China where we thought they could never change and so forth, and part of an international communist movement—well, China, communism in China, as it did elsewhere, turned out to be highly nationalistic. And you could do business, and now they underwrite the American economy in many ways. And that whole red menace thing changed, but now we’ve reinvented it with Russia, even though it’s ruled by people who are anti-communist and not communist. So foreign policy has always been basically an exercise in irrationality, as far as—you know, and the question I always raise is, when I’ve talked to people who were in the CIA on the Russia desk and so forth, how would you not know this was silly, nonsensical? And so let’s take the case of Iran. You know, we have been playing with the country, a center of one of the great civilizations in the world, an incredibly complex and interesting history. But we treated Iran, whether it was in the overthrow of Mossadegh in the early fifties, whether it was our policy of supplying the Shah, or whether the last 40 years or so of response to Islamic fanaticism of one kind or another—we’ve treated it in a cartoonish way. And villains, and good guys, and so forth, and we are doing it right now. But Trump’s analysis is no cruder and dumber than that of his precedessors. They all invented enemies and then developed a cartoonish figure. Is that not the case?
TP: I think there’s elements of it that is invented, and there’s also elements that are reality. Usually it’s not possible to completely invent something. There’s got to be some elements of truth to it. And in the case of Iran, there’s definitely valid criticism. The question is, was it necessary to elevate this to this degree of enmity? And incidentally, the Iranians are equally responsible for this as well, in the sense that at least in the 1980s, they certainly were pushing for—I mean, enmity with the United States became a very central part of their policies. What I think has happened in Washington that is fascinating is that it became very easy to rely on an ideological explanation for this conflict by saying, look, the Iranian Ayatollahs, they simply cannot survive not having an enmity with the United States, because of their ideology. And by that, we kind of washed our own hands, because that put the blame entirely on the other side, and there was nothing wrong we had done. But then once this nuclear deal came about, it was fascinating to see there actually was stronger opposition to it in Washington that it was in Tehran. There were problems inside of the Iranian elite, as well; there were some people who were pushing against it. But it was frankly in comparable to the challenges that the Obama administration faced from its own foreign-policy elite. And it did show that the desire to have that enemy, or the fear of losing an enemy, actually was stronger, at least at that moment, on the American side than on the Iranian side. And that this ideological explanation was not particularly convincing; it really did not explain much of what was going on.
RS: Let’s just go back to the beginning of this hostility. It was a caricature of the Cold War. You had a complex nationalist, right, Mohammad Mossadegh, in Iran. And he was concerned about their resources and whether they were getting enough money for their oil, and so forth. You know, things had—nationalists, whether you like ‘em or not, you don’t have to think they’re wonderful people; he seems to have been a fairly decent, interesting person. But nonetheless, we now have all of these State Department documents and everything, making it very clear we never really believed Mohammad Mossadegh was an agent of the Soviet Union, that he was a great threat. And the real issue was protecting the Anglo-Iranian oil company, which is now BP, and protecting certain economic interests. And we inserted it rudely into the Cold War. And we’ve had trouble with Iran ever since. Isn’t that—let’s just take the first chapter. Where did all this mess come from?
TP: It certainly is true that what the United States did in 1953 was very much in the context of the Cold War. It was very much on false premises; it was not, as you pointed out, because there really was a fear that Mossadegh would be turning to the Soviets. It was much more an argument, well, we don’t know if he will or he won’t, so we’re going to intervene anyways. And you know, this was something that the British had been pushing for some time, unsuccessfully until they finally succeeded. And that certainly created an animosity towards the United States inside Iran. We see the remnants of it very clearly today, in which sensitivity towards support from the United States for any political element in Iran is very, very critical. In the sense that it is not a plus within Iran’s political context, whether you’re inside of the regime or if you’re in opposition to it, to have the support of the United States. And that’s very much because of what happened in 1953. But the story doesn’t begin and end there; it evolves, and there’s different phases, and there’s times in which the United States was more open to trying to find some sort of reconciliation, and there wasn’t readiness on the Iranian side, and vice versa. What I think we have now is not just because of the U.S. and Iran; it’s because the geopolitical context in the region is such that some of the traditional allies, as they’re called in D.C., of the United States, see it as their geopolitical benefit to ensure that the enmity between the United States and Iran remains in place. They’re highly fearful of any potential rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran because of the geopolitical repercussions it will have for them in the region. Now, whether that is in the interest of the United States or not is a completely different question. But they’re acting on their own interest, and their interest, as they define it, necessitates a continuation of the enmity between the U.S and Iran.
RS: And we’ll get to that. And really what you’re talking about is the unholy alliance of Israel and Saudi Arabia, which you know, is never spoken about, but it’s a convenience. And they have a notion of stability in the region, and Iran has upset that in a number of ways. But let me still stick with a little bit of the history, because the next time, the big time in recent history where we focus on Iran is over Iraq and the Iraq War. And prior to that, the U.S. had an alliance with Iraq to control Iran, right? This is the odd thing, that until George W. Bush tried, went about invading, we had had a period in which we first had an alliance to contain Iran, and then we had a break with that. And I want to discuss that the unintended consequences of our policy. Because in fact, Iran is as big a player as it is now in that region because we invaded Iraq. And the people who benefited from it had been refugees in Iran, many of them; their movements, Shiite-based, were supported in Iran. And so the irony of the whole Iraq War is that U.S. policy produced this great increase in the power and influence of Iran. Is that not the case?
TP: Certainly, if you take a look at what happened in 2003 and beyond, the United States—prior to, I think it’s important to see some of the history there. In 1991-92, when the Soviet Union fell apart, the United States became essentially the sole superpower of the world. And it became a unipolar world. And the United States had an option at that point to introduce a new order, a new security architecture in the Middle East, and it chose not to. Instead, it went with what the Israelis were pushing for, which was a containment of Iran combined with Iraq, which ended up being called a dual-containment policy. For the Iranians at the time, they had actually helped the United States against Iraq in the 1991 war; they were hoping to be able to improve the relations with the United States and break out of this isolation that they had partly put themselves in because of some of their radicalism. That order, dual containment, became something the Iranians really pushed back against, because it was based on their prolonged isolation and containment. But regardless of how much they tried to undermine it, they were not the reason as to why that order collapsed. That order collapsed because of the United States itself, because of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Instead of just containing Iraq and Iran, the new conservatism, the Bush administration believed that it would be much better to just replace these governments with much more pliant governments that would be essentially dependent on the United States for their own survival, and as a result, be an extension of American power. That, of course, did not work out because the Iraq War was an abysmal failure. All it managed to do was to destroy the old order without building a new one. And ever since, the Middle East has essentially been orderless. That’s part of the reason why there’s this recurring instability right now. And the Iranians have been unleashed, in the sense that both the Taliban regime as well as Saddam Hussein were taken out; those were two buffers that were containing Iran from east and west. And the U.S. just committed so many mistakes, and the Iranians were very clever in taking advantage of those mistakes. And as a result, they have increased their influence in the region while the United States has significantly weakened itself to the point that it no longer really can impose that degree of isolation on Iran. And it is no longer in a position to be able to impose on the region a new balance of power. This is part of the frustration that the Saudis and the Israelis have, because they would like to see the United States recreate the balance of power pre-2003, and that is essentially a near impossibility.
RS: [omission] My guest today is president of the National Iranian-American Council, Trita Parsi, who is a leading scholar on matters affecting Iran, but the Mideast in general. And his most recent book is Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. So you know, the conceit of American policy is that whatever goes wrong, it’s an accident of good intentions, but we basically are reasonable people struggling to make sense of a complex world, and we may get it wrong from time to time. But I’m pushing for another notion here, which is that maybe when you are inept and have so little knowledge, it’s by design. That you don’t really care about the history of other people, you don’t care about their aspirations, their nationalism. And this is not to whitewash anyone in the world; I’ve traveled pretty extensively myself, and I’m not trying to say that these are, you know, pleasant regimes, or that they’re good for their people. But the whole notion that somehow we are—this goes back to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, that somehow we, you know, we may make mistakes, but our intentions—I don’t believe that. I believe we messed around in Iran because it was useful to, first of all, the oil company in England, which—you know, we can’t just pass over that. This foreign policy done for British Petroleum, then called Anglo-Iranian—that part is very clear, part of the record. We accepted their view of what was good for the Iranian people, OK? We didn’t really care about their nationalism. But this is true of China policy, it’s true right now of our attitude towards Korea, North and South. And it seems to me—and I’m talking to you as one of our leading students of foreign affairs, and you’ve studied under the most prominent people at Johns Hopkins—I think we missed the main point, which is that we accept the seriousness of purpose when it is not there.
TP: Sure. But this goes to a different question. Because the question is, did they fail deliberately? Meaning that they just wanted to destroy Iraq and create instability, and that that was by design? Or, is it that they actually wanted to have a stable Iraq that was wealthy, but that it would be under American control? None of that is good intentions. Good intentions would be like, you know, we’re doing it as part of charity because we want to spread freedom. And that’s, obviously, I mean, we don’t even have to discuss that; that’s clearly not the intent behind it. But I’m not under the impression that they failed deliberately. I’m under the impression that they actually wanted to have a colonial exercise in which they wanted to control some of these countries. They went about it in a horrifically stupid way, and that’s the result we have. I don’t think that they deliberately destabilized thinking that that would be good for the United States. I think they wanted a much more ambitious plan, which was actually to take control of the oil in Iraq, have governments there that would be completely dependent on the United States rather than be dependent or have strong ties with Iran, and they just went about it so incompetently, so that this is the result we have. Good intentions is not part of either one of those scenarios.
RS: Fine. So then it’s window-dressing, the good intentions. But so let me take it up more to the present. And here you have a president who’s, in Donald Trump, who’s easily dismissed as a kind of buffoon, and obviously, you know, his PR is awful and his politics vary from the neofascist to just jingoistic American. So we have this sort of nightmarish situation. But one of the problems is it lets everyone else off the hook. You know, and it assumes that somehow we had good policies, whether they were about immigration or they were about foreign policy or they were about our tax code or income or right down the line—somehow everyone else seems reasonable now. You know, from John McCain to Hillary Clinton, OK. And when we think about this policy in the Mideast, they weren’t reasonable. And Donald Trump actually has pushed certain aspects that make sense, right; he’s actually tried to revitalize, at least claims to, dealing with the Palestinian issue, which had been pushed off entirely. But what seems to my mind most dangerous is the thing your book is about, and we should talk about your most recent book. Because—Losing an Enemy—and what he’s really doing is reinventing an enemy, again, in Iran. And it seems that if he gets in trouble, and you’ve got to have that war to save you, and so forth, Iran will be the place—or maybe it’s Korea, or maybe it’s both. And what we have now is, I used the phrase before, an unholy alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Very, very different countries, obviously; and on the other hand, a common stake in vilifying Iran. Again, this—it’s not that difficult to vilify Iran. But a common stake in making matters worse rather than what you really have advocated in your books and so forth: using diplomacy to find some common ground of interest.
TP: Absolutely, because imagine what would happen if the United States actually loses Iran as an enemy, and has a policy in the region in which it recognizes that Iran is a major player in the region, it has legitimate interests. The United States and Iran may have a lot of disagreements on many different things, but the United States is no longer in a position to automatically, always oppose the Iranian perspective. Including when there may be tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia or between Iran and Israel. This is the big fear: that what this deal was about was that it paved the way for Iran’s isolation to be broken, and that Iran would now start becoming a more or less normal country in the Middle East. From the perspective of the Saudis and the Israelis, who would like to go back to the 2003 balance—that was a fantastic balance for them. Because it essentially meant that the United States was handling all of the difficulties for them, providing them with a security umbrella, and giving them maximum maneuverability. Saudi Arabia and Israel are not strong enough to, on their own, be able to challenge Iran and be able to shift the balance of power back to the way it was pre-2003. But if they can convince the United States to make that part of its agenda, then that’s something that obviously is going to be very tempting to them, and that’s what they’re doing. What’s missing in all of this is, how is this good for the United States? In what way would this lie in the interest of the U.S., to pursue such a policy?
RS: Let me continue this discussion on the question of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Because it seems to me these—I call it an unholy alliance, because after all, Saudi Arabia has been driving the most primitive form of Sunni Muslim religion, the Wahhabism, and you know, the connections with what happened in Afghanistan; the connections with 9/11—after all, 15 of the 19 hijackers that flew those planes into the World Trade Center were from Saudi Arabia with legitimate papers, and so forth. And yet somehow we blame everybody in the world except the Saudis for that. And here’s Israel which, you know, Saudis at many points said they would like to eliminate, and consider a godless intrusion into the world that they want to dominate, and Israel has moved sharply to the right under Netanyahu. Interestingly enough, has interfered much more directly in American elections than any other country that I know of, and certainly Netanyahu opposing the very peace treaty or agreement discussion with Iran that you are celebrating in your previous book. Yet they have this—as I said, and I use it advisedly—unholy alliance; they are driving U.S. policy in that region, and pretty much Saudi Arabia and Israel have been doing this for decades.
TP: It’s quite fascinating precisely because of the fact that these two countries have so little in common, that these two countries have been so opposed to many of the things the U.S. has and wants to do in this. And they’ve been so opposed to each other. The only thing that has brought them together is now the fear that if the United States and Iran actually have a rapprochement, it would have a prolonged effect on the balance of power in the Middle East. To their detriment as they define it right now. In many ways, I think they had given up after the deal was struck. The reason why their effort has been given an, in my view, undeserved lifeline is because now you have a president in the White House that is exceptionally susceptible to their influence. Not to say that previous administrations have not been, but it’s not been in the way that it is today, in which the entire interagency process can be completely sidestepped if you just have Jared Kushner’s phone number. That type of a direct influence, even countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have had a lot of influence in the United States, have not experienced before. And I think that has reinvigorated their efforts to try to see, can they convince the United States to go back to a posture of pursuing all-out isolation of Iran, confrontation with Iran, because that lies in their interest. Not necessarily in the U.S.’s interest, but it does lie in their interest as they define it.
RS: And I want to ask you about thinking about other people. Now, you spent the first few years of your life in Iran, but then you spent a lot of it in Sweden, which you know, particularly under Olof Palme when he was there before he was assassinated, who believed very much in a third way in international relations. One of the things Sweden used to do more than it does now is try to remind us—and again I quote Graham Greene, the British writer, very much advanced this notion—that everyone’s got their history. Every people have got their stories, they’ve all got their contradictions, they’ve all got their aspirations. And the dangerous thing is to presume that you can make history for them. And I think when we think about Iran and how it’s captured our imagination in really a very negative way, all these years, we have to be reminded that these are not simpletons; in fact, there are no simpletons in the world. [Laughs] You know, everyone’s got complexity in their aspirations, their views of God, their views of the meaning of life. And Iran is really one of the most complex places around. And we, again, I use this cartoon figure—we try to make them seem like, what, they have no history. So just remind us about this history, and bring this up to the present; you know, who are the doves and the hawks, and what are the potential, what is the potential for Iran for change? After all, we’ve seen China go through enormous change without even getting rid of its Communist Party leadership. Can Iran have this kind of change?
TP: It certainly can, and I think you’re quite right that it is an extremely complex place. And as a result, change will also come there through complex processes that are not easily going to be understood or even identified. And I think one of the problems in Washington is that we do have a deliberate, cartoonish view of Iran. Because it’s much easier to drive things towards a confrontational policy if you reduce the complexity to a cartoonish level. If you bring in nuance into the conversation about Iran in Washington, you by definition undermine the effort to be able to have confrontation, but you also anger a lot of people who would prefer a cartoonish view, because that lies in their interest, or their desire for confrontation. But change certainly is possible in Iran. I think if we just take a look at what’s happened in the last couple of years as well as the last couple of weeks, we see a population that is more than willing to go to the streets to protest if they see injustices, and that they’re constantly pushing their government in various ways. And unfortunately we’ve also seen how brutal the government can be when it pushes back. But there is a process of change, and I would say that the generation of Iranians right now are quite different from previous generations, because they’ve come to understand, not just because of their own experience in 1979 but also based on what happened in the Arab Spring, that quick, uncontrollable change may be emotionally satisfying, but it usually leads to a worse domestic political situation. That’s certainly the case in 1979 in Iran, and that seems to be the case in every country, with the potential exception of Tunisia when it comes to the Arab Spring. And they’ve learned from this. So there’s always an effort, most of the time, to be able to channel the pressure towards working inside of the system, however much people may disagree with the system as a whole. What we saw in the last couple of weeks is when the opposite happened, when people got so fed up, and they felt that they were betrayed by both sides of the political aisle, and they started chanting slogans against the regime as a whole. But that also led to a scenario in which the protests did not become as big as they were in 2009, for instance, in which you had millions of people instead of a thousand or 5,000 people out on the streets. But bottom line is, you’re seeing a lot of things, a lot of things brewing underneath the surface; there is change in the making, it’s just difficult to say how long that change will take. But I personally am very confident there will be a lot of change in Iran.
RS: We have this idea that we have to make history for people. And yes, it’s important to stop genocide, it’s important to stop holocausts, it’s important for the world community to intervene in certain key things. But what we’ve really seen in a lot of these interventions is a comedy of errors, and yet the result is tragic in the extreme in terms of deaths. So I applaud you for trying to address the complexity. People should read your new book, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Clearly the opening to Iran was the great triumph of the Obama administration, and it was a triumph of diplomacy, but it seems on the verge of being reversed—
RS: —and so your book couldn’t be more timely. Thank you, Trita Parsi, for being with us today.
TP: Thank you so much for having me.
RS: The producers of Scheer Intelligence are Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. Thanks to NPR today for the use of their studio. I’m Robert Scheer. See you next week.
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