Give and take

Why diplomacy and sanctions don't always mix


Give and take
by Trita Parsi

Change often occurs at a faster pace than people can comprehend. That is certainly the case with the quickly shifting political realities in Washington on Iran. In less than 50 days, America will be led by a president who made dialogue with Tehran a campaign promise--and yet he won. Perhaps even more surprising, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington failed--in the middle of an election year--to convince the US Congress to pass a resolution calling for a naval blockade of Iran, even though the resolution had more than 250 co-sponsors.

The debate in Washington is no longer whether to negotiate with Iran, but how, when and in what sequence such negotiations should take place. This, however, does not mean that talks will occur or that they will succeed. This is partly due to an unchanging feature of the political landscape in Washington--the reliance on economic sanctions to look tough and to gain leverage.

President-elect Barack Obama, who told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee earlier this year that he stood firm on his call for negotiations with Iran and his promise to do away with "self-defeating preconditions", has sought to balance his pro-dialogue position by adopting a strong appetite for additional economic sanctions against Iran.

While a senator, he was the original co-sponsor of the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act of 2008, which would have intensified existing sanctions and paved the way for additional divestment. Obama argued at the time that sanctions were an integral part of any diplomatic strategy. "In addition to an aggressive, direct, and principled diplomatic effort, we must continue to increase economic pressure on Iran," he said in a statement. Some of Obama's advisors have taken this a step further and argued that sticks--meaning sanctions--would have to come first in any carrot-and-stick approach to Iran.

Obama is of course absolutely right that any successful approach to Iran must include a combination of incentives and disincentives. And sanctions can theoretically provide the US with additional leverage over Iran. The problem with this line of thinking, however, is that it fails to recognize that existing sanctions already provide the US with significant leverage. But this leverage can only be utilized in the context of a negotiation. Sanctions can play a critical function in a US negotiation with Iran if, that is, Washington is willing to do away with them in return for significant Iranian behavioral changes.

That willingness has thus far not existed in Washington. The definition of leverage in the Bush administration was one's ability to get something for nothing. That approach has clearly failed; it does not characterize negotiations, but rather ultimatums and threats. In negotiations, you can only get something by giving something. Indeed, it's not the threat or imposition of new sanctions that will change Iranian behavior, but rather the offer to lift existing sanctions. Herein lies America's as yet untapped reservoir of leverage over Iran.

The crux, of course, is that this leverage only can be actualized if Washington and Tehran find their way to the negotiation table. And that is why the inclination to impose new sanctions prior to the commencement of talks can be so devastating to Obama's agenda: Imposing new sanctions on Iran--whether they be congressional sanctions or executive orders--will only reduce the prospects for diplomacy by poisoning the atmosphere and further increasing mistrust between the two capitals, which in turn defeats America's ability to tap into its reservoir of leverage over Iran in the first place.

The same is of course true for Iran: any effort by Tehran to intensify its efforts to undermine Washington's policies in the region as a means to gain leverage prior to negotiations will only render such talks less likely.

To succeed with his pro-diplomacy agenda, Obama must not only avoid the fallacy that Washington doesn't have leverage over Iran and recognize the value of offering to lift existing sanctions in return for Iranian policy changes. He must also resist the temptation to undermine the path to negotiations by imposing new sanctions before talks have begun--including resisting pressure from domestic constituencies whose motivation for sanctions historically has precisely been to prevent a US-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough to begin with.

The combination of incentives and disincentives that will succeed in advancing US interest vis-a-vis Iran is one in which diplomacy is at the center and sanctions are in the periphery--not the other way around.

Trita Parsi is President of National Iranian-American Council and author of Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US, a silver medal recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Book Award. This commentary was first published in


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more from Trita Parsi

Let me get this straight! Is that what you are all saying?

by Inquiring minds (not verified) on

Based on what I have read, I believe what you guys are DEMANDING is for America to leave mullahs, once and for all, alone and give them carte-blanch regarding their nuke program and their support for International terrorism (who cares about Human rights violations?), while lifting the sanctions, facilitating Iran's entry into WTO and returning of Iran's frozen assets, completely interrupting all political TV and radio broadcasts into Iran, delivering Reza Pahlavi and his entire family to mullahs, helping mullahs track down and eliminate their active dissidents all over the world, and finally assisting mullahs in driving six million Jews of Israel into the sea, renaming Israel as Palestine.

Am I right?


What I would tell the Americans

by Mehdi on

I would tell them that dealing with Iran today is in many ways similar to dealing with the native Americans when the white man showed up on this continent. In fact dealing with all the so-called extremist regimes or even terrorist infested countries is very much like when the white man had to deal with the native indians. America is a very powerful force and technologically far more advanced than Iran or any of these countries - just like the situation back then. The native indians were faced with an overwhelming force that they did not really comprehend.

While many Americans today, at least privately, do not regret the events that resulted in the almost complete annihilation of the native indians, most of them feel that they would have wanted the situation resolved differently if it was possible. Most Americans, do not feel proud about what happened. They may only feel that they had no other choice but they don't feel good about it and always wonder if there was a better solution those days. And that's what American statesmen today must be reminded of. They must realize that there are much better ways to deal with such situations. They must realize that those who promised much with the "stick" or even their version of carrot, caused only something to be embarrassed about in Iraq! This must be repeated and repeated to them a thousand times a day. Because, my friend, there are those who are repeatedly promising that bombing Iran will make all problems go away - these are people who profit from such a bloody trade.

Those who want a better solution, must get busy. They must inform the governments but they must also start negotiations anyway. Work on governments, for sure, but also start actions. Start Iran-US friendship committees and organizations. Web sites that are not offensive to either government and only promotes healthy cultural exchange without any attempt to overrun any culture. Iranians abroad have a huge responsibility to support such peaceful activities and get involved. It is a lot of fun too! It is very rewarding!

Support NIAC, if you want a better Iran and a better US and a better Israel. Don't sit on the fence with doubts in your mind. Get involved now!


10. Tips about dealing with

by holidays (not verified) on

10. Tips about dealing with Iran for President-elect Obama


Ari Siletz

L L Poodle:

by Ari Siletz on

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, first things first. Let's sit down to chess, then figure out what the moves will be. Of course even the opening of negotitations with Iran would be a symbolic defeat for AIPAC. In a mature negotiation Iran would resist the temptation to rub it in, a move consistent with the position that Israel is less important to US interests that imgained. 




by Lefty Lap Poodle (not verified) on

By pointing America towards Pakistan, Iran can remind them that Pakistan is a far more dangerous situation than what American claim Iran can be. i.e. Obama's claim that Iran getting the nukes would be a "game changer".

While America (Hillary) can tell Iran in the negotiating room that they will "obliterate" Iran if Iran uses nukes (like Richardson told North Korea during Bill Clinton), Iran can tell Americans this "if" is a big smoke screen. Will they obliterate Pakistan if they use nukes? They are far more fanatic, far more proliferator of nukes (like selling nukes to Iran) and are involved in far more recent terrorist attacks. And you go from there, get the picture? Tell America to be real.

Now as far as your question about how Iran can help US in some way; that would be the FIRST question Iran can ask US! What do you want from us?? If the objective for US is to pound Iran no matter what she says or does (AIPAC) then they are both wasting their time.

Iran can help (given a good delegation, not Ahmadinejad's delegation from chalgooz abad :) US by offering to state publicly some positions that will be favorable to US and easy for Iran to make. Iran had a better delegation during Khatami and early Ahmadinejad.

They can basically say look at the terrorist events and attacks of the past 8 years. Look at how much US allies (Pakistan and Saudi) were involved and how many Iran was involved. None.

Iran does not have any leverage on Pakistan. They do not have any ties like they do with Iraq and the holy places.

This discussion can go on and on and for ever like other threads and old and new articles and blogs. We will never have the right answer UNTIL we get Iran and US in a negotiating room and really negotiate and use all the diplomatic tools available, such as using countries that have good diplomatic relations with Iran that are many.

ebi amirhosseini

Dr Parsi

by ebi amirhosseini on



These unlawful sanctions

by Anonymous on

These unlawful sanctions have actually forced Iran to become somewhat self-reliant in producing products that were previously imported. This I believe is a very positive thing for Iran. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Of course the policies of the United States and Europe towards Iran are outrageous. Let's face it, Iran is at war with the West and they will continue to be a threat. I just wished Iranians understood the level of dander from the West and would not jeopardize the independence of their country by assisting these monsters in their relentless effort to take Iran back to its state of certitude as it existed during the period prior to 1979. These people are unreasonable and nothing we say or do will cause them to change their word and their behavior until Iran's complete capitulation. Fortunately they do recognize that Iran is a not a push-over like Iraq was and could hit back hard if attacked.

Mohammad Ala

Iranian promises . . let us see what others will offer.

by Mohammad Ala on

Iranian national interests are not negotiable in a hostile environment where they live.  We are surrounded by hostile nuclear arm powers in every direction.

 The expression of "carrot and stick," is not appropriate when it comes to national interests, especially when international rules are biasedly applied towards Iran. In any negotiation, Iran must not accept any country with nuclear arsenal in the region, let alone next to it.  Iranians must contend that they do not trust countries that have used nuclear arm(s) or hold stock pile of nuclear arms. 

Iranians must contend that they have not attacked any country and do not have any intention of doing so in the future. 

These are Iranian promises; let us see what others are willing to offer in return.


Dr. Parsi,

by Midwesty on

Let's not to forget president elect Obama has a bigger fish to fry which is the economy. What we hope to see in the future of his foreign relation should be an expansion in his economical ties with the Europe, Africa and Asia. His foreign policy hopefully will pave the road to calm the market in order to invite investments. He knows further moaning about Iran for the already-numbed-brain residents of the world neither calm the investor’s market nor it’ll help his image as a leader for change.   



by Midwesty on

In that case Mr. Obama should say good bye to the second term. Let’s remember the core message of his campaign that made history, to change the Washington, cut special interest hands and heal the wound of America by improving its image internationally. The people who put him in the Whitehouse are exactly the demographic that all along opposed the US wars and its meddling in the ME in the first place.

I rather stay silent and not judging him too fast and watch him like the rest of country that what strange potion he is making out of his freaking cabinet! So far what I see is that he wants to be like someone who lived decades ago with different sets of problems. I hope he is not childishly rolling the snow ball so long that he would run into the problem lifting it.  


It is true that by electing Clinton he can shield himself against the potential poisonous arrows come from the media and the congress, but it is very childish to ignore the bigger problem that Clinton might bring, to crumble his house from the within.  


I advise Mr. Obama not to lose his touch with people who put him up there. They put him there and they’ll keep him there protected! Rely on your own people man! Politicians can’t do sh*t!

Ari Siletz

L L Poodle:

by Ari Siletz on

Thanks for the response. Pointing the American negotiating team towards Pakistan, Iran would have to be able and willing to help the US in some way. What is Iran's leverage in the Pakistan problem?


Mutual leverage? Perhaps,

by sickofiri (not verified) on

Mutual leverage? Perhaps, that would apply 4 years ago, not anymore, the dynamics and the American understanding of IRI have changed drastically since.

The most important determining factor is the "human factor". The IRI cronies do not understand the US and uselessly try to pit Israel against the US. It won't work. You peopl need to be fired as IRI consultants.

Here's what R. Gates said in his speech at National defense University:

"I have been involved in the search for the elusive Iranian moderate for 30 years. (Laughter.) I was in the first meeting that took place between a senior U.S. government official and the leadership of the Iranian government in Algiers at the end of October, 1979. Every administration since then has reached out to the Iranians in one way or another and all have failed. Some have gotten into deep trouble associated with their failures, but the reality is the Iranian leadership has been consistently unyielding over a very long period of time in response to repeated overtures from the United States about having a different and better kind of relationship.

I just think this is a case where we have to look at the history of outreach that was very real, under successive presidents, and did not yield any results. I think until the Iranians decide they want to take a different approach, to the rest of the world, that where we are is probably not a bad place."

Gate's Speech:


the change will come through mutual leverage

by no_name (not verified) on

Given the Israel lobby does not want any regional country challenging its regional hegemony. They will use any excuse or tactic to delay or derail any US-Iran rapprochement. The Israel lobby blockade was shut down mainly from fears of negative economical impact and accusation of war mongering during a change election.

Given the path we are in now, there needs to be an equally compelling mutual leverage and benefits.

IRI needs to realize this might be its best opportunity to make a deal, while US feels it needs to reduce war costs to reinvest in domestic economy in order to prevent an economical depression.

Unfortunately, the media is under great influence of the Jewish lobby and most Americans will not hear the case for Iran ties and the upside potential for the US economy by helping America in the Iraq and Afghanistan fronts.
With oil prices down, if Obama is able to lift his head above his Israeli Chief of Staff, Rahm and the rest of Israeli supporters in his cabinet, he could make a case to American people and to Iran.
Only time will tell how much of an independent thinker he is.


Mr. Parsi's advice to Obama

by Jaleho on

"He must also resist the temptation to undermine the path to
negotiations by imposing new sanctions before talks have
begun--including resisting pressure from domestic constituencies whose
motivation for sanctions historically has precisely been to prevent a
US-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough to begin with."


I hope Mr. Parsi's advice to Obama is taken more seriously than that of Mr. Indyk's a couple of article below this very article! I have a fear that the appointment of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of Sate though, might tilt the administration's Mideast policy to "domestic constituencies whose
motivation for sanctions historically has precisely been to prevent a
US-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough tobegin with."

I tried to make this point clear in my recent blog:




by Lefty Lap Poodle (not verified) on

Those who need to understand what I'm saying get it. It is not about diverting attention, it is about bringing attention. Remember Biden's remarks.

I have no intention of bringing in Israel and IRI stuff into this. IIIIRRRIIII christmas carolers will soon sing their carols here and I leave it to them to fight it out!


To Lefty Lap Poodle

by Gullible (not verified) on

It is naive to think that the problems with Pakistani extremists and terrorists in that country who are sometimes trained by the Pakistani government intelligence service, and Terrorist in Afghanistan will inevitably compel Americans to go easy on mullahs in Iran and to leave them alone (that's what mullahs want) so that they can comfortably finish building their bombs. Even if Americans choose to let mullahs off the hook and go easy on them , Israelis won't.


Fred: I think team Obama has

by sickofiri (not verified) on

Fred: I think team Obama has already grasped that reality, hence, the article by the de facto lobby. Obama is also a global thinker/strategizer and know coddling despots and tyrants have never worked in the past and will not work in the future. He also understands that it's immoral to put the welfare of the oil mafia as a global citizen. He knows short-term band aid solutions are not very smart in the long run.

Darius Kadivar

FYI/Larijani Challenged by Students in Shiraz

by Darius Kadivar on

Just Food for Thought ...

Iran's Civil Society is Challenging the IRI regime and need to be Supported. I would like to know what can the Iranian Diaspora Do to support them efficiently ? ...

I welcome your opinion and suggestions on this matter.




by Lefty Lap Poodle (not verified) on

Ari I think neither side is going to change their stated objectives in the beginning.

Zakaria the reporter in CNN had an interview with Rice not long ago where she said "can you imagine what the result would be if the negotiations failed?" What would happen?! You'll be back to square one. She just didn't want to be bothered with and made this irrelavant question to have a big smoke screen over nothing. Laziness. Ask a lazy person to do something, s/he'll give a thousand reason why it should not be done.

Once you get in a room with Iran no one can really tell what the outcome would be. Look at examples. In recent negotiations in Iraq the outcome was positive. Negotiations over Afghanistan were positive. Why would talking to Iran over Iran would be anything different?

Iran's objectives should be to point America's team in the negotiation room towards Pakistan. Tell them remember Pakistan?! The one who sold us the nuclear stuff illegally and in black market in the first place. The same Pakistan that is currently on the verge of a nuclear war with India and may unleash Bin Laden's army in addition.

American (read Hillary) can tell Iranians that Iran will be obliterated if they send missles towards Israel and Iran can say "bring it on!" Square one. The next step would be the one to look for since no one knows the outcome for sure.



by Lefty Lap Poodle (not verified) on

"The sooner the threat is dealt with by empowering the Iranians to overthrow it, the lesser the final cost will be."


You've been screaming your lungs out for ever and were deflated when Obama won the election. This despite all that was said against him.

Soon he'll be talking to IRI and then your "threat" is dealt with!



Gordian knot

by Fred on

It seems whole lot of people including Islamist republic lobbyists are in for a quick lesson in differentiating between campaign sloganeering and actual statecraft. The mere existence of the Islamist republic in any shape or form is a clear and present danger to the security of not only the U.S. but the entire Mideast and far beyond. The sooner the threat is dealt with by empowering the Iranians to overthrow it, the lesser the final cost will be. Coming to terms with this reality is the lobbyists’ Gordian knot.

Ari Siletz

Logical, and precisely worded.

by Ari Siletz on

Would I be wrong in taking the often stated US negotiation objectives at face value? Namely, Iran's indefinite suspension of uranium enrichment and withdrawal of support for anti-Israel factions? Also, in your opinion what are Iran's negotiation objectives?