When Trita Parsi founded the National Iranian American Council in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, he hoped to give a voice to Iranians in the United States who condemned the terrorist attacks as vehemently as most natural-born Americans did.
In the years since, the council has grown to include several thousand members and its role has taken on a more complex — and some say controversial — mission. Meanwhile, Parsi has become a celebrated author and leading scholar helping to bridge the cultural, philosophical and geopolitical divide between Americans and Iranians, and more broadly the East and West.
Last month, the Iranian-born Parsi, who holds a green card and lives in the Washington area, won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, an honor bestowed as a result of his 2007 book, “Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.”
The award, previously granted to former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and other international heavyweights, gave Parsi more than just prestige. The author pocketed a $200,000 check, as well. Rodger Payne, a political science professor at the University of Louisville who administers the awards, said the judges thought the potential for conflict in the Middle East was one of the largest threats to world order and that Parsi’s book “addressed this problem very effectively.”
In a wide-ranging interview with the Washington Diplomat, Parsi explained that a primary focus of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in recent years has been helping to avert a potentially cataclysmic war between the United States and Iran. Toward the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, Parsi became increasingly alarmed that the United States was drifting toward war with the provocative Middle Eastern powerhouse. A draft resolution pending in Congress in late 2008 called on the U.S. president to stop all shipments of refined petroleum products from reaching Iran, and demanded that the president impose “stringent inspection requirements on all persons, vehicles, ships, planes, trains and cargo entering or departing Iran.”
“It was about putting a Navy blockade on Iran, but if you committed this act of war you were starting a war,” Parsi said. “It was clever of the proponents of the resolution to not use the word ‘war’ or even use the word ‘naval blockade,’ but that’s what it amounted to.”
The NIAC quickly rallied a large coalition of groups, including Jewish-American organizations, to condemn the resolution as a precursor to war, and despite having the support of hundreds of members of Congress, House Resolution 362 eventually fizzled. A couple of months later, Americans elected Barack Obama president and gave a less hawkish Democratic Party control of both chambers of Congress.
“Everyone mobilized and the fight, I think to a very large extent, was in the media,” Parsi recalled. “Being able to bring that to the attention of the public through the media, it ended up not being considered. It essentially died in committee, even though it had a huge number of co-sponsors and some of the most influential organizations were pushing for it.”
Asked what the repercussions would have been had the resolution succeeded, Parsi said it would have been disastrous to the burgeoning pro-democracy movement in Iran.
“The first victims of a war would be the pro-democracy movement,” he said.
However, the Washington Times in 2009 raised questions about the effort in an article that challenged the legality of the NIAC, as an educational group, to lobby Congress on the issue.
Parsi disagreed in the article and argued that the group is permitted by law to engage in lobbying with up to 20 percent of its budget. He added that “educational activities and advocacy for general policies, such as opposition to war — as opposed to specific legislation — are not lobbying under the law.”
Today, the idea of a U.S. military offensive against Iran — especially with American troops still mired in Iraq and Afghanistan and a fresh round of international sanctions against Tehran having just been passed — seems far less imminent, although the possibility remains on the table, especially as Iran presses forward with its nuclear ambitions and Israel remains adamant that it won’t allow a nuclear-armed Iran to happen on its watch. Still, the United States seems to have quelled Israeli fears for now, arguing that there’s enough time for diplomacy before Iran makes what one senior administration called a “dash” for a working nuclear weapon.
For years, Iran has also encountered significant problems in enriching uranium — possibly the result of reported sabotage schemes by the U.S. and other Western powers. Moreover, American and European officials are hopeful that the wave of unilateral and multilateral sanctions passed this summer against Iran will bite and perhaps splinter the regime by choking off critical energy and financial investment.
Nevertheless, the fundamental deadlock hasn’t really budged: Western countries have repeatedly pressed Tehran to halt its sensitive nuclear program but Iranian leaders have refused, insisting that the country’s nuclear activities are designed for peaceful civilian purposes.
Parsi, whose family fled Iran to Sweden when he was 4 years old to escape the political repression of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic, remains dubious of Iran’s various nuclear claims.
“The Iranians want to have the option of being able to build a nuclear bomb in case the security environment radically deteriorates,” Parsi said. “But the consensus view, including inside the U.S. intelligence bureau, is that no such decision has been made. But they are moving toward having the capability of making a decision and that is sufficient to worry some countries in the region, and certainly to worry the United States. The question is what can realistically be done about it?”
Parsi adds that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory, is somewhat problematic in the context of Iran’s stated nuclear ambitions.
“The bottom line is that enrichment and production of civilian energy is considered a right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and a majority of countries support that perspective,” Parsi pointed out. “There is plenty of literature on this. The way the NPT is structured, because of Article 4, it creates a loophole for countries to get to the verge of a nuclear bomb, and do so completely legally, without being in violation of anything in the NPT.”
But the United States and other Western powers say Iran forfeited its NPT rights when it kicked out inspectors and closed off its nuclear program to the outside world.
Yet Parsi argues that weapons inspections — largely thrown aside as an option prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq — are the answer.
“What you can invest in is making sure you have maximum inspection and verification, and by doing that you have a guarantee that gives the international community confidence that there won’t be any weaponization,” he asserts.
But if that doesn’t work? Asked about the consequences of a U.S. military strike or invasion of Iran, Parsi shudders at the thought.
“The first effect you would see is a significant radicalization inside of Iran,” he predicted. “You will see those elements who have already tried to turn Iran into a military state being able to push forward with their agenda much more successfully than they have so far. It will give a pretext to the government to go out and completely crush the pro-democracy movement.
They have already done a significant amount of work on that front, but war would be giving them a gift from above when it comes to their ability to do so with even more ferociousness.”
Parsi also believes a war would have profound implications for the entire region, not just Iran.
“I think you would also likely see the Iranians escalate the war as much outside of their borders as possible,” he said. “They already have that as part of their defense doctrine. It would mean a significant destabilization of the region as a whole. I don’t think there are a lot of divergent views when it comes to these specific issues and repercussions of war.”
War, however, remains an option for Israel, which won’t rule out a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, even though most experts say such an attack would only delay the program — and could even speed it up. Although it’s estimated to have its own large cache of nuclear weapons, Israel views Tehran as an existential threat — and at a minimum won’t allow Iran to upset its military hegemony in the region.
To that end, Parsi believes Israel’s real worries are more practical than existential.
“Even those Israeli officials who believe that Iran is hell-bent on destroying the Jewish state recognize that Tehran is unlikely to attack Israel with nuclear weapons due to the destruction Israel would inflict on Iran through its second-strike capability,” he wrote last year in the article “Netanyahu and Threat of Bombing Iran — The Bluff that Never Stops Giving?”
“The real danger a nuclear-capable Iran brings with it for Israel is twofold. First, an Iran with nuclear capability will significantly damage Israel’s ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. Gone would be the days when Israel’s military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans,” he argued. “Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time. Second, the deterrence and power Iran would gain by mastering the fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel.”
Yet Parsi discounts the notion of a deep-rooted Israeli-Iranian divide, arguing that the idea “is very much tied to the general view that the Jewish population has been unwelcome in that region,” he said. “This is just simply completely historically false — the Jewish people and Iranians have very positive relations over the centuries, and they also started off the relationship on a very positive note when they first came into contact about 2,500 years ago.”
Parsi points out that “the only non-Jew in the Bible” who is elevated to the level of a prophet is Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire who freed the Jews from Babylonian captivity.
“Even during the early stages of the Israeli state, the relations tended to be very positive and driven by a very political and strategic basis,” Parsi explained. “The two countries were in a tough neighborhood and shared a lot of common threats — threats from the Soviet Union and threats from more nationalist Arab states. This collaboration extended to deep security and intelligence collaboration but also into other areas. It wasn’t always a very comfortable relationship, but it was a strong and robust relationship.”
Parsi said that even when the Iranian Islamic Republic emerged after the 1979 Revolution and Tehran was headed by a hostile anti-Israeli government, close collaboration with Israel continued, especially in the realm of arms sales to ensure Iran’s defenses against Saddam Hussein.
He suggested that the current antagonism between Israel and Iran is at least partly manufactured as part of a larger geopolitical strategy on each country’s part.
“Both of them have an interest in portraying their conflict as an ideological conflict,” Parsi said. “From the Israeli perspective, if this is viewed as an ideological conflict in the United States, that means the conflict is framed as the sole democratic Western power in the region against a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship — and the allegiance of the Western power is going to be pretty automatic.
“From the Iranian perspective, if you frame it for what it is, which is about Iran’s power ambitions or Iran’s desire to be recognized as a key player in the region, you’re not going to be able to attract a lot of Arab resources and sympathy or regional resources and sympathy to your cause,” Parsi continued. “But if you frame it as Iran is standing up for the honor of Islam, then suddenly you have the ability to attract a whole new set of actors who can be sympathetic and helpful to your cause. Both countries have a common interest in framing this issue in a way that can ideologically benefit them.”
All of which takes us to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s provocative and mercurial president and a persistent thorn in America’s side. Parsi claims the Iranian leader’s seemingly insane Holocaust denials and other anti-Semitic rants are calculated for political effect and domestic consumption.
“If the fight is with Israel, then it’s much more difficult for Arab states to side with the United States because siding with the U.S. would mean siding with Israel,” Parsi said. “This has had some effect on the audience that Iran is playing toward, which is the Muslim street — just as much as Israeli rhetoric about Iran being some version of a 1938 Germany has had some effect over here. Both sides are playing to their own audiences and having no consideration about how this plays out on the opposite side — and they have only managed to dig themselves deeper and deeper into the whole of conflict.”
Another problem with making the nuclear issue the centerpiece of the world’s interaction with Iran: It allows the regime to galvanize public support against foreign powers supposedly threatening the country, thereby diverting attention from the government’s own shortcomings and giving it an excuse to crush any challenge to its authority.
Parsi believes that Iran’s Green Movement, the pro-democratic political force that rose up to protest the country’s rigged elections last year, is in something of a dormant stage, but contrary to some reports, it’s still alive and well.
“I don’t think the movement is dead — it’s just not out on the street,” he said. “The underlying reasons for people being upset have not in any way or shape changed. You have more repression than before and you have more economic incompetence and corruption than before. What you do have at the same time is that some people have lost faith in the specific leadership of the movement. They had hoped the leadership would have been more bold or more effective, but the discontent is still there.”
However, a revolution won’t truly happen until it is clear that the alternative will be significantly better than the status quo — an assurance many pro-democracy Iranians don’t seem to have much confidence in at the moment.
“Mere discontent is not sufficient to rise up,” Parsi said. “You need to have some hope that your actions will lead to sustainable positive results. They want to have confidence that if they go out on the street and risk their life, they are not doing it to replace one bad system with another bad system.”
first published in The Washington Diplomat.
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.
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