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A Single Roll of the Dice

Contributed by Mehrunisa Qayyum.

The die was cast on the sanctions during the summer of 2009, a senate staffer said, “It was basically understood that sanctions were going to go through.”

Middle East Foreign Policy expert, Trita Parsi, recounts the comment above in his latest book “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran”,  to underline one of his primary concerns in regards to current American-Iranians relations.

Although Parsi was born in Iran, he moved to Sweden with his family because his academic father faced persecution. Later, he completed his Doctoral thesis on Israeli-Iranian relations under Professor Francis Fukuyama at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Parsi’s diplomatic experience includes his stint working for the Swedish Permanent Mission to the United Nations. He has also advised several Asian governments and the U.S. Capitol.

Punitive actions and heated rhetoric are not new to the US-Iran sphere of foreign policy. But it was even more troubling to learn that when other countries (Brazil and Turkey) attempted to assume a neutral role in easing the tension, and in fact received positive results, they were not commended for engaging multilaterally. Although Parsi’s new book examines this newer effort conducted by Brazil and Turkey, he connects this book to his earlier observations with his 2007 book: “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States”. This book is recommended reading for those who recognize that hawkish US policymakers continue to nurture the intransigent paradigm that does little to progress relations with Iran. There are other competing paradigms to view Iran, a nation that also may be consumed by its own domestic challenges and vibrancy. (I am hoping that if I refrain from referencing AIPAC I can still talk about Iran.)

Getting a book review published on “A Single Roll of the Dice…” has been almost as challenging as reading this book on a DC metro without having someone ask me: “So, is Iran going to close the Strait of Hormuz and interrupt the oil flow?”

Despite these personal challenges for me, it cannot be as difficult as Parsi’s effort to conduct and assess over 60 interviews with contradicting voices in order to investigate how the “pre-breakdown” of US-Iran dialogue happened before official diplomacy actually restarted. I foolishly thought that if I discuss a book that serendipitously addresses a ‘hot topic’, then reviewing where the diplomacy option stands in a US election year would make up for the emotional discourse that predictably played out in DC while ‘netizens’ used #OccupyOccupyAIPAC and #Iran.  As The Daily Show noted: national elections tend to increase the vitriolic rhetoric as leaders demonize a potential threat to appeal to voters.

In “ A Single Roll of the Dice…” Parsi outlines two chronologies to represent each track that the US pursued immediately after Iran recognized that shared a message to dialogue:

  • The first track represented sanctions, which enhanced the status quo–because the last three decades achieved so much in US-Iranian relations.
  • The second track illustrated what revisionists might call an “Obama Doctrine” since President Obama exerted a significant amount of political capital to act on what the Bush Administration chose not to pursue.

Perhaps one could argue that the third track of military confrontation also exists, but as Parsi makes clear: the whole point behind Iran’s intent and the Obama administration’s posture was to avoid confrontation. Nevertheless, the book provides several anecdotes to highlight how “Rather than being an alternative to policy, sanctions have become an alternative to policy,” and what the driving force behind confronting “Iran’s nuclear problem” is .

Fundamentally, US sanctions have operated as a response to Iran’s nuclear potential, and thereby trumped all other recommended avenues to engage Iran on developing issues such as a long-term collaboration on Afghanistan. Moreover, the Iranian leadership has persistently said that it is not pursuing a nuclear weapon for militarized purposes as exemplified by Ayatollah Khamenei’s February 22 statement, “The Iranian nation has never pursued and will never pursue nuclear weapons.”

Another book that tackles Iran’s nuclear developed comes from Shahram Chubin, which is more defined by a security point of view: “Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions”. A more hawkish view of Iran may be encountered in “Showdown with Nuclear Iran: Radical Islam’s Messianic Mission to Destroy Israel and Cripple the United States” by Michael D. Evans & Jerome Corsi. In contrast, Parsi provides added value with the back-story of the current situation, which does not fixate on the philosophical definition of “rational actor” because he reviews each participating power’s role, considering its rhetoric and reaction. As a result, I see how a country may be acting rationally according to its interests while another country disagrees with policy. Nonetheless, it is more attractive to question a state’s sanity as opposed to its policy — a tool used by many involved.

In fact, discussing Iran as a rational actor–distinct from what its neighbors think or believe–has been consistently difficult, if not considered unwise. Historically, the US has consulted with he Europeans and Israel when dealing with Iran. But when newer rational actors participated, like the rising economies of Brazil and Turkey, somehow the new kids on the block were begrudgingly allowed to join the P5+1 soccer team. As a result, the US position preferred to spend more political capital maintaining the isolationist path of crippling sanctions rather than leveraging the political capital expended by Brazil and Turkey, which persuaded Iran to accept an agreement that the US had originally proposed. (By crippling sanctions, I mean the updated “targeted” sanctions policy.)

As Parsi commented, “Obama administration invested a lot of political capital in testing diplomacy with Iran …away from public view, Obama had sought to establish a direct challenge of communication with Khamenei via the Swiss embassy direct dialogue” Similarly, Iranian author Hooman Majd, noted in the New York Times, that sanctions on Iran, as a policy, have not been working either.

…Discussing Iran as a rational actor–distinct from what its neighbors think or believe–has been consistently difficult, if not considered unwise.

Additionally, Parsi tackles the sub-theme of the Iranian presidential elections in his book – something that many commentators and observers have quickly forgotten to take into consideration when analyzing current Iranian-American dynamics. Ironically, Iran continues to stump the US even though Iran experienced virtual civil war within the Iranian elite–which happens in even the most “liberal democracies” (consider how two powerful groups like the Republicans and Democrats–aka entrenched elites– are deadlocked in a heated debate regarding women’s reproductive health choices.) The discussion of election fraud signifies how the internal dynamics of a country may distract, if not outright detract, from efforts to engage with external actors. Similarly, just as the American 2012 elections create divisions and refocus Americans’ attention domestically, Iran can also sub-prioritize international relations to address issues at home.

In Iran, the Green Revolution served as a response to their own politics–it was not about “us” or the US. Essentially Parsi tries to advise American policy to:

  1. See Iran as a country capable of pragmatic decision-making;
  2. Recognize that the “lost in translation message” occurs in English between legislative and executive branches; and
  3. Domestic uprisings can be just that: internal movements that have nothing to do with anti-American sentiment.

Those interested in going beyond the narrow but ubiquitous framework currently provided to understand Iran should pick up this


Trita Parsi

A country cannot be simply be the sum of  manipulated perceptions or foreign interests, but also a result of its own consumption of domestic challenges. Perhaps the greatest parallel, ironically, is this country.

Before the book hit the stores, I attended one of Parsi’s book chat discussion because I had a few questions that related to his body

of work, such as “Do hawks in the US purposely mispronounce Iranian to rhyme with uranium to galvanize Americans into confronting the perceived nuclear threat of Iran?” I seriously proposed this theory to Trita Parsi. Thankfully, he did not take me too seriously. However, after reading his assessment, I cannot help but believe that the “Iranian, uranium” exchange is a little more than a Freudian Slip when I consider some of the conclusions. I am hesitant to trace the Iran-US latest diplomacy debacle to 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium–and I am grateful that Parsi pauses to reflect on moments of indecision versus procrastination.

Mehrunisa Qayyum is the founder of PITA POLICY and a Political Economy of MENA Consultant, based in Washington D.C. Follow her @PITAPOLICY

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