by Francois Nicoullaud
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 are 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 result, according 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. Both Netanyahu and the powerful “Israel lobby” were defeated by overconfidence in its 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.
Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Wikimedia Commons)