Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat—Trita Parsi is the founder and current president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington D.C. According to its mission statement, NIAC is “a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community…by supplying the resources, knowledge and tools to enable greater civic participation by Iranian Americans and informed decision making by lawmakers”. A graduate of John Hopkins University, policy activist, and commentator, Trita has also authored two books on the Iranian-American-Israeli relations, Treacherous Alliance (2008), and A Single Roll of the Dice (2013).
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Trita Parsi discusses the challenges of devising a solution to Iran’s nuclear standoff and rapprochement between the Islamic Republic and the United States under new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani in the light of regional developments, including the civil war in Syria.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Do you think new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his diplomatic arm headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have the will as well as the capability to break the stalemate in Iran-US talks, particularly over the nuclear issue?
Trita Parsi: I don’t doubt their will. But two challenges remain: Retaining the support of a critical mass of the Iranian regime to go along with a nuclear compromise will be tough. Secondly, no solution can be found unless President Obama is willing to take on the elements in Washington and in the region that prefer the status quo or even conflict to a compromise. Neither Rouhani nor Obama can fix this alone; they need to strengthen each other’s hands vis-à-vis the skeptics in their own camps.
Q: What about the American side? How serious are they in terms of negotiations? Is there a divergence of attitude between the Obama administration and the US Congress over Iran? Which one wields greater power when it comes to policy-making?
Clearly, Congress plays a negative role with its obsession with sanctions and its hardliners that seek to block almost all of Obama’s initiatives. And no sustainable solution is likely unless some of the Congressional sanctions are lifted. At the same time, 131 Members of the House signed a letter this past August declaring their willingness to support sanctions relief in return for Iranian concessions. If Obama were to go to Congress with an impressive deal and really invest in winning Congressional support, he could win. But only if he really invests political capital into it.
Q: Given the ideological differences between the two sides and their competing regional interests as things stand now, what are the chances that a possible thaw between Tehran and Washington will be sustainable?
Ideological differences and competing regional interests do not necessarily need to lead to a war. Competition in the international system is natural; what is critical is to establish rules of engagement and a framework for that competition. Such a thaw is possible.
Q: How could possible US military action against Syria affect Iran’s nuclear stance in the upcoming nuclear negotiations with world powers?
A strike seems increasingly unlikely now, but it is safe to say that a strike would create significant complications for US-Iran diplomacy. A diplomatic process on Syria that includes Iran can however enhance the nuclear talks.
Q: Is there any possibility in the current situation of Washington and Tehran working together, behind the scenes perhaps, to reach a type of deal or compromise? How can direct negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the US begin in practice?
Ultimately, there is only a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Negotiations must include all key parties, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. Whereas the inclusion of Iran was opposed by the US just a few months ago, there is much greater openness now. The US must use its influence to bring along its allies, from Saudi Arabia to Turkey to elements of the rebels. Iran must show that it can pressure Assad and bring him to the table. The first objective must be a ceasefire. If Assad violates it, Iran’s standing will be harmed.
Q: What do you think of the role that Israel is playing both regarding the situation in Syria and the Iranian nuclear talks, particularly as Tel Aviv is of the view that its national security is at stake?
The Israeli interests are more complex. One the one hand, the weakening of Syria is seen as a positive in some quarters, on the other hand, if the Assad regime—a stable enemy of Israel–is replaced by Al-Qaeda elements, that would be a very dangerous for Israel. Moreover, a US attack on Syria could increase the probability of a US strike on Iran, which Israel favors. The competing interests were on display when many in Israel objected to AIPAC’s very visible (and unsuccessful) efforts to win Congressional support for strikes.
Q: How does Tehran’s approach toward the Palestinian-Israeli peace process impact its relations with the US?
Iran’s support for Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process was a bigger factor when there actually was a viable peace process. In spite of Kerry’s efforts lately, no such process exists currently. Moreover, Iran’s relations with Hamas has taken a huge hit over the Syrian crisis, in spite of recent efforts to mend fences. And finally, and this is very important, the peace process is not promoted as an effort to isolate Iran today, as it was 20 years ago.
Q: Last but not least, let us turn to the organization you are heading, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). As the president of NIAC, would you describe the thrust of its objectives and activities? What steps have you taken so far in the direction of relieving US sanctions against Iran?
NIAC is the largest Iranian-American grassroots organization in the US, with a strong presence in Washington D.C. Our membership sets our agenda, which in the past years have been focused on resolving the nuclear issue with Iran peacefully, lift sanctions that put pressure on Iranian Americans and the Iranian population instead of the Iranian government, and ensure respect for human rights in Iran.
Much of our focus has been on easing sanctions on Iran due to their punishment of the Iranian people and weakening of the pro-democracy movement in Iran. As part of this, we played a leading role in making multiple-entry visas available for Iranian students, lifting sanctions on communications technology, as well as some of the steps the Obama administration has taken towards removing obstacles preventing the flow of medicine to Iran.
Q: Under what conditions may the sanctions be lifted? In other words, what do the decision-makers in the US demand Iran do as a prerequisite? How serious and reliable are they?
The problem is that some elements in Congress don’t want to lift sanctions under any circumstances, hoping that sanctions will permanently weaken Iran and ensure indefinite US-Iran enmity. No one will know for certain what measures Iran will have to take to have sanctions lifted until the various elements in the US government reach an agreement on what that price will have to be. My worry is that if hardliners in the US win out and true sanctions relief is not put on the table, hardliners in Iran will win out and push Tehran towards building a bomb.