Sunday, January 15, 2012

Post #158 - Why Do They Make It So Hard?

The Washington Post today carried an OpEd piece by Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. Dr. Parsi [full disclosure: Parsi is a friend and colleague of mine; we were co-founders of the Council], wrote on "How Obama Should Talk to Iran." Notice that he vaulted right over the question of whether or not such talks should happen, to the question of how.

"Just 13 minutes into his presidency, Barack Obama indirectly reached out to Iran in his inaugural address, offering America’s hand of friendship if Tehran would unclench its fist," Parsi noted. "But Obama’s diplomacy has fallen short." Since the fall of 2009, "Iran and the United States have been on a confrontational path." In fact, "Iran and the United States are inching closer to a military confrontation." However, war is not inevitable, Parsi believes and diplomacy can still lead to a resolution of the stand-off.

Ahmadinezhad and Brazil's Luis Inacio Lula de Silva
Parsi relates a conversation with an unnamed "senior State Department official" who said: "Our Iran diplomacy was a gamble on a single roll of the dice.” Oddly, "Turkey and Brazil secured a version of the fuel swap that Obama had sought" only a few months earlier (surprisingly they were not met with kudos from the United States and its closest allies for their achievement). "But by then," Parsi said, "it was too late. The Obama administration was already on the path to sanctions"

Parsi's main point is this: "Instead of continuing toward a war the U.S. military doesn’t want, we should double down on diplomacy, in part by emulating Turkey and Brazil’s efforts." He cites recent reports that "Iran would be open to talks later this month with the P5+1 negotiating group — China, France, Germany, Russia, Britain and the United States" and lists lessons that the experience of Turkey and Brazil ought to teach us, the main lesson being: "Talk to everyone -- and talk a lot."

Parsi recognizes that because of the complexity of Iranian politics and governance, Western officials can be genuinely stumped by the question of whom to talk to within the Iranian regime. "The futile search for a sole authoritative Iranian partner often causes diplomacy to be rejected before it even begins. Turkey and Brazil did not fall into this trap. Instead, they recognized that there are many power centers in Iran — including the supreme leader’s office, the parliament, the president’s circle of advisers, the National Security Council and influential clergymen — all of which need to be included in the process."

In other words, no one promised us a rose garden. As John Limbert took pains to emphasize in his book on the subject, it will definitely not be easy or quick. On the U.S. side, we are accustomed to having laws, treaties or trade deals vetted variously by the White House, member of Congress, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget, the business community, trade unions and environmentalists. Sometimes, faith communities, states or local governments weigh in, to say nothing of the judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Why would we expect that a near-eastern theocracy  formed only 32 years ago should be any less complex when it deals with foreign relations matters of huge consequence? Parsi quotes a Middle Eastern journalist in saying just that, “There is one country that resembles the Iranian power structure, it’s the United States of America. [To get a deal], talking to the president is not enough. You have to talk to everyone.”

Ever notice that those who have a clear-cut solution to "the problem of Iran" seem to be the ones who know the least about both history and about contemporary Iranian society? As someone put it, "To every complicated human problem, there is a very simple's utterly wrong, but it's simple."

(to be continued in my next post)

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