Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.
After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.
Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.
In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.
Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.
I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.