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This week, the Iranian government staged a funeral for nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whose assassination is being blamed on Israel. American diplomats worry that the anger over his death could overturn years of nuclear negotiations. But the U.S.-Iran relationship has already been deteriorating under the Trump administration’s watch, with the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani. And, as Iranian American author and analyst Trita Parsi notes, the Trump-to-Biden transition period could be the moment this all boils over: “It was clear that the Israelis and others who … are opposed to the idea of U.S.-Iran relations improving would take advantage of the last couple of weeks of Trump in order to damage Biden’s prospects as much as possible.” At this point, if President-elect Joe Biden wants to repair relations with Iran, just promising to reinstate the nuclear deal won’t be enough. So what else can be done to fix things after this latest escalation? To answer this, I spoke with Parsi on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: For someone like you, who’s an expert on the United States’ relationship with Iran, how have you thought of the last few years, with that relationship changing so dramatically?
Trita Parsi: I think the last four years in some ways have been an eye opener. Some of these issues that we thought were the root causes of the U.S.-Iran enmity, such as nukes, actually have been symptoms and, at times, even pretexts.
Why do you say that?
I say that because the nuclear issue actually was resolved [with the deal]. And instead of that leading to a reduction of tension, particularly from some of the countries that had been most adamant about Iran’s weapons being an existential threat, it actually led to opposing countries becoming more aggressive. And I’m talking specifically about Israel here.
It never believed that Iran was fully dismantling its nuclear program.
From Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perspective, I think [Fakhrizadeh’s death] is a win-win. If the Iranians respond militarily, then it will bring about a bigger confrontation. If, on the other hand, the Iranians show restraint, Netanyahu will still have managed to damage Biden’s prospects for diplomacy by hardening the Iranian position, making it more difficult for Biden to untangle.
You sound so certain that Israel carried out this assassination.
I don’t think there is much doubt about it at the end of the day, because if you take a look at the list of countries that have the capacity, the intent, and the history of having engaged in these type of things, this comes down to two countries: Israel and the United States. There really aren’t that many options.
Netanyahu has openly campaigned for the United States to abandon the nuclear deal. In fact, he opposed it from the very start. The way he’s acting now, do you feel like he’s taking the first aggressive step even before Biden’s in office?
This time around, Netanyahu is throwing the first stone even before Biden has sworn the oath and taken office. So I expect a very bumpy ride in U.S.-Israeli relations as a result of it. The question is, how will Biden respond to this? Is he going to allow Netanyahu to define his options on what he can and cannot do in the Middle East? Just having a nuclear deal that reduces the most imminent threat of war simply isn’t sufficient to reduce the risk of war. They actually have to go beyond that.
When Joe Biden got elected, what did you think were the chances that the Iran nuclear deal would go back on the table? How have those chances changed over the last week or so?
When he got elected, I was quite confident that the Biden team members—many of whom were actually part of the negotiations under Obama—feel a sense of ownership of this deal. When Obama signed this deal in 2015, he had a lot of support within the Democratic Party, but there were a lot of question marks as well: a lot of people who were nervous because they were not sure the Iranians would live up to the agreement, were not sure the agreement would work. Now, four years later, we’ve seen that the Iranians actually stuck to the deal and they stuck to it even after the U.S. pulled out. As a result, the confidence and the support for the JCPOA is stronger now than it was under Obama. So the politics of this has really changed: The JCPOA really has become a symbol of successful Democratic foreign policy vis-à-vis the unsuccessful Republican foreign policy embodied in the decision to go to war with Iraq. As a result, I feel quite confident that the Biden administration would go in this direction of trying to resolve it. There are complications on the Iranian side as well, so it’s not going to be easy, but I think the political will is there.
Biden is going to have to act fast if he wants to restore diplomatic relations with Iran. The political winds have begun to shift there.
The Iranians are having their elections in June of next year. Most likely, the next Iranian president is going to be a hard-liner who ran on a platform of opposing the JCPOA, just as Trump did here in the United States. The question is not whether the Biden team wants to go back in the deal—I think it does—but Biden is going to be faced with so many internal and external challenges on Day One. The question I have is, to what extent will this be enough of a priority for Biden that we don’t miss the window of opportunity that exists on the Iranian side?
This narrow window of time will come as both the U.S. and Iran struggle to contain the coronavirus—though Iran will be struggling much harder. American sanctions have made the pandemic especially grim and deadly.
It’s been absolutely devastating on the Iranian side, on the one hand, because of the government’s own mismanagement—but also because the Iranians have very limited access to simple medicine and equipment as a result of the sanctions the U.S. has imposed. And those sanctions were actually intensified and ramped up during the pandemic because of the Trump administration. So economically, politically, the Iranians are in a very, very difficult spot. Despite all of this, the Iranians have not changed their policy an inch in the direction that the United States wanted.
Sanctions have become such an obsession of Washington when it comes to the preferred tools of our foreign policy. The reality is, they inflict a tremendous amount of damage, but in terms of actually bringing about the type of foreign policy change we want, they are not effective at all.
I’m wondering now, when there’s been so much chaos on top of existing chaos, how Iranian protesters on the streets feel about what’s going on and whom they blame and whether that matters for the larger relationship.
They blame everyone. They blame the Iranian government for its mismanagement, for its corruption, for its repression, for all of those different things that have become much worse. At the same time, they blame Trump and the United States for making matters worse, for walking out of a nuclear deal that the Iranians were adhering to. In general, they’re very angry because elements that over here claim that they speak for them or want to support them have really made their lives much more miserable.
If you were advising Joe Biden right now, I’m wondering what you would tell him to do, because there’s so much concern that he’s getting boxed in.
He needs to approach the Middle East very, very differently. Iran is a key motivator for the U.S. to remain militarily committed to the Middle East, while the Saudis, the Israelis, and the UAE do not want to see the United States leave the Middle East, because, particularly for the Saudis and the UAE, the U.S. military presence has created a security umbrella for them that allows them to enjoy a balance of power that they themselves would never be able to create because they don’t have that power. They’re very worried that the signals out of Washington for the past 10 years show that the American public and the American military establishment are getting tired of the Middle East. They don’t want to be in these forever wars. This is concerning to these countries. Ramping up that tension between the U.S. and Iran is a very effective way of keeping the U.S. stuck in the Middle East. And Biden needs to recognize this.