Biden’s Window of Opportunity With Iran

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S1: Oh, no.

S2: Oh, well, I mean, this week, the Iranian government staged a funeral for nuclear scientist Mohsen Farhi’s, a day that lasted for days. His body was taken from shrine to shrine. The coffin was covered in flowers. Sometimes it was followed by a banned Shi’ite parties. All the while, all this was broadcast on state TV where government officials said Vancity was a martyr. They even showed pictures of the wreckage on the highway where the scientist was killed early Friday morning. An assassination many are blaming on Israel. But while Iranian officials were mourning, American diplomats were worrying that Phakisa to his death could overturn years of nuclear negotiations. That’s why I called up Trita Parsi, he’s chronicled the U.S. Iran relationship, often from behind the negotiating table itself, and he says when he got word of her husband’s death, it was simultaneously big, awful news and almost expected, if I’m not mistaken, this was the day after Thanksgiving.

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S3: So I was hoping to go to the gym. That did not happen. Instead, I ended up having to try to figure out what has happened and give a lot of interviews and try to shed light on what this actually means.

S2: If it sounds like treaty’s being flip, it’s because he’d been waiting for a shoe to drop between the U.S. and Iran over the course of the Trump presidency. He’s watched this relationship simmer. First, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Then he okayed the assassination of an Iranian general. The transition from one president to the next seemed like a moment that all this could boil over.

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S3: It was clear. That the Israelis and others who were opposed to the deal and who are opposed to the idea of US Iran relations improving would try to take advantage of the last couple of weeks of Trump in order to damage Biden’s prospects as much as possible. I didn’t know that it would be assassination or not. But me and many other analysts have been expecting that something would be happening along these lines.

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S4: Today on the show, analysts like Twitter, they all agree that this latest killing is going to make Joe Biden’s job much harder once he’s in the White House. So just who is trying to box Biden in? And is there still time to make the U.S. Iran relationship right? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S2: Trita Parsi has a pretty unique perspective on the Iranian American dynamic. He himself was born in Iran. He came to the U.S. to study and understanding the nuances of diplomacy between his home countries. It’s become his life’s work for someone like you, who an expert on the United States relationship with Iran. Like, how have you experienced the last few years with that relationship changing so dramatically?

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S3: I think the last few years actually in some ways has been an eye opener for some of these issues that we have thought have been the root causes of this enmity, such as the nuclear issue. I actually have been far more of symptoms and in some ways, at times even pretexts rather than the actual root of the problem. Why do you say that? I say that because the nuclear issue actually was resolved. And instead of that leading to a reduction of tension, particularly from some of the countries that had been more most adamant about the nuclear issue being an existential threat, it actually led to them becoming more aggressive. And I’m talking specifically about Israel here.

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S2: What Trita is saying is that the Iran nuclear deal, which is sometimes referred to as the jackpot or joint comprehensive plan of action, it was supposed to calm the region down, make Iran less of a threat. But trust was not so easy to establish, especially for Israel. And when Trita looks at this past week’s assassination, he says it benefits one person in particular, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

S3: From Netanyahu’s perspective, I think this is a win win. If the Iranians respond militarily, then it would bring about a bigger confrontation. If, on the other hand, the Iranians don’t do that, but, you know, show restraint. Well, nevertheless, Netanyahu has managed to damage Biden’s prospects for diplomacy by hardening the Iranian position and impacting the Iranian politics of this in a way that will make it more difficult for Biden to untangle.

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S2: You sound so certain that Israel carried out this assassination.

S3: I don’t think there is much doubt about it at the end of the day, because if you just 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, the list comes down to two countries, Israel and the United States. There’s really not that many options.

S2: Prime Minister Netanyahu has openly campaigned for the U.S. to abandon the nuclear deal. In fact, he has been opposed to it from the very start. It didn’t help that he had a particularly frosty relationship with President Obama.

S3: When you take a look at what happened between Netanyahu and Obama. That relationship, unfortunately, started to deteriorate very fast already at their first meeting in the White House in May 2009. As I read it, no one, neither one of them intended it for it to go by, but the way it was done by mistake, by miscalculation, either Obama felt that Netanyahu threw the first stone or Netanyahu that Obama threw the first stone because Netanyahu was surprised that Obama came with a request of halting settlement expansions. And at the same time, Obama was quite shocked to see the manner in which Netanyahu spoke to Obama in the White House during the press conference in which he essentially put words into Obama’s mouth in regards to a very deliberate effort to try to make his chances of diplomacy with Iran much more difficult.

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S2: So the way that Netanyahu is acting now, do you feel like in some ways he’s learned from that experience and he’s like taking the first aggressive step even before he’s in office?

S3: Exactly. This is what I think is happening last time around. I don’t think either of them had the intent this time around. Netanyahu was throwing the first stone even before Biden has sworn the oath and taking office. So I expect a very bumpy ride in the US Israeli relations as a result of it. And the question is, how will Biden respond to this? Is he going to allow Netanyahu to define Biden’s options on what he can and cannot do in the Middle East?

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S2: Try to seize this moment we’re in right now is fraught, but also as an opportunity. He’s hoping the experience of the last four years convinces the Biden administration to think bigger when it comes to diplomacy with Iran.

S3: 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. And in some ways, even though, of course, this is not at all with Netanyahu intended by pushing for these assassinations or pushing the Trump administration to impose more sanctions. But in some ways, paradoxically, he is making that choice starker both for Iran and for it.

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S2: It sounds like you’re saying things have to get harder for them to eventually get easier.

S3: I’m not saying that they have to be, but I think in some ways, but it’s getting harder. May muster the political will on both sides to make decisions, to move in a much more positive direction than they otherwise would have, because when things weren’t this hard, they didn’t have the political will to take on this issue. In fact, this is exactly what happened during the Obama years, had it not been. For Netanyahu, pushing really, really hard, trying to eliminate diplomacy and trying to eliminate the option of containment, essentially allowing the United States to just contain the nuclear program and then kick the can down the road and have it be the headache of the next American president, which is exactly what Obama did on North Korea. Netanyahu’s pressure eliminated the containment option. He also thought that he eliminated the diplomacy option. But that’s where Obama essentially outsmarted Netanyahu and opted for diplomacy in secret and managed to make it happen. But had it not been for Netanyahu eliminating the containment option, I think chances are Obama would have been happy with just going forward with containment, kick the can down the road and focus on other issues instead. So in that sense, paradoxically, Netanyahu ended up playing a very helpful role, even though his intention was exactly the opposite when Joe Biden was elected.

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S2: What were the chances you thought that the Iran nuclear deal would be sort of back on the table and how have those changed over the last week or so?

S3: I think when he got elected, I was quite confident that the Biden team, mindful of the fact that many of them were actually part of the negotiations under Obama, I think they feel a sense of ownership of this deal. I think also thing that has happened has changed in the last couple of years is that when Obama signed this deal in twenty fifteen, he had a lot of support within the Democratic Party, but there were a lot of question marks as well. And a lot of people that were nervous, a lot of people who were nervous because they were not sure that the Iranians would live up to the agreement, that we’re not sure that the agreement would work. Now, four years later. We’ve seen the track record of the deal not only working, we’ve seen that the Iranians actually stuck to it and they stuck to it even after the US pulled out of it. And as a result, the confidence and the support for the JCUA is stronger now than it was under Obama. So the politics of this has really changed. The grassroots of the Democratic Party are strongly in support of the security because the security has become a symbol of successful Democratic foreign policy vis a vis the unsuccessful Republican foreign policy embodied in the decision to go to war with Iraq. This is the counterpart of Iraq. And as a result, I feel quite confident that the Biden administration would go in this direction of trying to resolve it. But it’s, of course, not only a decision that they can make, there’s complications on the Iranian side as well. So it’s not going to be easy. But I felt that the political will was there.

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S2: When we come back, why Biden’s going to have to act fast if he wants to restore diplomatic relations with Iran. As Trita Parsi tries to game out how President elect Biden will handle conflict with Iran, he isn’t just watching the ways the diplomatic players are arranging themselves. He’s also watching the clock, because just as the political winds have begun to shift here in the US, they are about to shift in Iran to.

S3: I’m not so nervous about what the Iranians will come to the table, granted that the Biden administration moves fast. And the reason for this is this is getting entangled with Iranian politics and Iranian presidential politics. The Iranians are having their elections in June of next year. Most likely, the hard liners are going to be in a advantageous position. Most likely, the next Iranian president is going to be a hard liner who ran on a platform of opposing the JCP, just as Trump did here in the United States in twenty sixteen, mostly because of political reasons, just as it was political for Trump as well. The question is not if the Biden team wants to go back in the deal. I think they do. But Biden is going to be faced with so many internal and external challenges on day one. I mean, no one should envy his job. So the question I have is to what extent will this be sufficient of a priority for Biden in order to make sure that it happens fast enough so we don’t miss the window that exists on the Iranian side, this narrow window of opportunity.

S2: It’ll come as both the U.S. and Iran struggle to contain the coronavirus, that Iran is going to be struggling much harder. American sanctions have made the pandemic there especially grim and deadly.

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S3: It’s been absolutely devastating on the Iranian side. On the one hand, because of the government’s own mismanagement, which in the beginning looked somewhat unique. Now, in retrospect, we see that a lot of other countries have mismanaged it as well. Frankly, the United States probably has mismanaged it even more, but also because the Iranians have very limited access to simple medicine and the medical equipment as a result of the sanctions that the US has imposed. And those sanctions were actually intensified and ramped up during covid because the Trump administration calculated and even stated at one point that covid is a multiplier of the sanctions effect, which is quite inhumane. I have to say, though, 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 wants. What do you mean by that when it comes to their regional influence, when it comes to all of these are the things they’ve stood completely firm? So I think in some ways this should be a wake up call in Washington in order for us to fall out in love, out of love with our sanctions, because sanctions have become such an obsession of Washington when it comes to the preferred tool of our foreign policy. Reality is it does inflict a tremendous amount of damage, both in terms of actually bringing about the type of foreign policy change we want. It is not effective at all.

S2: You’re saying that the way that the state behaves doesn’t necessarily correlate with the suffering that the people are experiencing in that state. And I think that’s important to talk about a little bit, because a year ago, things weren’t easy in Iran then either. There were protests in the street against the government. And when Qassem Soleimani was executed, many people said that part of why this was a misstep was that those protests were a chance for the United States to get involved in a different way in Iran and stand behind the people there as opposed to the government. So I guess I’m wondering now, a year later, when there’s been so much chaos on top of existing chaos, how those people in the streets feel about what’s going on and who they blame and whether that matters for the larger relationship.

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S3: They blame everyone. They blame everyone. They blame the Iranian government for its mismanagement, for its corruption, for its repression, for all of those different things, and which in many ways have become much worse, which also is a very, very common feature when countries are under big sanctions. And 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. I think they’re just in general, 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. We don’t have examples of populations being under that type of economic pressure and asking for more of it. That is not the case in Iran. That is not the case in Venezuela. That is not the case in Iraq. In fact, in Iraq, the joke in the State Department was that the last chicken sandwich in Baghdad will be eaten by Saddam Hussein himself and everyone else will have died of starvation before the sanctions pressure actually reaches Saddam. And that’s the way it has worked in the vast majority of cases. And it’s exactly the way it’s working in Iran as well.

S2: What would sanctions look like that would be effective in Iran, or is there no very few cases in which sanctions are effective?

S3: I think the one case that the few cases where they actually are is if you actually go after specific individuals, what is effective is actually compromise. When you take a look at what happened in the nuclear deal, the time when the Iranians started to show flexibility and give concessions was when the US showed flexibility and gave concessions. The idea that we can just sit there and dictate what we want by putting pressure. It’s a beautiful fantasy, but it’s just a fantasy in the real world. Even superpowers have to give up something in order to get something.

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S2: 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. What’s the way out of the box?

S3: He needs to approach the Middle East very, very differently. Iran is a key motivator for the US 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 US 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. But the US putting its big military finger on the scale, has shifted the balance in a way that is very beneficial to them. And understandably, they don’t want to see that change. They’re very worried that the signals out of Washington for the last 10 years is that the American public and increasingly American military establishment is getting tired of the Middle East. This is not that important of a strategic region any longer. This is not the Cold War. This is not an era in which the United States is in dire need of its oil revenues. It is simply not that important. So the public wants to leave. They don’t want to be in this forever wars. This is concerning to these countries ramping up that. Tension between the US and Iran is a very effective way of keeping the U.S. stuck in the middle and by it, I think needs to recognize this.

S5: Trita Parsi, thank you for joining me. Thank you so much for having me. Trita Parsi is the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His latest book about the Iran nuclear deal is called Losing an Enemy, and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz, Davis Land and Mary Wilson with an assist, especially on this episode from Frannie Kelley. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I am Mary Harris. I will catch you back here tomorrow.