There’s something Shakespearean about America’s showdown with Iran: high drama, fated tragedy, larger-than-life characters. There is the torrid, decades-long affair with the shah; the confrontation with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his revolution; the horror of the embassy hostages and the melodrama of Iran-contra; and of course, Lebanon, the Beirut hostage-taking and the murders at Khobar Towers. And all along, the endless minuet among Iranian pragmatists, reformists, hard-liners and a succession of American presidents. And, ah, the nuclear weapon hovering unseen over the stage. Now rumors of war signal the coming climactic scene that seems to have been building for so long.
But could it all have been different?
Well, there’s the rub. If you crack open Trita Parsi’s new book, you will learn that on a fateful day in 2003, an “opportunity for a major breakthrough had been willfully wasted.” Parsi — the president of the National Iranian American Council, a self-described “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the interests of the Iranian-American community” — begins “A Single Roll of the Dice,” his examination of President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, with what has come to be known as the Guldimann memo. This was a putative Iranian offer in 2003 of comprehensive negotiations between the Islamic republic of Iran and the United States, delivered by the Swiss ambassador to Iran at the time, Tim Guldimann.
Parsi details the contents of the memo, which included an offer to end Iranian support for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, pressure the terrorist groups to stop their attacks on Israel, support disarming Hezbollah in Lebanon, agree to intrusive international inspections for the Iranian nuclear program, and accept the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration, which offered peace with Israel in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal to pre-1967 lines.
The offer, which has swelled to biblical proportions in certain circles, was never pursued by the Bush administration, which doubted its authenticity. Whether or not it was as sincere as Parsi believes is almost beside the point. What matters is which side of the question you fall on: If you believe in Iran’s honest intentions, then Parsi’s book is for you; if you are a doubter, the author will seem a not-quite-disinterested observer.
The account of the Guldimann episode is rife with unnecessary and inaccurate biases: Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney are described as neocons — an odd political handle for a defense secretary totally uninterested in regime change in Iraq and a vice president who continues to be a close ally of the Wahhabi monarchs in Saudi Arabia; Israel is portrayed as hostile to any deal with Iran that “would come at the expense of America’s special friendship with the Jewish state”; and Sunni Arabs are accused of colluding with Israel to take down Hamas, because to do so would hurt Iran.
After his election in 2008, Obama could not have been more explicit in his repudiation of Bush’s freedom agenda and his “Axis of Evil” foreign policy. Obama’s rivals (including his presidential opponent and now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton) vilified him for his willingness to sit down with the enemy, labeling him a naif and worse. But the American people were having none of it: Obama advertised an extended hand and received a mandate. Fans, particularly those who fretted about the lack of real dialogue with Iran, were elated. But disillusionment soon followed.
Parsi charts the excitement over Obama’s election among some Iran watchers and pays special attention to Iranian reactions, Israeli statements and rumored concern among America’s Sunni Gulf allies about a possible sellout to the reviled Shiites. But prospects for any change in relations were short-lived. Obama’s new approach — including a warm video greeting and a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — was largely rebuffed. But whom to blame?
It seems churlish to hunt for culprits in the failure of Obama’s outreach to Iran. After all, he tried, he failed, end of story. Obama himself became impatient with Iran. As the Islamic republic apparently moved forward with development of nuclear weapons despite international protestations, Obama explained his frustration with Iran: “We’re not going to create a situation in which the talks become an excuse for inaction.”
Still, it’s hard to fault Parsi for trying to understand why exactly Iran did not grasp Obama’s proffered hand. If we are to try to talk to the regime in Tehran again — something the president has said repeatedly he wishes to do — it is well to consider exactly what its leaders are looking for.
Khamenei met Obama’s first offer with a demand for “signs” of America’s change of heart, including unfreezing Iranian assets and lifting sanctions, and ending support for Israel. Those less versed in the ways of the Middle East and the subtle language of Persia may interpret such exhaustive and hard-to-meet demands as an unspoken rebuff. But not our author, who sees Khamenei’s list as an opening gambit for future negotiations. Parsi instead chooses to focus on the supreme leader’s question: “They have the slogan of change. Where is the change?”
From Tehran’s vantage, Obama’s gentle talk was just that: talk. And as long as you are looking for Tehran’s viewpoint, you’re going to enjoy this book. With a minor detour to denounce the fraudulent Iranian elections of 2009, “A Single Roll of the Dice” focuses on America’s insincerity, Obama’s feckless willingness to surround himself with hawks and doubters, Israel’s and its supporters’ nefarious efforts to derail Iranian-American rapprochement, and so on. The Iranian regime comes out of the tale with few blemishes.
The fissure between the Arabs and Iran? It’s because the Gulf Arabs are cross with Iran for making them look unserious about Palestine. The origin of Israeli-Iranian antipathy? It’s rooted in Jerusalem’s hostile rhetoric against Iran — a clever tool to distract the Israelis from fears about peace with the Arabs. And poor, sincere Obama? “Obama’s intentions and capabilities were unclear,” Parsi writes, “and as a result Iran could not take a risk by making conciliatory moves toward the Obama administration.”
Even if the reader agrees with Parsi’s case — that more blame lies with the West and the Israelis — it is still hard to overlook some troubling exaggerations. Among them: Israel was behind the Iran-contra scandal, Israel planned to bomb Iran and was stopped by George W. Bush, the coalition in Afghanistan that toppled the Taliban was led by Iran, and the United States and Iran together “laid the groundwork” for the post-Taliban Bonn conference on Afghanistan. These are easily checked assertions, which Parsi lightly sources without bothering to confirm them with a quick phone call. I made those calls to a senior White House official from the Bush administration and our former ambassador to Afghanistan and was told that the bombing assertion is a simple falsehood; the Iranian role in both the Afghan war and the Bonn conference is a vast exaggeration.
The light sourcing is a frustration throughout the book. Some quoted material is not footnoted, there are unattributed quotes, assertions are made without backing, and many of the sources who are footnoted have axes to grind. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong point of view or with favoring people who agree with you, but relying on such sources cannot but detract from a sense of detachment and authenticity.
Despite these criticisms, the book can be a useful read. For those who agree that Obama should have done more to extend a hand of friendship to Tehran, it will be a satisfying exercise in self-affirmation. For the rest of us, myself included, “A Single Roll of the Dice” is a valuable education on how Iran, its friends and its supporters see the United States, Israel, Europe and the Gulf: uninterested in peace, eager to impose punitive sanctions, implacably hostile toward the Islamic republic and prone to manipulation by hawks, Sunnis, Jews, Arabs and, well, everyone. Is it any wonder that Iran wants a nuclear weapon? The real mystery is why someone who sees the world through Tehran’s eyes would believe that Iran might give up its nuclear option.
A SINGLE ROLL OF THE DICE
Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran
By Trita Parsi
Yale Univ. 284 pp. $27.50