Diplomacy in Action: The Obama Administration’s Transformational Dual Track Strategy with Iran

Trita Parsi, courtesy of Bloomington University
Trita Parsi, courtesy of Bloomington University

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, commented in his text, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, that “The thirty-year-old U.S.-Iran enmity is no longer a phenomenon; it is an institution.”[1] Despite the charisma and promises of change by President Barack Obama and his dual track policy of diplomacy and smart sanction to Iran, his policy became ineffective due to the exclusiveness of the competing demands between nations based of traditional loathing.

Following the low ebb of American-Iranian relations during the Bush Doctrine epoch, President Obama sought a transformational diplomatic approach with Iran. Born to a Kenyan Muslim father and an American mother and living outside the U.S. in Indonesia, and according to Parsi, “Obama simply did not fit the Iranian stereotype of American, ‘imperialists’ leaders.”[2] He simply did not have the limitation of international affairs negatively associated to other presidents by Iranians.

President Obama, courtesy of UPI
President Obama, courtesy of UPI

The hope that Obama would escape the stereotype was further accelerated by his inauguration speech in 2009, claiming, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect… we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”[3] Obama sought a dialogue with Iranians to deliberate on the ‘nuclear question.’ In order to do so, he attempted to use a dual track approach, or “the idea that the most effective strategy on Iran would entail an appropriate balance between talks and incentives on the one hand and hard-hitting sanctions on the other.” The U.S. appeared to have a new policy that could safely integrate Iran into the globalized world for the benefit of all.

Even though Obama sought dramatic change in the Middle East, his attempts were marred by Israel. Israelis “have feared that a thaw in U.S. relations with Iran would come at the expense of America’s special friendship with the Jewish state.”[4] They worried that if the Iranians created a nuclear device, even under the pretext of civilian medical use, it could later be fashioned into a weapon against Jerusalem. Israel, Iran, and the United States also had divergent views on the Israeli-Palestine conflict which served to antagonize all parties. 

AIPAC, courtesy of AIPAC
AIPAC, courtesy of AIPAC

In regards to Obama’s dual track approach, the Israelis, lobbying Congress through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) stressed the use of hard power – sanctions and the threat of military intervention – to deter the Iranians from obtaining any nuclear device. The Israeli influence crippled Obama’s soft power approach.

Multilateralism heavily influenced Obama’s policies, as he sought the largest international coalition to strengthen his policies of diplomacy and sanctions. The Sunni Crescent of the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia, viewed Iran as the greatest security risk in the Middle East because the Saudi government viewed Iranian policy as seeking a complete political hegemony. Saudi Arabia feared Iranian expansive influence in geopolitical regions weakened by the U.S., such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The Sunni Crescent feared the encroachment of the Iranian Revolution, spreading republicanism and Shi’a Islam in its wake.  In order to protect their own particular way of life, this coalition advised the U.S. to go to war against Iran or as the Saudis claimed, “cut the head off the snake.”[5]  Obama also attempted to work with the European Union, but was deterred by the hard sanctions on gasoline proposed by France. American Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice also tried to work with the U.N. Security Council to set ‘smart sanctions’ specifically targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, but was challenged by the divergent views of Russia and China. The multiplicity of views was difficult to integrate with Obama’s new approach of dialogue rather than confrontation.

President Obama and Iranian elites also faced internal conflict between their own subordinates and their policy. The U.S. State Department, led by Hillary Clinton, struggled to reconcile the dual nature of the approach, with regards on how to proceed with diplomacy and sanctions. 

P5+!1 Talks, courtesy of Press TV
P5+!1 Talks, courtesy of Press TV

Despite initial success at the P5+1 talks at Geneva, consisting of representatives of the U.S., China, Russia, Britain, Germany, and France, the process stalled with the Vienna Group on the topic of nuclear fuel panels and the transfer of low enrichment uranium for medical purposes. Following the stall, the State Department focused on persuading Russia and Iran to join with the U.N. for sanctions, while slowing discussion on compromises with Iran. Two regional developing countries – Turkey and Brazil – hashed out a compromise between Iran and the West in the Tehran Declaration in 2010, which would allow for the uranium to be held escrow in Turkey, but was rejected by the United States. This rejection occurred because Congress believed that sanctions could prevent war better than trusting in the theocracy of Iran. This record of mistrust increased when Iran had struggled with fraud over the 2009 presidential elections. 

Green Wave, courtesy of the AP and Allison Kushner
Green Wave, courtesy of the AP and Allison Kushner

The reformist “Green Wave” movement that supported Mir Hussein Mousavi’s campaign was brutally repressed by incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s forces within the Basij militia. Despite the best intentions of Barak Obama, internal divide by his subordinates and international authorties pushed him from conciliation to confrontation.

Trita Parsi’s A Single Roll of the Dice was a compelling text for the imperative of diplomacy. He sought a positive approach to Obama’s policies, shifting the blame from the president to various actors on the world stage. Parsi also used documents from Wikileaks and interviews from seasoned diplomats, giving him unprecedented access to information. One point of concern was the vagueness of some of the quotations, as he cited unnamed staff, such as European diplomats, State Department staff, and White House insiders. This book was written in the perspective and psyche of a diplomat, which it clearly reflected in its optimistic opinion of diplomatic soft power over the unfortunate reality of hard power sanctions and war. Much like Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, American Barack Obama promised change, but his subordinates struggled to fulfill the promise.

 

 

Bibliography

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby.” June 2013. aipac.org.

Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. “U.S.-Iranian Expert to Discuss Diplomacy.” November 2012. http://www.bloomu.edu/media/releases/12-11-14

Kushner, Allison. “Solidarity with Iran’s Green Revolution.” Foreign Policy Association. June 2012. http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/2012/06/12/solidarity-irans-green-revolution/

Parsi, Trita. “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.” Yale University Press: New Haven, 2012.

Press TV. “P5+1 Talks in Almaty a Step Forward: Iranian Diplomat.” March 2013. http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/03/04/291880/iranp51-almaty-talks-step-forward/

UPI. “Obama: Iran ‘Year or So’ From Nuke Weapon.” March 2013. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2013/03/15/Obama-Iran-year-or-so-from-nuke-weapon/UPI-48851363329000/


[1] Parsi, Trita. A Single Roll of the Dice, p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 7.

[3] Ibid., p. 9.

[4] Parsi, Trita. A Single Roll of the Dice, p. 6.

[5] Ibid., p. 18.

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