Trita Parsi is Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and an expert on US-Iranian relations. He has authored three books on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Iran and Israel. Parsi was born in Iran but moved with his family at the age of four to Sweden in order to escape political repression in Iran. His father was an outspoken academic who was jailed by the Shah and then by the Ayatollah Khomeini.
He moved to the United States as an adult and studied foreign policy at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies where he received his Ph.D. under Francis Fukuyama and Zbigniew Brzezinski He is also the co-founder and former President of the National Iranian American Council.
I recently asked Parsi six questions about U.S.-Iran relations under President Joe Biden. Parsi graciously answered five questions but was too busy to answer more. Therefore, I used for the last question the opening paragraph of a new article he wrote for Foreign Policy about Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iran, a critical subject when it comes to understanding the Middle East and Persian Gulf, and an excerpt from the story for the reply. The article was titled, “Why Mohammed bin Salman Suddenly Wants to Talk to Iran; Secret meetings have been going on at least since January, catalyzed by the specter of U.S. withdrawal from the region.”
Don’t worry, the approach will make sense when you get there. Also, follow Parsi on Twitter @tparsi.
1. Let’s cut to the chase immediately: how likely is it that President Joe Biden will go to war with Iran or initiate some sort of military action against the government?
I believe Biden will do his utmost to avoid such a scenario. Not only because he knows military action won’t achieve US objectives, but also because he knows the devastating impact such a war will have on his pledge to build back better at home. This is why revising the JCPOA is so essential.
2. What and who are driving Iran policy under Biden? Domestic players like AIPAC? Any particularly important individuals the public should be aware of? And what about foreign players, like Israel or Saudi Arabia?
The main driver is Biden’s desire to shift America’s focus away from the Middle East and towards Asia. Foreign players like Saudi Arabia and Israel constitute some of the main obstacles to Biden’s agenda in this regard.
3. How would you compare Biden’s approach thus far compared to former President Donald Trump? We discussed the risk of war. Being more optimistic, is it possible that Biden will take a less aggressive approach and fully restore the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) reached between Iran and the U.S. in 2015 under President Barack Obama? What about a reduction in the crippling U.S. sanctions against Iran?
Biden fumbled during the first two months of his presidency but has since gotten very serious about diplomacy. Major stumbling blocks remain, such as the lifting of Trump’s sanctions wall, but both sides are seriously engaged in diplomacy. However, if diplomacy does not succeed, Biden will likely slip into the same posture as Trump and pursue sanctions and Iran’s isolation.
4. If Trita Parsi were president, what would his policies towards Iran look like?
U.S. interest compels us to adopt a much reduced military profile in the region. Within that context, resolving the main points of tensions with Iran is critical, as well as insulating the new relationship with Iran in order to prevent slipping towards conflict again. As such, normalization with Iran would be beneficial as well as the use of diplomacy to resolve the remaining points of tensions with Tehran.
5. What’s your general view of the Iranian government? Is Iran a democracy? A dictatorship? Something in between?
Iran remains a repressive, largely authoritarian state with elements of democracy. It has carried the small promise of evolving towards a proper diplomacy, but many factors, including tensions with the U.S. have frustrated that process. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and imposition of maximum pressure was a major blow to Iran’s indigenous pro-democracy movement.
6. “We are seeking to have good relations with Iran,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Saudi television [last] week. “We are working with our partners in the region to overcome our differences with Iran.” Only four years ago, the notorious royal sang a different tune, claiming dialogue with Iran was impossible. “How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology?” he said, pledging that Saudi Arabia would take the battle to Iranian territory. What changed to make this 180-degree shift possible?
One factor looms larger than all others: increasing signs that the United States is serious about shifting its focus away from the Middle East. It’s not so much anything Washington has done but rather what Washington has stopped doing—namely, reassuring its security partners in the region that it will continue to support them unconditionally, no matter what reckless conduct they engage in. Washington’s turn away from entangling itself in the quarrels and stratagems of its Middle Eastern partners has compelled the region’s powers to explore their own diplomacy. Contrary to the doomsday predictions of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, chaos has not been unleashed by the United States’ pending military withdrawals from the region. Instead, regional diplomacy has broken out.