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New Book: Iran Sanctions, But Only Alongside Diplomacy

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News on the Iran front gets more and more complicated. I am not referring to the situation on the ground, but in Washington where Congress, deep into election year fundraising with the March AIPAC conference looming, is about to pass another sanctions bill. There is no reason to go into the details. But, suffice it to say, that this new law, like the others, will primarily damage ordinary Iranians and not the government. As one Iranian citizen, writing under a pseudonym, described the situation this week in the New York Daily News.

These days, ordinary Iranians like my mother are becoming increasingly aware of a new economic reality in their lives. Sanctions already in place have plunged the country's economy into a crisis; more robust sanctions that will be enacted come spring on our financial system and oil trade will cause even more pain for an already-suffering populace.

Isn't life in Iran difficult enough under Supreme Leader Khameini's regime? Why punish ordinary people?

Did we punish the Poles or the Bulgarians for living under Communism? Did we punish the people of the Soviet Union because its government had a nuclear arsenal primed to destroy us (no, we provided them with food). As President Nixon (like President Reagan later) liked to remind us: the Soviet person was not our enemy even if the government was. That is not how we approach Iran, not by a long shot.

In his comprehensive new book about U.S.-Iran relations since President Obama came to office, A Single Role Of The Dice, scholar Trita Parsi explains that the purely punitive approach (i.e, sanctions) can only affect the Iranian government's behavior when coupled with diplomacy rather than used as a substitute for it.

Specifically, he points out that, "sanctions have become an alternative to policy." He says that "if diplomacy is pursued again" it must be "for the sake of resolving the conflict, not for the sake of creating an impetus for more sanctions."

Parsi is particularly concerned that sanctions place "undue pressure on the Iranian pro-democracy movement. Green movement leaders have repeatedly stated publicly that sanctions will hurt rather than aid their struggle, even though they blame the Iranian government for having put the country on this confrontational path..."

He goes on to say that Green leaders themselves point out that sanctions "harm the Iranian middle class, which constitute the core of the prodemocracy movement." Additionally the Iranians of the Green movement, like Iranians across the political spectrum, support the Iranian nuclear program because they are nationalists and don't believe Iran should be denied rights granted to other countries. Hence, we win no friends among them with our reliance on sanctions.

Abandoning a sole reliance on sanctions is Parsi's first of six recommendations for establishing a diplomacy track with Iran that will succeed.

Second, "do not put unnecessary limitations on U.S. diplomats." Diplomats should not be limited to one official channel but should engage in dialogue with the multiple power centers that exist throughout the country.

If direct engagement with these political centers and factions is not immediately possible, negotiators must be willing to give them time so as to neutralize these stakeholders' inclinations to scuttle a deal of which they were not a part. Pressuring Iran's fractured political system to give a quick "yes" usually results instead in "no."

Unfortunately, Parsi's advice on this score has already been contradicted in the recently passed AIPAC-drafted sanctions law which not only circumscribes a diplomat's ability to talk to Iranians but forbids any diplomacy at all without approval by congressional committees (this patently unconstitutional provision is unlikely to withstand court challenge).

Third, the U.S and its allies need to drop the demand that Iran abandon all enrichment of uranium, including at levels that are necessary for medical reasons (radioactive isotopes) but too low for use for weapons. Iran is already enriching uranium so that train has already left the station. Parsi writes:

At this stage the only feasible negotiations are those regarding how enrichment in Iran can be inspected, verified, limited and controlled.

Fourth, diplomacy cannot be limited solely to the nuclear issue but should also include the human rights situation.

A healthy, long-term relationship with Iran cannot be built if the current reservoir of American soft power among the Iranian population is squandered for the sake of a nuclear deal. Just as Iranians' respect and admiration for American achievements, values, and culture would be jeopardized in the event of a military attack on Iran, silence on human rights will likewise deplete this crucial strategic asset.

Fifth, take advantage of our ally, Turkey's, relationship with Iran.

While Washington has been uncomfortable with Turkey's perceived leniency toward Iran, it has overlooked how Turkey's maneuvering has checked Iran's attempts to fill the vacuum caused by America's decline in the region... Instead of treating Turkey's approach with suspicion, Washington and the EU should utilize Turkey's ability to elicit Iranian cooperation.

Finally, "Washington must play the long game, with a focus on the long-term benefits of engaging Iran... Even in the darkest days of the Cold War, we had links to the Soviet Union."

Parsi quotes Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, who said:

We are not talking to Iran, so we don't understand each other. If something happens, it is virtually assured that we won't get it right -- that there will be a miscalculation which would be extremely generous in that part of the world.

I'll add my own recommendation to the list: do not back down every time AIPAC barks or directs its congressional cutouts to scream bloody murder when it suspects that the U.S. is considering diplomacy to reduce chances of war.

I remember, from my days at AIPAC, that the thing it was most afraid of was that a president would break with the policy it dictated and explain to the American people why. As former (and most effective) executive director of AIPAC, Thomas Dine, always said, "If the president takes to the airwaves and explains why his position is in the U.S. interest and the position we are pushing isn't, it will be us who folds, not him."

I have only highlighted one section of Parsi's book but the rest is just as smart and incisive. In short, it is the best book out there on U.S.-Iranian relations today. My guess is that it won't be liked much in Tehran or within Likud circles in Israel. But, for the rest of us, this book is must reading.