Whatever US President Barack Obama intended or hoped to achieve by offering the hand of friendship to Iran was to be thwarted by Congress and Israel who between them so limited his political space that in the end he was reduced to organising sanctions, the sure way of extending and heightening tensions between the two countries. Diplomacy requires the readiness of both sides to discuss the issues that divide them; it is not helped if one side applies sanctions that exact surrender on the part of the other side before talks can begin. As the author points out early in his book, the thirty-year-old US -Iran enmity is no longer a phenomenon; it is an institution. The hawks in President Bush’s Washington did not want to talk with Iran at all and ensured that instead it was placed on the axis of evil. Throughout the Cold War the Americans and Russians talked with each other yet in 2002, when Colin Powell as Secretary of State made a real breakthrough with Iran and placed the possibility of a new beginning before the Bush inner circle, the chance of initiating a change was dismissed out of hand when Donald Rumsfeld said “we do not deal with evil”, one of the most senseless rebuttals of any diplomatic deal on record. Throughout the attempts to bring about a rapprochement between the US and Iran, the Americans insisted that Iran should not be allowed to enrich uranium on its soil despite the fact that Article IV of the non-proliferation treaty lays down that member states have an “inalienable right” to develop, research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination. Since the US starting point for negotiations was to deny Iran those rights, it is not surprising that a deadlock rather than a breakthrough was the result. Israel, always busy in the background, assumes that Iranian nuclear know-how is tantamount to a nuclear bomb, a view that appears to be shared with the US. American entanglements in the Middle East reaching from its close alliance with an Israel that appears to call most of the shots, through Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran present it with the most difficult and complex of all its foreign policy concerns. It cannot afford to make mistakes yet seems prone to do so all the time. Trita Parsi has written a most timely book that spares no punches as he reveals what, politely, may be described as the ineptitudes of US foreign policy. He provides the first comprehensive assessment of the high-stakes diplomatic sparring between Washington and Tehran during President Obama’s first term and his conclusions are forthright and challenging. While many believe the diplomatic option has been fully exhausted and is an utter failure, Parsi argues that diplomacy did not fail it was abandoned and that real diplomacy has barely been tried. It is an American failure that thirty years after the hostage crisis of 1979-80, the United States is still apparently happier seeing Iran as an enemy rather than a country with which it has normal relations and from which it could obtain assistance in dealing with the many problems of the region. The book presents the reader with a window upon the workings of American diplomacy and how this is affected by the demands and pressures of the political system.
Guy Arnold