Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy
© 2017 Trita Parsi
Losing an Enemy is now a profoundly depressing book, being an extensive history of an agreement that could have started erasing fifty years of bad blood between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States. I say “could have”, because as of January 2020, that agreement is about as healthy as Qasem Soleimani. How great a setback his assassination proves to peace remains to be seen. Losing an Enemy is a thorough review of how the Joint Plan of Action (“the Iran deal”) triumphed over a half-century of enmity, and over the particular stresses of the 21st century. Those who persist in reading it — the sheer amount of dickering that the deal involved could test the most patient reader — will end with a better understanding of how much was at stake, how much was accomplished, and now — how much has been lost thanks to the present administration’s unique contempt for what it represents.
Parsi begins with a review of Iranian-American relations, which — while poisoned by the Iranian revolution and its aftermath — declined precipitously in the 1990s when a rivalry began between Israel and Iran for regional domination following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the destruction of the Iraqi army during the Gulf War. Israel and Iran hadn’t been on friendly terms since the shah’s ouster, but they had a common enemy in their hostile Arab neighbors, In the 1990s, however, Israel began developing better relations with its more immediate neighbors, and focusing its ire toward Iran – whose size, population, stability, and official contempt for Israel made it the tiny democracy’s most potent rival. Iran, similarly viewing Israel as its rival, sought to undermine the Israel-Arab peace efforts as best it could by funding groups like Hezbollah. American involvement in those peace efforts, coupled with pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia, cooled any diplomatic interest in Iran. It became, in DC’s eyes, ever-more a pariah – so much so that George W. Bush included it in an axis of evil along with Iraq and North Korea. Whatever material support or intelligence it lent toward the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran was a nation written off by the DC establishment.
That changed with the election of Barack Obama, who was determined to move the United States away from its ruinously expensive and distracting policies in the middle east – to better focus on responding on Asia’s boom — as well as to focus on engagement with the global community, moving away from the siege mentality DC had adopted during the Iraq war. Obama’s dream of escaping the graveyard of empires was effectively frustrated by the Arab spring, which demanded a response…but with Iran, at least, he was able to make some headway. Obama’s efforts at re-engaging with Iran were slow to bear fruit, due in part to the civil war in Syria and its relation tensions, but even after a failed fuel swap deal in 2010, a channel opened courtesy of the Sultan of Oman. Safe from Saudi and Israel dissent, the framework of a deal began to emerge – the details to be painstakingly hammered out once the rest of the P5+1 were caught up.
The Joint Plan of Action happened because both those in DC and Tehran were looking for an escape from the on-ramp to war. It was possible because of a handful of gifted, determined men – two leaders who believed in diplomacy and the possibility of escaping the past. stellar support from both countries, (Javad Zarif, John Kerry, and William Burns), and Sultan Qaboos of Oman, who made himself a bridge for meeting in the middle. Will circumstances ever realign to make such a thing possible again?
Despite the fact that the JPAC seems a dead agreement now, Losing an Enemy is worth reading — worth reading to understand the reality that Iranians and Americans have common interests, that there are people on both sides who want to make pursuing those interests together happens. It’s worth reading to know why we keep getting derailed – both the malign influence of the House of Saud and Israel, and a healthy mix of obstinance and arrogance on the parts of both Tehran and DC. But most of all it’s worth reading to better understand how deep Iran’s pride really is – how they were willing to pursue nuclear power not because it made financial sense, but because it asserted their independence – how they were willing to submit to a ruinous war, whether on Bush or Obama’s watch, to defend their pride. Even as the DC sinks to the level of porcine ISIS, threatening the destruction of Iranian culture sites, Javad Zarif pointed to the example of history, where Iran had been conquered by the likes of Alexander, the Arabs, and still more – only to rise again and again. There isn’t a word in Farsi, it seems, for “submit”. The United States would do well to recognize that in Iran it faces not some pretend country like Afghanistan or Iraq, with arbitrary borders drawn by long-dead Brits and Frenchmen, but a centuries-old nation with a long, rich history and which will not bow.