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  • Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy by Trita Parsi
  • W. Andrew Terrill
Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, by Trita Parsi. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017. 454 pages. $32.50.

At the time of this writing, the fate of the Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) is uncertain. President Donald Trump has taken a variety of steps to undermine the agreement, although the United States has not formally renounced it and reimposed nuclear-related sanctions on Iran. Before US leaders consider doing so, they would be wise to read Trita Parsi's powerful new book. As might be assumed from the work's title, Losing an Enemy, Parsi views the JCPOA as an important step in averting war between the United States and Iran and to buy time for a more complete solution to the difficulties between these nations. It also presents the JCPOA as both reducing the scope of the Iranian program and providing strict international monitoring of Iran's remaining nuclear infrastructure to prevent diversion to military purposes.

The idea of US-led negotiations with Iran over nuclear infrastructure issues has always been controversial. Parsi points out that the administration of George W. Bush refused to enter negotiations with Tehran despite favorable opportunities to do so early on. Bush and most other Republican leaders opposed any agreement with Iran that did not require the country to dismantle all major proliferation-relevant technologies including its uranium enrichment capability, which also has important civilian applications. In the early part of his administration, Bush may have also hoped that a successful Iraq war could lead to an irresistible, pro-Western revolution in Iran.

President Barack Obama, by contrast, doubted that the Iranians would demolish the most important features of their program under international pressure, although he did believe that Iran had to be stopped before reaching a nuclear weapons capability. Obama's military advisors further indicated that a bombing campaign against Iran would not provide a long-term solution, but only delay the program. Perhaps most importantly, Obama believed that diplomacy was possible because the government in Iran was "rational, self-interested, and susceptible to logic" (p. 258). Consequently, in spring 2009, the administration established a secret channel of communications with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah 'Ali Khamenei, to begin addressing this issue. Later, in October 2009, the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany) met Iranian representatives in Geneva to discuss the nuclear issue. Unfortunately, the participants achieved no significant progress at this meeting, and all sides were reluctant to [End Page 158] discuss serious compromise. Correspondingly, Obama and many other world leaders felt they had no choice except to increase economic sanctions.

One especially important aspect of Parsi's analysis involves Washington's long and meticulous efforts to place global sanctions on Iran. Previously, the Bush Administration had so damaged US international credibility on peace and diplomacy issues that it had little ability to assemble an international coalition to sanction Iran on nuclear issues. Obama, by contrast, was clearly interested in moving forward on a diplomatic track, and it was easier for his administration to convince other countries to impose new measures after diplomacy had failed. Washington itself imposed a wide array of punishing sanctions on Iran including tough international banking restrictions, while the European states implemented a purchasing embargo on Iranian oil, often at considerable economic cost to themselves. A series of US and other important concessions were made to Russia and China to secure their votes in favor of sanctions in the Security Council as well as their compliance once those measures were put into place. The effort to impose a sanctions regime was also helped immeasurably by Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad's extreme and often virulently anti-Semitic rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, under these circumstances, the initial impact on the Iranian economy was devastating. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration also understood that sanctions tend to erode over time and increased cheating was likely in the future. Moreover, Iran responded to these measures by expanding its nuclear program and simply endured the very...


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