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A Path to War? Assassination of Iran Nuclear Scientist, New Sanctions Strain U.S.-Iran Relations

StoryJanuary 12, 2012
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Trita Parsi

founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. He is the author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States. His new book is called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.

Iran says a nuclear scientist involved in its uranium enrichment program was killed by assassins in Tehran on Wednesday, becoming the latest Iranian scientist to die in a series of similar incidents. Earlier this week, Iran announced it had sentenced a U.S.-born man to death for allegedly spying for the CIA. Meanwhile, the United States is leading a global campaign to shut down Iranian oil exports in order to pressure the country to end its alleged nuclear weapons program. Iran responded by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a major transit point for one-fifth of oil traded worldwide. "If we are increasing the sense of threat, we may be able to prevent [the Iranians’] capabilities to a certain extent, but we’re also increasing their desire for the nuclear deterrent," says Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. "At some point, that desire will overcome the obstacles. In essence, you cannot threaten a country into feeling secure." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to the heightening tensions between Iran and the United States. The Iranian government says a nuclear scientist involved in its uranium enrichment program was killed by assassins in Tehran on Wednesday. The scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, was reportedly killed by a magnetic bomb placed on his car. He would be the latest Iranian scientist to be killed in a series of similar incidents. As in previous instances, Iran blamed the attack on what it called, quote, "[foreign] government-sponsored terrorism." On Tuesday, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, Israel’s military chief of staff, said Iran should expect more "unnatural" events this year.

Earlier this week, Iran announced it had sentenced a U.S.-born man to death for allegedly spying for the CIA. The United States has denied that Arizona-born Amir Mirza Hekmati is a spy.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. is leading a global campaign to shut down Iranian oil exports, to pressure Iran off its nuclear program. Yesterday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s efforts to tighten economic sanctions on Iran won backing from Japan. However, a day earlier, China rejected similar U.S. pressure to limit oil imports from Iran. In response to the U.S. campaign to push for expanded sanctions, Iran has threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a major transit point for one-fifth of oil traded worldwide.

For more on recent developments in Iran, we go now to Washington, D.C., to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. He is also the author of a new book called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.

Welcome to Democracy Now! First, let’s talk about the assassination of the nuclear scientist. Apparently, a motorcycle pulled up, two men put this magnetic bomb on his car and blew it up—one of a number of scientists who have been killed over the years. The significance of this, Trita Parsi?

TRITA PARSI: Well, it is significant, because we are going deeper and deeper into a conflict dynamic. And as we are entering this conflict dynamic, the psychological cost for restraint will increase, and an additional escalatory step will appear increasingly logical and justified. And at some point, it’s going to be very difficult to actually control this. We may very well end up in a situation in which, rather than the governments controlling the dynamic, the dynamics will control the government.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Trita Parsi, one of the points you make in your book is that the Obama administration actually started—initially started attempting to at least have negotiations or secret overtures to Iran to change the relationship between Iran and the United States, but then has veered in recent years. Could you talk about how that developed and those early secret efforts?

TRITA PARSI: Well, the Obama administration stepped in with a very clear agenda, that they wanted to try diplomacy with Iran. I personally believe that they had very genuine intent in that diplomacy. However, because of a lack of political space, because of pressure from Congress, from Israel, from Saudi Arabia, because of what happened in Iran in the June 2009 elections and the massive human rights abuses that followed those fraudulent elections, the political space for the administration quickly shrunk. And the administration itself was not willing to go out there and fight to create more political space. So, by the time there was a diplomatic effort in which the two sides could actually meet at a negotiating table, and according to what one Obama administration official told me, the diplomacy—the policy essentially became a gamble on a single roll of the dice. It either had to work right away or not at all. And diplomacy is rarely instantaneously successful.

So what happened is that after the first failure, the Obama administration essentially abandoned diplomacy and activated what was called a pressure track. That’s where we are today. And in the course of the last two years, this pressure has increased. The counter-pressure from Iran is starting to increase. And we are not seeing any clear exit ramps out of this. This could very well escalate into a full-scale war.

AMY GOODMAN: Mitt Romney has said if Obama remains president, Iran will get the bomb. And if he, Romney, is elected president, Iran will not get a nuclear bomb. He also said the U.S. should pose a credible threat of military action against Iran. Let’s play a clip.

MITT ROMNEY: The President should have built credible threat of military action and made it very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon. Look, one thing you can know, and that is, if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mitt Romney. Trita Parsi, your response?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I’m not particularly confident that the current course that we’re on actually is going to lead to a very good situation. But at the same time, the course that candidate Romney is presenting, I would say, guarantees absolute disaster, because part of the reason why a country may desire some form of a nuclear deterrent is precisely because of the sense of threat. If we are increasing the sense of threat, we may be able to prevent their capabilities to a certain extent, but we’re also increasing their desire for the nuclear deterrent. And at some point, that desire will overcome the obstacles. In essence, you cannot threaten a country into feeling secure. And as long as they don’t feel secure, there is going to be a desire towards having some sort of a deterrent, potentially a nuclear one.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the other side of this conflict in Iran itself? President Ahmadinejad is often demonized in this country, but he—the degree to which he is able to actually implement national policy, or what are the restrictions on him within Iran?

TRITA PARSI: We oftentimes heard that the Iranian government would be irrational. I don’t think there’s any signs of any clear irrationality. But however, we are faced with a situation in which not only in Iran, but also in some other countries in the region, particularly Israel, I think there is somewhat of a breakdown of the decision-making process, in which we have to be more and more cautious about assuming that the proper cost-benefit analysis could be made. Increasingly we’re seeing that very important, very decisive geopolitical decisions are being made not on the basis of these geopolitical considerations, but rather on the basis of very short-term, tactical, domestic political considerations. And that’s a very dangerous scenario, because that actually increases the risk of a confrontation and an escalation.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of Ahmadinejad going to Latin America, meeting with Chávez, going through Latin America?

TRITA PARSI: I don’t find it to be particularly significant. First of all, this is the sixth trip or so that he’s made to that part of the region. The Iranians have tried quite extensively to build stronger ties with some of the states in Latin America who share, at least to a certain extent, Iran’s sense that the U.S.-led world order is unfair and needs to be replaced. But the strength of those relations are not particularly impressive. Certainly, it’s an avenue for the Iranians to show that they’re not completely isolated. But at the end of the day, the economic or political value of this is somewhat limited, particularly if it’s constrained only to countries such as Venezuela. If the Iranians had managed to retain their relationship with Brazil, which they had pretty strong relations with during Lula, then the picture would be quite different.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the significance of the Strait of Hormuz and what is taking place there.

TRITA PARSI: Well, what you have in the Strait of Hormuz is one of the most important passages in which a very large number of the world’s energy flows through on a daily basis. The Iranians have, for the last 20 years, developed various types of techniques to be able to close off the Strait, which would be, you know, economic suicide for them, as well. But if their backs are completely pushed against the wall, it is not inconceivable that they actually would try doing something like that.

What is so dangerous in all of this is that both sides are escalating without really understanding how to read the signals from the other side. As Admiral Mike Mullen said right before he left his position as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said he is very worried about this lack of communication between the U.S. and Iranian government, because we’re misperceiving each other, and that means we will miscalculate. And when you miscalculate, you escalate. A minor incident in the Persian Gulf can, unfortunately, in this absence of sustained diplomacy, trigger a much larger conflict.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk about, now that the United States forces have pulled out of Iraq and certainly will be in—are in the process, or will have to, in the next few years, pull out of Afghanistan, the influence of Iran in the region vis-à-vis these other countries that have been essentially occupied by U.S. military forces for so many years?

TRITA PARSI: Well, the Iranians had already expanded their influence into Iraq and Afghanistan, not as a result of the U.S. withdrawal, but as a result of the U.S. invasion. These two states, Afghanistan and Iraq, essentially were sworn enemies of Iran prior to 2003. After the Iraqi invasion, however, Iran became the kingmaker of the political order in these two states.

But at the same time, I think it’s also important to note that much of Iran’s attempt to expand its influence have actually been challenged, not by any action by the United States, but by the uprisings in the Arab world. Iran’s inroads to many of these countries may have increased because of the fall of some of the pro-American governments, but at the same time, the expansion of democracy and people power in these regions have also cast a very dark shadow over Iran, because of its absence of democracy, because of its human rights abuses, and because of its lack of freedom for its own population.

AMY GOODMAN: An Sunday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation. This is what he said.

DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: I think the pressure of the sanctions, I think the pressure of—diplomatic pressures from everywhere—Europe, the United States, elsewhere—is working to put pressure on them, to make them understand that they cannot continue to do what they’re doing. Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, do not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Leon Panetta, says, no, they’re not developing a nuclear weapon. But Trita Parsi, can you talk about the state of the advancement of the nuclear program in Iran? The IAEA has put out—the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed Iran’s claim it’s begun enriching uranium. What about this? What do you understand is taking place? And what about the fact—the U.S. is extremely concerned about this, as is Israel—the U.S. is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty itself?

TRITA PARSI: No, the U.S. is. It’s Israel that is not. I think what you’re seeing—I think Panetta’s comments were quite interesting, because it seems as if he’s putting the actual red line at Iran building or testing a nuclear weapon, and then he’s also on the record of saying that the Iranians are not currently building one or they have not made a decision to build one, but they’re going for the capability. That’s quite a different red line from what existed during the Bush years, in which the red line essentially was that the Iranians could not have any enrichment. That is the red line that the Israelis are far more comfortable with.

And I think over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen some developments that, for the first time, I’m more concerned about the likelihood of an actual Israeli strike. I’ve been quite skeptical about that. I wrote about that in my previous book. And I think I was proven right, because the Israelis so far have not engaged in any direct military action. However, with the Iranians now starting enrichment at the Fordo plant, a plant that is deep underground and which there isn’t that strong of a military option against, then the Iranians are essentially entering into what Ehud Barak calls the zone of the immunity. At that point, the feasibility of a military strike may significantly decline. And as a result, the likelihood of any military action prior to the completion of that plant may increase significantly.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, I want to thank you very much for being with us, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. Among his books, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of [Israel, Iran,] and the United States. His latest book is called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.

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