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Despite Offer of Direct Talks, U.S. Intensifies “Sanctions-Centric” Economic War Against Iran

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The Obama administration is ratcheting up its economic war against Iran ahead of nuclear talks slated for Kazakhstan later this month. Last week, the White House announced a new expansion of sanctions that pressure countries buying Iran’s oil to withhold direct payments and instead force Iran to purchase their goods. The Treasury also widened the sanctions list to include Iranian state media. We’re joined by Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and author of the new book “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.” Back in the United States after testifying before the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee on Iran’s nuclear program, Parsi says: “In spite of [the sanctions], you’re not seeing the regime change its nuclear calculus. And I would say that that’s mainly because pressure alone will not work. There has to be negotiations in which something is put on the table that is viewed as strategically valuable by the other side. Only then will we be able to really say that diplomacy has been tested.” [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Iran, which marked the 34th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution Sunday with mass rallies amidst increasing pressure from the United States over its nuclear program. In his final major address to the Iranian nation ahead of presidential elections in June, which will end his eight-year term, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad explained the conditions under which he would engage in direct talks with the United States.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] As the supreme leader said, it won’t happen when you put a gun to the nation and then expect it to hold negotiations. Negotiations are for what? They are to resolve misunderstandings. I say this explicitly, that changing your language is needed, but it’s not enough. You put down the gun, then I, myself, will talk to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the Obama administration announced a new expansion of sanctions against Iran, a move described by The New York Times as, quote, “economic war.” On Wednesday, the Treasury Department said it would pressure countries buying Iran’s oil to withhold direct payments and instead force Iran to purchase their goods. The Treasury also widened the sanctions list to include Iranian state media. Iran said its English-language Press TV channel had been dropped from the satellite platform that allowed it to broadcast in the United States and Canada.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry commented on Iran’s nuclear program and the prospect for negotiations.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The announcement the Iranians themselves have made in a letter to the IAEA, in which they have announced a different kind of centrifuge, is concerning. It’s disturbing. I want to underscore to Iran: The window for diplomacy is still open. And we have agreed to meet Iran again in two weeks in Kazakhstan. We have made our position clear. The choice is really ultimately up to Iran. The international community is ready to respond if Iran comes prepared to talk real substance and to address the concerns, which could not be more clear, about their nuclear program. If they don’t, then they will choose to leave themselves more isolated.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking Friday.

Well, we go now to Washington, D.C., to talk to Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel, and the United States. His new book is called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.

Welcome to Democracy Now! You, Trita, are just back from Britain. Why were you there?

TRITA PARSI: I was testifying in the British Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee.


TRITA PARSI: About this issue with Iran. It was—there’s a keen interest and, I think, a lot of thinking going on in Europe to see whether the strategy that has been pursued, that is so sanctions-centric, so pressure-centric, really is working. And if it won’t work, what is the trajectory that we’re heading towards? What is the end result of this path?

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the sanctions. Talk about the U.S. saying that they would have direct talks with Iran, as you just heard John Kerry saying.

TRITA PARSI: I think the Obama administration is serious. I think they do desire to have diplomacy. But I think the approach to diplomacy is such in which the belief is that the only way to really get a deal is to put maximum pressure on the Iranian regime. And I think that is an approach that may sound good on paper, that may sound logical on paper, but in practice it really [hasn’t] worked, because Iran is now under tremendous amount of sanctions, probably more sanctions on Iran than on any other country during peacetime.

The Iranian rial has dived down more than 50 percent. All income has been reduced about 50 percent. The economy in Iran is under tremendous amount of tension and pressure. People are suffering. We are starting to see the early signs of a medicine crisis in Iran. There was a report issued by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., that showed that although government corruption and mismanagement is also important here, this crisis has been caused by the sanctions. And as a result of it, you have people dying in the hospitals and elsewhere, simply because of a lack of medicine.

But in spite all of this, you’re not seeing the regime change its nuclear calculus. And I would say that that’s mainly because pressure alone will not work. There has to be negotiations in which something is put on the table that is viewed as strategically valuable by the other side. Only then will we be able to really say that diplomacy has been tested.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, President Obama’s nominee for CIA director, John Brennan, accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons. He made the comment during his confirmation hearing.

JOHN BRENNAN: Regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang remain bent on pursuing nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile delivery systems, rather than fulfilling their international obligations or even meeting the basic needs of their people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was John Brennan. Trita Parsi, your response?

TRITA PARSI: Well, this is the position of the administration for quite some time, even though the intelligence of all of the P5 states indicate that there has not been a decision in Tehran to weaponize. The belief is that the Iranians are moving towards a nuclear weapons capability. They’re putting everything in order, in order to be able to make that decision, if they so choose. And as a result, there is an impression that the window is closing in order to be able to address this peacefully. However, in order to really exhaust all of the options to resolve this peacefully, there has to negotiations that are far more intense, far more serious from both sides. Both sides have so far gone to the table and essentially offered the other side ultimatums rather than engaging in proper negotiations. Both sides have been more keen on taking—more accepting of taking a risk for the status quo, or even for escalation, than accepting a risk for peace making.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita, I wanted to ask you about Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to become secretary of defense. During his confirmation hearing, Chuck Hagel said this about Iran.

CHUCK HAGEL: I support the president’s strong position on containment, as I said. By the way, I’ve just been handed a note that I misspoke and said I supported the president’s position on containment. If I said that, it meant to say that—obviously, his position on containment, we don’t have a position on containment.

AMY GOODMAN: This got a lot of attention, saying Chuck Hagel was stumbling all over the place during his hearing. But talk about the significance of the substance of what he said.

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think because the debate and the conversation in Washington about Iran has been rather hysterical, there’s been an effort to eliminate options at a very early stage. And there’s a very strong effort to make the “containment” word, the containment option, essentially a dirty option, a dirty word, in Washington, D.C., equating containment with an acceptance of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, signaling that the U.S., at the end of the day, is not going to try to prevent a nuclear weapon in Iran but rather try to find ways to live with it.

While the Obama administration’s policy is not containment, I think it’s important to point out that we still have time to be able to find peaceful solutions to this. It’s almost defeatist to go towards a conversation about whether this containment will work or not work, because we’re not in a position in which we have to choose between either accepting an Iranian nuclear bomb or going to war with Iran. There are plenty of peaceful options. Diplomacy has not been fully exhausted yet. Unfortunately, however, there doesn’t seem to be any support, or much support, in the U.S. Congress for a peaceful approach centering on diplomacy towards Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, President Ahmadinejad responded to a reporter’s question about Vice President Joe Biden’s comment earlier suggesting the U.S. is ready for direct dialogue with Iran.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] For the past 34 years, the Americans have been confronting us. They have to change their attitude. They say and claim that they will use the stick to force Iran to dialogue. This is bad. They should put the stick aside and start the dialogue, dialogue under fair conditions and with mutual respect, the dialogue to resolve everything and not impose positions.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Trita Parsi, your response?

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think both sides are speaking rather beautifully about diplomacy, but unfortunately, we’re not seeing either side take the type of serious approach to diplomacy that is really needed. On the one hand, the Iranians do complain that the sanctions approach is not the way to conduct diplomacy. On the other hand, the Iranians have also missed opportunities to accept a bilateral conversation with the United States prior to many of these sanctions were imposed and trying to find a way to resolve this issue. I think there’s a lot of fear in the region, and beyond, that unless both sides amend their ways and amend their approach towards diplomacy, we will continue to gravitate toward some form of a confrontation.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, can you reflect on this anniversary of the Iranian revolution, what, the 34th anniversary, and what it means?

TRITA PARSI: I think the Islamic Republic, in many different ways, is in a crisis, and certainly the behavior of the government in Iran right now seems to give the impression that they are quite nervous. There’s going to be elections in Iran in a couple of months. Rivalries and infighting within the regime is reaching an unprecedented level, and the manner that it is taking place very openly. The regime has started to do something that usually it doesn’t do prior to elections. Prior to elections, it usually opens up the political space a little bit in order to give the impression that there’s going to be a real and valid choice. This time around, they’re doing the opposite. They’re starting to arrest journalists. There’s rumors that children of some of the opposition leaders are also being arrested now. So there seems to be an intimidation campaign going on, which most likely is rooted in the fact that the regime is very, very nervous about its own political survival.

AMY GOODMAN: Is Britain, where you’ve just returned from, testifying in their equivalent of Congress, the Parliament—does Britain deal with Iran in a different way, Trita? And does the British media deal with Iran in a different way than the U.S. media?

TRITA PARSI: There seems to be a dialogue, a conversation about Iran, in Europe as a whole that is a little bit more nuanced, a little bit less hysterical, a little bit less panicky—not to say that the Europeans are not taking the potential threat from Iran seriously. On the contrary, they have imposed some of the toughest sanctions on the Iranians. But there is a conversation that seems to be a little bit more in-depth, a little bit more nuanced and a little bit more insightful than what we’re seeing over here. And I think the Hagel nomination hearing is an indication of how superficial, how much grandstanding we’re having in the conversation about Iran in the United States. And that is tremendously unhelpful, because when you elevate a conversation to this hysterical level, what you essentially do is that you eliminate policy options, and you leave yourself only with negative policy options. And that’s a process that I think we have unfortunately been involved in here in the United States for the last couple years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Trita Parsi, for joining us.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi is just back from Britain and is author of several books on the United States and Iran. Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, his latest book is called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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