- Trita Parsiformer president and founder of the National Irianian American Council, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.
President Trump announced Monday his administration is imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran, targeting several prominent Iranians including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iran said the move “permanently closed the path to diplomacy” between Iran and the United States. The latest tension comes after the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran on Thursday. Iran maintains the drone had entered its airspace, while the U.S. claims the drone was in international waters. The U.S. military prepared to directly attack Iran in retaliation, but Trump reportedly called off the bombing at the last minute. We speak with Iranian-American author and analyst Trita Parsi, former president and founder of the National Iranian American Council.
AMY GOODMAN: The Trump administration has imposed a new round of sanctions on Iran, targeting several prominent Iranians including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. President Trump announced the sanctions Monday.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions. We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran until the regime abandons its dangerous activities and its aspirations, including the pursuit of nuclear weapons, increased enrichment of uranium, development of ballistic missiles, engagement in and support for terrorism, fueling of foreign conflicts, and belligerent acts directed against the United States and its allies.
AMY GOODMAN: Iran said the move, quote, “permanently closed the path to diplomacy” between Iran and the United States. Earlier today, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dismissed the sanctions as “outrageous and idiotic” and said [the White House is suffering from a “mentally disabilty.”]
The latest tension comes after the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran on Thursday. Iran maintains the spy drone had entered its airspace, while the U.S. claims the drone was in international waters. The U.S. military prepared to directly attack Iran in retaliation Thursday night, but Trump reportedly called off the bombing at the last minute. U.S. Cyber Command did respond by conducting online attacks against an Iranian intelligence group with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
This comes as national security adviser John Bolton is in Jerusalem meeting with national security advisers from Russia and Israel. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has traveled to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to build what the Trump administration is describing as a “global coalition” against Iran.
Tension between the U.S. and Iran has been growing ever since President Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal last year. Since then, the United States has repeatedly imposed increasingly harsh sanctions on Iran, even though Iran has remained in compliance with the pact.
Joining us now is the U.S.-Iranian author and analyst Trita Parsi. He’s the former president of the National Iranian American Council, a group he founded. His most recent book is titled Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. His latest piece for The New Republic is headlined “Could Obama’s Iran Playbook Save Trump from War?”
Trita, welcome back to Democracy Now!
TRITA PARSI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to the latest, the newly imposed sanctions on Iran?
TRITA PARSI: Well, if the Trump administration or President Trump himself actually wants diplomacy, then it is very difficult to see how this latest measure makes any sense whatsoever. This is not adding any particular economic pressure on Iran. In fact, already roughly 80 to 90% of Iran’s economy is under sanctions from the United States, so there’s really not that much left to sanction.
I think what has happened here is that Donald Trump has been conned. He has adopted a policy of maximum pressure, which I think he may have thought was a good negotiating strategy. It’s somewhat similar to what he did with North Korea. But the people who have been pushing this policy onto Trump do not have diplomacy in mind. In fact, they know very well that this strategy makes diplomacy very unlikely—in fact, it’s designed to make diplomacy unlikely—while making war with Iran extremely likely.
And I think we saw a very good piece of evidence of that last Thursday, because when push came to shove, and Pompeo and Bolton had to choose between counseling restraint and counseling war, they counseled war. Trump’s problem, though, is that while he has shown some indication of not wanting to go to war, he has not connected the dots of realizing that the reason why he’s constantly on verge of war with Iran is precisely because of this maximum-pressure strategy that he’s adopted and that he’s now taking to new levels by actually sanctioning the diplomats that he’s supposed to be negotiating with.
AMY GOODMAN: Hours after President Trump imposed a new wave of sanctions Monday, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump is 100% right that the US military has no business in the Persian Gulf. Removal of its forces is fully in line with interests of US and the world. But it’s now clear that the #B_Team is not concerned with US interests—they despise diplomacy, and thirst for war,” the Iranian foreign minister said. Trita, if you can talk about who the “B team” is? Because it goes to exactly what’s happening right now with Pompeo, the secretary of state, headed to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Bolton right now in Israel with Russia and Israel.
TRITA PARSI: So, the B team is something that Zarif coined a couple of months ago. And I think what he’s referring to, the individuals that he’s included in that concept is Bibi Netanyahu; MBZ, which is the crown prince of UAE; MBS, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia; and Bolton.
And what he’s referring to there is that from the Israeli side, from the Saudi side, from the UAE side, there has been a push to get the United States to confront Iran or go to war with Iran for more than 10, 15 years. We saw from the WikiLeaks documents that MBZ had been advocating the United States to bomb Iran for quite some time. The former king of Saudi Arabia was telling the United States to cut off the head of the snake. We saw that the former secretary of defense, while he was secretary of defense, was meeting with his French counterpart and said that the Saudis want to take—want to fight the Americans to the last—sorry, fight the Iranians to the last American.
So we have a situation in which these countries believe that if the United States were to go to war with Iran, it would restore the balance of power that existed in the Middle East prior to 2003. And that’s what they’re looking for. They want to live under this American protectorate and have the United States be a strong military hegemon in the Middle East.
What is fascinating with all of this is that Trump himself seems to strongly disagree with that notion, yet he goes along with their recommendations, because the tweet that he had shot off yesterday pointed out that the United States is actually not buying oil from the Persian Gulf, yet it is paying all of the costs of protecting the sea lanes there, and that it should be protected by other countries, and they should be sharing the burden, the cost of that protection. And this is what I think Zarif was referring to when he said that the United States doesn’t have an interest in remaining such a military presence in the Persian Gulf.
But this is the crux of the problem. Not only is Trump’s administration in conflict with itself, Trump himself does not seem to have an ability to hold one opinion at the same time for a long period of time. He constantly contradicts himself, and it makes it very difficult for any side to figure out how do you actually negotiate with the Trump administration, if negotiations even are an option.
AMY GOODMAN: This is President Trump speaking to NBC’s Chuck Todd after Todd asked Trump whether he felt he was being pushed into military action by his advisers.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have two groups of people: I have doves, and I have hawks.
CHUCK TODD: You have some serious hawks.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I have some hawks. Yeah, John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time, OK? But that doesn’t matter, because I want both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you respond to this, Trita Parsi?
TRITA PARSI: I don’t know who the doves are. It’s one thing to say that he has hawks. He certainly has hawks. But who are the doves? And if he actually is interested in diplomacy, who are the advisers on his team that at any point in their life actually have supported diplomacy, who have advocated for diplomacy and who have any experience in how to actually conduct diplomacy with a country like Iran? He has surrounded himself entirely with people who have made a career out of making diplomacy, particularly with Iran, an impossibility and who have at every turn advocated for military action. So the idea that he has two sides in his administration seems rather strange, because who are the doves?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened on Thursday night, the significance of this? I mean, you have Iran shooting a spy drone out of the sky. They say it’s in Iranian airspace. Russia, apparently, in Israel right now with Bolton, has said they’ve got the images to prove it was in Iranian airspace. The U.S. says it was in international space. Then you have Trump apparently moving forward with an attack but then saying, when he understood that 150 Iranians would die, at least, in this attack and that the spy drone was unmanned, he had called off the attack, as the planes had already taken off—although there was a cyberattack. The U.S. launched a cyberattack against Iran. Can you explain all of this, the significance of this, and if you think that the U.S. is still poised to attack Iran?
TRITA PARSI: I think it goes back to what we said earlier on, that the strategy of maximum pressure is designed by some of these individuals to corner Trump and force him to take military action. And that’s what they tried to do this past Thursday, and in the last minute Trump changed his mind.
Now, he has publicly stated that it was because he felt that the response was disproportionate, one spy plane and then killing 150 people on the other side. I think a more likely scenario is that he realized that he would not be able to control the escalation that would happen afterwards. In fact, the United States has been close to taking military action against Iran on numerous occasions in the last 25 years. Almost every time, the reason why the president did not choose to go forward with that was because of a very clear reality afterwards: They would not be able to control what would ensue, and they would not be able to have escalation control. Very quickly this whole thing could develop into a full-scale war.
And I think that is something that Donald Trump realizes would be very problematic for him politically. This is the advice he also got from Tucker Carlson on Fox News while he was making his decision, which was that an attack on Iran, a war with Iran, would be the end of his presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: So, at this point, you have France, Britain and Germany warning Iranian officials about the serious consequences Iran faces if it reneges on the 2015 nuclear pact, that the U.S. already pulled out of. Can you talk about what this means and the position Iran is in now, and what you feel needs to happen on both sides, with apparently the Iranian people also blaming their own government, as well as Trump, for the sanctions, since they are crippling the population on the ground there?
TRITA PARSI: So, I think, from the European perspective, Trump has clearly threatened Iran. He has crushed much of their economy. But he has truly humiliated the Europeans, because the Europeans have proven themselves to be of no consequence in this drama, once Trump chose to go down the path of maximum pressure, because they were supposed to be providing the Iranians with the economic benefits that the deal was promising them. They have failed to do so. They objected to sanctions of Trump, yet they abide by them. But they’re not actually in full compliance with the nuclear deal, because they have abided by Trump’s sanctions, which violate this nuclear deal.
So now they’re threatening Iran that if Iran starts to pull out of the deal, Iran will face severe consequences. It’s not really clear what severe consequences the Europeans would be able to impose on the Iranians, mindful of the fact that there is hardly any trade left between Europe and Iran since the Europeans already have abided by the American sanctions. So I don’t think the Iranians take the threats from the Europeans particularly seriously.
But the Europeans may take seriously that this whole thing will escalate into a military conflict, unless Europe, China, Russia do far more than they have done so far to make sure that Iran gets the economic benefits that it was promised. If that occurs, then there’s a likelihood that the Iranians will pull back and they will stay within the deal. That will not be an easy decision, of course, because the Trump administration will continue to try to provoke the Iranians to walk out of the deal.
In fact, to understand what Trump is doing right now, what his administration is doing, one should take a look at the paper that Bolton published about six months before he joined the administration. They have really followed that strategy to the T. And one thing he makes very clear there is that while the U.S. should not be pursuing diplomacy, it should keep the rhetorical option of diplomacy open. And the choice of the word “rhetorical,” I think, makes it very, very clear that it’s all about talking about diplomacy but never actually engaging in it.
AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, I want to thank you for being with us, former president of the National Iranian American Council, the group he founded. His most recent book, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. We’ll link to your piece in The New Republic on our website at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we look at the growing controversy over presidential candidate Joe Biden’s refusal to apologize for his recent praise of segregationist senators. We’ll speak with longtime author and education activist Jonathan Kozol. His recent piece, “When Joe Biden Collaborated with Segregationists.” Stay with us.