December 28th, 2011
05:49 PM ET

Parsi: Without renewed diplomacy, war with Iran lies around the corner

Editor's Note: Trita Parsi is the author of the newly released book A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012).

By Trita Parsi - Special to CNN

Iran’s warning that it will close the Straits of Hormuz if an oil embargo is imposed on it has sent oil prices soaring and raised fears that yet another war in the Middle East may be in the making. These fears are not unfounded, particularly if diplomacy continues to be treated as a slogan rather than as a serious policy option.

“Not even a drop of oil will flow through the Persian Gulf,” Iranian Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi warned, according to the state-controlled Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Washington quickly dismissed the threat as mere bluster. But energy markets react not just to the credibility of threats and warnings, but on the general level of tensions.

While Iran is unlikely to act on its warning in the short term - closing the Straits would after all also choke of Iran’s own ability export oil and potentially pit it against Russia and China - these threatening statements do fill one important function: They cause oil prices to rise due to the increased risk premium. Higher oil prices are good for Iran but bad for the U.S. and the European Union. The euro is already risking collapse and the Obama administration cannot afford higher gas prices (and the negative impact that will have on job creation) in an election year.

It is likely to get worse. As the Obama administration - pushed by domestic political forces - continues to ratchet up pressure on Iran in the elusive hope that the government in Tehran will cry uncle and give up its nuclear program, the Iranians will respond to escalation with escalation.

If the name of the game is to harm the other side, then both countries can clearly play this game.

Initially, threats of closing the Straits of Hormuz were made by mid-ranking members of the Iranian parliament. Now Vice Presidents in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s cabinet make them. If the current trajectory remains, we will likely see more senior Iranian government figures make even more specific warnings with even greater frequency.

Along side the heightened rhetoric, we will likely see more Iranian military exercises in the Persian Gulf, potential provocations between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps navy and EU and U.S. navies by heightening the level of “testing the other side,” perhaps even “intentional accidents” at strategic targets throughout the region. These measures will at a minimum help push the risk premium of oil to even higher levels.

Even more aggressive measures will likely be pursued by Iran in the next phase of this standoff with the West.

Such is the logic of pressure politics - pressure begets pressure and along the way, both sides increasingly lose sight of their original endgames. As this conflict-dynamic takes over, the psychological cost of restraint rises, while further escalatory steps appear increasingly logical and justified. At some point - and we may already be there - the governments will no longer control the dynamics. Rather, the conflict dynamic will control the governments.

Though neither side may have intended to drive this towards open war, but rather to merely deter the other side or compel it to change its policies, pressure politics in the absence of real diplomacy has a logic of its own. This formula simply drives us towards confrontation, whether we intend it or not.

But all hope is not lost. Contrary to common perceptions, diplomacy has not been exhausted. In fact, it didn’t even fail - it was prematurely abandoned. As I describe in A Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, Barack Obama’s political maneuverability for diplomacy with Iran was limited - and whatever political space he had, it was quickly eaten up by pressure from Congress, Israel, Saudi Arabia and most importantly, by the actions of the Iranian government itself in the fraudulent 2009 elections.

By the time diplomacy could be tried in October 2009, Obama’s political maneuverability had become so limited that its entire Iran policy - in the words of a senior Obama administration official - had become “a gamble on a single roll of the dice.” It either had to work right away, or not at all. And diplomacy rarely works instantaneously.

The Iranians did not come to a "yes," as Obama had hoped, during the October talks. Only weeks later, the Obama administration activated the pressure track and abandoned diplomacy in all but name. Ironically, Brazil and Turkey managed through their diplomacy to get Iran to a "yes" only six months later. But by that time, Obama had committed himself to sanctions and the pressure track. Between a sanctions resolution at the United Nations and a diplomatic breakthrough based on the benchmarks of the original October deal, Obama rejected the diplomatic opening and opted for sanctions and pressure politics.

Diplomacy cannot work under such constrained circumstances. It needs time, patience, perseverance and a clear understanding that the cost of abandoning diplomacy is greater than the cost of sustaining it - because of the catastrophic repercussions of the military confrontation that will follow collapsed talks. While this might have escaped decision makers in Washington and Tehran earlier, there should be little doubt about its veracity today.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Trita Parsi.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Iran • United States

soundoff (147 Responses)
  1. cwmaster

    Quick Poll: War with Iran just around the corner?

    to answer the poll just follow the link:

    December 29, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Thinker23

      Wars are not started by polls or pollsters, my friend...

      December 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  2. clearick

    Diplomacy only works when one side is willing to change it's position, the UN imposed sanctions on Iran, because Iran won't stop building Nuclear Weapons capability. Now, Iran is threatening the world, saying if our oil can't be sold, no one else's will be either!

    At some point you stop talking and start fighting, Iran hasn't budged from it's unacceptable position, and the world will not be held hostage by Iran! It's still Iran's choice, now we see if they blink or invite their destruction. The Middle Eastern mentality seems to not appraise things very clearly Saddam Hussein underestimated what the West was saying, is it possible Iran is guilty of the same?

    December 29, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  3. Old Cowboy

    Personally I'd like to see Obama, the PM of Israel or Prince Willy and Amadinajad or their Supreme religious leader Kokamaymy alone in a room in a neutral country. Let them fight it out right then and there. The loser has to shut the hell up and behave. And yes. I'd be willing to go over there and slap the sass out of both of them. Usually the only way to stop a bully is knock him down. Face reality. We all want peace and happiness but you have to defend your right to go your own way. Iran's leaders want us to dance to their tune alone.

    December 29, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  4. jtr2323

    Iran is playing with fire.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • jtr2323

      “Carry the battle to them. Don't let them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive and don't ever apologize for anything."
      -Harry S Truman

      Down with Iran and all of their radical ideas. I can't believe they have the audacity to say that they can shut down the transportation of oil through the Straits of Hormuz. Not only will the US step in, but every other country who needs oil.

      December 29, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  5. thomas

    Iran is acting like a stupid, petulant child. It's just giving psycho Israel the justification to nuke Tehran.

    December 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm |
    • Thinker23

      Israel is very far from being "psycho" and the fact that Israel NEVER started any wars proves it pretty well. Further, Israel will not use force against Iran unless as a last resort when there will be no other way to prevent an Iranian attack on Israel.

      December 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
  6. Russ

    I love the use of scapegoats to build and solidify one's position. Hitler used the Jews for Germany's woes as he rose to power. The Democrats use George W 's tactical errors in Iraq and lengthy war in Afghanistan as an excuse not to go to war with Iran. The Gop crowd uses Jimmy Carter's weakness as to why we have gotten here. The Iranian Mullahs use the United States and Israel as threats to rally their fanatical troops behind. Israel, US and Europe use Iran's nuclear warhead threat for sanctions and possible military action. Scapegoats, the sources of all the troubles of the world!

    December 29, 2011 at 1:31 pm |
    • Thinker23

      It is called REASONING, Russ...

      December 29, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
  7. Scott

    Iran isn't ignorant enough to blockade the strait. That would be the proverbial "straw that broke the camels back.". It would do more than just iritate us, it would iritate her allies.

    It's more saber rattling, nothing more. Military action against Iran at this point in time, is well, pointless. Iran has done nothing at this point to warrant it. Sure, we think they are building a nuclear weapon, and even our intelligence shows this, but until we can prove beyond a shadow of doubt to her allies; we must sit back, shake our finger, and smack them with sanctions. Honestly, in order for peace and negotiations to work with Iran, we need to assertain their nuclear program for real. Getting them to allow some experts from Switzerland, with one of ours tagging along, would be the best option.

    North Korea is a wild card at this time. We don't know what to expect. All we can hope is that the country remains stable.

    December 29, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  8. Cassandra Chu

    ... the problem here is that American politics is over-influenced by israel and israel-firsters.
    this is all propaganda. Russia and China will back Iran. Slowly, slowly, our American economy bleeds...

    December 29, 2011 at 7:25 pm |
  9. Change

    Forget all of the above points though some very important points made. What is going to happen is that Iran will eventually bow and scrap their nuclear program for fear of a devestating war and defeat at the hands of the mighty US. Then what's the end result? The Republican Party would say to President Obama, you're a weak president and you've failed America. But guess what? President Obama is not done re-writing the history books yet because in 2012 he will become the first President in US history to carry all 52 states in the general election. Don't believe it? Well, take it from me, I have an inside lead to this election. History is in the making.

    December 29, 2011 at 8:00 pm |
  10. RCDC

    Our ships is within the reach of their (Iran) cruise missiles. We should think this very carefully and should be cautious as this could get ugly. On this recession we don't need another war.

    December 30, 2011 at 1:23 am |
  11. Chicagorich

    Unfortunately, there is not much time left. Iran's proclemations regarding the gulf have caused navies to send more resources to the region such that if the Iranians were to attempt to close the strait it would likely only be closed a short while and would result in a war which would destroy the country, while also being costly to the navies and armies opposed to them as well. The Americans have observed the continued research and developement of the means to produce and deliver nuclear weapons throughout all previous negotiations and have lost almost all hope of any diplomatic solution as they view the Iranians as merely using negotiations as a stalling tactic to finish their programs. Very soon the decision will be made as to whether or not force will actually be used to prevent a nuclear armed Iran. If the answer is to be yes, then ensuring the Iranians are aware of and not confused about this might be the best and last chance to prevent an armed conflict. If the answer is no, then more bluster and bluffing, as has been seen up to this point will be the case, but that just leads Iran to believe that no force would be used to prevent their obtaining nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, which is clearly their present viewpoint.

    December 30, 2011 at 2:06 am |
  12. ghouri

    Time is working against america and if they attack Iran will be a desaster.
    There is no secret america has started world war iii against Muslims and islamic countries and is a warn signal
    to all Muslims to get rid of amewrica with no character lier and killers.

    December 30, 2011 at 5:38 am |
  13. Spartan

    I don't get Iran (Persia). Dont they see what happened to Iraq and Afganistan.......we need the 300 spartans back to kick there ass

    December 30, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  14. Bec215

    The US military industrial complex must be fed... with fewer troops deployed, budget cuts taking effect in 2012, and the Pentagon winding down, no doubt in my mind there will be warmongering among business interests. No war means lower profits... I'm pro-military and a Republican, but Eisenhower was right – if you look at the VFW website, it shows the US has rarely gone more than a few years without engaging in a war overseas in the last hundred years. Once Afghanistan mission ends, I think the rhetoric from the US in Iran will ratchet up significantly. Sad... Watch "Why We Fight" for a deeper understanding of Eisenhower's warning.

    December 30, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  15. Corung

    Let me get this straight. We are mad at a Country because they kicked out the dictator we installed ad bum rushed our embassy in 1978. We then got our ass kicked by nature and poor military preparedness in a failed rescue operation. We then finance, equip and provoke Iraq to go to war with them and Iraq gets their ass kicked.

    Now 30 years later, a country that hasn't invaded anyone in 300 years wants nuclear power and we have a problem with it.

    Seems like our problem, not Iran's.

    December 30, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  16. NonZionist

    "Iranian Nukes" are no more real than "Iraqi WMDs". Iran relies on asymmetric defense and has repeatedly called for the region to become a nuclear-FREE zone. Iran has offered numerous conciliatory proposals that attempt to address nuclear concerns. Most of these proposals are instantly dismissed by the U.S. and Israel. At one point, the U.S. was forced to reject its own proposal, when Iran agreed to it. At another point, Iran accepted a proposal by Brazil and Turkey and the U.S. torpedoed it.

    Ahmadinejad argues that nukes are useless - they didn't save the Soviet Union from collapse, and they didn't save Israel from defeat in 2006 in Lebanon. Khamenei has repeatedly condemned the stockpiling, development and use of nukes as a sin against Islam.

    Iran hasn't attacked anyone in 300 years. To those who profit from war and live by "Might Makes Right", the behavior of Iran's government must indeed seem insane. To people addicted to war, ignorance and hatred, Ahmadinejad's calls for peace and dialogue must seem mad.

    "Iran is ready to help creation of dialogue atmosphere between governments and nations." - Ahmadinejad

    We are unable to imagine a country that is not Just Like Us.

    We love nukes, so Iran must love nukes too. Iran's call for a nuclear-FREE zone in the region makes no sense to us.

    We want war, so we assume that Iran wants war too. We want to play God and wipe whole countries off the face of the map, so we think Iran wants the same. For us, nothing else is Thinkable.

    We seem to be at war with our own demons and delusions - bombing non-existent "Iraqi WMDs", attacking imaginary "Iranian Nukes". Unfortunately, real countries and real people keep getting in the way of our missiles.

    "Why are you ruining the prestige of the [UN nuclear] agency for absurd US claims? The Iranian nation is wise. It won't build two bombs against 20,000 [nuclear] bombs you have. But it builds something you can't respond to: Ethics, decency, monotheism and justice." - Ahmadinejad, speaking in the central Iranian town of Shahr-e Kord, Nov 2011, quoted by Scott Peterson, ["Iran nuclear report: Why it may not be a game-changer after all"](, *Christian Science Monitor*, 09 Nov 2011

    We Americans tend to shoot first and ask questions never. As a result, we are lied into making war, again and again. Our addiction to the Fear Drug makes us very easy to manipulate by those who profit from the war racket.

    December 30, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  17. Duh

    These are the last acts of desperate mullahs. The good news in that 90% of all Persians are reasonable people. The challenge is they have been deprived and the mullahs need to create an enemy to survive.

    The key to unlocking this is to beam over to Iranian TV programs like Dallas. Dallas did more to destroy the Soviet Union than any bomb did. It sent some simple messages outside the hell hole life was pretty good and outside the hell hole we did not see preoccupied with the Russians every living hour.

    This is the low cost way of getting rid of despots.

    January 15, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
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