This week: a conversation—with Trita Parsi, Hussein Banai, and John Ghazvinian—about nuclear talks with Iran and the long history of US-Iran relations. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our website.
The negotiations in Vienna over reviving the Iran nuclear deal have slowed, faltered, stalled. This week, we talk about what’s happened to Obama’s major diplomatic success, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Trump withdrew the US. Trita Parsi, of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft—this episode is the latest installment of our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy—says:
Because the United States remains outside of the deal, they have not rejoined yet and have kept all of Trump’s sanctions. The Iranians refuse to engage directly with the US diplomats and as a result the Europeans have been given an absolutely central role as the mediators between the United States and Iran.
What’s at stake, at the end of the day, it’s not just a nuclear deal that would prevent Iran or block all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb. But it’s also whether there will be a gravitation towards a military confrontation between the United States and Iran. That certainly was the impression of Obama when he signed the deal in 2015. He believed that if there wasn’t a deal, there would be a gravitation towards war. Today, it may not be as clear, but certainly one cannot say that the risk is entirely gone.
The historian John Ghazvinian points out that, historically, the US and Iran have had friendly relations:
It’s a very real and very long and very warm, affectionate relationship between the United States and Iran. And even before the United States exists as a sovereign state: between the American colonies of North America and Iran, before there’s any actual contact between the peoples, there are idealized versions that the Persians and the colonial North Americans have of each other. Some of the very first American newspapers in the 1720s, Philadelphia and Boston, were consumed with Iran, with Persia, as they called it,
The same was true into the mid-19th century when Iranians first discovered the idea of the United States as a more benevolent version of the Western countries that they were struggling with at the time. You know, these two countries for a very, very long time, for most of their history, have had a history of mutual idealization and fascination, which makes the last 40 years of their history cast in a very different kind of light, almost as a sort of aberration.
Huss Banai explains how the framing of a nuclear deal leaves out broader dimensions of US-Iran relations, generally in need of drastic improvement these days:
Understanding the obstacles are just as important, frankly, than any kind of scheme that might seem Pollyannish without any practical solution as to how to overcome those obstacles. And the obstacles here are really amplified by the way in which the nuclear deal has become the linchpin of this relationship.
On the United States, the exception that proved to be the rule, the Obama administration’s rapprochement, really couldn’t ultimately overcome the very technocratic, practical, limited framing of the JCPOA as an arms control treaty without any other possible dimensions.
And on the Iranian side, this gradually over time (we forget, it took more than two years from the start of direct talks on it for it to come about) and on the Iranian side, you had a similar kind of domestic coalition, coalitional opposition that made sure that it didn’t go any farther than that. And in both cases, really, the only reason why that opening happened is probably because the United States made such a catastrophic, strategic mistake after the invasion of Iraq in the Middle East, that allowed for the Obama administration to change the narrative so drastically.
There’s still hope for creativity, for reinvention. Huss Banai tells a story of his own experience of creative reinvention across continents, a story of his move from Iran to Toronto, when he couldn’t “speak a lick of English” in high school and was soon assigned to memorize a passage of Othello. A teacher, he says,
very kindly pointed out to me that none of the students in the class had a clue about what Shakespeare was meaning or saying in this text, just like I didn’t. The key was the performance, to be able to enact and play out that soliloquy and to bring feeling, sentiment, and out of that would come continuous engagement with a meaning.
That unlocked a black box in my brain. And it helped me a great deal, to such a degree that by the time I graduated from university, I was a speechwriter for then Canadian finance minister Paul Martin, who went on to become the prime minister of Canada.
Speaking of identity-reinvention: here’s perhaps the greatest film on the subject. Kiarostami’s Close-Up puts pressure on the fiction/non-fiction distinction, recreating an actual case of impersonation in Tehran, performed by the people involved in that actual case. From Criterion:
This fiction-documentary hybrid uses a sensational real-life event — the arrest of a young man on charges that he fraudulently impersonated the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf — as the basis for a stunning, multilayered investigation into movies, identity, artistic creation, and existence, in which the real people from the case play themselves.
Read: Dana Stevens on Abortion and Cinema
At Slate, Dana Stevens writes, in a reflection on the new film Happening, about a woman seeking an abortion in 1960s France (when the procedure was illegal):
There are Annes all across America right now, promising young women at the beginning of their lives staring down a future of unconsented-to gestation and birth and unwanted motherhood. They, too, will try every method available to them to control their own bodies and reproductive lives. They, too, will struggle and suffer and bleed. And in the many places where abortion remains an unspeakable word, many of them, like this movie’s terrified but dauntless heroine, will go through it all completely alone. Every judge, legislator, and activist now working to place more people in that intolerable position should be forced to watch Happening all the way through, eyes open. It’s the least they can do, given the far more traumatic and life-altering experience they are trying to force on one-half the population.
This week’s ephemeral library
Jill Lepore on Roe. Eric Foner: Hope in the Desert. John Cassidy on good news re: inflation. The 17 Most Beautiful Brutalist Buildings in the World. The Transfixing Beauty of Starling Murmurations. Charlie Warzel:“the focus on the leak over the substance is telling.”