RFE/RL: Are the limited UN sanctions going to bring Western countries closer to a solution to the nuclear standoff? So far it seems that they have made Tehran more defiant and more confrontational.
Trita Parsi: I think what is happening right now is that we're entering a lose-lose situation. It's no longer about finding solutions and finding a compromise. It's more about seeing which side can endure the most pain. Will Iran have to give in before the West gives in -- and it's going to be difficult to foretell which side is going to endure this much more, while Iran is certainly going to pay a price. At least its economy [is] and it is already starting to pay a price in its economy and the U.S. is also in a tremendously difficult position in Iraq.
"Certainly the chance for diplomacy has not been eliminated, but it certainly has been made more unlikely because at this stage no side wants to lose face and that increases the cost of actually getting to the negotiating table."
RFE/RL: So you think the UN Security Council move has made the situation more complicated -- but are the UN sanctions going to be effective?
Parsi: I don't think necessarily the sanctions from the UN [themselves are] going to be effective, but the unilateral sanctions that the United States has quietly put in place over the last couple of months with a tremendous amount of pressure on international banks not to deal with Iran -- those, I think, may impose a cost on Iran. They're going to be far more effective than the UN sanctions.
RFE/RL: But are they a solution to the crisis?
Parsi: I think this step is not a step toward the solution. This is a step toward creating a lose-lose situation while at the same time further closing the window of opportunity for diplomacy. Diplomacy is falling victim to an endless cycle of provocations right now and those provocations obviously come from both sides. I think from the Iranian side it's been extremely provocative to [hold] this conference regarding the Holocaust in Tehran, which really has not served Iran's interest in any way, shape, or form.
RFE/RL: What about the U.S. side?
Parsi: Well, from the U.S. side you have the continuation of refusing to talk, the continuation of basically having a blind spot for Iran when it comes to how the situation should be dealt with in Iraq. Whatever help Iran can provide, the U.S. basically refuses it, and it also refuses to recognize that Iran has done quite a lot to help stabilize Iraq.
RFE/RL: Despite that, is a diplomatic solution still possible? Is there a chance that Tehran and Western countries could go back to the negotiating table?
Parsi: Certainly the chance for diplomacy has not been eliminated, but it certainly has been made more unlikely because at this stage no side wants to lose face and that increases the cost of actually getting to the negotiating table. I think from the beginning it was clear that there're two things that need to happen. On the one hand, from the Western side, there needs to be a recognition of Iran's inalienable right [to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes] -- in making sure that they are pursuing a nonproliferation policy that is not in violation of the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)] itself and, on the other hand, making sure that dialogue is taking place without any preconditions. From the Iranian side, it needs to be a more sophisticated diplomacy and not a diplomacy based on provocation.
RFE/RL: At this stage there are no signs that Iran will comply with the Security Council demand and halt its uranium-enrichment program. How do you think UN members will react and what will be the next step?
Parsi: Well we've gone through one cycle now, in which we've seen how it's taken several months from August 31 to December 23 to actually get through the first round of sanctions. If Iran does not comply with these demands, then we will see another cycle, in which it will probably take a couple of months -- if not longer -- to be able to get through the second round of sanctions.
RFE/RL: Inside Iran there are renewed calls for the country to leave the NPT in reaction to the sanctions and increasing international pressure. How likely is it that the government would take such a step?
Parsi: I don't think it's very likely, I think there are elements in Iran that may not fully understand the repercussions of such a move. I think what is far more likely is that the Iranians would not be as cooperative with the [IAEA] and limit the accessibility of the IAEA to the Iranian sites following the argument that if the IAEA is not going to live up to its requirements when it comes to cooperating with Iran's nuclear program then there is no reason for Iran to cooperate with the IAEA. Again, here we see another element of a lose-lose situation and just more punishment instead of actually sitting down without any preconditions and trying to find a solution.
Economic sanctions could further undermine Iran's already shaky economy (Fars)
MOVING TOWARD SANCTIONS: If the United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions on Iran, domestic support for Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will wane, according to ALEX VATANKA, Eurasia editor for Jane's Information Group.
Vatanka told a February 24 RFE/RL briefing that "economic sanctions will hurt the average Iranian" and, consequently, many "will blame the ruling clerics" for making life difficult and "impairing the country's long term development."
Vatanka said sanctions would be a serious challenge to the Iranian government. If harsh economic sanctions were imposed, Iran's poorest population will be hurt the hardest -- and might react "as they did in the 1970s and protest in the streets." Sanctions on travel, Vatanka said, would hurt a many Iranians because "Iran is a nation of small traders" who depend on the ability to travel to earn an income. According to Vatanka, unemployment in Iran is estimated at 30 percent, "so small trading is essential to survival." Although current U.S. sanctions "haven't worked," he said, "Iranians fear an oil embargo." He stressed that "oil revenues are a major part of the economy, so it is critical to look at this sector."
Should negotiations with the European Union and the UN fail, Vatanka believes that Iran would follow a "North Korea model," since Ahmadinejad's base of support among the "Islamist militias" has been "urging withdrawal from the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]." The Iranian government's "tactic" so far, Vatanka said, is governed by the belief that "by shouting the loudest, you'll get concessions [from the West]."
Listen to the complete panel discussion (about 60 minutes):
THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's coverage of the controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
CHRONOLOGY An annotated timeline of Iran's nuclear program.