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Trita Parsi

EVP, Quincy Institute + Author

In late 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joked about Iranians starving because of American sanctions. 17 years before that, President George W. Bush declare Iran to be  within an 'axis of evil', along with Iraq and North Korea.

But things weren't always this way. Howard Baskerville, an American teacher, died in 1909 while fighting for Iran's right to establish a constitution. ​
Today's hostility dates to the mid-20th century when America helped Britain carry-out a coup against elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. 

Mosaddegh was then replaced by the Shah. Known to many Iranians as the American Shah, he spent nearly 40 years ruling with an iron fist. 

"Even though Iran wasn't a full democracy at the time, it clearly was an embryonic democracy on its way toward something more mature," says Trita Parsi, co-founder of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). We met for coffee just outside of Washington D.C.

Political activism is in Parsi's blood.

His father, a university professor, was jailed twice - once for speaking critically of the Shah to his students. The regime had vast informant networks. He was eventually released. 

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 saw the Shah toppled. Not long before that, Trita fled with his family to Onsala - a small city in Sweden - where his father could continue his research in a more stable environment. Trita was four-years-old. 

As the Islamic republic began to take shape, Trita's father was once again a wanted man. He was now accused of being a collaborator with the Shah's secret police, SAVAK. He would be sentenced to death if he returned. 

"Back then if they couldn't get a hold of you, they may just execute one of your relatives. So my dad went back to clear his name, to make sure that the family didn't get into any difficulties." 

Upon arrival, his father was thrown into jail. He shared a cell with the same pro-Shah guard who oversaw his imprisonment only months earlier.

The guard was executed. Trita's dad was not.

During the tumult of the uprising, prisons were run by students. Some of them had spent time in Trita's father's class. They had listened to his lectures, understood his point of view, and set him free.

Trita co-founded NIAC following 9/11. The initial goal was simply to give Iranian-Americans a voice in American democratic society.

"This was a highly educated community, but self-marginalised when it came to the political arena."

But, as he puts it, Iranians couldn't afford to keep a low profile anymore. 

"We're talking 2005, 2006. On a daily basis, there was a debate as to whether the U.S. should bomb Iran or not. So we started fighting fiercely in Washington to make sure that diplomacy was given a chance." 

NIAC has grown to become the largest Iranian-American organization in the country. Three Iranian-American women made history in the 2018 midterms winning seats in Florida, New York and Georgia.

NIAC worked closely with President Obama's national security team to establish the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, adopted in 2015. The agreement saw Iran open itself to intensive nuclear monitoring in exchange for sanction relief. 

"We played an important role in helping make sure that something that was viewed as politically impossible suddenly became not only possible but plausible, then a reality. That was a remarkable feeling." 

He also credits Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, the Europeans and many others. 

This collective achievement was left in tatters when President Trump abandoned the agreement in May 2018. His rationale was and remains vague. 

Iran and the five other signatories - France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China - affirmed their desire to maintain the original deal. 

"The hard-liners in Iran had to bite their tongue, swallow their pride and go along with an arrangement that really moved the U.S. and Iran closer to each other. Even though many of them would have liked to kill the nuclear deal, it wasn't them who sabotaged it." 

The Trump administration has also imposed the harshest sanctions in history against Iran. It is often unclear who is fanning these flames.

"Trump's base doesn't follow this issue and couldn't care less about this. This is Trump's billionaire base. The handful of billionaires that essentially propelled Trump to victory and who have been financing him." 

One of those billionaires is Sheldon Adelson: an 85-year-old Zionist of casino wealth. He has called for dropping an atomic bomb on Iran. Recently Mr. Adelson's shady business dealings prompted a five-year investigation by the Securities & Exchange Commission. 

Trump's sanctions have pitched Iran into an economic recession. Few items were left off the sanctions list, and the ones that were have proven difficult to get into the country. 

"Yes, you can buy medical equipment, but there's no bank willing to handle the transaction. That is a deliberate situation created by the sanctions," Parsi explains. 

The Iranian economy is poised to lose billions of dollars this year. Those hit hardest will be everyday working people. 

For NIAC, there's a stark difference between the Trump and Obama administration. 

"If you even slightly criticize the [Trump] administration, they won't talk to you. For us, it was very clear we were not going to play this game of being quiet in order to have access." 

In recent years there has been a growing push for the United States to lessen its military footprint in the Middle East. Some nations are against such a move, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

"That suddenly means that they would have to fend for themselves, and the actual balance of power would now be reflective of their power vis-à-vis that of Iran, instead of having the United States essentially put its finger on the scale to benefit its close allies," says Parsi.

Trita makes no excuse for Iran's past transgressions, a country he has not been able to visit in ten years. I ask how he sees U.S.-Iran relations over the next decade. 

"I would first like to see that the situation in Iran would move dramatically in the right direction - far greater representation, democracy, respect for human rights." 

As that happens, he hopes relations between the two countries will become more normal than they are now. But, as he indicates, there's a long way to go.

"I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon that the two countries will be friends, and that's not necessary. What is necessary is that they're not constantly fighting with each other. What is necessary is that they're not constantly undermining each other. And in the case of the United States right now, it is absolutely necessary that they don't punish the people of Iran. That they don't starve the people. That they don't set back the democracy movement in Iran."

Catch up with Trita on Facebook and Twitter

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Interview Recorded: 2018 | Updated: 2022

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