With dark rumours swirling of an attack on Iran's nuclear programme, this new book by Trita Parsi is well-timed. The founder of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC, details American diplomacy with the Islamic Republic under Barack Obama.
His analysis of the grim stalemate that has characterised relations between the Great Satan and the mullahs since 1979 is both absorbing and frustrating. It is a tale of missed opportunities, obduracy and short-sightedness, all which are pushing the Middle East towards greater instability.
Under George Bush, America's relationship with Iran festered. The two powers collaborated occasionally in Afghanistan, but with America driven by the premise that "we don't speak to evil", detente was a distant possibility. America saw negotiations not as a tool of diplomacy but as a reward to be granted only to those states that had proved they were deserving of them. Iran, grouped with North Korea and Iraq as part of the "axis of evil", was not.
The inauguration of a new president who from the start promised the Muslim world respect and who offered the hand of American friendship to those willing to unclench their fist, prompted stirrings of hope, both in Iran and beyond, that this could be a new start. (Persian speakers also noted that Obama means "He is with us".)
But the bitter mistrust that divides Iran and America, and the domestic considerations of leaders on both sides, eroded that initial optimism. Time and again in negotiations over Iran's nuclear programme, America and its allies assumed Iranian duplicity and insincerity. For their part, the Iranians saw in America's outstretched hand only the determination to snatch from their country its independence, rights and potential.
Even during the deepest chill of the Cold War, America and Russia found ways of talking. Today a frozen silence stretches from Tehran to Washington. "When you don't know what's going on, and you don't feel like you have somebody you can communicate with on the other side of the table, you are going to revert back to what's safe … and what's safe in the Iran context is demonisation and just general negativity," explains an American official.
Iran's reluctance to engage goes deeper: "Tehran cannot come to terms with Washington without risking an internal identity and legitimacy crisis." Animosity towards America is written into the Islamic Republic's DNA. If the relationship is restored, "we will dissolve ourselves", admits Amir Mohebian, an Iranian conservative.
But diplomacy with Iran, Parsi maintains, has never been pursued to the point of exhaustion. Look at Libya (before the uprising), Vietnam and Northern Ireland, he insists, and the painstaking years of quiet discussions with each of them. The talks between America and Iran, a few weeks here, a fortnight there, have never matched that.
The approach has focused on the nuclear issue to the exclusion of all others, a take-it-or-leave-it attitude that has always been doomed. Negotiations such as these succeed not because the proposals are flawless or because both sides play fair, but "because the many flaws associated with the talks are overcome by the political will to reach a solution".
That political will, says Parsi, has been absent. The mutual mistrust has left no margin for error. Neither has seen any domestic political benefit in pushing for a serious settlement. And now, with the tick-tocking of the nuclear clock growing ever more insistent, reconciliation looks less and less likely. The enmity between America and Iran, stoked by three decades of demonising each other, is no longer a phenomenon, Parsi concludes. "It is an institution." Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran By Trita Parsi, Yale University Press, 284 pages, $27.50