2010 Grawemeyer winner

1 December 2009, 1615 EST

Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), has won the 2010 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. The prize is worth $200,000.

The press release describes the award-winning ideas from Parsi’s Yale University Press book:

Improving relations between Iran and Israel is the key to achieving lasting peace in the Middle East, says the winner of the 2010 University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.

Trita Parsi, co-founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, earned the prize for ideas set forth in his 2007 book, “Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.” He received the award from among 54 nominations worldwide.

The rivalry between Iran and Israel is driven more by a quest for regional power rather than by conflicting beliefs, Parsi says. Instead of trying to isolate Iran from the rest of the world, the United States should rehabilitate Iran into the Middle East’s economic and political order in return for Iran making significant changes in its behavior, including ending its hostilities against Israel.

Parsi interviewed more than 130 senior Israeli, Iranian and U.S. decision-makers before writing “Treacherous Alliance,” which also won a Council on Foreign Relations award last year for most significant foreign policy book.

The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the story, as did the local Louisville Courier Journal. This is from the latter:

Parsi said “the thesis of the book is that what you are seeing in the Middle East right now is not an ideological battle between democracy and theocracy. You’re seeing a classic power struggle between some of the most powerful states in the region.”

Iran and Israel are using the rest of the Middle East as a stage for that competition, he said.

“When you do have a strategic competition, and a strategic rivalry, there actually is room for compromises, there is room for accommodation and there is a possibility of a win-win situation,” Parsi said. “But if you have an ideological battle, then you are left with a position in which there is only the victory of one side over the other and conflict essentially becomes inevitable.”

Paradoxically, both Israel and Iran want their competition viewed as an ideological struggle because that is each nation’s best hope for winning support from friends in the region, he said. Few of those friends would be particularly interested only in helping Israel or Iran become predominant powers in the region, Parsi said.

The antipathy between the two nations goes back only about two decades, he said.

For most of their history, Parsi said, “the relations between the Jewish people and the Iranian people tended to be very positive.”

The Louisville newspaper story points out some of the recent controversy surrounding NIAC’s alleged lobbying — and many of the smears against Parsi are reminiscent of the attacks on John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt for their book on the Israeli lobby.

I’m quoted in the press release:

“Most efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East focus on the clash between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Rodger Payne, a UofL political science professor who directs the award. “Parsi says the best way to stabilize the region is for the U.S. to act in a more balanced way toward Iran and Israel, which would de-escalate the geopolitical and nuclear rivalry between the two.”

The book is an interesting work of IR scholarship, with a fundamentally realist take on the relations between Israel and Iran. Interestingly, Parsi argues that Iran long acted upon realist thinking towards Iran even as its talk reflected ideology.

Disclosure: I chair the Department Committee that overseas the administration of this prize. This entails soliciting external book reviews, chairing a first-round screening committee, bringing together a panel of experts to evaluate and rank a set of semi-finalists, and making sure that the information gleaned from these processes is advanced to a Final Selection Committee.