By once again blowing the chance to close a nuclear deal with Iran, the U.S. and its western partners have set themselves up for escalating the conflict with the Islamic republic
The most recent round of nuclear talks between the P5+1 were, by any meaningful measure, a failure. Even as she sought to put the best face possible on the non-outcome in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton had to acknowledge that western members of the P5+1 and Iran “remain far apart on substance.”
Western officials blame the failure either on the Islamic Republic’s upcoming presidential election or on that old fallback, Iranian “intransigence.” In reality, talks failed because America and its western partners remain unwilling to recognise Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.
U.S. strategic culture
As a sovereign state, Iran is entitled to enrich, if it chooses; as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it is entitled to do so under safeguards. The NPT explicitly recognises signatories’ “inalienable right” to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. That this inalienable right includes the right to enrich is clear from the NPT itself, its negotiating history, and decades of state practice, with at least a dozen non-weapons state parties having developed safeguarded fuel-cycle infrastructures potentially able to support weapons programmes.
If Washington recognised Iran’s right to enrich, a nuclear deal with Tehran could be reached in a matter of weeks. As long as Washington refuses to acknowledge Tehran’s nuclear rights, no substantial agreement will be possible.
Yet the Obama administration is no closer than its processor to accepting safeguarded enrichment in Iran. This is partly due to pressure from various allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France — and their American supporters, who expect Washington somehow to defy legal principle along with political reality and compel Tehran to surrender its indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.
But the real reason for U.S. obstinacy is that recognising Iran’s nuclear rights would mean accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests. No American administration since the Iranian Revolution — not even that of Barack Hussein Obama — has been willing to do this.
Washington’s unwillingness is grounded in some unattractive, but fundamental, aspects of American strategic culture: difficulty in coming to terms with independent power centres (whether globally or in vital regions like the Middle East); hostility to non-liberal states, unless they subordinate their foreign policies to U.S. preferences (as Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak); and an unreflective but deeply rooted sense that U.S.-backed norms, legal rules, and transnational decision-making processes are meant to constrain others, not America itself.
Because these attitudes are so fundamental, it is unlikely that Obama will invest the political capital required to bring America’s Iran policy in line with strategic reality before his presidency ends. And so the controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities will grind on.
The world has experienced such diplomatic stasis before. In 2003-2005, Britain, France, and Germany worked (ostensibly) to prepare a nuclear settlement with Tehran; Iran suspended enrichment for nearly two years to encourage diplomatic progress. The initiative failed because the George W. Bush administration refused to join the talks unless Tehran was willing to abandon pursuit of indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities.
In 2009-2010, efforts to negotiate the exchange of most of Iran’s then-stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor collapsed for similar reasons. In the May 2010 Tehran Declaration brokered by Brazil and Turkey, Iran accepted all of Washington’s terms for a fuel swap, yet the Obama administration rejected the Declaration because it openly recognised Iran’s right to enrich. Three years later, the administration is once again undermining chances for diplomatic success with its inflexibility regarding Iran’s nuclear rights.
The world has also seen what happens when America and its European partners demonstrate such bad faith in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran — Iran expands its nuclear infrastructure and capabilities. When Iran broke its nearly two-year suspension of enrichment in 2005, it could run less than a thousand centrifuges; today, it has installed 12,000 centrifuges, more than 9,000 of which process uranium gas to produce enriched uranium. In February 2010, Iran began enriching uranium to the near-20 per cent level needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) after the U.S. and its partners refused to sell the fuel; Iran consistently offered to suspend near-20 per cent enrichment if it could obtain an adequate fuel supply for the TRR. After the Obama administration torpedoed the Tehran Declaration, Iran accelerated its production of near-20 per cent uranium and began indigenously manufacturing fuel plates for the TRR.
With America and its European partners once again blowing an opening to accept Tehran’s nuclear rights and close a nuclear deal, we are likely to see another surge of expansion in Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Certainly, Iran will continue enriching, at the three to four per cent level needed for power reactors and at the near-20 per cent level needed for the TRR, and installing more efficient second-generation centrifuges. Iran also appears to be on track to commission a heavy water reactor at Arak next year.
Although the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) consistently certifies that no nuclear materials have been diverted from Iran’s safeguarded nuclear facilities, all of these steps will be cited by Israel, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and other constituencies in the U.S. hankering for military action as evidence that time for diplomacy with Tehran has run out. Additionally, it is possible that the Islamic Republic will find legitimate reasons to begin enriching above the 20 per cent level. While such higher-level enrichment would be done under IAEA safeguards, this would also be interpreted in the U.S. and Israel as provocative Iranian “escalation.”
Pressure on Obama
Obama would prefer to avoid another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East. But his unwillingness to revive America’s deteriorating regional position through serious nuclear diplomacy with Tehran will increase pressure on him to order U.S. military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities before the end of his presidency.
Rather than openly abandon the delusion of U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, Obama will try to placate more hawkish elements by escalating America’s ongoing “dirty war” against the Islamic Republic — including economic warfare against civilians, threatening secondary sanctions against third countries in violation of U.S. WTO commitments, cyber-attacks, and support for groups doing things inside Iran that Washington elsewhere condemns as “terrorism,” stoking sectarian tensions, and fuelling further violence in Syria to prevent Tehran from “winning” there. But that, too, will only further destabilise the Middle East and bring American and Iran ever closer to the brink of overt confrontation.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are authors of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, New York: Metropolitan, 2013. They teach international relations, he at Penn State, she at American University.
- Nuclear Iran: What’s at Stake for the BRICS (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Flynt Leverett: U.S. Is Engaged in A Dirty War against Iran (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Interview with Flynt Leverett by Kourosh Ziabari
If you regularly follow the headlines on the American and European radio stations, TV channels or newspapers, you come to believe that Iran’s nuclear program is the world’s most important, unsolvable and complicated problem. It’s been more than a decade that they have been incessantly talking of an Iranian threat that has endangered world peace and security. At the same time, they turn a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal and the fact that Israel is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The claim that Iran is trying to produce atomic weapons has laid the groundwork for the U.S. and its allies to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran and damage Iran’s economy and trouble the daily lives of the ordinary Iranian people.
To study the different aspects of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States and the European Union, Iran Review has conducted a series of interviews with world-renowned political scientists, lawyers, journalists and authors and asked them some questions on the humanitarian and legal impacts of the sanctions, their compatibility with international law and the human right standards, etc.
Today’s interviewee is Prof. Flynt Leverett, a prominent Iran expert. Leverett is a professor of international affairs and law at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of “Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Prof. Leverett has written on Iran’s nuclear program extensively and is regularly interviewed by international media. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: The United States claims that by imposing sanctions on Iran, it intends to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but the sanctions have recently targeted the ordinary citizens and consumer goods and medicine. Why have the sanctions swiftly diverted from the issue of disarmament and are directed toward the daily life of the ordinary Iranian citizens?
A: This is the inevitable logic of sanctions. American and other Western officials declare that the targets of their sanctions policies are governments, not people. In reality, though, the point of sanctions is to make ordinary people in targeted countries miserable.
In the Western logic of sanctions, if enough ordinary people are made sufficiently miserable, then they will rise up and either force their governments to change policies that Washington views negatively or else force these governments from power. There is no other strategic rationale for sanctions.
Q: While the process of passing on Iran’s nuclear dossier to the Security Council was illegal, do the resolutions issued on this basis have a legal warranty?
A: A number of prominent international legal scholars have advanced a powerful argument, with which I agree, that the Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to stop enriching uranium are legally invalid. Article 25 of the UN Charter establishes a strong presumption that UN member states should comply with Security Council resolutions. But the same article also limits member states’ obligation in this regard to Security Council decisions “in accordance with the present charter.” Likewise, Article 24 of the Charter holds that, in discharging its duties, “the Security Council shall act in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations.” (Those purposes and principles are presented in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter.)
The Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment demand, in effect, that the Islamic Republic surrender what the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty recognizes as signatories’ “inalienable right” to the peaceful use of nuclear technologies—including uranium enrichment. By adopting these resolutions, the Council was acting neither “in accordance with the [UN] Charter” nor “in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations.” And that renders these resolutions invalid.
Q: Don’t you think that focusing the sanctions on basic staples and goods, especially medicines, is tantamount to a continued and systematic violation of the human rights?
A: The U.S. government claims that the sanctions are not focused on items like food and medicine—that there is an explicit exemption for food and medicine in the sanctions policy. But, as the question implies, this is, to say the least, hypocritical. Formally, there is an exemption in the sanctions for food and medicine. But, in practice, as long as banking sanctions deter Western and many other international banks from processing transactions with Iranian counter-parties—even for “permitted” items like medicines—the effect is to bar the export of medicines to Iran, with predictably tragic consequences.
This is both inhumane and illegal, on multiple levels. Besides the horrible impact of U.S.-instigated sanctions on ordinary Iranians, U.S. sanctions policy is a gross violation of international economic law. Most of the sanctions that are having such terrible effects on ordinary Iranians are not unilateral U.S. sanctions—which the Islamic Republic has been dealing with for decades—or multilateral sanctions authorized by the UN Security Council. Most of the sanctions that are creating real difficulties and hardships for Iranians are so-called “secondary” sanctions, whereby Washington threatens third-country entities doing perfectly lawful business with the Islamic Republic with punishment in the United States. In recent years, Congress has been regularly expanding and intensifying Iran-related secondary sanctions through laws that President Obama immediately signs and obediently implements.
Secondary sanctions clearly violate American commitments under the World Trade Organization (WTO), which allows members to cut trade with states they deem national security threats but not to sanction other members over lawful business conducted with third countries. If challenged on the issue in the WTO’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism, Washington would surely lose. That’s why U.S. administrations have been reluctant to impose secondary sanctions on non-U.S. entities transacting with Iran, and have done so pretty rarely. What Washington relies on is that, in many cases, the legal and reputational risks posed by the threat of U.S. secondary sanctions reduce the willingness of companies and banks in many countries to transact with Iran, with negative consequences for Iran’s economy and for many ordinary Iranians. It is the approach of a bully who does not believe he is constrained by the same laws that apply to others.
Q: It’s said that the sanctions that target ordinary civilians are a kind of collective punishment, and collective punishment is a crime according to the Nuremberg Tribunals. The Western states claim that they care for human rights, but they are behaving in such a hypocritical manner and punish the Iranian citizens for a crime they have not committed. What’s your viewpoint on that?
A: As a matter of policy, the United States is not and never has been interested in human rights in any sort of universal or objective way. The United States is only interested in the selective, instrumental exploitation of human rights concerns to undermine governments it does not like. As Washington has co-opted, and corrupted, the human rights agenda in this way, it has also undermined its credibility to address human rights in Iran or anywhere else. Moreover, as the question implies, America’s professed concern for human rights in Iran is especially hypocritical so long as the United States continues what I would call its “dirty war” against the Islamic Republic—including economic warfare targeting civilians (through sanctions), cyber-attacks, and support for groups doing things inside Iran that, in other places, Washington condemns as “terrorism.”
Q: It seems that the sanctions are not simply aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program but the main objective of the sanctions is seemingly to create social unrest in Iran which can finally lead to a regime change. So, what’s the message which the sanctions impart? Diplomacy or conspiracy?
A: Since the Iranian revolution, no American administration—not even that of Barack Hussein Obama—has been prepared to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate and enduring political entity, representing legitimate national interests. Every administration has seen the Islamic Republic as fragile and vulnerable to internal subversion, and has sought in various ways to encourage such subversion. Of course, it has not worked, but this outlook continues to dominate mainstream foreign policy discussions in the United States about Iran.
U.S. sanctions policy toward Iran needs to be seen in this context. The proposition that sanctions are somehow intended to promote a diplomatic “solution” is, to put it bluntly, dishonest. Consider the way that the sanctions have been drawn up. Even just a few years ago, most of them were imposed by executive orders, which are more or less at the discretion of the White House. Now, though, most of the sanctions have been written into law, which greatly reduces the President’s ability to pull back on them as part of a negotiating process, or to lift them even if Iran acceded to all U.S. demands on the nuclear issue.
Regarding this point, look at the language in current U.S. law on sanctions. Even if the Islamic Republic allowed the U.S. government to come in, dismantle every centrifuge in Iran, and take them back to the United States—like Qadhafi did in Libya—there would still be no legal basis for the President to lift sanctions. The law says that, in order for sanctions to be lifted, the President would also have to certify to Congress that Iran had stopped all dealings with resistance movements like Hizbullah and Hamas, which the United States persists in calling terrorist organizations, and that the Islamic Republic had effectively turned itself into a secular liberal “Republic of Iran” to meet U.S. standards on “human rights.”
That’s not a serious approach to diplomacy. The argument that sanctions are somehow meant to encourage a diplomatic outcome is detached from reality.
Q: Along with the expansion of sanctions, the resistance of the Iranian nation has increased, as well. Why haven’t the sanctions had the effects the West desires, whether in the political or social level?
A: There is no case in history in which sanctions have prompted a target population to rise up, overthrow their government, and replace it with a government prepared to adopt policies sought by the sanctioning power. That has literally never happened. Even in Iraq, where for twelve years the United States led the way in imposing sanctions so severe they killed more than a million Iraqis (half of them children), the population did not rise up to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That took a massive U.S. invasion—and even then, the United States did not get a “pro-American” government in Baghdad.
Beyond this history, the Islamic Republic, as I have come to understand it, is the product of a revolution that had, as one of its highest priorities, the restoration of Iran’s effective sovereignty and independence after a century and a half of domination by Western powers.
Q: The experts say that something around 15-20% of the current price of the oil is a result of the EU’s oil embargo against Iran. How much has the oil embargo influenced the EU’s economy in the current critical juncture?
A: In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when some European elites had serious ambitions for the European Union to emerge as an independent force in international affairs, capable of balancing the United States, European nations pursued an at least somewhat independent policy toward Iran. However, with the collapse of the EU’s constitutional project in the mid 2000s, European elites calculated that the next-best way for Europe to have influence in the Middle East is by helping the United States pursue its hegemonic ambitions in the region.
To understand what I am talking about, just look at the extraordinary shift in the Middle East policies of France and Germany. Both of those countries were absolutely right in anticipating what a strategic and moral disaster America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq would be, and in refusing to go along with the United States in this ill-conceived campaign. But within just a few years of having been right on Iraq—and having been proved right by events on the ground there—the French and German governments aligned themselves almost completely with Washington’s Middle East policies.
As a result of this shift, Europe has, over the last few years, almost completely subordinated its Iran policy to that of the United States—even though, as the question implies, this imposes additional costs on European economies at a time when those economies are already under significant strain. A few EU countries, like Sweden, continue trying, on the margins, to keep some element of rationality in European discussions on Iran, but they are fighting a losing battle.
Q: Currently a number of countries implement the sanctions for different reasons, but several others don’t, so the sanctions have practically turned into an economic opportunity for those countries which haven’t put into effect the sanctions because those countries that adopt the sanctions have deprived themselves of robust and profitable trade with Iran. Are the sanctions capable of curtailing or stopping Iran’s foreign trade?
A: I agree with the premise of the question. Those countries which comply with illegal U.S. secondary sanctions and limit their trade with the Islamic Republic are ultimately hurting themselves more than they may hurt Iran. Sanctions may distort Iran’s foreign trade to some degree, but they cannot stop it.
Q: Complementing the sanctions with valid threats of military strike and intelligence operations are among the most important advice given by Israel to Europe and the United States. How successful have these countries been in sabotaging Iran’s security?
A: They have not been successful at all. I hope that my country will not engage in overt military aggression against the Islamic Republic. If, however, the United States is so foolish as to launch another war in the Middle East, to disarm yet another Middle Eastern state of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, I believe that the blowback to U.S. interests in the region will be disastrous for America’s strategic position. The United States will be the big loser in such a war.
- Former Insiders Criticize Iran Policy as U.S. Hegemony (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Assessing the Iran Sanctions (consortiumnews.com)
- South Africa slams US, EU over Iran oil sanctions (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- UN Sanctions on Iran: The Dance of Mutual Deniability (alethonews.wordpress.com)
“Going to Tehran” arguably represents the most important work on the subject of U.S.-Iran relations to be published thus far.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett tackle not only U.S. policy toward Iran but the broader context of Middle East policy with a systematic analytical perspective informed by personal experience, as well as very extensive documentation.
More importantly, however, their exposé required a degree of courage that may be unparalleled in the writing of former U.S. national security officials about issues on which they worked. They have chosen not just to criticise U.S. policy toward Iran but to analyse that policy as a problem of U.S. hegemony.
Their national security state credentials are impeccable. They both served at different times as senior coordinators dealing with Iran on the National Security Council Staff, and Hillary Mann Leverett was one of the few U.S. officials who have been authorised to negotiate with Iranian officials.
Both wrote memoranda in 2003 urging the George W. Bush administration to take the Iranian “roadmap” proposal for bilateral negotiations seriously but found policymakers either uninterested or powerless to influence the decision. Hillary Mann Leverett even has a connection with the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), having interned with that lobby group as a youth.
After leaving the U.S. government in disagreement with U.S. policy toward Iran, the Leveretts did not follow the normal pattern of settling into the jobs where they would support the broad outlines of the U.S. role in world politics in return for comfortable incomes and continued access to power.
Instead, they have chosen to take a firm stand in opposition to U.S. policy toward Iran, criticising the policy of the Barack Obama administration as far more aggressive than is generally recognised. They went even farther, however, contesting the consensus view in Washington among policy wonks, news media and Iran human rights activists that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in June 2009 was fraudulent.
The Leveretts’ uncompromising posture toward the policymaking system and those outside the government who support U.S. policy has made them extremely unpopular in Washington foreign policy elite circles. After talking to some of their antagonists, The New Republic even passed on the rumor that the Leveretts had become shills for oil companies and others who wanted to do business with Iran.
The problem for the establishment, however, is that they turned out to be immune to the blandishments that normally keep former officials either safely supportive or quiet on national security issues that call for heated debate.
In “Going to Tehran”, the Leveretts elaborate on the contrarian analysis they have been making on their blog (formerly “The Race for Iran” and now “Going to Tehran”) They take to task those supporting U.S. systematic pressures on Iran for substituting wishful thinking that most Iranians long for secular democracy, and offer a hard analysis of the history of the Iranian revolution.
In an analysis of the roots of the legitimacy of the Islamic regime, they point to evidence that the single most important factor that swept the Khomeini movement into power in 1979 was “the Shah’s indifference to the religious sensibilities of Iranians”. That point, which conflicts with just about everything that has appeared in the mass media on Iran for decades, certainly has far-reaching analytical significance.
The Leveretts’ 56-page review of the evidence regarding the legitimacy of the 2009 election emphasises polls done by U.S.-based Terror Free Tomorrow and World Public Opinon and Canadian-based Globe Scan and 10 surveys by the University of Tehran. All of the polls were consistent with one another and with official election data on both a wide margin of victory by Ahmadinejad and turnout rates.
The Leveretts also point out that the leading opposition candidate, Hossein Mir Mousavi, did not produce “a single one of his 40,676 observers to claim that the count at his or her station had been incorrect, and none came forward independently”.
“Going to Tehran” has chapters analysing Iran’s “Grand Strategy” and on the role of negotiating with the United States that debunk much of which passes for expert opinion in Washington’s think tank world. They view Iran’s nuclear programme as aimed at achieving the same status as Japan, Canada and other “threshold nuclear states” which have the capability to become nuclear powers but forego that option.
The Leveretts also point out that it is a status that is not forbidden by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty – much to the chagrin of the United States and its anti-Iran allies.
In a later chapter, they allude briefly to what is surely the best-kept secret about the Iranian nuclear programme and Iranian foreign policy: the Iranian leadership’s calculation that the enrichment programme is the only incentive the United States has to reach a strategic accommodation with Tehran. That one fact helps to explain most of the twists and turns in Iran’s nuclear programme and its nuclear diplomacy over the past decade.
One of the propaganda themes most popular inside the Washington beltway is that the Islamic regime in Iran cannot negotiate seriously with the United States because the survival of the regime depends on hostility toward the United States.
The Leveretts debunk that notion by detailing a series of episodes beginning with President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s effort to improve relations in 1991 and again in 1995 and Iran’s offer to cooperate against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and, more generally after 9/11, about which Hillary Mann Leverett had personal experience.
Finally, they provide the most detailed analysis available on the 2003 Iranian proposal for a “roadmap” for negotiations with the United States, which the Bush administration gave the back of its hand.
The central message of “Going to Tehran” is that the United States has been unwilling to let go of the demand for Iran’s subordination to dominant U.S. power in the region. The Leveretts identify the decisive turning point in the U.S. “quest for dominance in the Middle East” as the collapse of the Soviet Union, which they say “liberated the United States from balance of power constraints”.
They cite the recollection of senior advisers to Secretary of State James Baker that the George H. W. Bush administration considered engagement with Iran as part of a post-Gulf War strategy but decided in the aftermath of the Soviet adversary’s disappearance that “it didn’t need to”.
Subsequent U.S. policy in the region, including what former national security adviser Bent Scowcroft called “the nutty idea” of “dual containment” of Iraq and Iran, they argue, has flowed from the new incentive for Washington to maintain and enhance its dominance in the Middle East.
The authors offer a succinct analysis of the Clinton administration’s regional and Iran policies as precursors to Bush’s Iraq War and Iran regime change policy. Their account suggests that the role of Republican neoconservatives in those policies should not be exaggerated, and that more fundamental political-institutional interests were already pushing the U.S. national security state in that direction before 2001.
They analyse the Bush administration’s flirtation with regime change and the Obama administration’s less-than-half-hearted diplomatic engagement with Iran as both motivated by a refusal to budge from a stance of maintaining the status quo of U.S.-Israeli hegemony.
Consistent with but going beyond the Leveretts’ analysis is the Bush conviction that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq had shaken the Iranians, and that there was no need to make the slightest concession to the regime. The Obama administration has apparently fallen into the same conceptual trap, believing that the United States and its allies have Iran by the throat because of its “crippling sanctions”.
Thanks to the Leveretts, opponents of U.S. policies of domination and intervention in the Middle East have a new and rich source of analysis to argue against those policies more effectively.
Though Washington tries to engineer Middle Eastern politics by influencing economies, Iran has never given in to such pressure, Middle East experts Hillary and Flynt Leverett told RT. Iran’s concerns deserve fair consideration, they argue.
The Leveretts acted as analysts in both the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, and are two of America’s most informed Middle East experts. Their new book, ‘Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ offers a way out of the current diplomatic crisis facing the two countries.
RT: Washington seems to be very happy with the sanctions. They are crippling the Iranian economy. Why should they change policies now? Why should they come to terms with Iran?
Hillary Leverett: Sanctions are not going to work. Sanctions have not worked. We’ve seen sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran for 32 years. We saw crippling sanctions imposed on Iran during their 8 year war on Iraq from 1980 to 1988. We saw at that time half their GDP was erased, half of it. And still the Islamic Republic of Iran did not surrender to hostile foreign powers. The idea that now the sanctions are going to force the Islamic Republic of Iran to surrender to what it sees as hostile foreign powers and their demands, there’s no basis for that in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And, frankly, there’s no basis for that anywhere. The United States imposed crippling sanctions, for example, on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq for over a decade, killing over a million people, half of them children, and even then Saddam Hussein’s government did not implode and it did not concede to the demands of hostile foreign powers. It took a massive US land invasion to do that.
RT: The ability to stand in the other side’s shoes, to show that you can do it is key to diplomacy, I think you would agree with that. But everything the US has done so far showed Iran the opposite of that, starting from the US helping to get rid of their democratically elected leader in the fifties, putting the Shah in power, a much hated figure in Iran. What can the US do now to show Iran, that they respect their national interests?
Flynt Leverett: The first thing that has to happen is this basic acceptance – acceptance of the Islamic Republic as a legitimate and rational actor. This is the model which Nixon and Kissinger used to pursue the diplomatic opening with China in the early 1970′s. It’s not their achievement, it was not that they started talking to Beijing. The United States had been talking to Beijing for years, but it was this very narrow kind of dialogue very focused on grievance – American grievances towards China and what China was going to need to do to bring itself in line with American preferences. Nixon and Kissinger flipped that on its head. They said alright, we are going to convey to the Chinese both in words and in actions that we accept the People’s Republic of China and on that basis the rest of these issues can be taken care of. That’s what enabled this dramatic turn in American diplomacy toward China, that’s what we need to do toward the Islamic Republic of Iran – to accept it and then to back that up with concrete actions in terms of rolling back covert action programs, in terms of stopping economic warfare against Iran.
RT: But what are the chances for diplomacy? I mean Iran is surrounded by US military bases, by NATO Patriot missiles. They have the sanctions that are crippling the Iranian economy. It seems there’s more ground for blackmail now than for diplomacy.
HL: Unfortunately, I think that is the American hope that we can still force, coerce outcomes. That’s what the United States has been doing really since the end of the Cold War. We have focused on coercing outcomes by, as Flynt said, projecting enormous amounts of conventional military force into the Middle East to coerce political outcomes. Before 1991 we were somewhat restrained in doing that because of the Cold War. If we put in too many troops we were afraid the Soviet Union would. So, in a sense, that constrained us, forced the United States to really rely more on soft power, more on having a narrative. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we, I think, left that out, we put that under the table. We focused entirely on trying to force political outcomes. And what we’ve done in Iraq and Afghanistan has underscored the very important limits of that. And I would add Libya. We were able to take out Muammar Gaddafi but what were we able to put in instead?
RT: What if everything fails? What is your worst case scenario?
FL: I think that my worst case scenario is that the United States starts another war in the Middle East to disarm another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction that it does not have. And that the damage, that the backlash this does to the American position in the Middle East makes how much damage was done to the American position by the invasion of Iraq look quite trivial by comparison. That’s my worst case.
RT: I want to ask you about the new face of the Pentagon Chuck Hagel. He allowed himself to say outright attacking Iran is a stupid idea. And I believe he also called for direct negotiations. Do you think we can see direct negotiations any time soon with Chuck Hagel’s administration?
HL: I think that former senator Hagel has taken the greatest positions on Iran and a range of issues. And I admire them and respect them. The concern I have is that he’s been nominated for the wrong job to carry out those positions. As Defense Secretary, if he is approved as Defense Secretary, he will not be the person in charge of creating or implementing strategy vis-a-vis Iran or any other foreign policy issue. He will be at the Defense Department doing quintessentially Defense Secretary things in this environment, which is to cut the budget and try to keep the United States out of another war. Now that piece – trying to keep the United States out of another war – could have impact here, but the problem is he could potentially try to keep the United States out of another war without being able to offer a vision to deal with this challenge. The Islamic Republic poses a real challenge to the United States and a real challenge to Israel. That challenge significantly constrains both the United States’ and Israel’s preferred strategies for the region – just to project force whenever, wherever and to whatever degree we want unilaterally. The Islamic Republic of Iran challenges that not with tanks, not that they go and park their tanks in other people’s countries, they challenge that with their narrative. They oppose that viscerally at its core.
RT: Chuck Hagel said some very unflattering things about the Israeli lobby. That they are “intimidating a lot of people in Washington”. He also said American interests should trump Israeli interests if they conflict. And that’s a subversive thing to say here in Washington, could be a career killer. Can you name some key points where US and Israeli interests conflict?
FL: I think it is very much in America’s interests, it’s not a favor to Iran, it is in America’s interests to come to terms with the Islamic Republic, to accept safeguarded enrichment of uranium as the basis for a deal on the nuclear issue. Israel’s ability to impose its hegemony in Gaza or Southern Lebanon is not an American interest. It may be an Israeli preference, it’s not an American interest. I think American interests would be much better served by a kind of rational political settlement of the Palestinian issue, that Palestinians and other Middle Easterners will see as legitimate. There’s no way that open-ended Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands will ever be seen that way. And I think that’s very much against American interests.
HL: It’s very difficult for the way Israel is structured politically for it to accept and buy into and support what I think would be in American interests, which is that all of the states in the Middle East be able to have much more participatory political orders. Israel does not accept that in its own political order, because it does not allow the Palestinians under its occupation to vote or have a say in their governance. And essentially it cannot support it even more broadly beyond its borders, because of countries like Egypt, which I think the Israelis see today as very much of a threat in terms of how it’s developing. If it becomes any more reflective of its population’s preferences, history, interests, religion, it’s going to become by definition less interested in being OK with the policies that Israel has developed to use force coercively whenever wherever it wants along its borders or within its borders on the Palestinian population under its control.
RT: At the same time the US calls for democracy in all those countries.
HL: And that’s what rings hollow for the Arab and Muslim population, is that it’s not a real call by the United States for democratization. What the United States is trying to do is sow chaos and civil war like we are doing in Syria. We are not really trying to get democratization or political participation in Syria. It’s sowing chaos and destruction. I think that’s how many people see it and that’s how it is unfolding.
RT: What do you think Israel is going to do next? What is their strategy towards Iran?
FL: I think they have more or less come into position that if Iran is going to be struck, it’s the United States that’s going to need to do it and so I fully anticipate over the next year or so that Prime Minister Netanyahu, he and his government, will be putting a lot of pressure on the Obama administration, that Iran is approaching whatever red line Netanyahu draws, that it’s time for the United States to step up to the plate and deal with this problem in a decisive way. And even if they don’t succeed initially in persuading Obama of this, they’ll leverage it to get more sanctions on Iran, to get other kind of pressure on Iran. They will try and keep Iran in a box.
RT: Do you think President Obama appointed Chuck Hagel as a message to Israel?
FL: That’s difficult to say. We’ll see, but I’m skeptical that Obama really is out to redefine the American relationship with Israel.
HL: In addition to the Hagel appointment we have the appointment of John Brennan, the CIA, who I think the Israelis are just fine with, who will continue many of the covert programs, of course our drone program, but many of the covert programs will be under his authority at the CIA. That will be very much to Israel’s liking. That will serve to undermine any attempts, any possibilities for real rapprochement or coming to terms with Islamic Republic of Iran.
RT: There is an argument often made in Washington, that Bashar Assad’s fall would be a strategic victory against Iran. What can you say about an approach like that?
FL: First of all, at this point Iran’s most important Arab ally is no longer Syria, it’s Iraq, thanks in no small part to the United States. Iran’s most important strategic ally in the Arab world is Iraq. Even if Syria Bashar Assad is still there. I don’t think his downfall is imminent. Even if he reaches a point where he might feel like he needs to abandon Damascus, or something like this, we are going to still have a big chance of Syria that far effectively under the control of his government, under his security apparatus. Syria might at that point start to look more and more like a kind of a failing state with different regional warlords in different parts of the country. But that is not a situation which is good for American interests, first of all, or a situation in which Iran doesn’t have influence or an ability to act in ways to protect its interests in this situation.
HL: The idea that somehow we can just have these short term marriages of convenience to arm, train and fund the Sunni Islamist Jihadist groups in Syria against the Islamic Republic of Iran… just this time it will work.
FL: And if somehow secular democrats are going to come to power…
HL: Yes, if liberal secular pro-American democrats will come to power. But it didn’t work in Afghanistan and it’s not going to work in Syria.
- The Real Obstacles to Successful Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran Lie in Washington, Not Tehran (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- US probes Swiss medicine giant for trade with Iran (alethonews.wordpress.com)
We are just back from another visit to the Islamic Republic and see even more clearly that the real obstacles to successful nuclear diplomacy with Iran lie in Washington, not Tehran. Prior to our visit, we outlined several of the reasons for this in an extended interview on Ian Masters’ Background Briefing about our forthcoming Going to Tehran; click here to listen.
We open by taking issue with the conventional wisdom that the upcoming talks between the P5+1 and Iran will be the “last chance” to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran before the Islamic Republic gears up for its presidential election next year. On this point, Flynt notes that the only reason nuclear talks over the next few months would be a “last chance” is
“because of arbitrary deadlines and frameworks that the United States and some of its partners have imposed on these negotiations. In the end, the Iranian nuclear problem is actually quite simple: if the United States was prepared to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium, under safeguards, on its own territory, you could have a deal in fairly short order… You could probably get limits on Iran’s 20-percent enrichment, you could get much more intrusive verification on its nuclear activities. But you would have to accept the Islamic Republic as kind of a normal state, with legitimate interests and rights.”
The Obama administration, of course, has shown no willingness to approach nuclear talks with Iran on such a basis. Instead, it has imposed the arbitrary deadlines and frameworks highlighted by Flynt. The dysfunctionality of this approach is reinforced by deeply flawed—and self-deluding—assessments of Iranian decision-making. As Hillary explains,
“The anxiety here, or the urgency, is because it’s put out that, if we don’t do something now, if we don’t try to make a deal now, the Iranian elections will come… and that will somehow derail any possibility for talks. This is something that, time and time again, permeates the American debate—that somehow the problem with negotiating with Iran is in Iran, is in Tehran… It’s either the “mad mullahs” are so crazy, so irrational that we can’t count on them to negotiate like a rational state, or various things are going to come up in their calendar, particularly elections (which in itself should make us question this idea that there are “mad mullahs” there)…
The whole debate here is that something is wrong in Iran, something is wrong in Tehran that is going to derail talks. There’s never any examination of what drives American politics to demonize countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran… The issue is something here; it’s about domestic politics here.
If President Obama cannot get a negotiation going with the Iranians in the next few months, he has a problem domestically here, because domestic constituencies here—and the Israeli government—will say, ‘Time is up. You’ve had enough time. We can’t let the Iranians continue to progress in their nuclear program. You have to take even more coercive action, either more coercive sanctions or military action.’ It’s a domestic problem here. It’s not because of something going on in the decision-making or some irrational craziness among Iranian clerics or Iranian lay leaders.”
On Israel’s role—and its motives for constantly pushing an alarmist view of the Islamic Republic, Flynt says,
“The Israelis are perpetually concerned—I think that their concern is exaggerated—but they are perpetually concerned that the Obama administration is going to try, in a serious way, to pursue a deal. Because the Israelis know that the only kind of deal you could really get out of this process that would have any meaning for both sides would be a deal that actually recognized Iran’s right to enrich—again, under safeguards, not building a nuclear weapon, but they do have a right to enrich… That’s what the Israelis are out to stop. They do not want the United States, other Western powers, to accept this basic fact of international law and international life—that the Iranians have this right, and they are not going to be bullied into giving it up.
This is something that I think the United States really has to come to terms with. For its own interests, it needs to get a nuclear deal with Iran; it needs to start realigning its relations with this important country in the Middle East. And we need to be able to separate Israeli preferences—that have more to do with [Israel’s] own commitment to military dominance in the Middle East—and Israeli security. Iran enriching uranium under safeguards doesn’t affect Israeli security at all. But we need to be able to sort out what our real interests are.”
Against the stereotypes of Iranian “irrationality” and internal political divisions that render effective diplomatic engagement with Tehran impossible, Hillary outlines some important realities about the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and national security strategy:
“There is consensus [among Iranian policymakers] that Iran should and can engage with almost any country in the world, if [engagement] is to protect its own interests. Where it draws the line is anywhere that Iran would be asked to or expected to cede any of its sovereign rights. Iran is not going to agree to that kind of negotiation… In terms of what Iran should push for, what kind of deal Iran could make in the end, there is certainly discussion and debate—vociferous debate—in Iran about those kinds of tactics. But the strategy—that Iran is a strong country, that it can and should negotiate and deal with other countries in its own interests—is something that is really put forward by the Supreme Leader, by Ayatollah Khamenei. And it’s something, I think, that every senior official follows…
You hear in Washington, especially, periodic discussion… some days it’s Ahmadinejad is the hardliner and he would never be able to deal with the United States. And then someone points out, ‘Well, he actually wrote a 20-page letter to Bush. He actually wrote a congratulatory letter to President Obama on his first election.’ Then people say, ‘Well, maybe the issue is really the speaker of the parliament, or maybe it’s this person or that person.’ There’s a constant attempt in the United States, particularly in Washington, to read the tea leaves, as if [the Islamic Republic is] a very opaque system. These kinds of critics analogize it to the Soviet system.
But it’s not really opaque. If you listen, read, talk to [Iranian] officials, talk to a range of people in their political class, on their political spectrum, and take what they have to say seriously… you can really understand their strategy. You can understand where they’re coming from, and their strategic determination to be a very strong, independent country. The problem, I think, on our side—why we try always to see where there’s some daylight, where this person is competing with that person—is that we’re very reluctant to accept that Iran could be a strong, independent, not secular, not liberal, but still legitimate political entity…
We document rather exhaustively in our book the number of times that the Iranians have engaged with the United States… [In one of these episodes, I] worked personally with them as an official in the State Department and in the White House, with a small team of American officials, to deal with Afghanistan and the problem we were facing there after 9/11 with Al-Qa’ida… [The Iranians] were not paralyzed by internal conflict. The internal conflict was here. It’s the opposition that I had when I was in the White House, from my superiors or people who worked for Vice President Cheney, trying to undermine what Ryan Crocker and I were trying to do with the Iranians.”
Looking ahead, Flynt underscores that, notwithstanding recurrent debate among American political and policy elites over Tehran’s willingness to talk directly, on a bilateral basis, with Washington, “the Iranian position on dealing with the United States has been pretty clear and consistent for a long time, for years. They are open to improved relations, they are open to dialogue and diplomacy to facilitate serious improvement in relations. But they want to know, upfront at this point, that the United States is really prepared to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests. And they want to know upfront that the United States is really serious about realigning relations with them.
They are not interested in having negotiations just for the sake of having negotiations. They are not interested in having negotiations if they think that the United States is just going to keep piling sanctions on them. They want to know upfront that the United States is serious.
So they will go the P-5+1 talks; they certainly are not refusing to participate in the P-5+1 process. And if, as part of that, the United States makes it clear that it really is interested in a different sort of relationship—that it really does accept the Islamic Republic and wants to come to terms with it as an important player in the Middle East—at that point the Iranians would be very open, very receptive to bilateral dialogue.”
In the interview, we also discuss the 2003 non-paper sent to Washington by Iran via Swiss intermediaries and why incremental, step-by-step cooperation between the United States and the Islamic Republic doesn’t work to improve the overall relationship (mainly because Washington won’t allow it to do so).
- Senators urge Obama to take more steps against Iran (thehindu.com)
By Delisting the MEK, the Obama Administration is Taking the Moral and Strategic Bankruptcy of America’s Iran Policy to a New Low
The U.S. Department of State took the moral and strategic bankruptcy of America’s Iran policy to a new low today, by notifying Congress that the Obama administration intends to remove the mojahedin-e khalq (MEK) from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).
At a macro level, we are disdainful—even scornful—of the U.S. government’s lists of both FTOs and state sponsors of terrorism. We have seen too many times over the years just how cynically American administrations have manipulated these designations, adding and removing organizations and countries for reasons that have little or nothing to do with designees’ actual involvement in terrorist activity. So, for example, after Saddam Husayn invaded the fledgling Islamic Republic in 1980—on September 22, no less—and starting killing large numbers of innocent Iranians, the Reagan administration (which came to office in January 1981) found a way to remove Iraq from the state sponsors list, in order to remove legal restrictions prohibiting the U.S. government from helping Saddam prosecute his war of aggression as robustly as the administration wanted. (During that war, the MEK—after having tried but failed to bring down the Islamic Republic through a bloody campaign of terrorist bombings and assassinations conducted against the new Iranian government’s upper echelons—ended up collaborating with an Iraqi government regularly carrying out chemical weapons attacks against targets, civilian as well as military, inside Iran.) But, when the same Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration couldn’t get Iraq back on the state sponsors list fast enough. We are very skeptical that Saddam’s ties to groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations changed all that much during this period.
Yet, precisely because we know how thoroughly corrupt and politicized these designations really are, we recognize their significance as statements of U.S. policy. Today, the Obama administration made a truly horrible statement about U.S. policy toward Iran.
The statement is horrible even if one wants to believe that FTO designations have some kind of procedural and evidentiary integrity about them. (We don’t, but we also recognize that letting go of illusions is often not easy.) Just this year, U.S. intelligence officials told high-profile media outlets that the MEK is actively collaborating with Israeli intelligence to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, see here; Iranian officials have made the same charge. Since when did murdering unarmed civilians (and, in some instances, members of their families as well) on public streets in the middle of a heavily populated urban area (Tehran) not meet even the U.S. government’s own professed standard for terrorism? Of course, one might rightly point out that the United States is responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent civilians across the Middle East. But Washington generally strives to maintain the fiction that it did not intend for those innocents to die as a (direct and foreseeable) consequence of U.S. military operations and sanctions policies. (You know, the United States didn’t really mean for those people to die, but, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said, “Stuff happens.”) Here, the Obama administration is taking an organization that the U.S. government knows is directly involved in the murder of innocent people and giving this group Washington’s “good housekeeping seal of approval.”
But, to invoke Talleyrand’s classic observation that a certain action was “worse than a crime—it was a mistake,” delisting the MEK is not just a moral abomination; it is a huge strategic and policy blunder. It is hard to imagine how the Obama administration could signal more clearly that, even after the President’s presumptive reelection, it has no intention of seeking a fundamentally different sort of relationship with the Islamic Republic—which would of course require the United States to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing legitimate national interests.
Count on this: once the MEK is formally off the FTO list—a legally defined process that will take a few months to play out—Congress will be appropriating money to support the monafeqin as the vanguard of a new American strategy for regime change in Iran. In the 1990s, similar enthusiasm for Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress—who were about as unpopular among Iraqis as the MEK is among Iranians—led to President Clinton’s signing of the Iraq Liberation Act, which paved the way for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. The chances for such a scenario to play out with regard to Iran over the next few years—with even more disastrous consequences for America’s strategic and moral standing—got a lot higher today.
- U.S. to Take Iran Anti-Regime Group Off Terrorism List (ipsnews.net)
Flynt Leverett appeared on Background Briefing with Ian Masters; to listen to the interview, click here. The discussion centered on two big topics: whether Israel will attack Iran, and whether the United States can pursue a diplomatic opening with Iranian “hardliners.”
Asked about the prospects for a unilateral Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear targets, perhaps even before the U.S. presidential election on November 6, Flynt argues that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is compelled to deal with two significant constraints on his decision-making. The first is a “capacity constraint”: the Israeli military, on its own, simply cannot do that much damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. This is a constraint that Netanyahu or any other Israeli prime minister would have to face; it helps to explain why the leadership of Israel’s military and intelligence services and most of Israel’s national security establishment is so strongly opposed to the idea of a unilateral attack. Of course, this is not an absolute barrier facing Netanyahu; one cannot categorically say that he and his colleagues would never decide to do something strategically counter-productive or at odds with material reality. But, in this case, material reality does make such a decision harder.
The second constraint that Netanyahu must deal with is a political one. Broadly speaking, the prime minister of Israel does not have the same measure of “commander-in-chief” authority as an American president. (Actually, the U.S. Constitution would suggest that American presidents should not have as much power in this regard as they currently wield, but that’s another issue.) Put more specifically, Netanyahu, on his own, does not have the authority to start a war, against Iran or anybody else.
For a prime minister to start a war, he must have, at a minimum, the defense minister on board; with Ehud Barak currently holding the defense portfolio, that is probably not an insuperable obstacle. Beyond this, however, historically-conditioned expectations in Israel are that a prime minister will also have very strong consensus within an eight-member inner cabinet and a larger, more formalized, committee on defense and security affairs within the cabinet. While outsiders do not have transparent access to the deliberations of these bodies, myriad indications coming from Israel suggest that Netanyahu, today, does not have the requisite degree of consensus to order an attack on the Islamic Republic.
We have argued before that Netanyahu’s ultimate goal is to line up the United States to take on the mission of striking Iran militarily. But the Obama administration is not about to start an overt war against Iran before the U.S. presidential election (a covert war, of course, has been underway for some time). Netanyahu is playing a longer-term game than that. We anticipate that this game will come to a head in 2013—either with a re-elected President Obama or with a new Romney administration—not before November 6, 2012.
Furthermore, as Flynt points out in the interview, scenarios of Israel launching a unilateral strike in the expectation that the United States will inevitably be “drawn in” depend on Israeli leaders making deeply confident assumptions about a multiplicity of variables (in Washington, Tehran, and elsewhere) completely beyond Israel’s control. Again, this is not to say that Netanyahu and his colleagues would never decide to do something strategically unwise. But, here too, material reality makes such a decision harder.
The interview segues to a discussion of American diplomacy with Iran with a question about the long-term effect of the George W. Bush administration’s undercutting of former President Seyed Mohammad Khatami and his reformist colleagues through Washington’s abusive reaction to Iranian cooperation with the United States after 9/11. Playing off this point, Ian Masters asked Flynt’s view of a recent article in which Ray Takeyh argues that, because of the religious grounding of the ideology ostensibly driving Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, Iran—unlike the People’s Republic of China—has failed to continue moving along a path of “moderation” and reform. In Takeyh’s depiction, the Islamic Republic today looks (at least from official Washington’s perspective) like the People’s Republic if the Maoists were still in charge.
Flynt responds that the George W. Bush administration certainly blew a major opportunity to improve U.S. relations with Iran by its witless reaction (perhaps motivated by an ideology grounded in a particular religious view?) to Tehran’s post-9/11 cooperation with the United States. Through the remainder of Khatami’s presidency, the Bush administration continued to blow opportunities for realigning U.S.-Iranian relations—most importantly by refusing to deal diplomatically with Iran during the nearly two years (2003-2005) in which it suspended uranium enrichment in order to encourage a serious negotiating process. But to suggest that Iran’s post-9/11 cooperation with the United States was only a function of a reformist administration in Tehran and that Washington has no openings to deal with the current Iranian leadership shows only how willfully distorted is Takeyh’s reading of Iranian foreign policy.
Ayatollah Khamenei has been the Supreme Leader through the presidencies of Ali Akbar Rafsanjani (what many analysts call a “pragmatic conservative”), the reformist Mohammad Khatami, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a “new generation” conservative. We fully expect Ayatollah Khamenei to continue serving in this position after the Islamic Republic elects its next president in 2013. Under the Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad administrations, Iran made serious efforts to engage the United States on the basis of mutual interests; it insisted only that diplomacy take place in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Khatami—like Rafsanjani before him and Ahmadinejad after him—could not have sought better relations with Washington without Khamenei’s backing. It is successive American administrations that, on a bipartisan basis, have been too obtuse to take advantage of the openings that Tehran has afforded, demanding instead that the Islamic Republic surrender to American diktats on the nuclear issue and various regional issues up front.
Moreover, if one wants to stick with Takeyh’s analogy between the Islamic Republic’s current leadership and Chinese Maoists, then let’s follow the analogy all the way through: the United States achieved its historic diplomatic opening with China when Mao still held power and the People’s Republic was still going through the Cultural Revolution. If the United States insists on micromanaging Iran’s domestic politics to produce exactly the kind of interlocutor it wants to deal with, it will fail. In the process, Washington will continue to miss opportunities to do what it so manifestly needs to do, for America’s own interests—to come to terms with the Islamic Republic as it is, not as those radically disconnected from Iranian reality might wish it to be.
- How much will America’s animus against Iran distort U.S. policy toward Syria? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Across most of the American political spectrum, policy elites are urging that the United States double down on the Obama administration’s failing Syria policy. America’s reliably pro-intervention senatorial trio (Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, and John McCain) recently argued that the “risks of inaction in Syria,” see here, now outweigh the downsides of American military involvement. Last week, the Washington Post prominently featured a piece by Ken Pollack, see here, asserting that negotiated settlements “rarely succeed in ending a civil war” like that in Syria—even though that it precisely what ended the civil war in Lebanon, right next door to Syria. From this faulty premise, Pollack argues that the only way to end a civil war like that in Syria is through military intervention. (After his scandalously wrong case for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, we wonder why the Washington Post or anyone else would give Pollack a platform for disseminating his views on virtually any Middle Eastern topic—but especially not for a piece dealing with the advisability of another U.S. military intervention in the region. In this regard, we note that the bio line at the end of Ken’s op ed makes no mention of his book that made the case for the U.S. invading Iraq, The Threatening Storm, describing him instead as “the author of A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.)
A more chilling—and, in some ways, more candid—indicator of the direction in which the debate over American policy toward Syria is heading was provided last week in Foreign Policy by Robert Haddick (managing editor of the hawkish blog, Small War Journal), see here. Remarkably, Haddick argues that,
“rather than attempting to influence the course of Syria’s civil war, something largely beyond Washington’s control, U.S. policymakers should instead focus on strengthening America’s diplomatic position and on building irregular warfare capabilities that will be crucial in future conflicts in the region. Modest and carefully circumscribed intervention in Syria, in coordination with America’s Sunni allies who are already players in the war, will bolster critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities the United States and its allies will need for the future.”
And why is bolstering these relationships and capabilities so critical? Because, as Haddick writes,
“The conflict in Syria is just one front in the ongoing competition between Iran and America’s Sunni allies on the west side of the Persian Gulf… The Sunni countries have a strong interest in stepping up their irregular warfare capabilities if they are to keep pace with Iran during the ongoing security competition. The civil war in Syria provides an opportunity for the United States and its Sunni allies to do just that… U.S. and GCC intelligence officers and special forces could use an unconventional warfare campaign in Syria as an opportunity to exchange skills and training, share resources, improve trust, and establish combined operational procedures. Such field experience would be highly useful in future contingencies. Equally important, it would reassure the Sunni countries that the United States will be a reliable ally against Iran.”
Foreign Policy has become arguably the leading online venue for topical discussion of key issues on America’s international agenda. And it is giving its platform to an argument that Washington should leverage the “opportunity” provided by the civil war in Syria to help its regional allies get better at killing Shi’a. And Washington should do this for the goal of prevailing in “the ongoing security competition” between the Islamic Republic and the United States (along with America’s “Sunni allies).
Such trends in the American policy debate show an appalling incapacity to learn from either current experience or history. And these trends are, in fact, influencing actual policy. Late last week, during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Turkey, Ankara and Washington agreed that “a unified task force with intelligence, military and political leaders from both countries would be formed immediately to track Syria’s present and plan for its future,” see here. After meeting with her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Secretary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey are discussing various options for supporting opposition forces working to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad, including the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over rebel-held territory in Syria, see here.
In the wake of Clinton’s remarks, Flynt appeared on CCTV’s World Insight weekly news magazine to discuss the internal and international dimensions of the Syrian conflict, see here. Flynt and both of the other guests on the segment—Jia Xiudong from the China Institute of International Studies and our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran—agreed, contra Pollack, that the only way to resolve what has become a civil war in Syria is through an inclusive political process.
Getting to the heart of the matter, Flynt pointed out that “the United States and its regional partners are trying to use Syria to shift the balance of power in the Middle East in ways that they think will be bad for Iran.” This strategy is “ultimately doomed to fail”—but, as long as Washington and others are pursuing it, “the international community is going to be challenged to find ways to keep the violence from getting worse and try to get a political process started.” Flynt also observed that China and other players in the international community have historical grounds for concern about the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria to create so-called “humanitarian safe havens” could lead to: since the end of the Cold War, every time that the United States has imposed humanitarian safe havens—in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, and most recently in Libya—this has ultimately resulted in a heavily militarized intervention by the United States and its partners in pursuit of coercive regime change.
In part, American elites persist in their current course regarding Syria because they continue to persuade themselves that, in the “security competition” between America and Iran, the United States is winning and the Islamic Republic is losing. At roughly the same time that Pollack and Haddick were holding forth last week, the New York Times offered an Op Ed by Harvey Morris purporting to explain Iran’s “paranoia” over Syria’s civil war by describing “What Syria Looks Like from Tehran,” see here. Morris claims that
“the impact of regime change in the Arab World has in fact been largely negative from Tehran’s perspective. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt is closer to Saudi Arabia than it is to Iran. If the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus were to fall, it would mean the loss of a non-Sunni ally.”
Our analysis—of both Tehran’s perspective on, and the reality of, how the Arab Spring is affecting the regional balance of power—is diametrically opposite to Morris’s. For an actual (and genuinely informed) Iranian view, we note that Al Jazeera devoted last week’s episode of its Inside Syria series to the topic, “Can Iran Help End the Syrian Crisis?,” see here. Once again, our colleague from the University of Tehran, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, gave a clear and concise exposition of Iranian views on the imperatives of and requirements for serious mediation of the struggle in (and over) Syria.
- Syria and the Invisible Hand of Foreign Intervention (nationalinterest.org)
Standing reality on its head—at least in the eyes of most Middle Easterners—presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney declared during his recent visit to Israel that the Islamic Republic is “the most destabilizing nation in the world.” In fact, reputable surveys conducted by international and regional polling groups—see here and here—show that, by orders of magnitude, largely Sunni Arab populations see Israel and the United States as much bigger threats to their security and interests than Iran. Al Jazeera asked our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, to comment on Governor Romney’s remark; to see the segment, click here or on the embedded video above.
Mohammad’s observations that, given the record of American policy in the Middle East (and all the death and destruction it has caused), the United States is hardly in a position to “complain very much about Iran” and that, from an Iranian perspective, there is not a lot of difference between Romney and President Obama are well presented. His explanation why the “soft war” that the Obama Administration is currently conducting against the Islamic Republic is not that different from a “hot war” is especially eloquent. We, though, want to pick up on Mohammad’s response to the interviewer’s suggestion that it is Iranian intransigence which is blocking progress in the nuclear talks and prompting tougher sanctions:
“The Iranians have been talking. The Iranians are basically saying that ‘we are willing to negotiate.’ But the Western position is ‘you give up everything and then we’ll start talking.’ The Iranian right to enriching uranium is a right that all sovereign countries have. And the Iranian Revolution itself was partially about dignity and independence. The Iranians are not going to accept being a second-rate country. This is not the Saudi regime or the Jordanian regime. This is a country that is fiercely independent. So the Iranians will continue to enrich uranium within the framework of the NPT and international law. The United States cannot stop Iran from doing so. If the United States was reasonable and rational, if the Europeans were rational, then the Iranians would be willing to give further assurances to ease tensions. But the United States isn’t really after that, in the eyes of Iranians.”
We think that is an important statement, both of the Iranian position and of reality. We have long argued that, if Washington accepted the principle and reality of internationally safeguarded enrichment in Iran, it would become eminently possible—not to say relatively easy—to negotiate a satisfactory resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. But the United States—even under the Obama Administration—does not want to do that, for recognizing Iran’s right to enrich implies recognizing the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing legitimate national interests. We think that is unlikely to change after the U.S. presidential election in November, regardless of whether Romney or Obama wins. … Full article
- US Sanctions Policy on a Collision Course against Iran; Increasing Tensions with China (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- How the Obama Administration Is Stalling Its Way to War with Iran (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Ron Paul: US obsessed with ‘act of war’ on Iran (presstv.ir)
America’s policy on Iran-related secondary sanctions is on a collision course with itself as well as China. Secondary sanctions violate the United States’ obligations under the World Trade Organization and are, thus, illegal. (While a WTO signatory may decide, on national security grounds, to restrict its trade with another country, there is no legal basis for one state to impose sanctions against another over business that the second state conducts with a third country.) If Washington actually imposed secondary sanctions on another state for, say, buying Iranian oil and the sanctioned country took the United States to the WTO’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism, the United States would almost certainly lose the case.
Given this reality, the whole edifice of Iran-related secondary sanctions is in reality a house of cards. It rests on an assumption that no state will ever really challenge the legitimacy of America’s Iran-related extraterritorial sanctions—and this means that the United States cannot ever really impose them. Instead, successive U.S. administrations have used the threat of such sanctions to elicit modifications of other countries’ commercial relations with the Islamic Republic; when these administrations finally reach the limit of their capacity to leverage other countries’ decision-making regarding Iran, the United States backs off.
The Obama Administration is bringing this glaring contradiction increasingly to the fore, by supinely collaborating with the Congress to enact secondary sanctions into laws that give the executive branch less and less discretion over their actual application. This dynamic is now coming to a head in the Administration’s dealings with China.
We are currently in China, as Visiting Scholars at Peking University’s School of International Studies. And that means we are here during the run-up to formal implementation of the United States’ newest round of Iran-related secondary sanctions, due to go into effect on June 28.
These new sanctions, at least as legislated, threaten to punish financial and corporate entities in countries that continue to purchase Iranian oil at their historic levels of consumption. So far, the Obama Administration has issued sanctions waivers to all of the major buyers of Iranian oil, see here and here—all the major buyers, that is, except the People’s Republic of China.
Trade data indicate that China’s imports of Iranian oil declined significantly in the first quarter of this year. It is unclear to what extent this reduction was intended as an accommodation to the United States and to what extent it was the product of a payment dispute with Tehran. But, whatever the reason, the reduction prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to note last week that “we’ve seen China slowly but surely take actions,” see here. Clinton even seemed to hint that the Administration might be looking for an opening to waive the imposition of sanctions against China: “I have to certify under American laws whether or not countries are reducing their purchases of crude oil from Iran and I was able to certify that India was, Japan was, South Korea was… And we think, based on the latest data, that China is also moving in that direction.”
Since the resolution of the payments dispute between China and Iran, however, China’s imports of Iranian oil have picked up once again, see here and here. And the Chinese government continues to insist that the country’s purchases of oil from the Islamic Republic are “fully reasonable and legitimate,” see here.
Once June 28 comes the White House and State Department will be under enormous pressure from the Congress (Hill Democrats will provide the President no cover on the issue), the Romney campaign, and various domestic interest groups to sanction China over its continued oil buys from Iran. The Administration’s alliance with Congress and the pro-Israel lobby on Iran sanctions, combined with its misguided assessment that the United States can somehow compel Iran’s “surrender” on the nuclear issue, have put the President and his team in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position. This is very much a problem of the Administration’s own making.
- Russia: US anti-Iran sanctions against international law (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Deep-Sixing the China Option
Since talks with Iran over its nuclear development started up again in April, U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that Tehran will not be allowed to “play for time” in the negotiations. In fact, it is the Obama administration that is playing for time.
Some suggest that President Obama is trying to use diplomacy to manage the nuclear issue and forestall an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets through the U.S. presidential election. In reality, his administration is “buying time” for a more pernicious agenda: time for covert action to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program; time for sanctions to set the stage for regime change in Iran; and time for the United States, its European and Sunni Arab partners, and Turkey to weaken the Islamic Republic by overthrowing the Assad government in Syria.
Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, hinted at this in February, explaining that the administration’s Iran policy is aimed at “buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future, and if you can do that — strange things can happen in the interim.” Former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy — now out of government and advising Obama’s reelection campaign — told an Israeli audience this month that, in the administration’s view, it is also important to go through the diplomatic motions before attacking Iran so as not to “undermine the legitimacy of the action.”
New York Times’ journalist David Sanger recently reported that, “from his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons” — even though he knew this “could enable other countries, terrorists, or hackers to justify” cyberattacks against the United States. Israel — which U.S. intelligence officials say is sponsoring assassinations of Iranian scientists and other terrorist attacks in Iran — has been intimately involved in the program.
Classified State Department cables published by WikiLeaks show that, from the beginning of the Obama presidency, he and his team saw diplomacy primarily as a tool to build international support for tougher sanctions, including severe restrictions on Iranian oil exports. And what is the aim of such sanctions? Earlier this year, administration officials told the Washington Post that their purpose was to turn the Iranian people against their government. If this persuades Tehran to accept U.S. demands to curtail its nuclear activities, fine; if the anger were to result in the Islamic Republic’s overthrow, many in the administration would welcome that.
Since shortly after unrest broke out in Syria, the Obama team has been calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, expressing outrage over what they routinely describe as the deaths of thousands of innocent people at the hands of Syrian security forces. But, for morethana year, they have been focused on another aspect of the Syrian situation, calculating that Assad’s fall or removal would be a sharp blow to Tehran’s regional position — and might even spark the Islamic Republic’s demise. That’s the real impetus behind Washington’s decision to provide “non-lethal” support to Syrian rebels attacking government forces, while refusing to back proposals for mediating the country’s internal conflicts which might save lives, but do not stipulate Assad’s departure upfront.
Meeting with Iranian oppositionists last month, State Department officials aptly summarized Obama’s Iran policy priorities this way: the “nuclear program, its impact on the security of Israel, and avenues for regime change.” With such goals, how could his team do anything but play for time in the nuclear talks? Two former State Department officials who worked on Iran in the early months of Obama’s presidency are onrecord confirming that the administration “never believed that diplomacy could succeed” — and was “never serious” about it either.
How Not to Talk to Iran
Simply demanding that Iran halt its nuclear activities and ratcheting up pressure when it does not comply will not, however, achieve anything for America’s position in the Middle East. Western powers have been trying to talk Iran out of its civil nuclear program for nearly 10 years. At no point has Tehran been willing to surrender its sovereign right to indigenous fuel cycle capabilities, including uranium enrichment.
Sanctions and military threats have only reinforced its determination. Despite all the pressure exerted by Washington and Tel Aviv, the number of centrifuges operating in Iran has risen over the past five years from less than 1,000 to more than 9,000. Yet Tehran has repeatedly offered, in return for recognition of its right to enrich, to accept more intrusive monitoring of — and, perhaps, negotiated limits on — its nuclear activities.
Greater transparency for recognition of rights: this is the only possible basis for a deal between Washington and Tehran. It is precisely the approach that Iran has advanced in the current series of talks. Rejecting it only guarantees diplomatic failure — and the further erosion of America’s standing, regionally and globally.
George W. Bush’s administration refused to accept safeguarded enrichment in Iran. Indeed, it refused to talk at all until Tehran stopped its enrichment program altogether. This only encouraged Iran’s nuclear development, while pollsshow that, by defying American diktats, Tehran has actually won support among regional publics for its nuclear stance.
Some highly partisan analysts claim that, in contrast to Bush, Obama was indeed ready from early in his presidency to accept the principle and reality of safeguarded enrichment in Iran. And when his administration failed at every turn to act in a manner consistent with a willingness to accept safeguarded enrichment, the same analysts attributed this to congressional and Israeli pressure.
In truth, Obama and his team have never seriously considered enrichment acceptable. Instead, the president himself decided, early in his tenure, to launch unprecedented cyberattacks against Iran’s main, internationally monitored enrichment facility. His team has resisted a more realistic approach not because a deal incorporating safeguarded enrichment would be bad for American security (it wouldn’t), but because accepting it would compel a more thoroughgoing reappraisal of the U.S. posture toward the Islamic Republic and, more broadly, of America’s faltering strategy of dominating the Middle East.
The China Option
Acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich would require acknowledging the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity with legitimate national interests, a rising regional power not likely to subordinate its foreign policy to Washington (as, for example, U.S. administrations regularly expected of Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak). It would mean coming to terms with the Islamic Republic in much the same way that the United States came to terms with the People’s Republic of China — another rising, independent power — in the early 1970s.
America’s Iran policy remains stuck in a delusion similar to the one that warped its China policy for two decades after China’s revolutionaries took power in 1949 — that Washington could somehow isolate, strangle, and ultimately bring down a political order created through mass mobilization and dedicated to restoring national independence after a long period of Western domination. It didn’t work in the Chinese case and it’s not likely to in Iran either.
In one of the most consequential initiatives in American diplomatic history, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger finally accepted this reality and aligned Washington’s China policy with reality. Unfortunately, Washington’s Iran policy has not had its Nixonian moment yet, and so successive U.S. administrations — including Obama’s — persist in folly.
The fact is: Obama could have had a nuclear deal in May 2010, when Brazil and Turkey brokered an agreement for Iran to send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad in return for new fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. The accord met all the conditions spelled out in letters from Obama to then-Brazilian President Lula and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan — but Obama rejected it, because it recognized Iran’s right to enrich. (That this was the main reason was affirmed by Dennis Ross, the architect of Obama’s Iran policy, earlier this year.) The Obama team has declined to reconsider its position since 2010 and, as a result, it is on its way to another diplomatic failure.
As Middle Eastern governments become somewhat more representative of their peoples’ concerns and preferences, they are also — as in Egypt and Iraq — becoming less inclined toward strategic deference to the United States. This challenges Washington to do something at which it is badly out of practice: pursue genuine diplomacy with important regional states, based on real give and take and mutual accommodation of core interests. Above all, reversing America’s decline requires rapprochement with the Islamic Republic (just as reviving its position in the early 1970s required rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China).
Instead, three and a half years after George W. Bush left office, his successor continues to insist that Iran surrender to Washington’s diktats or face attack. By doing so, Obama is locking America into a path that is increasingly likely to result in yet another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East during the first years of the next presidential term. And the damage that war against Iran will inflict on America’s strategic position could make the Iraq debacle look trivial by comparison.
Flynt Leverett is professor of international affairs at Penn State. Hillary Mann Leverett is senior professorial lecturer at American University. Together, they write the Race for Iran blog. Their new book, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Needs to Come to Terms With the Islamic Republic of Iran (Metropolitan Books), will be published in January 2013.