‘US has militarily coerced Middle Eastern political outcomes since the Cold War’
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.
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