Saudi “Disorientation,” the Yemen War, and America’s (Self-Imposed) Decline in the Middle East: Hillary Mann Leverett on CNN and RT’s CrossTalk

On RT’s CrossTalk see here and (for YouTube) here, and CNN, see here, Hillary took on the Saudi-led narrative that U.S.-backed Saudi military attacks in Yemen should be seen in the words of Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Adel Jubeir, as a “good-versus-evil” battle, between “good” Saudis and “evil” Iranians.  Instead, Hillary argued that the unfolding tragedy in Yemen needs to be understood in the context of Saudi Arabia’s deeply destructive reaction to popular demands in Arab countries for more representative and independent political orders.  The negative impact of Riyadh’s highly militarized reactions to internal protests across the Middle East—in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—is magnified by Washington’s apparent inability to separate itself from aspects of Saudi policy in the Middle East that are clearly bad for U.S. interests.

On CNN, Hillary recounted how “Saudi Arabia has been militarily involved and trying to manipulate political outcomes in Yemen for decades.  The last time they did this in 2009, they lost militarily to the Houthis.”

So why is Saudi Arabia once again intervening militarily in Yemen.  As Hillary put it on RT’s CrossTalk:

“This can largely be explained in terms of Saudi Arabia reeling since the 2011 Arab Awakening, pursuing disastrous policy after disastrous policy:  helping to overthrow the government in Libya, trying to overthrow the government in Syria, trying to impose a military dictatorship in Egypt and now in Yemen.  I think what we’re seeing is a product of Saudi disorientation and terror at a region that could become more representative in terms of its governance, more independent in terms of its foreign policy.  The Saudis are trying to prevent that kind of independence in foreign policy from emerging in Yemen, and they have yet again gone down this road with the United States to a war that has no end.  And it’s a disaster both for the Saudis and certainly for the Americans.”

As for the repeatedly elaborated Saudi narrative that the Kingdom’s intervention in Yemen is a purely defensive response to Iranian subversion, Hillary told CNN, “There’s no public evidence of Iranian arming or doing any kind of significant arming of the Houthis in Yemen.  The Houthis have long been marginalized in Yemen.  And they’ve long been a restive, rebellious population.  They got a new lease on life during the Arab Spring in 2011, and the Saudis have been furious about that ever since, trying to roll back that outcome and install their puppet, President Hadi, who has now fled to Saudi Arabia.”

On CrossTalk, Hillary responded to the proposition that the only “winner” in Yemen is likely to be al-Qa’ida, by offering a broader perspective on the regional consequences of U.S.-backed Saudi intervention there:

There are actually going to be two winners in Yemen, as we saw in other arenas (for example, in Afghanistan):  one is going to be al-Qa’ida, and the other is going to be Iran.  Even though people hate to hear this, a critical component of Iranian foreign policy is to support, not necessarily with weapons, but politically to support politically disenfranchised groups—whether that’s groups in Afghanistan, whether that’s groups in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Palestine.  They work to empower those groups to participate in political processes.  At the end of the day, this means that Iran gains favor in those countries, because it has supported the political empowerment of previously marginalized groups, who then come to power in elections.  So Iran is going to come out ahead—just as it has in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Iraq.  They’re going to come out ahead.

And then the militant group, the terror group on the ground, is going to be al-Qa’ida.  And I think that, like in Syria, we’re going to be hoping and praying that al-Qa’ida is actually the ‘junior league’ to an Islamic State/ISIS-type of even more radical, even more brutal group on the ground that the Sunnis look to because they have nothing else.  [And they have nothing else] because the United States, with Saudi Arabia, has undercut the representative groups that could represent Sunnis in a political process, like the Muslim Brotherhood—whether it’s in Egypt or their colleagues in Yemen like the Islah.”

On CNN, too, Hillary pointed out that “the train has left the station here.  Iran’s influence in Yemen is now solid.  We’ve lost yet again in another battlefield to Iran in the soft power arena.  In Yemen, Iran has won the soft power argument.  And al-Qai’da has won the military battle there.”

On CrossTalk, Hillary identified an important part of Saudi Arabia’s motivation for persisting in its misadventures in Yemen by looking at the Kingdom’s own internal politics.

“This Saudi intervention in Yemen is enormously popular in Saudi Arabia.  If you look at the Twitter traffic in Saudi Arabia, look at some of the polling data that’s available in Saudi Arabia, it’s enormously popular.  And it allows this new government in Saudi Arabia, with King Salman, to shift from an enormously unpopular policy, where they were going against Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, or even against ISIS with the United StatesThat was enormously unpopular in Saudi ArabiaIt allows this new king to pivot from that unpopular position to something that is enormously popular—something that they can frame as a sectarian conflict against what they call the ‘infidel’ Shi’a...

This is something that the United States should not want to be associated withIt clearly is against our interestsBut we’ve been doing this with the Saudis going back to 1979 in Afghanistan—that brought us al-Qa’ida and, of course, the direct line to 9/11.”

On CrossTalk, Hillary also noted the disappointing international reaction of the Saudi-U.S. military campaign in Yemen:

“The world is actually standing with the United States in the Security Council—and with the Saudis—to blockade Yemen.  There’s nothing, by definition, hopeless about Yemen.  They need an immediate ceasefire, they need an immediate national dialogue and all the stakeholders in the region should be involved.  It’s a simple as that.  Instead, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and a lot of the world community are aiding and abetting the destruction of yet another Muslim country in the Middle East.”

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

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Seyed Mohammad Marandi on NPR / WBUR “On Point”

Our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran provided a rich in-depth interview to the WBUR “On Point” program, which is syndicated on many NPR stations. In the same program, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, Thomas Erdibrink, and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari, are also interviewed. The program can be heard by clicking the audio link above or by going to http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/04/14/iran-nuclear-deal-view-from-tehran.

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What the Nuclear “Framework” Means, Doesn’t Mean, and Could Yet Mean: Hillary Mann Leverett on CCTV’s The Heat, MSNBC, CNN, RT, and NPR


Hillary appeared on CCTV’s The Heat this week to discuss the “framework” Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, see here (Hillary’s segment runs from 2:45 to 12:40).  Hillary notes that, in itself, the JCPOA is not so important, that “there’s not so much of a ‘there’ there, to say that there’s an agreement.”  But, she stresses, the JCPOA is very important in terms of its “potential”:

It’s the potential, particularly for the United States, in our own interest, to get off this incredibly self-damaging trajectory of never-ending war in the Middle East—the failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria.  This gives us the chance to get off of all that, and to actually have constructive relations with one of the most, if not the most important power in the Middle East.”

In multiple recent media appearances—on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry, see here, and The Cycle, see here and here; on CNN, see here, here, here, here, and here; on RT, see here; and on NPR, see here—Hillary has been emphasizing that the real value of a prospective nuclear deal is the “strategic opportunity” it presents for the United States to “come to terms with the Islamic Republic” as a “rising regional power” and to “realign its relations in the Middle East.”

But President Obama seems to be going out of his way not to seize this opportunity.  Appearing on CNN’s New Day with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hillary took on Albright’s defense of the JCPOA as a narrowly technical arms control agreement that is in U.S. interest primarily because it lets America and its allies put more constraints on a threatening actor.  (Albright’s position, is, of course, very much in keeping with the Obama administration’s public defense of the JCPOA).  More specifically, Hillary argued that

“[T]he critical problem here is for President Obama to make the strategic sell.  If he focuses on it just as an arms control agreement, my concern is that it will die on the vine, just like President Carter’s SALT II treaty with the Soviets over their strategic arsenal.

We’ve seen failure before. We could see failure again if it’s a narrow arms control issue.  If there’s a broader strategic case like Nixon and Kissinger vis-à-vis China, I think it will sell.  But President Obama has been extremely reluctant to make that strategic case.  Instead, he seems to be going down the path of President Carter, where he’s dependent on a Congress to OK an arms control agreement when there may not be any arms control agreement with Iran that would be good enough for them.”

More broadly, as Hillary explains on The Heat, unwillingness to adjust U.S. strategy to the reality of a truly independent Iran is the most basic, even primordial driver of opposition to a prospective nuclear deal:

“The problem the critics have here is not with the agreement itself; it’s with the system in Iran, with the Islamic Republic itself.  What they want to see is a different government there, what we had under the Shah—a government that is very obedient to American interests and carries what we see as our policy preferences.  Then they actually might be happy with that government having nuclear weapons, as they were apparently happy and prepared to have the Shah have nuclear weapons, as they are happy to have and prepared to accept Israel with nuclear weapons, and apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons.  The issue is not the nuclear program, even though so much of the attention is put on that; the issue is the system.  And this is the central question for American policymakers:  can we accept, in our own interest, this fiercely independent Islamic Republic of Iran, align with it where we can, like against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, perhaps even in Yemen against al-Qa’ida there, and bracket the areas where we disagree, perhaps like Israel?”

In this regard, if President Obama seizes the “strategic opening” that a nuclear deal with Iran can potentially create, then

We could for the first time in decades decrease our dependency on our so-called allies, particularly the Saudis and the Israelis, that—for all Americans think they’ve benefitted the United States—have done things that have been profoundly damaging to U.S. interests:  in the Saudi case, to fund and arm Sunni jihadists across the Middle East, and in the Israeli case, to be overseeing this perpetual, never-ending occupation.  We could lessen our dependency on those countries—not dump them as allies, but lessen our dependency—and have more constructive relations with all the countries.  That could be as profound as what Nixon and Kissinger did when they opened to China and realigned our relations fundamentally in Asia.”

The need for such realignment and diplomatic flexibility could hardly be clearer.  As Hillary told Melissa Harris-Parry,

“Today, it is Iran that is fighting against ISIS, it is Iran that is fighting against al-Qa’ida, and it’s our allies, for example the Saudis, that are bombing in Yemen today, enabling al-Qa’ida to take over more and more territory there.  It’s the Saudis that just supported a group, an al-Qa’ida group, to take over yet another Syrian city.  That’s not going to end up well for the United States.  We know where that trajectory goes; it leads to more and more war.  [Obama] needs to make the strategic case, like Nixon did about China.”

Our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, appeared on the same episode of The Heat as Hillary; his segment starts 15:50 into the video.  Mohammad underscores how the Obama administration’s efforts to “spin” the JCPOA, continuing uncertainty “whether the United States is ready to come to terms with post-revolutionary Iran, Iran as a sovereign and independent and powerful country,” and America’s unreconstructed Middle East policies are affirming already strong doubts in Tehran about U.S. intentions, toward the Islamic Republic and in the region more generally.  Mohammad explores these themes as well in an important recent segment of RT’s Op-Edge, see here.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  

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Iran and the Future of America’s Middle East Strategy

The National Interest has published our latest article, “Reality Check: America Needs Iran,” see here; we’ve also appended the text below.  The piece argues that by trying to pursue a narrow arms control agreement with Tehran, while doubling-down on failed policies of offensively and unconditionally arming and supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Obama Administration “ignores an overwhelming strategic reality: America’s position in the Middle East is in free fall, and the only way out is to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on The National Interest’s Web site.

Reality Check: America Needs Iran

by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was announced last week, the Obama administration—echoing previous pledges that nuclear talks with Tehran do not presage a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain”—has assiduously reaffirmed that progress on the nuclear issue does not signal a wider diplomatic opening.

Such a posture ignores an overwhelming strategic reality:  America’s position in the Middle East is in free fall, and the only way out is to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Washington must do this as purposefully as it realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, when it struggled to extricate America from the self-inflicted debacle of the Vietnam War and to renew its diplomatic options, for the Cold War’s last phase and beyond.  By not using nuclear diplomacy as a catalyst for broader, “Nixon to China” rapprochement with Iran, Obama and his team ensure further erosion of America’s standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally.

U.S. engagement in the Middle East over the past quarter century is a textbook example of what Paul Kennedy famously described as “imperial overstretch”—a great power’s expansion of strategic ambitions and commitments beyond its capacity to sustain them.

In the U.S. case, trying to remake and, ultimately, subordinate the Middle East through military campaigns and other forms of coercive intervention has not just failed; it has been profoundly self-damaging to America’s strategic position.  By seeking to dominate the region—in the process imposing missions on U.S. armed forces that not even the world’s most powerful military could accomplish, squandering vast human and material resources on a scale that not even the world’s largest economy could sustain, and eviscerating the perceived legitimacy of U.S. purposes for the vast majority of Middle Easterners—America has made itself weaker.

To recover, Washington must embrace a new Middle East strategy—one aimed not at coercive dominance but at a reasonably stable balance of power in which major regional states check one another’s reckless impulses.

Such a strategy requires two things.

First, Washington needs to engage—positively and comprehensively—with all important regional actors.  Second, Washington needs to recalibrate relations with America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies—most notably, Israel and Saudi Arabia.  A robust diplomatic opening to Iran is essential to both these tasks.

Whether American elites like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable power in today’s Middle East.  The Islamic Republic’s influence is due to its revolutionary commitment to independence and its participatory Islamist order (not despite these things).  Its influence is, therefore, rising in arenas across the region—and will continue to do so when and as Middle Eastern Muslims gain greater access to participatory politics.

This prompts increasingly alarmist warnings from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their mouthpieces that Iranian “proxies” are “gobbling up the Middle East.”  In fact, Tehran has grown its influence by supporting unavoidable constituencies marginalized by unrepresentative power structures.

Iran did not create Shi’a majorities in Iraq and Bahrain, or Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality; it did not invent Yemen’s Zaidi community (the Houthis’s base) or occupied Palestinians.  But Tehran has helped these constituencies organize to press their legitimate grievances—so that virtually any expansion of political participation in these venues empowers Iranian allies.

This approach makes it impossible to circumscribe Iranian influence over time.  America must recognize that influence as an indispensable factor in regional politics.  Washington needs positive relations with Tehran not only to fight common foes like the Islamist State, but also to promote genuine regional security.

To these same ends, Washington should look soberly at its allies’ regional impact.  Today, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia truly represents most of those it governs; neither can endorse more participatory politics in the region.

Likewise, neither can compete with Iran’s capacity to exercise positive political influence and facilitate real conflict resolution in contested regional arenas; on their own, Israel and Saudi Arabia can only make things worse. And, regardless of whatever various segments of America’s political class may perceive Israel and Saudi Arabia to have done for the United States, both pursue policies harmful to U.S. interests (e.g., Israel’s open-ended occupation of Arab populations and aggressive military posture; Saudi Arabia’s support for violent Sunni jihadis and suppression of moderate Sunni Islamists across the region willing to compete for political power through elections).

To reduce the mounting costs that Israeli and Saudi policies impose on America’s position in the Middle East, Washington needs to reduce its dependence on Israel and Saudi Arabia.  A rising Iran could be very helpful in checking the counter-productive policies of America’s traditional regional allies.

But, instead, Obama and his team are reducing a prospective nuclear deal with Iran to the latest version of a self-deluding but widely held ambition among American elites:  to “contain” the Islamic Republic while playing on what those elites imagine are its internal contradictions, so as to hasten its demise.  America has tried this before in the Middle East—against Saddam’s Iraq, which had vastly inferior sources of legitimacy than the Islamic Republic.  Notwithstanding sanctions that killed over half a million Iraqis (half of them children) over thirteen years, Iraqis did not replace Saddam with figures ready to implement sanctioning powers’ preferred policies.  Unseating Saddam required a U.S.-led invasion that proved a blunder of historic proportions for America.

As it follows this well-trod path to strategic failure, the Obama administration is also doubling down on some of the unhealthiest aspects of America’s traditional regional partnerships.

Following the JCPOA’s announcement, Obama promised to maintain Israel’s “qualitative edge”—Washington-speak for continued U.S. backing for offensive Israeli military actions.  In recent weeks, his administration has acquiesced to the Saudi-instigated capture of a Syrian city by an al-Qa’ida affiliate and is providing intelligence, logistical, and political support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen that has killed hundreds of civilians and is enabling al-Qa’ida affiliates to make territorial gains.  Now Obama wants to convene Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies to deepen collaboration on Middle Eastern “security,” without in any serious way engaging Tehran.

This is folly.  Rather than gamble anew on demonstrably failed policies, America needs to take charge of its own strategic destiny—through full-fledged rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

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Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory—The Case for U.S.-Iranian Rapprochement That Obama Must Still Make: Leveretts in The National Interest

As the Iran nuclear talks reach a critical juncture and Saudi Arabia invades yet another neighboring in its increasingly desperate efforts to contain the Islamic Republic’s rising regional influence, The National Interest has published our latest article, “Busted Stuff:  America’s Disastrous Iran Policy,” see here; we’ve also appended the text below.  The piece explains how the Obama administration, because of its continuing unwillingness to engage the Islamic Republic as a truly rising power, risks turning a possible nuclear deal with Tehran—which should be the greatest triumph of American diplomacy since the U.S. opening to China in the 1970s—into something that actually “ends up exacerbating America’s ongoing marginalization in the Middle East.”

As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on The National Interest’s Web site.

 Busted Stuff:  America’s Disastrous Iran Policy

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 Stakes in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 couldn’t be higher for the countries involved—especially for the United States.  After nearly a decade and a half of disastrously self-damaging wars, “counter-terrorism campaigns,” and military occupations in the Middle East, the dysfunction and incoherence of U.S. policy is now on full display, from Iraq to Libya, Syria, and now Yemen.  To recover, Washington must accept on-the-ground realities:  U.S. efforts to dominate the region have failed and the Islamic Republic of Iran is now a rising power with which America must come to terms.

But President Obama has yet to explain why the United States—for its own interests, not as a favor to Iran, or simply because Americans are war-weary—needs rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.  Absent such advocacy, his administration may still reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  But it will lose the political fight at home over a new Iran policy, squandering the chance for a broader strategic opening with Tehran and locking the United States into increasingly steep strategic decline in the Middle East and globally.

Today, America cannot achieve any of its high-priority goals in the Middle East—e.g., combatting the Islamic State, forestalling another violent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and resolving conflicts in Syria and Yemen—without better ties with Iran.  Under any political order, Iran is a pivotal country, given its demographic and territorial size, its geostrategic location, its identity as a civilizational state with a history as long as China’s, and its hydrocarbon resources.  But, under the Islamic Republic—which, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has worked to forge an indigenously-designed political system combining participatory politics and elections with elements of Islamic governance, and to pursue foreign policy independence—Iran enjoys a powerful legitimacy that bolsters its regional impact.

For too many Americans, thirty-five years of demonizing caricature mask an essential fact:  the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the Middle East’s only successful participatory Islamist order, has been able to pursue an independent foreign policy that has steadily bolstered its influence in critical arenas across the Middle East.  If America is to recover its strategic position, it must devise a fundamentally different relationship with this rising power.  It must do so not only because of Iran’s unique importance, but also as a first step toward coming to terms with Middle Eastern Muslims’ manifest desire—reflected in polls and in electoral outcomes whenever they get to vote in a reasonably open way—to define their political futures in terms of participatory Islamism and foreign policy independence.

Ignoring these realities, the Obama administration treats a nuclear deal as, at most, a “nice to have” option.  Obama rarely identifies potential U.S. gains from realigning relations with Iran; instead, he stresses how Washington is providing Tehran with an “opportunity” to “benefit from rejoining the international community.”

It’s probably never a good idea to try selling a politically controversial diplomatic initiative by stressing the initiative’s presumptive benefits for the other side.  To the extent that the Obama administration has touched on potential upsides for the United States, it has done so in narrowly technical terms, positing that a multilateral agreement is the most cost-effective way to manage theoretical proliferation risks associated with Iran enriching uranium under international safeguards (risks posed by uranium enrichment in any country).

This restricted focus opens U.S. diplomacy up to three major problems.  First, it conditions U.S. demands on Tehran with no grounding in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or other aspects of international law.  This may seem useful to show constituencies in the United States and allied countries that the Obama administration is putting Iran’s nuclear capabilities in a very tight “box”—e.g., by requiring the dismantling of an arbitrarily large number of Iranian centrifuges or refusing to lift UN Security Council sanctions on Iran for years into the implementation of an agreement.  But it also makes clear that America is not prepared to deal with the Islamic Republic as the legitimate representative of legitimate Iranian interests—the only basis for real rapprochement.

Second, a narrowly technical approach is vulnerable to criticism that it does not actually accomplish the goals its advocates set (criticism epitomized in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s charge that diplomacy “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb”).  In the 1970s, the Carter administration insisted that the SALT II agreements it had negotiated with the Soviet Union put meaningful limits on the growth of Moscow’s strategic arsenal.  But this technical argument was trumped by more politically resonant claims that SALT II left an unreconstructed Soviet adversary with too much nuclear capability; ultimately, congressional opposition killed SALT II.  If Obama does not make the case for a nuclear deal as a catalyst for broader (and strategically imperative) rapprochement with Tehran, he will face mounting political pushback against meeting U.S. commitments essential to implementing a deal.

Third, Obama’s posture makes it increasingly probable that the geopolitical benefits of diplomatically resolving the nuclear issue will accrue primarily not to the United States, but to China and Russia.  It seems all too likely that the Obama administration will continue to resist packaging a nuclear deal as part of comprehensive, “Nixon to China” rapprochement with Tehran.  It seems virtually certain that, under a deal, the administration will only commit to “waive” America’s Iran-related sanctions, for six months at a time, through the balance of Obama’s presidency.  Indeed, senior administration officials told Congress last week that current sanctions legislation should stay on the books until a deal’s end, years from now, so that Washington can continue leveraging Tehran’s actions.

By contrast, even before a nuclear deal is concluded, Beijing and Moscow are laying the ground to deepen their already significant economic and strategic cooperation with Iran.  (Both Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin will visit Tehran this spring.)  The Obama administration’s technically reductionist approach to Iran relations raises the risks that what should be the greatest triumph of American diplomacy since the U.S. opening to China in the 1970s will end up exacerbating America’s ongoing marginalization in the Middle East.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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