HuffPo Review—“Going to Tehran: A Must Read!”

We are very pleased that Patricia DeGennaro, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and adjunct professor of politics at NYU, has reviewed Going to Tehran for Huffington Post—with the headline, “Going to Tehran:  A Must Read!”  Ms. DeGennaro notes

“if I were [Obama’s] National Security Advisor, helping to lead the way to ‘all options,’ I’d be reading Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett’s book Going to Tehran with vigor while insisting that the president and his entire staff do the same so we all can avoid another war.  This book sheds dramatic light on the central foreign policy of the Iranian government.  The Leveretts superbly outline the true intentions of Iran the way they are using international alliances and soft power to get there… [Iran’s] success lies in its unwavering support of those who have been marginalized in the region.  Rhetoric supporting Shi’ite minorities, popular elected governments like Hamas, and the subjugated Palestinian population ingratiate it to those in the region who are tired of ostensibly Western dominance and deadly intervention.  It is time for the U.S. and the West to take a new path.  Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have reminded foreign policy scholars like Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett to speak out about the flaws in U.S. policy and encourage all of us to demand that it change.”

Amen.  We append Ms. DeGennaro’s review in its entirety below.  We encourage readers to leave comments both on this site and on Huffington Post, see here (along with Facebook likes, etc.).

Going to Tehran:  A Must Read!

Patricia DeGennaro

President Obama and his national security team are no doubt making final preparations for the upcoming trip to Israel.  Obama already began to lay the groundwork for his trip by sending messages to the Israeli leadership who remain fanatically wed to coercing the U.S. to go to war with Iran.  And it seems the coercion is working.  The president’s message had nothing to do with peace.  “All options are on the table,” he professed to an Israeli news outlet.  Of course these seemingly threatening statements drummed of another looming battle.  The thing is, that if I were his National Security Advisor, helping to lead the way to “all options,” I’d be reading Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett’s book Going to Tehran with vigor while insisting that the president and his entire staff do the same so we all can avoid another war.

This book sheds dramatic light on the central foreign policy of the Iranian government.  The Leveretts superbly outline the true intentions of Iran and the way they are using international alliances and soft power to get there.  Intentions are not as the neocon talking points imply.  Iran wants to be a regional economic and political power not a nuclear one.  Unfortunately, instead of listening to the nuances of Iranian policy and messaging, the U.S. Administration is allowing itself to remain deaf to the words of Iran’s leadership.  In essence, they seem to prefer to bypass diplomatic efforts that would set the stage for a long-term peaceful and reciprocal relationship and continue to threaten them with destruction through military force.

There is no doubt that the U.S. continues to be the strongest military power on the globe and can overmatch any other traditional power, however, it is losing influence both politically and economically throughout the world.  This holds particularly true in the Arab and Persian populations from North Africa to Afghanistan.

Hindsight is 20/20 and the Obama administration should review past history in the region to clear up current misinterpretations of Iran’s actions.  The American unintelligible decision, which flies in the face of all moral rhetoric, to overthrow Iran’s democratic president, Mohammad Mosaddegh, has not been forgotten by Iranians.  Basically the Iranian government doesn’t trust the U.S. because of its past behavior.  They are under the impression that America’s current intention remains squarely in the path of another regime change, which will install an unpopular Western leaning leader like the former Shah, Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī.  All actions on our side support this assumption and the Obama Administration is doing nothing to change it.

America’s policy of random regime change has wreaked havoc around the world.  Ironically, American nuclear technology shared under the Shah, gave birth to the current situation—potential air strikes that could lead to all out war.

No one wants external interference especially when it is so lethal and ultimately takes away sovereignty, self-determination and human rights.  As the Leveretts point out, former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski says, “there is a global political awakening” where regions like the Middle East are “scarred by memories of colonial or imperial domination,” and there is a “yearning for human dignity” and “cultural respect.”  Populations are “disliking the status quo” and “are susceptible to being mobilized against those whom they perceive as self-interestedly preserving it.”  In Iran and the Middle East, they have had enough of Western military and colonial intervention.  Even Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi cautions against thinking all Iranians won’t rally if attacked.

As the book point out, “for most Egyptians and other Middle Easterners, the main division in the world is not between democracies and dictatorships but between countries whose strategic autonomy is subordinated to the United State and countries who exercise genuine independence in policymaking.  For most people in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic is on the right side of that divide.”  Iran, to the chagrin of the U.S. and Israel, is charting its own path and despite strangling world sanctions continues to do so.

Since the revolution, Iran continues to use soft power to enhance its influence in Asia, parts of Africa, and the Middle East.  Tehran remains a vibrant city and until more recently, it also had extensive trade with Europe, which went beyond petrol resources (even Israel keeps Iranian farmers afloat as it looks the other way when it comes to importing Iranian pistachios—the best in the world).

Iran is actually a natural ally for the U.S.  The population is well educated and has a rich economic, political and cultural history with superb diplomatic skills—something the U.S. State Department should be modeling not condemning.  Other than protecting itself during the American supported Iraq invasion to its territory, Iran has shown no propensity to use force unlike the U.S. and Israel.

In the past, Iran paid a huge political price to help free American hostages in Lebanon.  The country has helped keep oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf.  The Iranian government has offered to partner on security and invited American oil companies to invest in the country.  It supported America wholeheartedly after the September 11, 2001 horrific attacks on the U.S. by using its allies to rebuild the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, the warriors who took up arms to drive out the Soviet Union and, after 911, the Taliban.  Finally, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium for almost two years as well as to buy nuclear fuel rods from Brazil through an agreement negotiated by Brazil and Turkey.  Expecting a more level relationship for its efforts, it instead got nothing. U.S. administrations rebuked it at every turn.

Iran does want to be a regional power and despite all the American and Israeli efforts it continues to be one.  Its success lies in its unwavering support of those who have been marginalized in the region.  Rhetoric supporting Shi’ite minorities, popular elected governments like Hamas, and the subjugated Palestinian population ingratiate it to those in the region who are tired of ostensibly Western dominance and deadly intervention.  It is time for the U.S. and the West to take a new path.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have reminded foreign policy scholars like Hillary Mann and Flynt Leverett to speak out about the flaws in U.S. policy and encourage all of us to demand that it change.  Our world can no longer depend on military solutions for political resolutions.

In one military exercise after the other the Iranian government has been shown to be a viable opponent.  The Leveretts suggest that the U.S. follow the examples of former Presidents Richard Nixon and Anwar Sadat.  Their trips to “China and Jerusalem, [are] a form of recognition that cannot be taken back” and “the two sides [must] work to reorient their relationship, the recognition bestowed by a presidential visit cannot be reversed.  It would undergird all future diplomacy and underscore confidence that reconciliation will come.”  If President Obama and his team are truly looking for an alternative that looks beyond war, they should schedule an overdue detour by leaving Tel Aviv for a historical visit to the city that may actually help lead to future world stability and peace—Tehran.


The Case for Diplomacy with Iran— Reviews Going to Tehran

We were pleased to see another non-hysterical—and, therefore, sober and favorable—review of Going to Tehran; this one is by Philip Reboli published by  We append it below.  We encourage readers to leave comments both on this site and on, see here.

The Case for Diplomacy with Iran

You might not assume it from the title of Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s book but as it suggests, the United States, through our elected representatives in Washington D.C., don’t need to like the Islamic Republic.  The President, the Congress, and our diplomats don’t have to think that Iran is moral.  The American people don’t even have to understand the machinations of Iran’s body politic.  Our political leaders—especially the President—need only accept Iran’s government as legitimate, and therefore able to negotiate on behalf of the Iranian people.

There is no way to make a sober judgment about the future of U.S.-Iranian relations unless we see the current situation from the perspective of both parties.  This is the most important insight gained from this book.  Iranian leaders are not the caricatures that are common to the Iran experts on television and print.  To elucidate this point the Leveretts make two bold—if not accurate—claims about the Islamic Republic and its leaders:  the government of Iran is a rational actor and it is the legitimate government of Iran.

The authors begin the assessment of rationality by challenging the American reader to understand how the Islamic Republic assesses its national priorities—both internal and foreign.  The answer is simple:  what would America do.  Iranian leaders shape their policies like any rational country would.  “Material realities—geography, demographics, military and economic capabilities—play a large role.  But softer factors—shared identities and aspirations, principled beliefs about right and wrong, subjective assessments of other states’ intentions—bear an influence as well.”  The Leveretts explain that the Islamic Republic’s national security goals are shaped by foreign domination beginning in the 19th century.  Curiously, they expend almost no ink reminding the reader of Iran’s former dynastic histories.  After all, as Robert Baer, author and former CIA case officer stationed in the Middle East has said, there is a reason they call it the Persian Gulf.  However, this minor detail does not affect the book in any way.  In fact it reminds the reader that Iran’s government is remarkably modern, even by its own standards.

The rationality of the Iranian government is considered with regard to the all-important question of nuclear proliferation.  The reader is reminded that three strategic considerations inform Tehran’s progress with low-enriched uranium.  The first is that Iran could never equal the total numbers of nuclear weapons possessed by the United States or Israel.  The second is that Iranian officials calculate that so long Iran does not cross the “red line” of weaponization the United States or Israel will not attack.  Third, the only countries supportive of Iran’s nuclear program—Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa—would end their political support.  Moreover, Iranian officials know it is a strategically bad decision.  Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Tehran’s IAEA ambassador, has said that it would be a ‘strategic mistake’ for Iran to build nuclear weapons, as it “cannot compete in terms of the numbers of warheads possessed by the nuclear-armed powers, so if it seeks to produce nuclear weapons, it will be in a disadvantageous position compared with these countries.”  Sounds rational enough.  The case for rationality is strengthened with the assessments of current and former Israeli statesmen.  Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has stated, “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, [would] drop it in the neighborhood.  They fully understand what might follow.  They are radical but not totally crazy. They have a quite sophisticated decision making process, and they understand reality” (emphasis added).

If the leaders in Tehran are making rational decisions in the best interest of the Iranian people but are not the legitimate governing body then the question of rationality is a moot point.  The authors next remind the reader that the current government in Tehran is legitimate by its own and the Iranian people’s standards.  This was most obvious in the Green Revolution after the 2009 elections.

On this point, the Leveretts point to two Western approaches to the Iranian Revolution and current political order that prevent Washington from accepting the government in Tehran as representative of the thoughts, intentions, and norms of Iranian people; in other words legitimate.  First, the revolution is regressive and therefore unable to appreciate Western liberalization.  In the other approach the Iranian revolution was “hijacked”, in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  In the authors’ estimation both of these perspectives fail to appreciate that Iranians have chosen the current political order time and time again.  From the original revolution in 1979 until the most recent national elections, Iranians have consistently reaffirmed the current form of government.  Washington’s belief that the Islamic Republic cannot be legitimate until it adopts a secularized Western-style of governance is “deeply flawed [and] dangerously misleading as guides for policy making” (p. 152-154).

The 2009 election and the protests instigated by the defeated party through the Green movement are broken down into two parts:  the polls showing that Ahmadinejad did indeed win and the rush of Western Iran-watchers that were quick to condemn the election results.

Making the case that the elections were free, fair, and representative of the views of Iranians the authors bring our attention to four polls conducted one month before the election to three months after the vote.  Three of the polls were conducted by Western groups based out of the United States and Canada and one by the University of Tehran.  According to these polls Ahmadinejad never trailed Mousavi.

In assessing the Green movement the authors ask the reader to suspend all prior notions regarding the movement’s organizers.  How is it that so many protestors that were interviewed spoke English?  How is it possible that the supposed backbone of the movement—Twitter—that attracted so much attention in the West was done in English and not Farsi?  The answer is that the Green movement never was.

Western journalists worked primarily in North Tehran which was coincidently where Mousavi—the Green movement’s leader—had won the most support.  It is no coincidence that foreign journalists would come in contact with English speaking youths declaring their desire for a secular democracy.  The English language tweets were primarily coming from Western journalists unable or unwilling to make the distinction between a genuine social movement and disaffected youths living in their midst.

The Leveretts finish with an explanation of why American rapprochement with Iran is the only way to achieve our strategic goals in the Middle East.  It would not be unheard of in American Politics for warming or relations between Washington and a foreign government whose interests are inimical to our own.

The parallels between the Islamic Republic and the People’s Republic of China are revealing in so much as how they can guide American policy makers.  Iran is as critical to U.S. interests today as China was during the Cold War and the diplomatic overtures from Washington to each country have some similarities.  For instance, as with Tehran, Washington decided that the PRC had to be delegitimized, isolated, and eliminated.  And echoing the claim that the 1979 Iranian revolution had been hijacked, high level Washington policy makers asserted that the Chinese communists had “captured” an otherwise laudable revolutionary process.  In a startling similarity between the Washington consensus on the PRC and the Islamic Republic, informed opinion believed the People’s Republic to be “fanatically ideological.”

Again the authors ask the reader to set aside these assumptions and view the current Iran question the same way the Nixon Administration did:  strategically.  In keeping with the notion that Washington needs to push a grand bargain with Tehran the authors remind us that President Nixon boldly shifted American policy regarding the PRC:  we will regard our Communist adversaries [Nixon said] first and foremost as nations pursuing their own interests as they perceive these interests, just as we follow our own interests as we see them.

Only when there is this level of sober understanding regarding Iran—its government, its leaders, its citizens, its interests—can the United States, according to Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, mend a relationship with a regionally important nation who needs us as much as we need them.




“Room for Diplomacy?”—What Real Negotiation with Iran Would Look Like


Appearing on HuffPost Live last week (click here or on the embedded video above), Flynt focused on the possibilities for—and requirements of—real diplomacy between the United States and Iran.  Commenting on recent remarks by Ambassador Mohammad Khazae, the Islamic Republic’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, about Iran’s openness to direct talks with the United States, Flynt noted:

“Ambassador Khazae’s statement…really indicates the key here, and I think this has been the Iranian position for a long time.  [The Iranians say] that they would welcome dialogue with the United States, that they would welcome an improvement in relations with the United States, but that, at this point, it is the United States that needs to show, in some proactive way that—Khazae’s words were—it is ‘serious and honest.’  Serious in the sense that we really do want a fundamentally different kind of relationship, and that we are prepared to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests; and honest in the sense that we are not going to be doing things, while we’re trying to have this dialogue, which actually work against an ultimate realignment of relations or that undercut any credibility to the idea that the United States would accept the Islamic Republic.

This is not unprecedented.  This was the threshold for the People’s Republic of China as well.  For twenty years after the Chinese Revolution, the Chinese were open to the possibility of improved relations with the United States.  But the United States was going to have to accept the revolution, accept the People’s Republic as China’s legitimate government, stop trying to take it down.  And finally Richard Nixon realized that it was in U.S. interest to do this and made this leap.  I am not at all confident that Barack Obama, even in his second term, is really prepared to take that leap.”

In this context, Flynt took on a frequent criticism of our analogy between U.S. rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s and (prospective) U.S. rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran—that the United States and China had a “common enemy” (the Soviet Union), while the United States and Iran do not:

“I’d phrase it a little differently—that the United States and China, by the time of rapprochement, they both understand that they had fundamental national security and foreign policy problems that they couldn’t solve without a better relationship with one another.  Part of that was the Soviet Union, but for the United States, a big part of it was Vietnam.  It wasn’t the Soviet Union that got us into Vietnam; it was a kind of warped policy against China that got us into Vietnam.  And Nixon knew he had to have a better relationship with China to get out of Vietnam.

But Nixon was also, I think, wise enough to see that there was this whole agenda of problems where the United States really couldn’t be a maximally effective international actor without a decent relationship with a quarter of humanity.  And I think, in the U.S.-Iranian context, both sides have foreign policy and national security problems that they cannot solve without a better relationship with one another.”

As Flynt explains, though, seeking real, “Nixon-to-China” rapprochement with the Islamic Republic is going to require a very different American approach than previous U.S. administrations—including the Obama administration—have pursued:

“Since the revolution, there’s this kind of urban myth that we’ve had little or no contact with Iran, and it’s just not true.  In the 1980s, we reached out to them to get their help to get American hostages out of Lebanon.  In the 1990s, we coordinated with them to get weapons to Bosnian Muslims, when U.S. law prohibited the Clinton administration from doing it.  After 9/11, they were enormously helpful to us on Afghanistan and against al-Qa’ida; my wife was directly involved in the diplomatic dialogue that we had with Iran during that period over those issues.

From an Iranian perspective, every time they have tried to cooperate with the United States on a specific issue—and they have done much of what the United States asked in that area—the United States just pockets the cooperation, and then picks up on some perceived provocation on some utterly unrelated issue, shuts down the dialogue, and puts more sanctions on Iran.  And so, at this point, they’re not really prepared to give this issue-specific engagement another try.  They want to know upfront, as Khazae said, that the United States is ‘serious’—and ‘serious’ means a kind of comprehensive improvement in relations.”

Flynt also pushed back against easy suggestions that Iran must take steps to demonstrate its own seriousness about U.S.-Iranian diplomacy:

“There’s a fundamental asymmetry here.  When Nixon comes to office…he understands that, if this is going to work, he’s going to have to convince the Chinese leadership that he is serious.  So, when he comes into office, he orders the CIA to stand down from covert operations in Tibet; he orders the Seventh Fleet to stop what the Chinese considered aggressive patrols in the Taiwan Straits; he began lifting trade restrictions on China.  All of these he did proactively, to signal to the Chinese leadership, ‘I really do mean this; I really am serious about this.’

In the Obama administration, on every one of these areas, from an Iranian perspective, U.S. policy has gone in the opposite direction—it’s gotten worse since Obama has taken office…We have to decide that this is in our interest to do.  That’s what Nixon had decided.  And the only question after that is, ‘What does the United States need to do to make this work?’”

Furthermore, Flynt underscored that “taking the leap” to pursue genuine rapprochement with Tehran would require the Obama administration (or any other U.S. administration) to drop Washington’s fetishistic and highly selective approach to “human rights” where Iran (and other Middle Eastern states) are concerned:

“You can’t go to a country that you’ve been estranged with as long as we’ve been estranged from the Islamic Republic and say, ‘We want to have better relations with you and are prepared to accept you as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests—but we also want to talk with you about how you are going to arrange your internal political order.’  That would have been an absolutely disastrous approach to take toward China.  What country is going to agree to sit down and negotiate its internal order with an outside power—particularly an outside power…that’s been seen as a threat for so long?…Until the Iranians are sure we’re not going to be trying to pursue regime change in the Islamic Republic, there’s no way that we can talk about human rights in any kind of credible or effective way.”

Flynt also disputed assessments that Iran is feeling pressured because of a weakening of its regional position:

“If you look at Iranian influence, it’s clearly grown over the last decade or so…If anything, the Arab Awakening is actually shifting the balance of power in the Middle East more in Iran’s favor.  Every democratically-elected government that has come to power in an Arab country since the Arab Awakening started—in Tunisia, in Libya, most importantly in Egypt—is pursuing better relations with the Islamic Republic.  It is reducing strategic cooperation with the United States, and it is seeking to improve ties with the Islamic Republic.  That is a huge gain.  I think that Iraq is a huge gain for the Islamic Republic, but if you look at what they’ve been able to accomplish in the balance of power just over the last two years, in the context of the Arab Awakening, I think things are going more in their direction…It’s the United States whose erosion in the region is really accelerating.

I don’t think that Iran is in a necessarily vulnerable position.  There’s absolutely no regional support for military action against Iran.  If the U.S. were foolish enough to do that, the backlash against the United States would be really severe.  I was just [in Iran] in December, and I think the idea that sanctions are going to bring about the Islamic Republic’s implosion or compel it to surrender in the nuclear talks is detached from reality.”

On this last point, Hooman Majd, one of the other panelists, also offered insightful observations about the strength of the Iranian economy and society, even under sanctions, as one of the reasons other states “have decided that they do want better relations with this country, that has this population, that has the technology, has science, has incredible advances in many other ways.”  With respect, though, we disagree with Hooman’s assertion that “this has nothing to do with whether it’s an Islamic Republic or not.”

Our reading of Iran’s modern history is that the Islamic Republic has been able to achieve these things to a much greater degree than the Shah’s regime ever was.  And, as we’ve been pointing out (see here, for example), whenever “disenfranchised Middle Eastern publics get to vote on their political futures, they choose some version of what the Islamic Republic gives Iranians the chance to pursue—the integration of participatory politics and Islamist governance.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Iran and the United States—What Really Matters to Middle Eastern Publics?

We published the following piece in Huffington Post, see here: We encourage everyone to leave comments at Huffington Post as well as here.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference in Washington on Monday, Vice President Biden claimed that Iran is on the defensive in its own neighborhood:  “When we came to office…Iran was on the ascendancy in the region.  It is no longer on the ascendancy.”  In fact, the Obama administration has “left Iran more isolated than ever.”  And that matters, Biden said, because “God forbid, if we have to act, it’s important that the rest of the world is with us.”

Biden’s words reflect an all-too-familiar trope about Iran—that the non-Arab and Shi’a Islamic Republic can be easily isolated in its regional environment, thereby facilitating its ultimate demise.  American elites have been making this argument virtually since the Islamic Republic’s founding out of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Over the last decade, though, on-the-ground reality in the Middle East has not been kind to those espousing it.  Indeed, by the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, Western commentators were compelled to concede, by polls and other evidence, that Iran’s opposition to America’s hegemonic assertions, its support for groups resisting Israeli occupation of Arab populations, and its pursuit of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities in defiance of America and Israel had won it widespread approbation among Arab publics.

More recently, however, commentators have been asserting, with escalating intensity, that Tehran’s heyday is over.  According to them, a combination of international criticism of Iran’s 2009 presidential election, President Obama’s purportedly more “sensitive” approach to the Middle East, and the outbreak of the Arab Awakening has eviscerated popular support for the Islamic Republic across the region.

This narrative’s latest iteration comes in Jim Zogby’s new ebook, Looking at Iran:  How 20 Arab and Muslim Nations View Iran and Its Policies.  Zogby has long been a stalwart advocate for Arab-American rights and a more balanced U.S. approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict—issues on which we are proud to have supported him.

In his new ebook, however, Zogby has a different agenda.  Using survey data from 17 Arab countries as well as from Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkey, Zogby posits that popular support for Iran in the Arab and Muslim worlds has declined sharply over the past several years—from a 2006 high to a point today at which Muslim publics now view the Islamic Republic in deeply negative terms.  Though Zogby claims he “did not write a book that prescribes specific policy,” his latest work seems aimed less at explanation than at legitimating a particular strategic agenda—one that increases the chance of another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East.

Zogby opens with a clear thesis:  “When Iran was seen [by Arab publics] through
the prism of U.S. and Israeli practices, it won” the battle for regional public opinion; alternatively, “when Iran is judged by its regional behavior and its domestic repression, it loses support.”  In his polls, though, Zogby deploys questions asking respondents to judge the Islamic Republic and its policies in artificial isolation from U.S. and Israeli practices, effectively guaranteeing results affirming his thesis.

Take, for example, Zogby’s treatment of Iran’s regional standing, assessed by its perceived favorability.  Zogby’s data show that, when asked to rate Iran without reference to other regional or international players, ever larger percentages of Arabs and other Muslims over the past seven years have viewed the Islamic Republic unfavorably.  In Zogby’s most recent polls, from 2012, Iran was seen favorably by majorities in just two Arab countries (Iraq and Lebanon).  Zogby also uses favorability/unfavorability data to argue that America’s regional standing is improving, because of a “less aggressive U.S. posture and the expectations that, in a second Obama administration, the United States might step up efforts to press Israel to make concessions for peace with the Palestinians.”

Sounds bad for Iran and at least relatively positive for America, right?  But set Zogby’s favorability/unfavorability data for Iran next to equivalent data for the United States—a juxtaposition more reflective of how Arabs and Muslims actually evaluate their strategic environment—and a different picture emerges.  Even with the (slight) improvement in U.S. standing since 2011, Zogby’s 2012 data show that America’s favorability scores surpass Iran’s in just four countries—Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.  By contrast, Iran has higher favorability than the United States in fourteen Arab countries and in Pakistan, and is effectively tied with America in Jordan, a longtime U.S. security partner.

Morever, Zogby neglected to ask questions that would almost certainly have elicited answers at odds with his thesis.  He notes, for example, that in 2008 his data put Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizballah Secretary General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah (a key Iranian partner) high among world leaders most admired by Arabs.  But he fails to include subsequent surveys by Zogby International (a polling firm founded by his brother) and other studies that continue identifying Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah among world leaders most admired by Arabs.

Similarly, while Zogby highlights data from his 2012 survey showing that a majority of respondents now think that Iran’s nuclear program “makes the region less secure” and that there should be a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, he fails to put regional attitudes about Iran’s nuclear activities in a comparative context.  If he had, he might well have gotten results like those obtained by the University of Maryland’s annual Arab Public Opinion Surveys, showing that, by orders of magnitude, Arabs identify Israel and the United States as much bigger threats to them than Iran.  He might also have gotten results like those obtained by Arab researchers, showing that support for a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East is driven by concern over Israel’s nuclear arsenal and that, until Israel foreswears nuclear weapons, regional publics think other countries have the right to pursue them, too.  But such results would have undercut Zogby’s main thesis.

Zogby asserts, “it is the behavior of Iran and its allies”—in various regional arenas, in its nuclear activities, and in its internal politics—“that have led to the region’s alienation from the Islamic Republic.”  This overlooks massive and sustained efforts by Gulf Arab monarchies in recent years to portray the political awakening of Shi’a communities—a natural part of the political awakening of Arab societies generally—as Iranian “meddling.”

It is not Iran, but America’s Gulf Arab allies that have played the sectarian “card”—not just through well-funded propaganda, but also by backing violent (and virulently anti-Shi’a) Sunni extremists across the Middle East.  In this context, it is remarkable how well Iran’s regional standing has held up.  Notwithstanding Zogby’s reference to Iran’s domestic “repression,” when disenfranchised Middle Eastern publics get to vote on their political futures, they choose some version of what the Islamic Republic gives Iranians the chance to pursue—the integration of participatory politics and Islamist governance.  Every democratically-elected government that has come to power during the Arab Awakening—in Tunisia, Libya, and, most importantly, Egypt—has sought improved relations with Tehran.  When popular sovereignty finally prevails in Bahrain, a new Bahraini government will, too.

Zogby notes that substantial majorities of Arabs and other Muslims continue to oppose using military force against Iran over the nuclear issue.  But the most disturbing aspect of Looking at Iran is its implicit usefulness for those arguing that America could use force against Iran with little risk of regional blowback.  This argument is profoundly—and dangerously—mistaken.

After failed U.S. invasions-cum-occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, a war on terror that has deeply alienated Muslim societies, and with ongoing U.S. support for open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations, America’s position in the Middle East is hanging by a thread.  If, in this climate, America launches another war to disarm another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it doesn’t have, the blowback against U.S. interests will make the damage done to America’s regional position by the Iraq war look almost trivial by comparison.

American elites need to abandon myths about the Islamic Republic, which isn’t about to collapse or be overthrown by its own population—and isn’t being rejected by its neighbors, either.  For its own interests, the United States needs to come to terms with Iran—through serious diplomacy, not sanctions and force.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

Watch Biden: U.S. Would Use Military Action to Stop Nuclear Iran on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Flynt appeared on the PBS NewsHour last night (see here or click on the embedded video above) to talk about U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy.  Among other points, he critiqued the Obama administration’s “dual-track” approach as

“internally contradictory and ultimately counterproductive.  You don’t need sanctions to get Iran to the table.  Iran has been prepared to negotiate about its nuclear activities for a decade; it even suspended uranium enrichment for nearly two years as part of that process, and from its perspective got nothing in terms of U.S. recognition of its right to safeguarded enrichment or even its legitimate security interests.  It’s still prepared to negotiate, and seriously, but it insists that any deal has to be predicated on acknowledgement of its nuclear rights, including safeguarded enrichment.  That’s something that the United States has never been and is still not willing to give—and until that changes, you’re not going to get a positive result.

And sanctions won’t help you close that gap…I was just in Iran in December, a little over two months ago.  No one who has been in Iran recently could possibly think that sanctions, even with the real hardships they’re causing, will prompt either the Islamic Republic’s implosion or its surrender to U.S. demands in the nuclear talks.  That is just detached from reality.

Regarding the non-coercive parts of the Obama administration’s dual-track agenda, Flynt notes that

The diplomatic track has to be more than a sound bite.  If you compare our approach to Iran to what I would call really serious diplomacy—the way that President Nixon approach realignment of relations with the People’s Republic oc China in the early 1970s—this was a very, very different approach, based on acceptance of the People’s Republic [and] recognition of its legitimate interests.  And Nixon actually proactively relaxed sanctions, stopped covert operations against China, and told the U.S. Navy to stand down from aggressive patrolling in the Taiwan Strait.  Obama has gone in the opposite direction; this is not serious diplomacy.”

The other panelist is Nick Burns, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and former State Department spokesman.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett