Obama, Syria, and Iran: The (Lonely and Declining) Empire Prepares to Strike Back (Self-Destructively and for No Strategic Purpose)

As the Obama administration proceeds with its tragi-comic preparations for military strikes against Syria, with no domestic or international legitimacy, it is losing allies and partners at an impressively rapid pace—faster than even the George W. Bush administration was able to achieve at its most egregiously offensive.  The Arab League, in the end, declined to endorse military action against Syria, Britain decided not to go on this particular martial walk with its American master, and, for once, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is not the only member of Congress raising his voice against the prospect of another illegal and strategically use of military force yet another U.S. administration. 

In this context, we are pleased to share our most recent Op Ed, published earlier today in The Hindu, see here, and (in slightly different form) in Huffington Post, see here.  (Additionally, we were impressed by The Hindu’s own editorial on the subject, see here, and want to share it, too.)   We have also appended the text of our Op Ed below.  As always, we encourage everyone to leave comments on The Hindu and Huffington Post Web sites as well as on this site.         

Syria and the Waning of American Hegemony

Once carried out, the Obama administration’s thoroughly telegraphed strike on Syria, ostensibly over alleged chemical weapons use there, will mark an important inflection point in the terminal decline of America’s Middle East empire.  Most importantly, it will confirm that America’s political class, including Obama himself, remains unwilling to face the political risks posed by any fundamental revision of Washington’s 20+-year, deeply self-damaging drive to dominate the region.     

Obama initially ran for president pledging to end the “mindset” behind the strategic blunder of America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq; in his first term, he committed to ending America’s war in Afghanistan, too, and to “rebalancing” toward Asia.  But Obama was never ready to spend the political capital required for thoroughgoing recasting of U.S. foreign policy; consequently, the dissipation of American power (hard and soft) evident under George W. Bush has accelerated under Obama.  

Obama’s approach to Syria illustrates why.  Since conflict started there two and a half years ago, Washington has had openings for a negotiated resolution.  This, though, would entail power-sharing between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and oppositionists and cooperation with Russia, Iran, and China to fix a settlement.  Instead, Obama doubled down on reasserting American hegemony.          

When unrest began in Syria in March 2011, Obama and his team were desperate to show—after the loss of pro-Western regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and near-misses in Bahrain and Yemen—that the Arab Awakening did not just threaten authoritarian orders that subordinated their foreign policy to Washington.  They wanted to show that leaders committed to foreign policy independence—like Assad—were vulnerable, too.  They also calculated that Assad’s ouster would tilt the regional balance against Tehran, generating leverage to force Iran’s surrender of its right to an internationally safeguarded but indigenous nuclear fuel cycle.        

Two years ago, Obama declared that Assad “must go,” eviscerating prospects for a political settlement.  Obama further damaged diplomatic prospects with three UN Security Council resolutions effectively authorizing coercive regime change in Damascus, which Russia and China vetoed.  His Syria strategy rested on the surreal proposition that a staggeringly fractious “opposition,” much of which publicly aligns with al-Qa’ida and is not supported by anything close to a majority of Syrians, would unseat Assad, who (according to polls and other evidence) enjoys support from at least half of Syrian society.      

Obama compounded all this with an equally foolish declaration that chemical weapons use was a U.S. “red line”—giving those looking for U.S. intervention motive to gas innocent civilians.  Now that such weapons have been used, Obama cannot entertain that oppositionists may be responsible, for this would undercut his Syria strategy.  His administration has presented no evidence that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in Ghouta; when it alleged chemical weapons use at Khan al-Assal in March, it also offered no evidence of government responsibility.  By contrast, Russia publicly presented a detailed forensic analysis showing that neither the munitions used at Khan al-Assal nor the chemical agent in them had been industrially manufactured and that, “therefore, there is every reason to believe that it was the armed opposition fighters who used the chemical weapons.”  Washington rejected this—and, after trying to derail a UN investigation of more recent allegations about Ghouta, has preemptively dismissed whatever UN inspectors there now may conclude.      

With these positions, Obama has left himself no option except using force to preserve U.S. “credibility.”  His planned strike, though, is illegal.  Even if chemical weapons were used, it does not justify U.S. aggression.  Syria is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); the 1925 Geneva Protocol, to which it is a party, only proscribes chemical weapons use in war against another state.  Neither designates Washington as its “enforcer.”  More broadly, the United Nations Charter, which America largely drafted, forbids using force except under two circumstances:    

  • “[I]f an armed attack occurs against a” member state; regardless of who used chemical weapons in Syria, no other state was attacked or threatened with attack, so the “right of individual or collective self-defense” posited in the Charter does not apply (unless one stretches the definition of “self-defense” to mean “anything Washington does not like”).    
  • When the Security Council authorizes force “to maintain or restore international peace and security”; no such resolution is in effect for Syria, and Russia and China will prevent the Council from adopting one.  

Lack of legality has undermined the willingness of the Arab League and even of usually reliable hangers-on like Britain to endorse a strike.  When Obama moves, he will have a smaller coalition than Bill Clinton or George W. Bush had for their illegal wars in, respectively, Kosovo and Iraq. 

Obama’s strike will further accelerate erosion of America’s position in the Middle East.  Assad will emerge with greater political support, not less; Russian and Chinese influence will be enhanced.  While backing Assad has cost Iran and Hizballah some of the popularity they accrued with Sunni Arab publics from their long records of “resistance” to Israel and America, both judge that, if either America or Israel becomes militarily involved in Syria, this will undercut Saudi-sponsored narratives depicting the conflict in sectarian terms, transforming it into more Iranian-led resistance.  Obama is about to oblige them—ushering in a regional balance increasingly tilted against the United States.          

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Obama’s Looming War of Aggression in Syria and the Pathologies of America’s Iran Debate

As the Obama administration manufactures its “case” for military aggression against Syria in the coming days or weeks, we want to highlight an interview that Hillary did with Zeinab al-Saffar when we were in Beirut earlier this summer; the interview is now available on Al Mayadeen’s Web site, see here.  Hillary’s account of how the United States self-servingly demonizes non-Western countries that get in its way seems highly applicable to the current discussion—it hardly merits the label “debate”—about attacking something in Syria, ostensibly because of claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against civilians last week in Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus.  The frame for such demonization, Hillary notes, is inevitably driven by and bound up with    

“the United States’ way of going to war.  The United States doesn’t go to war, it says, to protect its interestsThe United States says it’s going to war to ‘liberate’ peoples—whether they’re liberating people in Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, and prospectively IranAnd the way the American people is conditioned to accept it (and, essentially, world opinion as well) is that American experts put out a narrative about these various countries—whether it’s Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, or now Iran—they put out a narrative about how repressive that society is, how illegitimate its government is in terms of its domestic politics, and how irrational it is in its foreign policy.  We’ve seen this in country after country that the United States has invaded or tried to invade to overthrow its government.” 

Of course, no one anticipates that President Obama is about to order a U.S.-led invasion of Syria.  But, since Obama’s foolish declaration in August 2011 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go,” the United States has been committed to the Syrian government’s overthrow.  And the demonization of Syria’s government as repressive, illegitimate, and irrational has proceeded apace, exactly along the lines described by Hillary.  Now the demonization focuses on unsubstantiated allegations of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons as a justification for the United States to use military force against it—just as concocted claims about Saddam Husayn’s weapons of mass destruction were central to building the case for invading Iraq in 2003.     

Make no mistake, U.S. military action against Syria will be fragrantly illegal (not that President Obama’s senior advisors, most members of Congress, or much of the American public will care).  Nevertheless, the Obama administration is gearing up for precisely such action—and for entirely self-generated reasons.  It was Obama who declared that Assad “must go.”  It was Obama who declared that chemical weapons use was a “red line.”  It was Obama who put himself in a position where he can’t entertain the possibility that Syrian oppositionists used chemical weapons, because that would destroy his administration’s Syria policy.  And because Obama took these ill-considered and illegal positions, he must now use American military power to preserve his “credibility.” 

Obama took these positions, the “credibility” of which he must now defend by engaging in overt aggression, in no small part because American foreign policy elites believe that bringing down the Assad government will undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran.  In her interview for Al Mayadeen, Hillary discusses the evolution of our own thinking about the Islamic Republic, how America should engage it, and what are the real obstacles to a more realistic and effective American posture toward Tehran. 

In particular, she charts the progress from our earlier advocacy of a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain” (whereby America would “talk Iran into agreeing with American positions on Hizballah, on the nuclear issue, on the Palestinian issue, on a range of things”) to our recognition that “something much more profound and deep” is required—that the United States needs “to come to terms with and accept” a fiercely independent Islamic Republic, in much the same way that President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger came to terms with and accepted the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s.  She also recounts the attacks we have faced—first from the right, when we were criticizing President George W. Bush’s handling of Iran policy, followed by much of the left, when we began making the same criticisms of Obama’s posture toward Iran.  In this context, Hillary argues that our biggest offense has been to challenge the deeply held American myth “that Iranians were demanding to be liberated by the United States, but not liberated by an American tank, but by the great American ideas and great American values, that everyone wants, deep in their heart, to be secular liberals…if you questioned that in the United States, as we did, you really were vilified.” 

Our experience strongly suggests that the biggest obstacles to genuine revision of U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic are some fundamental aspects of American political culture.  As Hillary points out, “to accept an Islamist political order, [the United States] would have to give up the pursuit of hegemony, the pursuit of dominance.  This idea that we can use the excuse of what’s called American exceptionalism—that the United States is a unique force for good in the world—to invade other countries to ‘liberate’ them, we’d have to give that up, because we’d have to recognize that there is some legitimacy to other political orders, particularly ones that are Islamist.  And that’s especially relevant in the Middle East that is so important in geostrategic terms.”   

The problem, though, is that “hegemony may be nice in theory—if you could get it, if you could rule the world, that might be a nice idea for some Americans in theory—but you cannot get it in the Middle East, because you are up against Islam.  You cannot do it; you cannot defeat that.  For the United States to have any strategic influence in this vital part of the world, we argue in our book, we have to come to terms with that—just as we could not defeat one billion people in China who wanted to have their independence.  It’s a very similar situation.”

But it seems that United States is not yet ready to come to terms with this reality.  And so, in another vain attempt to get at the Islamic Republic of Iran, America is about to engage in illegal aggression against one of the Middle East’s most avowedly secular governments—a government that, like the Islamic Republic, actually fights the kind of violent (and anti-American), al Qaida-affiliated extremism that some U.S. “allies” work so hard to promote.          

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The Next Rounds of Nuclear Talks with Iran and Their Strategic Ramifications

New Iranian President Rowhani meets with diplomat Zarif

It seems ever clearer that Iran and the P5+1 are headed toward new rounds of nuclear talks this fall.  For those thinking through the prospects for these negotiations and their larger strategic ramifications, a couple of recent interviews published in Iran Review provide important input. 

One is with the Islamic Republic’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.  To read the whole interview (which we very much recommend), “It’s US Turn to Show Political Resolve,” see here.  Below, we highlight some exchanges that bear directly on Tehran’s approach to nuclear diplomacy and to interaction with the United States.        

As the Islamic Republic’s new President, Hassan Rohani, has suggested and as Dr. Zarif acutely understands, there is a deal to be had on the nuclear issue—a deal grounded in international law as embodied in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  In this deal, the United States and its Western partners would recognize Iran’s right—as a sovereign state and as a party to the NPT—to enrich uranium under international safeguards, in return for greater transparency regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities

We anticipate that the thrust of Iranian diplomacy in the upcoming rounds of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 will be to make it plain for all the world to see that Tehran is fully prepared to solve the nuclear issue on this basis, putting the onus on those unwilling to accept such a solution—the United States and its British and French hangers-on—why they won’t accept an approach grounded in reason and international legitimacy.  In this light, consider the following exchanges from Dr. Zarif’s interview with Iran Review (emphases added): 

Q:  In his first press conference after the inauguration ceremony, President [Hassan Rouhani] said resumption of the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group will be one of his priorities. Do you have any new plan or proposal for the resumption of these talks?

A:  There have been discussions inside the administration with Mr. President about how to follow up on the country’s nuclear rights and reduce unjust sanctions which have been imposed against the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The basis for our work is to insist on the rights of Iran and do away with logical concerns of the international communityAs the Supreme Leader and the President have emphasized, it would be easy to achieve this goal provided that the main goal of all involved parties is to find a solution to the nuclear issue.  We believe that finding a solution to the nuclear issue needs political will.  On the side of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the election of Dr. Rouhani—in view of his past track records with regard to this case—proves that the Iranian people are willing for the nuclear issue to reach a final solution with power and strength and within a reasonable time frame.  We wish the opposite side will also have the necessary political resolve for the resolution of the nuclear issue.  In that case, we would have no concern with respect to assuring the world about the peaceful nature of our nuclear energy program because according to the fatwa [religious decree] issued by the Supreme Leader and based on the strategic needs of Iran, nuclear weapons have no place in our national security doctrine and are even detrimental to our national security…

The main issue is whether the necessary political resolve [among member states of the P5+1 group] will be present and whether the US government is ready to stand in the face of the interest groups and prevent the whole case to be steered by radical groups?

Q:  Will you agree to engage in bilateral direct talks with the United States if such a thing is proposed to you on the sidelines of such international meetings as the United Nations General Assembly sessions or negotiations with the P5+1 group?

A:  The Supreme Leader has made his opinion about [direct] talks [with the United States] public time and time again.  Negotiations, per se, is not an issue here, but the main issue is what topics are going to be discussed in such negotiations and how much political determination exists in the opposite side for the settlement of the existing problemsThe main issue is will such a political resolve take shape and whether the US administration is actually ready to stand up to radical groups and prevent such radical groups from setting the course of the whole issue?  This will be in fact a litmus test for the government of the United States to show its readiness to play a more serious role and pave the way for the achievement of a final solution

In my opinion, political will is the precondition for the improvement of relations.  The methods [to do this] can be discussed, but what is necessary is the emergence of such a political will and its manifestation in practice.  In that case, various methods can be used to achieve goals.  At a time that it is not still clear whether such a political will exists or not, the efficiency of using new methods cannot be clearly decided.  In Iran, the election of Mr. Rouhani shows that people have made up their mind to engage in constructive interaction with the world.  Mr. Rouhani, on the other hand, has shown through his words and deeds that he has the necessary political will to do this.  Now, the important requisite is for such a political will to take shape on the other side of the equation.”

Of course, the Obama administration claims that it has all the political will in the world to reach a deal if Iran is “serious” in its approach to negotiations.  But this formulation obscures, deliberately, that the litmus test of “seriousness” on the Iranian nuclear issue is openness to a deal based on the NPT, including explicit recognition of Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment.  And by this litmus test, the Islamic Republic is absolutely serious about reaching an agreement; the United States and its European partners are not

Interestingly, in assessing the prospects for diplomatic progress, Dr. Zarif draws a distinction between “the U.S. government” and “interest groups” and “radical groups” out to derail possibilities for success—a distinction he amplifies in this exchange: 

Q:  We have witnessed the emergence of anti-Iran currents at both the US Congress and Senate concurrent with the election and inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration.  On the other hand, Israelis claim in their propaganda campaigns that the administration in Iran has changed, but policies are the same as before.  What is your plan to offset such radical moves?

A:  The warmongering elements are apparently concerned about reduction of problems and are clearly doing their utmost to resort to any pretext in order to intensify the crisis with Iran.  The important point is that decision-makers in Europe and the United States should come to grips with the real nature and goals of warmongers.  On this basis, they should not allow a warmongering and tension-seeking agenda—which aims to put unjust pressures which have no place in international law on the Iranian nation—to prevent them from taking advantage of opportunities which can be used to find solutions to existing problems.”   

While we hope that Dr. Zarif’s scenario of U.S. decision-makers resisting “a warmongering and tension-seeking agenda” to find real solutions on the nuclear issue is realized, we are pessimistic about the chances for this—for, in our view, U.S. decision-makers have internalized warmongering and tension-seeking in their own strategic agendas.  And, as Hillary pointed out on Russia Today just a couple of days after Rohani’s inauguration, see here, “the Iranians are coming into this with open eyes, understanding the dynamics of the U.S. system”; as we have pointed out before, there is mounting skepticism in Tehran that the United States, even during the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama, is prepared to deal with the Islamic Republic as an enduring and legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests

On why such skepticism is well warranted, some exchanges from Iran Review’s recent interview with Lawrence Wilkerson, retired U.S. Army Colonel and former chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, see here, are illuminating (again, emphases added):    

Q:  In his State of the Union Address on January 29, 2002, President George W. Bush talked of an Axis of Evil which stretches from North Korea to the Middle East and encompasses Iran and Iraq.  He called Iran a threat to the international peace and security.  This is while Iran’s former president Mohammad Khatami who was a reformist figure with a reconciliatory foreign policy which was based on détente and easing the tensions with the West had cooperated with the United States and the EU on a number of issues and his promotion of the idea of the Dialogue of Civilization was embraced internationally.  Don’t you think this branding Iran a member of the so-called Axis of Evil was a strategic mistake by President Bush?

A:  This was a strategic mistake if the strategic objective one imagines the U.S. pursuing is advancing the fundamental interests of the U.S., its allies, and friends in the world and, importantly, if one’s overall objective is world peace.  It was not a strategic mistake if the strategic objectives of the U.S. were turmoil in western Asia, support of Israel’s continued aggression, increased U.S. control over the region’s oil reserves, and a state of perpetual warTwo of the three members of the Axis harbor close to a quarter of world oil reserves; Israel’s aggression has not ceased—indeed, it has increased; and the region is in turmoilThe U.S. is in an interminable state of warThe Axis of Evil speech helped to achieve these results.  Some people in the U.S.—and Israel—wanted these results.

Q:  So you think certain extremist elements in Washington and Tel Aviv benefit from confrontation between Iran and the United States.  What about the state of bilateral relations between the two nations under President Khatami?  He had signaled his willingness to engage in bilateral negotiations with the United States when he was in power.  He was one of the first world leaders who sent a message of condolences to the U.S. government following the 9/11 tragedy.  However, it seems that President Bush was not willing to react positively as he turned down Khatami’s message.  Can we consider President Bush guilty for the failure of the attempts to bring Iran and the United States to the negotiation table?

A:  President George W. Bush was not sufficiently knowledgeable to have contrived to produce failed diplomatic circumstances with Iran.  His Vice President, Richard Cheney, worked to produce this failure.  Cheney maintained an adamant policy that there would be no negotiations with Iran.  He sold this policy to the unwitting President. Later, in 2003, when there was again an opportunity to start meaningful negotiations with Tehran, Cheney had captured the entire government with his views.  Even Secretary of State Colin Powell opposed the Iranian initiative in 2003.  See my answer to your question number one:  Cheney is one of those who wanted the results I have described in my answer.

Q:  Prominent investigative journalists and political commentators Seymour Hersh and Glenn Greenwald have released reliable evidence that CIA, with the help of Israel and Saudi Arabia, has been providing arms, ammunitions and financial support to the exiled anti-Iranian terrorist cult Mujahedin-e-Khalq in the past 10 years in a bid to impose political pressure on Iran.  Do you confirm these clandestine and underground ties?

A:  I cannot confirm these ties because I have not had an active security clearance since 2005.  However, if I were a betting man, I would bet that what Hersh and Greenwald asserted is correct.

Q:  Let’s get to the next question.  The U.S. played its last card in 2012 by removing the name of MKO from its list of foreign terrorist organizations.  What’s your viewpoint on this controversial decision?  Isn’t it a dualistic and somewhat hypocritical approach toward terrorism and human rights?

A:  The U.S. move to delist the MEK was a very hypocritical move—and even a very stupid moveIt was based on a passionate but irrational dependence on Israel, large amounts of money changing hands, and an utterly unreasonable desire to punish Iran through any means possible.  The MEK are bloodthirsty terrorists.  But the U.S. harbors Luis Posada Carrilles in its very midst, the terrorist responsible for bringing down a Cuban airliner in 1976 and killing everyone on board, and for bombing Havana hotels in 1997.  So supporting terrorists is not a new policy for the U.S.

On the basis of his analysis, Larry predicts that “because of Iranian intransigence and U.S. obduracy—and, with regard to President Obama, a decided lack of political and moral courage—no meaningful success will be achieved” in the upcoming nuclear talks between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic.  While it is not clear to us how—or why—the Islamic Republic would be less “intransigent” in defending its core nuclear rights, we agree with Larry that U.S. obduracy and President Obama’s “decided lack of political and moral courage” are likely to block “meaningful success” in the upcoming nuclear talks

If Dr. Zarif and his colleagues can drive home that Iran is serious about reaching an agreement grounded in international law as embodied in the NPT, then the next rounds of negotiations could well be a clarifying moment for everyone as to just who is obstructing diplomatic progressThis approach could also clarify, for Iranians and for other countries, Washington’s real intentions toward the Islamic Republic.  As Hillary pointed out on Russia Today, “the strategy here is to try to ease some of the pressure on other countries—on Germany, on England, on Russia, on China—to ease some of the pressure on some of these other countries in dealing with Iran.” 

For its part, the Obama administration is hoping to use the talks as they have used previous rounds of negotiations—as an occasion to reiterate offers that Iranians could not possibly accept, then cite their “intransigence” to urge the United Nations Security Council to impose more sanctions on the Islamic Republic.  We are skeptical that this established American approach will work this time around.        

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Washington Ready to Repeat Past Mistakes in Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran; Tehran Thinks About a Plan B


The Obama administration is lining up to repeat, in its dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran under Hassan Rohani’s presidency, many of America’s past mistakes in nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.  On the eve of Rohani’s inauguration as the Islamic Republic’s president, Flynt described to Ahmed Shihab-Eldin on HuffPost Live some of the old temptations to which America and its European partners seem inclined to succumb once again, see here (Flynt’s segment starts 12:58 into the video):          

There’s a temptation in the West to see Rohani’s election, to look at him, look at his record, look at his experience in the West, his fluency in English, all of this, [and] to see him as, in effect, a kind of Iranian Gorbachev—someone who is going to turn Iranian foreign policy on its head and someone who may even, in the name of promoting reform or change inside the Islamic Republic, precipitate, effectively, its implosion.  I think that’s a real misreading of who Rohani is

Rohani is a man who, if the West wants to deal with Iran on the basis of international law, if it wants to resolve the nuclear issue on the basis of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, recognizing Iran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards, Rohani is an ideal interlocutorBut if you’re looking at Rohani as someone, as I said, who is going to turn Iranian foreign policy on its head, he’s not that guy.” 

Flynt goes on to explain that this misreading of Rohani is likely to have a very negative impact on America’s already warped approach to diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic:   

“The temptation is going to be very strong to do with Rohani what American administrations tried to do with President Khatami when he was in office—basically, to see him potentially as an interlocutor who might give us what we want, and so try to deal with him and avoid dealing with the Supreme Leader, avoid dealing with other power centers.  That did not work.  The Obama administration tried it to some degree—it didn’t like Ahmadinejad, so it thought maybe we could engage the Supreme Leader directly and just ignore this elected president.  I don’t think that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, liked that any better than President Ahmadinejad did.  I think it’s really important to recognize that this is a system.  It’s got multiple power centers in it; you can’t work on just one to leverage what you want out of the system.  You have to engage it as a system, and on an issue like the nuclear question or any of the major issues between the United States and Iran, decisions on the Iranian side will, by definition, be taken by consensus.  You will not be able to get just one guy to give you, somehow, the outcome you want.” 

Appearing on Russia Today a couple of days after Rohani’s inauguration, Hillary warned that continued American obduracy on the nuclear issue—obduracy fed by willful misreadings of Iranian strategy and decision-making as well as by longstanding U.S. imperial hubris—will preclude real diplomatic progress, see here:   

“It’s hard to see how they can meet in the middle.  The two key issues for the Islamic Republic of Iran, that I think are ensconced in international law, are that the United Sates recognize both its sovereign right and its treaty right to enrich uranium.  That’s something the United States has shown no evidence it is willing or able to do, the Obama administration and Congress. 

The other piece that’s critically important for the Islamic Republic is for the United States to ease, lift at least some of its sanctions that it has imposed on the Islamic Republic—and forced, or tried to coerce countries around the world to impose on the Islamic Republic of Iran.  That, too will be very, very difficult for President Obama to leverage, because most—I think nearly 60, 65 percent—of the sanctions imposed on Iran are now legislated, are now in U.S. law.  President Obama simply does not have the power to lift those sanctions without the acquiescence of Congress.” 

Hillary then identified the domestic political factors that President Obama would have to spend political capital to neutralize if he actually ascribed some priority to making progress on the Iranian nuclear issue:    

“There are three main areas that are problematic in Washington:  the pro-Israel constituencies, the neoconservative elements on the right, and what I would call the liberal imperialists.  [The liberal imperialists] don’t care so much about the nuclear program, but they are dead set against the political structure of the Islamic Republic—and so many of the sanctions that have been imposed from Washington, are not just about the nuclear program—they’re about Iran’s domestic politics.  That’s going to be a very difficult nut to crack.” 

As Hillary notes, “the Iranians are coming into this with open eyes, understanding the dynamics of the U.S. system.”  And, as we have pointed out before, there is mounting skepticism in Tehran that the United States, even during the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama, is prepared to deal with the Islamic Republic as an enduring and legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests

Against this backdrop, Rohani and his team are likely to use the next rounds of nuclear diplomacy with the United States and its partners as an opportunity to clarify Washington’s real intentions toward the Islamic Republic—to clarify those intentions for Iranians and for other countries:     

“They’re going to put forth as constructive and light a foot as possible—not so much because they really hope or think the United States is going to turn its colors overnight; the strategy here is to try to ease some of the pressure on other countries—on Germany, on England, on Russia, on China—to ease some of the pressure on some of these other countries in dealing with Iran.  Already you’ve seen the foreign minister of the UK come out and say that the Brits would be willing to have substantive discussions with the Iranians; the Germans have, too.  In Russia, too, President Putin is going to be meeting with President Rohani in September.  So already the strategy is paying off for the Iranians—even if it’s going to be very difficult to make movement here in Washington.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


America’s Iran Policy, the Undermining of International Order, and the Bankruptcy of Washington’s Approach to Nuclear Diplomacy


In “America’s Iran Policy and the Undermining of International Order,” published in The World Financial Review, see here, we argue that “strategic competition between America and Iran will shape not only the Middle East’s balance of power, but also the dynamics of international order through much of the 21st century.”  As we elaborate,

“How Washington deals with Tehran will show whether America is open to sharing the prerogatives of global governance with rising powers in the global South.  Such openness would greatly enhance prospects for conflict resolution with Iran; as the balance of economic and political power shifts from West to East, it would also enhance prospects for more effective global governance by aligning responsibility and capacity more accurately.  Furthermore, it would help sustain America’s influence even as its relative power declines. 

But Washington and a coterie of European states remain focused on forcing the Islamic Republic to abandon its nuclear program, accept open-ended American and Israeli military dominance, and acquiesce in its (Western-sponsored) secular liberal transformation.  Determination to compel Iran’s surrender prompts ever more assiduous efforts by America and its partners to coerce other states into helping them press TehranIn the process, Western powers violate basic principles of the rules-based regimes governing key dimensions of international security and global commerce

This dynamic makes negotiating plausible solutions with Tehran, on the nuclear issue and other challenges, virtually impossible.  It also makes U.S. foreign policy the biggest source of political risk in the global economy.  More broadly, hegemonic assertions by America and a few European partners are increasingly at odds with the realities of relative clout in world affairs.  If continued, these assertions will provoke backlash from rising non-Western powers that will undermine the functioning of rules-based regimes for nuclear nonproliferation, trade, and other vital issues, and damage America’s long-term position in international affairs.” 

In our article, we explore in greater depth how Western obsession with compelling Iran’s surrender on the nuclear issue corrodes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the nuclear nonproliferation regime.  We also explore how America’s increasing reliance on secondary sanctions in its Iran policy undercuts international economic order and hurts U.S. interests in multiple ways, including by “accelerat[ing] the shift of economic power from West to East.”  We conclude,

“Putting America on a better strategic trajectory will take thoroughgoing revision of its Iran policy.  In this regard, the election of Hassan Rohani—who ran the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council for sixteen years, was its chief nuclear negotiator during 2003-2005, and holds advanced degrees in Islamic law and civil law—as Iran’s next president is an opportunity.  If America wants a nuclear deal grounded in the NPT, Rohani is an ideal interlocutorBut this would require Washington to bring its own policy in line with the NPT—first of all, by acknowledging Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment

Strategic recovery will also entail reversing Washington’s reliance on secondary sanctions—not because of Iranian surrender (which won’t be forthcoming), but because they delegitimize America’s claim to continuing leadership in international economic affairs.  This, however, is even more difficult than revising the U.S. position on Iranian enrichment—for Congress has legislated conditions for lifting sanctions that stipulate Iran’s abandonment of all alleged WMD activities, cutting all ties to those Washington deems terrorists, and political transformation.  Overcoming this will require Obama to do what President Nixon did to enable America’s historic breakthrough with China—going to Tehran, strategically if not physically, to accept a previously demonized political order as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests.   

None of this is particularly likely.  But if America doesn’t do these things, it commends itself to a future as an increasingly failing, and flailing, superpower—and as an obstacle, rather than a facilitator, of rules-based international order.” 

Since our article was published, Rohani has been inaugurated as the Islamic Republic’s president and has announced his choices for the cabinet and other key positions.  Commenting on the nomination of Mohammad Javad Zarif as the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Flynt told CCTV on the day of Rohani’s inauguration, see here or click on the embedded video above, that Zarif’s appointment contains an important message for Washington:

If you want to do a deal that’s based on international legality, based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, based on a sense of respect for Iran’s legitimate interests and rights, then, with the appointment of Ambassador Zarif to be the new foreign minister, Rohani—and, by extension, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei—they’re putting the ‘A team’ in there, they’re putting the best possible team that the United States could have on the other side of the table.”       

Unfortunately, though, “the Obama administration and its Western partners are looking to Rohani—I think mistakenly—as someone who may be willing to suspend enrichment, possibly even down the road surrender enrichment.”  If the United States and its partners persist in this,

“We’re going to head toward diplomatic deadlock pretty quickly…You have a team here that sees potentially great value for Iran in reaching some kind of rapprochement with the United States and with the West.  But it will be a big mistake, on the West’s part, if we think that they’re prepared to do it at what basically any Iranian elite would tell you at this point would be too high a price.  They won’t suspend enrichment; they certainly won’t surrender enrichment.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett