After Rohani’s Visit to New York: Flynt Leverett on Prospects for U.S.-Iranian Nuclear Diplomacy

Following Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s meeting last week with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the other P5+1 foreign ministers, Flynt went on the PBS Newshour to discuss the prospects for U.S-Iranian nuclear diplomacy, see here or (if you prefer You Tube) here.  The next concrete step in U.S.-Iranian engagement on the nuclear issue will come next month, when Iran and the P5+1 resume discussions in Geneva.

In the wake of President Rohani’s visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, much of the American commentariat (including one of Flynt’s co-panelists on the Newshour) is asking how much the Islamic Republic will be prepared to concede—or, more bluntly, surrender—in nuclear talks.  But, as we have noted before, this is mistaken and self-deluding view.

As Flynt points out on the Newshour, the core idea animating President Rohani’s approach to nuclear diplomacy—recognition of Iran’s nuclear rights, as a sovereign state and as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (including the right to enrich uranium under international safeguards) in exchange for greater transparency surrounding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities—is not new.  It has, in fact, been on the table from the Iranian side for years; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei publicly endorsed it well be Rohani was elected.

Rohani and Zarif are perhaps prepared to be more proactive in defining what greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities would mean, in practical terms.  But, as they themselves have made abundantly clear, they are not there to surrender Iran’s nuclear rights.

Thus, the real question is:  Is the Obama administration prepared to do a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic predicated on a recognition of Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment—and to face down opposition to such a deal

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Can Washington Reciprocate Iran’s “Constructive Engagement”?

As New York prepares for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly next week, the volume of Western media speculation about the prospects for a U.S.-Iranian diplomatic breakthrough is mounting to impressive levels.  Predictably, much of this speculation amounts to little more than wondering how many concessions the Islamic Republic’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is willing and will be able to make, especially on the nuclear issue.

As usual, we prefer looking at facts and authoritative statements of official positions over the speculation of journalists and pundits.  In this spirit, we want to highlight a few passages from President Rohani’s much noted Op-Ed in the Washington Post earlier this week, see here.

Three passages seem especially relevant for understanding Tehran’s position on the nuclear issue.  The first presents Rohani’s definition of “constructive engagement” (emphasis added):

“It is—or should be—counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others.  A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rightsIt means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives.  In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable.  A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.”

The explicit reference to not relinquishing one’s rights is, of course, very much of a piece with Rohani’s statements, during his presidential campaign and since his election, that he is not about to surrender Iran’s right—as a sovereign state and as a non-weapons state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—to enrich uranium under international safeguards.  Unfortunately, there is no concrete indication that the Obama administration is prepared to acknowledge this right.  In fact, one can find multiple statements from administration officials over the last five years publicly denying that there is such a right.  (This is, among other things, a legally and intellectually dishonest reading of the NPT.)

The second passage from President Rohani’s Op-Ed that we want to highlight here explains with admirable clarity why the Islamic Republic is not about to compromise its right to safeguarded enrichment (again, emphasis added):

“We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East.  At their core, the vicious battles in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are over the nature of those countries’ identities and their consequent roles in our region and the world.  The centrality of identity extends to the case of our peaceful nuclear energy program.  To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world.”

President Rohani goes on to note, “Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”  Indeed.  Unfortunately, it remains far from clear that the Obama administration understands how tightly the matter of Iran’s nuclear rights is linked to fundamental questions of identity (like independence and control of the country’s energy resources) for Iranians who supported Imam Khomeini’s revolution and continue to support the political order it produced.

The third passage from President Rohani’s Op-Ed that we want to highlight discusses the requirements for diplomatic progress (yet again, emphasis added):

“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher.  Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think—and talk—about how to make things better.  To do that, we all need to muster the courage to start conveying what we want—clearly, concisely and sincerely—and to back it up with the political will to take necessary action.  This is the essence of my approach to constructive interaction.”

President Rohani certainly is not the first Iranian leader to want the United States to clarify its ultimate intentions vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.  Unfortunately, it remains far from clear that the Obama administration is or will be prepared to lay out a clear and positive end game for nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic—for this would require the United States to acknowledge Iran’s aforementioned right to safeguarded enrichment as an essential pillar of any negotiated solution to the nuclear issue.

So, going into UNGA next week and looking beyond UNGA to renewed nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic, the relevant question is not how much is Iran’s leadership prepared to concede on the nuclear issue.  Rather, the relevant question is whether Washington is prepared to abandon a strategic approach to the Middle East that has done profound damage to America’s own position in this vital region—in no small part, by rendering productive diplomacy with the Islamic Republic impossible.

This was very much the theme of an interview that our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran, gave earlier this week to Russia Today, see here.  We append the interview, titled “Iran’s position strengthening while US in decline,” below, along with Russia Today’s editorial precede:

“Iran’s vow to never develop nuclear arms appeared to be an olive branch extended America’s way.  But it is Washington, and not Tehran who needs all the friends it can get these days, Professor Seyed Mohhamad Marandi from the University of Tehran told RT.

On Wednesday, Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani said of the Islamic Republic, ‘under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever.’

Underscoring Rouhani’s concerted efforts to kick start negotiations over its controversial uranium enrichment program with the West, US President Barack Obama and Rouhani exchanged letters.  This followed recent elections in Iran and the two leaders may meet on the margins of the UN general assembly next week.  Rouhani, who took office in August, also ordered the release of Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer, and a number of other political prisoners on the eve of a visit to the United Nations.

The White House has thus far reacted positively towards these overtures, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying there is an opportunity for diplomacy when it comes to the issues that have presented challenges to the United States and our allies with regards to Iran.

Professor Marandi says that while the onus has been put on Tehran to return to the Western fold, it is Washington who needs Iran to help fix the mess it’s made in the region.

RTIran has always said that it would not construct nuclear weapons.  So why the apparently enthusiastic reaction from the US now?

Seyed Mohhamad Marandi:  It’s hard to say, it really should be asked why the United States didn’t respond earlier because this is what the Iranians have been saying all along.  But still I think the Iranians are quite willing to see if the apparent enthusiasm will lead to any change in US policy; that’s the important thing.  What the Iranians are doing right now is saying ‘look, we are going to preserve our sovereign rights as an independent country, we will continue with our peaceful nuclear program, we’ve never disregarded international law, there’s no evidence of that, but we are willing to create a new favorable environment for negotiations.’  So basically what the Iranians have done is put the ball firmly in the American’s court, where it’s been for quite a while, but they’re doing this basically for the international community to see, and it’s now for the United States to respond.

So far the United States has responded negatively.  As soon as Mr Rouhani became president [Washington] slapped on new sanctions, now they are taking a building that is linked to the Iranian community in the United States.  These are not positive signs, so the Iranians are waiting to see over the next few days and weeks whether the United States is going to rethink its previously irrational approach toward Iran.

RT: You mentioned peaceful energy purposes.  Will the US ever accept that?

SMM:  That’s up to the United States.  Iranians are not going to wait for US acceptance.  The Iranian position has been strengthened over the past few months, recent Iranian elections have shown Iran’s strength; the high turnout has shown there is a great deal of legitimacy in the Iranian electoral process.  The reason why some of these people in prison were released was not because of any human rights work that they did, but because after the previous elections (which they deemed fraudulent), they were helping to create unrest in the country.  But after this election, President Rouhani and many reformists and people from all backgrounds in the political establishment have said that there never was fraud and that basically this has strengthened Iran’s position.  Right now, while the rest of the region is in uproar and there’s increasing instability thanks to the United States, Iran is the only country that is completely stable and with a high turnout in the political process in the country.

On the other hand the United States has isolated itself by threatening Syria; the international community has moved against the United States, and even within the United States Obama and the political establishment has lost popularity and support over their proposed aggression against Syria.  So Iran feels that its position is much stronger today, and America’s position is much weaker.

RT: Could Iran’s new efforts to improve relations with the West be seen as a sign that sanctions have actually worked?

SMM:  Sanctions are working in the sense that some people have died because of a lack of medicine because Americans have basically tried to shut down the Iranian central bank, along with their allies.  But that has created anger among Iranians.  But at the same time, President Rouhani has said specifically that Iran is very willing to resolve questions that exist with regards to the Iranian nuclear program in the West as long as Iran’s rights are preserved.  But when the United States threatens countries, invades countries and imposes sanctions on ordinary Iranians, creating a lack of medicine for cancer patients for example, then that does not help resolve the situation.  The Iranians are not going to kneel to the United States.  Iran is a sovereign and independent country, that’s what the revolution was about 34 years ago, for Iran to gain its independence and overcome American hegemony.  It’s not a client regime like Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Jordan.  So if the United States comes to respect Iran, then we can have rapprochement.  The United States needs Iran, because thanks to its own policies, its destabilized the whole region, the United States has allowed Al-Qaeda to thrive through Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other oil rich dictatorships.  In order to salvage the situation, it needs a strong, powerful, secure and stable country like Iran to help resolve the current mess that they’ve created in the region.”

We will be spending time in New York over the next week, monitoring developments and meeting with senior members of the Islamic Republic’s UNGA delegation.  Whatever happens, it is likely to be an interesting—and potentially very revealing—week.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The Syrian Crisis and America’s Counterproductive Quest for Middle Eastern Hegemony


Earlier this week, before President Obama’s September 10 address on Syria and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s proposal to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, Hillary used a CNN interview, see here, to go beyond near-term analysis of unfolding developments and examine what the Syria crisis says about America’s current standing in international affairs—and how the choices Washington makes regarding Syria will have enormous consequences for America’ strategic trajectory moving forward. 

In the current context, Hillary explains, the real strategic problem for the United States is that  

after invading Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya—each one of them less and less effectively, with more and more blowback—we are now in the position, I think, that if we attack Syria, with what President Obama has planned, it will show the world that U.S. military might, our political power, and our economic power are seriously declining.” 

Indeed, Hillary argues, the most strategically consequential effects of U.S. military action against Syria would be to underscore how much American power has declined in relative terms, just since the 9/11 attacks a dozen years ago:   

“If we decide to strike, there is no victory, there is no military victory; it will be a failure.  Even President Obama is not claiming there is a military solution to this, that he is proposing.  He is saying that there just needs to be a message sent—punishment.  Nobody out there claims, puts forward, that there is a victory.  What this shows the world is that after Afghanistan, after Iraq, after Libya, the United States is less and less able, less and less capable of pulling off what it says it needs to pull off—militarily, politically, and economically.” 

If the United States continues with this not just quixotic but grossly counterproductive quest for regional hegemony, Hillary notes,

“This could be the nail in the coffin for American influence in the Middle East.  We have seen a precipitous decline in U.S. influence over the past decade.  We have squandered so much, so fast, that I think historians will look back and be stupefied that we have used our military force, unconstrained, to go into countries that we don’t understand, trying to force political outcomes that, time and time again, were shown not possibleWe couldn’t do it in Afghanistan, we couldn’t do it in Iraq, we couldn’t do it in Libya, and we keep trying.  And each time we try, we come out weakerWe [remain] interested in forcing a political outcome with our military force—something that we have now seen, over and over and over again, is not working.”      

The counterproductive consequences of unilaterally asserting hegemonic prerogatives through the exercise of military force is also an important theme in a richly interesting interview that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s new foreign minister, Javad Zarif, gave to Press TV on September 11 (the day after Obama’s address), see here.  The interview is worth watching in its entirety; we want to focus on Zarif’s observations on the Syrian situation and its ramifications for America’s regional and international standing. 

Talking about U.S. charges that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons on August 21 and the Obama administration’s threats to use military force in response, Zarif said,     

“The use of chemical weapons is a crime, we believe it is a crime against humanity, but we believe that also the use of force, the threat of use of force, is also a criminal offense in international law.  Unfortunately it seems to me that the United States seems to be living in the 19th century when the use of force was a prerogative of states; it is not…When [the President of the United States] concedes, as he did last night before the American people, that there is no imminent or direct threat against the United States, then the United States doesn’t have any standing under any provision of international law, to take law in its own hands.” 

Zarif then extends his analysis to make a truly important point:   

There is a need for the United States to come to the realization, and I believe this is an important realization for the United States, that not only the use of force is illegal, that not only the threat of force is against a preemptory international norm of law, but also and more importantly the use of force is ineffectiveForce has lost its utility in international relations and it lost its utility a long time ago.

In 1928, civilized countries decided to reject the use of force as an instrument of national policy; before then, force or war was an instrument of national policy, they thought that war was diplomacy by another means.  But since then, the international community has come to its senses, believing that the use of force doesn’t provide the necessary outcome that those who started it wanted to provide and wanted to produce and that is why they have outlawed the use of force.  It is not a bunch of idealistic lawyers who sat down and banned the use of force, but in fact because of the reality that it has lost [its] utility.

Let me just tell you that in the 20th century, 85 percent of the cases, where a country resorted to force, have resulted in that country either being annihilated or not achieving the intended consequences of the war, so that shows to you empirically that force is no longer effective.  I hope that the United States, which is the mightiest country on the face of the earth, would come to this realization that it is important to use other means of influence; force is no longer effective.” 

Among the more striking things about the last couple of weeks is that, after August 21, much of America’s political class was initially still inclined to support President Obama’s call for illegal U.S. aggression against Syria.  Likewise—as Hillary experienced first-hand, see here—much of the mainstream media comported themselves with roughly the same paltry measure of journalistic rigor that they applied to critiquing the George W. Bush administration’s case for invading and occupying Iraq in 2003.  But, for once, the American public rejected a sitting administration’s case for war—and rejected it overwhelmingly, according to polls, to a point where even many congressmen and senators not normally recognized as profiles in courage understood that they needed to stiff the president on this one.  

We don’t know yet if Americans’ rejection of Obama’s call for illegal and strategically dysfunctional U.S. military action against Syria represents the beginning of a true sea change in popular attitudes about American foreign policy.  Perhaps it was simply the product of a contingent concatenation of circumstances—post-Iraq/(not quite) post-Afghanistan/post-Libya “war weariness,” frustration with a slow economic recovery and an uncertain long-term economic future, recognition that (this time around, anyway) the President’s case for war was intellectually and strategically empty.  But perhaps Americans are at least at the start of a real learning curve. 

Only time will tell.  And there’s still so much work to do if America is to have at least some shred of a chance to make better strategic and moral choices about how it deals with the rest of the world.     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Russia’s Syria Proposal: Disarming Assad…or Obama?



Appearing on Russia Today’s CrossTalk, see here or click on video above, in advance of President Obama’s Tuesday address on Syria, Flynt described how the Obama administration’s “largely self-generated difficulties” on the Syrian issue had left Obama with no option but to “appear to be working with some seriousness with Russia to try and make [Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s] proposal work.”  As Flynt points out,    

“The administration was clearly getting desperate.  It has already lost almost all international support for its proposed strikes on Syria.  I think there is a very real chance that, certainly, the House was going to vote against the administration, and I think the Senate was getting close enough where it was even thinkable that someone who opposed the resolution could carry out a filibuster.  So the congressional option was drying up for Mr. Obama.  Now Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has very artfully taken advantage of the administration’s largely self-generated difficulties and put this diplomatic proposal on the table…If [Obama] doesn’t appear to be working with some seriousness with Russia to try and make this proposal work, the administration is really completely checkmated in Syria

As it is, if this diplomatic proposal does get some traction and details are able to be worked out that lets some version of it move forward, I think the critical achievement here—from a Russian perspective, from the perspective of many other players—the critical achievement here is you’ve gotten an administration that was operating more and more outside the bounds of international law, you’ve actually now potentially gotten them bound into a legal international framework for dealing with the Syrian conflict.  And I think that could have a lot of implications, diplomatically and on the ground, moving forward.”            

In the course of the discussion, Flynt elaborates some of the more important of these implications: 

“I think that the devil is going to be in the details.  And I expect that as the Security Council takes this up, as various other parties take this up, that Mr. Lavrov is going to pay a lot of attention to the details.  And I think his goal is going to be to use the negotiation of this agreement basically to get the United States to make as much of a commitment as he can extract that—if this deal is implemented, if Syria really does put its chemical weapons stocks under international supervision—that the United States is not going to strike.  And if the United States won’t agree to that, it makes it very clear that the real agenda driving Obama’s policy in Syria all along is not really chemical weapons, it’s not even really humanitarian considerations.  It’s other considerations. 

And so the administration will either be put in a position where it signs up to that and says, basically, OK, if we can address this chemical weapons issue the United States is not going to be using military force essentially to take sides in the Syrian civil war.  Or, if [Obama] doesn’t do it, then it’s the United States can’t take yes for an answer.”        

Flynt also discusses likely “winners and losers” from successful implementation of the Russian proposal (Iran, in his view, is among the winners) and how doing this deal will require Obama to walk back from his “very foolish position,” publicly declared in August 2011, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Hillary Mann Leverett Takes on America’s Liberal Hawks over Syria

In the wake of President Obama’s August 31 announcement that he would seek congressional authorization for military strikes against Syria—even though, in (former constitutional law professor) Obama’s view, he does not need such authorization to order an unprovoked attack against another state—Hillary went up against a panel of pro-Obama “journalists” and surrogates on MSNBC’s “Up With Steve Kornacki,” see here.  The eighteen-minute segment has gone at least moderately viral, with multiple Web sites reposting it under titles like “MSNBC War Cheerleaders Get OWNED by Hillary Mann Leverett,” “Lapdog Regime Journalists versus a Bona Fide Expert:  Watch the Sparks Fly,” and “Hillary Mann Leverett Is My New Hero.”  Or, as Huffington Post put it today, at the top of their media page, “Time for Class:  MSNBC Panel Gets SCHOOLED on Syria” and, at the top of the actual post, see here, “Hillary Mann Leverett, Middle East Analyst, Smacks Down MSNBC Panel on Syria.” 

It is not surprising, but still disappointing, how much the mainstream media are uncritically falling into line for the Obama administration’s highly questionable case for yet another illegal American war of aggression in the Middle East.  It is, of course, to be expected that unrepentant neoconservatives who have learned nothing from the enormous damage that their foreign policy project in the Middle East has done to America’s international position (not to mention millions of innocent human beings) over the last decade.  (For those who are interested, over the last few days Hillary has been paired with neoconservatives for discussions of the Syrian conflict and of America’s Syria policy on CCTV, see here, and Al Jazeera, see here.)  But most mainstream liberals and pseudo-progressives are no better, as Hillary’s encounter with some of them on MSNBC amply documents.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett