Foreign Minister Zarif on Iran and Its Persian Gulf Neighbors


Last week, as nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1 dominated international headlines, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif published a very important and substantive Op Ed, “Our Neighbors Are Our Priority,” in Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat.  The most fundamental message of Zarif’s Op Ed—that Tehran wants positive-sum, mutually beneficial relations with its Gulf Arab neighbors—is, strictly speaking, not a new theme in  the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy:    

–For example, when Zarif’s immediate predecessor, Ali Akbar Salehi—who was born and grew up in Iraq, speaks fluent Arabic, and lived for two years in Saudi Arabia as deputy secretary general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)—became foreign minister, he said that Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey were his top priority.

–Well before that, during Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency, Rafsanjani made détente with Gulf Arab monarchies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) a foreign policy priority. 

But, while continuing in the line, Zarif’s Op Ed is remarkable for the richly substantive agenda it lays out for building closer strategic ties between the Islamic Republic and its GCC neighbors

–Citing UN Security Council Resolution 598 (which ended the Iran-Iraq War) and its exhortation that the UN Secretary-General “examine, in consultation with Iran and Iraq and with other States of the region, measures to enhance the security and stability of the region,” Zarif calls for the creation of a regional security framework among the “eight littoral states” of the Persian Gulf (Iran, Iraq, and the six GCC states).      

–While noting that cooperation among these eight states should not be “at the expense of any other party,” Zarif points out an important distinction between those outside powers “who are dependent on us as major suppliers of their energy requirements,” for whom the Persian Gulf “constitutes a major element in their economic and industrial wellbeing,” and “those who do not depend on our energy resources,” for whom “our region is merely an important theater for extending their control in the international political arena and in international economic competition.” 

Zarif further underscores “that the paramount interest of such outside players may not always be stability, but in fact may depend on what can justify their presence.  The presence of foreign forces has historically resulted in domestic instability within the countries hosting them and exacerbated the existing tensions between these countries and other regional states.”    

Beyond these and other important substantive points, the publication of Zarif’s Op Ed in a high-profile, Saudi-owned regional newspaper is unprecedented

To read Zarif’s Op Ed in its entirety, see here.  We append substantial excerpts from it below.     

“Our Neighbors Are Our Priority”

Mohammad Javad Zarif

In the past few weeks, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 have endeavored to make use of the unique window of opportunity provided by the Iranian presidential election this past summer to resolve the nuclear issue, which has unnecessarily cast a shadow of insecurity and crisis over the region.  While most in the international community welcomed this positive development, some of our friends in our immediate neighborhood have expressed concerns that this opening may be pursued at their expense. 

Regrettably, a zero-sum mentality has been prevalent both in our region and around the world, and some may have even grown accustomed to taking advantage of hostility to Iran to pursue their interests.  Still, I wish to reiterate that the Islamic Republic of Iran does not have any such illusions.  We recognize that we cannot promote our interests at the expense of others.  This is particularly the case in relation to counterparts so close to us that their security and stability are intertwined with ours. 

Thus, notwithstanding the focus on our interactions with the West, the reality is that our primary foreign policy priority is our region. 

Few things are constant in international politics, but geography is among them.  A country cannot change its neighbors.  In our interconnected world, the fate of one nation is tied to the destinies of its neighbors.  The body of water that separates us from our southern neighbors is not just a waterway—it is our shared lifeline.  All of us depend on it, not just for survival, but to thrive.  With our fates so closely tied together, the belief that one’s interests can be pursued without consideration of the interests of others is delusional. 

As the turmoil in our region evidences, no country is an island.  Prosperity cannot be pursued at the expense of others’ poverty, and security cannot be achieved at the expense of the security of others.  We will either win together or lose together.  We are capable of working together, trusting one another, combining our potential, and building a more secure and prosperous region. 

Sadly, the model for security and stability that has to date been imposed on our region has been one based on competition, rivalry and the formation of competing blocs.  The only outcome has been the fostering of fresh imbalances and the emergence of unrealized or unstated ambitions that have repeatedly menaced the region over the past three decades… 

To reverse the vicious cycle of suspicion and mistrust and move forward—to build confidence, and join forces in striving to build a better, more secure and more prosperous future for our children—it is imperative that we keep three points in mind. 

First, it is crucial that we build an inclusive framework for confidence and cooperation in this strategic region.  Any exclusion will be the seed of future mistrust, tension and crisis.  The core of any wider regional arrangement should be limited to the eight littoral states.  Inclusion of other states will bring with it other complex issues, overshadowing the immediate problems of this region and further complicating the complex nature of security, as well as cooperation among us.

Naturally, there are legitimate concerns about potential imbalances and asymmetries that might arise within a new system.  Concerns about the domination or imposition of the views of any single country or group of countries must be taken into account and addressed.  To build an inclusive system based on mutual respect and the principle of non-interference, we should envisage arrangements within the framework of the United Nations.  The necessary institutional framework has already been provided in Security Council Resolution 598, which ended the disastrous war imposed by Saddam Hussein on Iran, Iraq and the entire region. 

Second, we need to be clear that while our cooperation is not at the expense of any other party, and will in fact promote greater security for all, we are very much cognizant of the variety of interests involved in our region.  The waterway that divides us is vital for the world, but the source of its importance is not identical for all actors.  For us littoral states, it is our lifeline.  For those who are dependent on us as major suppliers of their energy requirements, it constitutes a major element in their economic and industrial wellbeing.  In contrast, for those who do not depend on our energy resources, our region is merely an important theater for extending their control in the international political arena and in international economic competition.  Hence, we must bear in mind that there is a qualitative difference between the interests of the various players involved, and act accordingly. 

Third, the international element of the instability in our region stems from the divergence of the nature of the interests of various outside powers and their competition.  Their injection of extraneous issues only complicates an already complex security situation further.  We must not forget that the paramount interest of such outside players may not always be stability, but in fact may depend on what can justify their presence.  The presence of foreign forces has historically resulted in domestic instability within the countries hosting them and exacerbated the existing tensions between these countries and other regional states. 

I am convinced that there is a genuine will to discuss these common challenges.  The challenges and opportunities that we face are enormous.  They range from environmental degradation to sectarian tension, from extremism and terrorism to arms control and disarmament, and from tourism and economic and cultural cooperation to confidence-building and security-enhancing measures.  We must aim to initiate dialogue that results in practical and gradually expanding steps.

Iran, content with its size, geography, and human and natural resources, and enjoying common bonds of religion, history and culture with its neighbors, has not attacked anyone in nearly three centuries.  We extend our hand in friendship and Islamic solidarity to our neighbors, assuring them that they can count on us as a reliable partner. 

In our recent presidential election, which was a proud manifestation of the ability of an Islamic model of democracy to bring about change through the ballot box, my government received a strong popular mandate to engage in constructive interaction with the world, and particularly with our neighbors.  We are dedicated to making use of this mandate to instigate change for the better, but we cannot do it alone.  Now, more than ever, is the time to join hands to work towards securing a better fate for all of us; a destiny based on the noble principles of mutual respect and non-interference.  We are taking the first steps towards this objective.  We hope you will join us in this difficult, but rewarding, path.


Nuclear Rights and the P5+1 Talks with Iran


Yesterday, while taping a discussion of the latest round of P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran on Russia Today’s CrossTalk that was broadcast today (see here or, on You Tube, here), Flynt said, “I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not particularly optimistic about a deal being reached this week.  I don’t think that there’s been a lot of progress on the issues that kept agreement from being reached the last time the parties convened in Geneva: 

There’s the issue of Iran’s nuclear rights, and how they get acknowledged or not acknowledged in an interim agreement

There is disagreement about how to handle, during an interim deal, this heavy water reactor facility at Arak which the Iranians are building

There are still disagreements about the disposition of Iran’s stockpile of near-20 percent enriched uranium

I don’t really see much sign that either the United States or the French are backing down from some of the positions they took on those issues ten days ago—and if there’s not some give on that, I don’t know how the Iranians will be in a position to accept the P5+1 proposal.

On the positions that the United States and France took on these issues in the November 7-9 Geneva talks, Flynt recounts,  

“Going into the last round at Geneva, I think the Iranians anticipated getting a draft from the P5+1 where they had clearly worked out understandings about how some of these contentious issues—about Arak, about the 20 percent stockpile, about some acknowledgement of Iran’s nuclear rights; the Iranians had expectations from their previous discussions about the kind of proposal they were going to see.  And, basically, the United States and France reneged on those understandings.  And so the draft proposal that went in front of Iran was different from what Foreign Minister Zarif and his team were expecting to see, and they weren’t in a position to accept that. 

Unless the P5+1—in particular, the United States and France—are willing to stick to understandings that the Iranians thought they had reached, at least verbally, on some of these issues, I don’t think that the Iranians are going to feel, either in terms of substance or in terms of the atmosphere of trust, they’re not going to feel comfortable with going ahead with an agreement.” 

Currently, the most fundamental sticking point in Geneva is—as we have long anticipated—the Obama administration’s refusal to recognize Iran’s clear legal right to enrich uranium under safeguards and to acknowledge that the Islamic Republic will have to be treated like any other NPT party.  As we’ve written before, see here, Iran and all other states have a sovereign right to pursue indigenous fuel cycle capabilities—a right recognized in Article IV of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as an “inalienable right,” which non-nuclear-weapon states pledge to exercise in line with Article II (where non-weapons states commit not to build or obtain nuclear weapons) and Article III (where states commit to conducting their nuclear activities under safeguards to be negotiated with the International Atomic Energy Agency).     

As Flynt explains, the Obama administration—like the George W. Bush administration before it—resists recognizing this legal reality:      

“There are basically four countries in the world that try to deny that the NPT recognizes the right of a non-nuclear weapon state like Iran to enrich uranium under safeguards.  Those four countries are the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Israel, which isn’t even a signatory to the NPT.  Those are the only four countries that take this position.  The rest of the world—the BRICS, the Non-Aligned Movement, key U.S. allies like Germany and Japan—have held consistently that the Treaty recognizes a right to enrich.  And what is so perverse is that…when the U.S. and the Soviet Union first opened the NPT for signature in 1968, senior U.S. officials testified to Congress that the NPT recognized a right to safeguarded enrichment.  That was the position of the United States until the end of the Cold War—and then we decided to try to unilaterally rewrite the Treaty because we didn’t want non-Western countries getting fuel cycle capabilities.”       

We’ll see if the Obama administration can do any better this weekend. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Syria Update: Assad and His Government are Winning

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gives a

We are pleased to feature an exceptionally insightful update on the Syrian conflict, prepared last month by our colleagues Aisling Byrne and Alastair Crooke at the Conflicts Forum.  As Syrian oppositionists, backed by the United States, continue to insist that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office before any political solution to the conflict can unfold, this report highlights the Assad government’s increasingly strong position, vis-à-vis opposition elements and regionally.  We repost it here with the Conflict Forum’s permission.  

From the Conflicts Forum

“Anyone who has visited Syria over the years can see the remarkable qualitative transformation that has now overtaken the Syrian army and security apparatus.  The Syrian army is no longer the lackadaisical, de-motivated entity it formerly was; it is now sharp, discretely efficient and self-confident.  Deference to the rich or influential who ride in expensive cars, or even in official cars, has gone:  there is no casual ‘waving through’ of check-points for anyone.  The army presence is not overly visible, but is evidently ‘there’ in the background, efficiently courteous and insistent.  The various rings of security around the capital do cause heavy traffic jams, but any visitor to Damascus will observe a city that is clean, with modern facilities, and which is functioning effectively and efficiently—if not exactly normally.

This is not to suggest that there is no stress.  Clearly there is:  prices are high and though most people have managed somehow to ‘normalize’ living with conflict, there remains nagging fears for friends and family across the country.  The point here is that much western media reporting takes to itself the projection of the intrepid ‘war correspondent’ coping—coping against a hostile environment—in an unstable conflict zone, and of a network of underground activists furtively working to bring the most basic services, such as medical aid, to people.  It is true that there is both conflict and there are activists, but this is not the situation of most of Syria.  More importantly, what this journalistically self-serving narrative does is effectively obscure and render invisible the qualitative and politically significant shifts that are affecting both the government and Syrian society in the larger sense.  In the past year, Syria is much transformed.  Sometimes crisis causes either individuals or a society to fragment and their will to weaken, severe crises also can cause the person, a community or society to acquire a new resilience and inner self-confidence.  It may be ephemeral, but this is Syria today—and it carries important implications.

This new ethos is as well being reinforced by new dynamics.  The government feels tangibly the slide of international politics in its direction (including by the US):  European intelligence services (German, French and British) have resumed their relations with Damascus.  Other European states are quietly discussing the re-opening of their embassies; some Gulf states are informally expressing to their Syrian opposite numbers their disenchantment with GCC (notably Saudi) policy towards Syria, and the majority of regional states now seem to favor a political solution.  Egyptians too privately indicate that they sense a greater common interest with Syria, than with their patron, Saudi Arabia, but the politics of the Egyptian situation does not allow for a free expression of such sentiments.  In Damascus, however, there can be little doubt but that the tide of their diplomatic isolation has turned.

All this has given a new direction and ‘feel’ to the government.  It is no longer so overwhelmingly preoccupied by the war—thought is turning increasingly to the requirements of political process, and also toward the changes that will need to be effected in Syrian society in the aftermath of the conflict.  It is not just within the government that this debate is now seriously underway—the Baath party has opened itself to a serious debate about Syria’s future with other political currents and interests (a very frank session happened last week), and the same is occurring in society at large.

Outside of Syria, this ‘transition’ prescriptively describes what the external world ‘expects’ from Syria.  Transition clearly is necessary—it will happen and, as described above, is already under way—and will, of course, not be simple.  However, externally, the embrace of ‘transition’ demanded of the Syrian government largely ignores the wider upheaval gripping the region—with power-sharing advocated as if it represents some sort of panacea whereas the reality is that there is no ‘big idea’ to underpin future visions for all states of the region:  the Turkish model, the Gulf model, the Egyptian model, the Muslim Brotherhood model, the western liberal market model—all are partly or completely discredited.  So it is unlikely that Syria alone can find easy ideas about how to steer society afresh in these turbulent times.  Power-sharing may well be a part of the answer, but whether for Syria, Egypt or Tunisia the crisis (and challenges) are graver than the simplistic (Western) call for governments of national unity. 

Behind the turning of this diplomatic tide—no doubt—stands a greater appreciation (and acknowledgement) by western governments of the actual reality of chemical weapons.  This appreciation has undergone a quiet transformation too.  It is now clear from the inspections that Syria had no nerve gas.  Syria held stocks of the chemicals (which in themselves are quite ordinary and stable), but which are the constituent precursors to the production of nerve gas.  Whilst these precursors remain unmixed, they are not particularly dangerous—which is why the destruction of Syria’s stocks is progressing so rapidly.  Only when these precursors are mixed do they become highly volatile and subject to rapid deterioration—if not deployed very quickly.  Usually the precursors are kept strictly separate, even in the warhead, and are ‘mixed’ only by the breaking of the separate chemical vessels as the warhead impacts on landing.

We know from as far back as the 2001 war that President Assad had no time for such weapons, which his father had first introduced in reaction Israel’s nuclear weaponization:  hence the Syrian chemical stocks have remained completely unweaponized.  Nonetheless, the Syrian army continued to have dedicated chemical weapons units, and like any and every army, they continued to train and to simulate combat—though without mixing the precursors—i.e. without actually making a ‘weapon.’ 

Precisely because of the volatility of the chemicals once mixed, governments who have chemical weapons add chemical stabilizers to the precursors in order to protect their own troops from this volatility hazard.  It also is becoming plainer now that the sarin gas that was deployed in Syria both in March and August of this year was of a similar chemical ‘fingerprint,’ but contained none of the inhibitors that might be expected in official chemical stocks.  In short, it does not have an official type ‘DNA,’ and is therefore very unlikely to have come from government chemical holdings.  Indeed, the Russians have provided the UN with empirical evidence in respect to both incidents (so far unpublished by the UN), which officials say argues that both events were mounted by the opposition as a deliberate provocation.  Beyond these facts, we also know that the opposition and some regional states were expecting a “major development” immediately before the 21 August incident:  regional and international sources point to Prince Bandar’s involvement in the sarin gas use and to PM Erdoğan’s prior knowledge that a ‘major development’ was about to occur in Syria (as expressed by Turkish officials to opposition figures in Istanbul earlier in August).

Were some European governments complicit in this, or did they genuinely believe that President Assad intended to use chemical weapons against his own people?  It is not clear what was known by whom—and at what level—but tentatively, it seems that US and Israeli detailed surveillance of Syrian chemical weapons unit exercises were somehow ‘interpreted’ to suggest that Syrian security forces had the intent to use such weapons against the opposition, and that they must be fully deterred and repeatedly warned against such a use.  So when the August 21 event occurred, the ground had been laid for some political leaders to jump to the conclusion that Syrian forces had in fact carried out an attack—as the intelligence ‘interpretation’ had seemed to imply was likely to occur.  Tensions within the US intelligence community over the managing of Syrian chemical weapons intelligence (much of it deriving from Israel) has already been publicly reported—as have some CIA resignations that consequently resulted from this friction.   

As the sense gains ground that the West may have been at the very brink of war on possibly false premises (again), we are seeing many governments begin to change their assessment both of Syrian government as well their view towards the opposition:  a more deeply skeptical view of the opposition’s veracity and troubling questions about the policies of their sponsors are being heard.  Equally we are witnessing a review of how President Assad is viewed.  Tellingly, Europeans are resuming intelligence co-operation with Damascus while US policy interests seem to be drifting away from Syria—although it appears that the rise of al-Qa’ida jihadist groups is surfacing as a primary US security concern (trumping what was the key objective of ‘regime change’ in Syria), US policy appears to be one of having no policy for Syria.

Some in the region see the corollary to this US ‘no-policy’ policy as one of the US being ready to yield place to Russia to take a lead in resolving the Syria conflict—if that be a burden which Russia wishes to assume (but which the US does not).  Associated with this may be the sense that Russia too can play a similar role—useful to the US—in bringing about a solution with Iran on the nuclear issue.  In a sense, bi-polarism with Russia in defined parts of the Middle East may suit America well.

This US attenuated policy-posture makes good sense:  by limiting its focus to two main issues—the Iran negotiations and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—President Obama can take the Democrats into the mid-term Congressional elections saying that in three primary areas, he has contributed to making Israel ‘safe’ (this being the main domestic US foreign policy concern, now that Middle Eastern ‘nation-building’ is viewed as a ‘bad movie’ by the American public).  Firstly, Syria’s chemical weapons—the main ‘threat’ to Israel—have been destroyed; Iran is being ‘forced’ to disavow any nuclear weaponisation; and the Palestinians have been bullied into negotiating a peace with Israel (with any failure more clearly the fault of Israel, rather than that of the US President).  Perhaps, in this contextualization of American interests, we may see such a platform even coming to see President Assad as a possible ally in the common cause of defeating jihadism in the region.  This, after all, is the logic to resumed western intelligence links with the Syrian government.

Set against this picture of political metamorphosis in Syria is the aspect which to date has not changed:  Saudi Arabia—until now—has been escalating its actions in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria where thousands of foreign jihadists continue to enter the conflict.  It is not surprising therefore that President Assad laid such emphasis in his meeting this week with Lakhtar Brahimi on the need for these groups and their continued arming to be curbed if the political process is to be taken forward.

With Saudi escalation continuing, the prospects for the holding of any Geneva II seem dim.  Equally, there is still no obvious domestic opposition with whom negotiations can be pursued.  There are domestic figures with whom the government can—and is—talking, but most of these are individualswho lack any real organization, constituency or influence in Syria.  They can and do express their views, but none of this amounts to a basis for a new political dispensation for Syria.

The reality is that some prior Saudi-Iranian regional understandings will be required for a ‘top-table’ US-Russian settlement to have any possibility of being effective.  The increasingly fragmented opposition are relatively immaterial to this: they will have to follow the regional compact should, and if one emerges.  All those engaged in the Syria process therefore are waiting to see if Saudi Arabia will continue on its current course, or if it will change direction.  Some do see prospects of such a change (simply because Saudi current policies are so clearly damaging for Saudi Arabia itself), but equally, all are keenly aware of the leadership void in the kingdom, and of the deep fear amongst the al-Saud that their claimed leadership of the Islamic world is slipping from their grasp, leaving them with only a diminished and somewhat tarnished legitimacy of happening to be the rulers of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca.  And it is not very probable that any new prospective Saudi direction will have occurred in time for a November Geneva II.”


Obama’s Refusal to Respect Iran’s Sovereign and Treaty Rights Continues to Thwart Diplomacy, Leaving America on the Self-Defeating Path to War

Notwithstanding France’s simultaneously arrogant and craven grandstanding over Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor, the main reason for the failure of last week’s nuclear talks between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 was the Obama administration’s imperious refusal to acknowledge Tehran’s right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.  On this point, we want to highlight a recent post by Dan Joyner on Arms Control Law, titled, “Scope, Meaning and Juridical Implication of the NPT Article IV(1) Inalienable Right.” 

Dan opens with a favorable reference to our recent post on the issue, see here; he then focuses on how to interpret the NPT Article IV(1) right to peaceful nuclear energy—a subject he has already written about at some length.  He usefully inserts an excerpt from his excellent 2011 book, Interpreting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Interpreting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Pages 79-84.  This excerpt lays out Dan’s argument that the right to peaceful use of nuclear technology should be interpreted as “a full, free-standing right of all NNWS [non-nuclear-weapon states] party to the treaty, and not as a contingent right, contrary to the interpretation of some NWS [nuclear-weapon states].”  After elaborating this basic point, Dan continues:    

“The question of the scope of this right is one that continues to be debated.  I have looked to the Lotus principle in international law (see the excerpt from my book) to show that the lawfulness of NNWS’, and in fact all states’, indigenous nuclear fuel cycle activities can be shown to derive from the absence of any prohibition of these activities in international lawThis observation will, I have argued, serve to legally justify the full nuclear fuel cycle of activities within a NNWS, subject only to the positive requirements of Articles II and III of the NPT—i.e. no manufacture of nuclear explosive devices, and the conclusion of a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. 

The question of just what exactly is the nature and scope of the right recognized in Article IV(1) of the NPT, and what are its juridical implications (e.g. in tension with the UN Security Council’s order in Resolution 1696 for Iran to cease uranium enrichment), is a subject that I have been thinking/researching about recently…These questions actually raise some very deep issues of international law, and analyzing them properly requires serious work…But let me say this here. 

Article IV(1) of the NPT states that “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty.”  In my view, the recognition by over 190 states parties to the NPT that all states have such an inalienable right, which I interpret to include all elements of the full nuclear fuel cycle including uranium enrichment, strongly suggests that the right to peaceful nuclear energy research, production and use is one of the fundamental rights of states in international law.  In my view, both fundamental and acquired rights of states should be understood to create in third parties, both states and international organizations, a legal obligation to respect those rights

This means that other states and international organizations are under an international legal obligation not to act in serious prejudice of states’ rights.  In the case of fundamental rights, this reciprocal obligation is of a jus cogens order, meaning that all states and international organizations are under a jus cogens order legal obligation not to act to seriously prejudice the fundamental rights of other statesWhen states or international organization do act in serious prejudice of a state’s fundamental rights, that action is an internationally wrongful act, and implicates the international responsibility of the acting state or international organization

According to this analysis, UN Security Council Resolution 1696, which commands Iran to cease uranium enrichment, constitutes a violation of international law, at least as to this particular command, and is void of legal effect (See Article 25 of the UN Charter). 

Note that the often heard rebuttal to this argument, which references Article 103 of the UN Charter, is in fact erroneous and inapplicable.  Article 103 of the UN Charter provides that “In the event of a conflict between the obligations of the Members of the United Nations under the present Charter and their obligations under any other international agreement, their obligations under the present Charter shall prevail.”  My analysis, which is based on the recognition of a fundamental right of states in international law, and the juridical implication of an obligation in other states and international organizations to respect that right, is unaffected and unanswered by this provision, which merely recognizes that in the case of a conflict between UN member states’ international legal obligations under the Charter, and their obligations deriving from other sources, the Charter obligations trump.  It does not speak to the legal obligations of the Security Council as an organ of an international organization.  Nor does it speak at all to conflicts between the obligations of the UN Charter, and the rights of states in international law.  So again, Article 103 of the UN Charter is inapposite and inapplicable to this question.” 

Dan’s work on these issues is both breathtakingly clear and, as far as we are concerned, definitive.  (For more of his analysis on the illegality of Security Council resolutions calling on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, we refer everyone to his brilliant article, “The Security Council as Legal Hegemon,” published last year in the Georgetown Journal of International Law, see here.)    

More immediately, Dan’s work underscores an important reality:  the Obama administration’s hegemonically abusive refusal to recognize Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment is not just diplomatically and strategically counter-productive—it is illegal

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Nuclear Negotiations and America’s Moment of Truth About Iran

As the parties prepare for the next round of P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran, starting on Thursday in Geneva, we are pleased to share our most recent Op Ed, “America’s Moment of Truth About Iran,” published in The Diplomat, see here.  As always, we encourage everyone to leave comments on The Diplomat site as well as on this site.   

 America’s Moment of Truth About Iran

America’s Iran policy is at a crossroads.  Washington can abandon its counterproductive insistence on Middle Eastern hegemony, negotiate a nuclear deal grounded in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and get serious about working with Tehran to broker a settlement to the Syrian conflict.  In the process, the United States would greatly improve its ability to shape important outcomes there.  Alternatively, America can continue on its present path, leading ultimately to strategic irrelevance in one of the world’s most vital regions—with negative implications for its standing in Asia as well. 

U.S. policy is at this juncture because the costs of Washington’s post-Cold War drive to dominate the Middle East have risen perilously high.  President Obama’s self-inflicted debacle over his plan to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August showed that America can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of force to impose its preferences in the region.  While Obama still insists “all options are on the table” for Iran, the reality is that, if Washington is to deal efficaciously with the nuclear issue, it will be through diplomacy.      

In this context, last month’s Geneva meeting between Iran and the P5+1 brought America’s political class to a strategic and political moment of truth.  Can American elites turn away from a self-damaging quest for Middle Eastern hegemony by coming to terms with an independent regional power?  Or are they so enthralled with an increasingly surreal notion of America as hegemon that, to preserve U.S. “leadership,” they will pursue a course further eviscerating its strategic position?        

The proposal for resolving the nuclear issue that Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, presented in Geneva seeks answers to these questions.  It operationalizes the approach advocated by Hassan Rohani and other Iranian leaders for over a decade:  greater transparency on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for recognizing its rights as a sovereign NPT signatory—especially to enrich uranium under international safeguards—and removal of sanctions.  For years, the Bush and Obama administrations rejected this approach.  Now Obama must at least consider it.      

The Iranian package provides greater transparency on Tehran’s nuclear activities in two crucial respects.  First, it gives greater visibility on the conduct of Iran’s nuclear program.  Iran has reportedly offered to comply voluntarily for some months with the Additional Protocol (AP) to the NPT—which it has signed but not yet ratified and which authorizes more proactive and intrusive inspections—to encourage diplomatic progress.  Tehran would ratify the AP—thereby committing to its permanent implementation—as part of a final deal.    

Second, the package aims to validate Iran’s declarations that its enrichment infrastructure is not meant to produce weapons-grade fissile material.  Iran would stop enriching at the near-20 percent level of fissile-isotope purity needed to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor and cap enrichment at levels suitable for fueling power reactors.  Similarly, Iran is open to capping the number of centrifuges it would install—at least for some years—at its enrichment sites in Natanz and Fordo. 

Based on conversations with Iranian officials and political figures in New York in September (during Rohani and Zarif’s visit to the UN General Assembly) and in Tehran last month, it is also possible to identify items that the Iranian proposal almost certainly does not include.  Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has reportedly given President Rohani and his diplomats flexibility in negotiating a settlement—but he has also directed that they not compromise Iran’s sovereignty.  Thus, the Islamic Republic will not acquiesce to American (and Israeli) demands to suspend enrichment, shut its enrichment site at Fordo, stop a heavy-water reactor under construction at Arak, and ship its current enriched uranium stockpile abroad

On one level, the Iranian package is crafted to resolve the nuclear issue based on the NPT, within a year.  Iran’s nuclear rights would be respected; transparency measures would reduce the proliferation risks of its enrichment activities below what Washington tolerates elsewhere.  On another level, though, the package means to test America’s willingness and capability to resolve the issue on this basis.  It tests this not just for Tehran’s edification, but also for that of other P5+1 states, especially China and Russia, and of rising powers like India and South Korea.       

America can fail the Iranian test in two ways.  First, the Obama administration—reflecting America’s political class more broadly—may prove unwilling to acknowledge Iran’s nuclear rights in a straightforward way, insisting on terms for a deal that effectively suborn these rights and violate Iranian sovereignty. 

There are powerful constituencies—e.g., the Israel lobby, neoconservative Republicans, their Democratic “fellow travelers,” and U.S.-based Iran “experts”—that oppose any deal recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights.  They understand that acknowledging these rights would also mean accepting the Islamic Republic as an enduring entity representing legitimate national interests; to do so, America would have to abandon its post-Cold War pretensions to Middle Eastern hegemony.      

Those pretensions have proven dangerously corrosive of America’s ability to accomplish important objectives in the Middle East, and of its global standing.  Just witness the profoundly self-damaging consequences of America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, and how badly the “global war on terror” has eviscerated the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Muslim world. 

But, as the drama over Obama’s call for military action against Syria indicates, America’s political class remains deeply attached to imperial pretense—even as the American public turns away from it.  If Washington could accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate regional power, it could work with Tehran and others on a political solution to the Syrian conflict.  Instead, Washington reiterates hubristic demands that President Bashar al-Assad step down before a political process starts, and relies on a Saudi-funded “Syrian opposition” increasingly dominated by al-Qa’ida-like extremists.

If Obama does not conclude a deal recognizing Iran’s nuclear rights, it will confirm suspicions already held by many Iranian elites—including Ayatollah Khamenei—and in Beijing and Moscow about America’s real agenda vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.  It will become undeniably clear that U.S. opposition to indigenous Iranian enrichment is not motivated by proliferation concerns, but by determination to preserve American hegemony—and Israeli military dominance—in the Middle East.  If this is so, why should China, Russia, or rising Asian powers continue trying to help Washington—e.g., by accommodating U.S. demands to limit their own commercial interactions with Iran—obtain an outcome it does not actually want?                    

America can also fail Iran’s test if it is unable to provide comprehensive sanctions relief as part of a negotiated nuclear settlement.  The Obama administration now acknowledges what we have noted for some time—that, beyond transitory executive branch initiatives, lifting or even substantially modifying U.S. sanctions to support diplomatic progress will take congressional action.    

During Obama’s presidency, many U.S. sanctions initially imposed by executive order have been written into law.  These bills—signed, with little heed to their long-term consequences, by Obama himself—have also greatly expanded U.S. secondary sanctions, which threaten to punish third-country entities not for anything they’ve done in America, but for perfectly lawful business they conduct in or with Iran.  The bills contain conditions for removing sanctions stipulating not just the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but also termination of Tehran’s ties to movements like Hizballah that Washington (foolishly) designates as terrorists and the Islamic Republic’s effective transformation into a secular liberal republic. 

The Obama administration may have managed to delay passage of yet another sanctions bill for a few weeks—but Congressional Democrats no less than congressional Republicans have made publicly clear that they will not relax conditions for removing existing sanctions to help Obama conclude and implement a nuclear deal.  If their obstinacy holds, why should others respect Washington’s high-handed demands for compliance with its extraterritorial (hence, illegal) sanctions against Iran?    

Going into the next round of nuclear talks in Geneva on Thursday, it is unambiguously plain that Obama will have to spend enormous political capital to realign relations with Iran.  America’s future standing as a great power depends significantly on his readiness to do so. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett