Going to Tehran’s Person of the Year for 2013

This is the season when a number of internationally prominent media outlets select a “Person of the Year.”

TIME did better than usual this year with its selection of Pope Francis, one of the most interesting religious leaders of our day.

The Guardian, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post’s “The Switch” blog all chose Edward Snowden, whose disclosure of documents related to National Security Agency eavesdropping activities has rocked much of the world.

–The Washington Post’s “World View” blog chose Russian President Vladimir Putin.  (With all due respect to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we think that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping should have received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their governments’ use of international law and international organizations like the United Nations Security Council to constrain an outlaw superpower—the United States.  But that’s another matter.)

While these are all worthy choices, as 2013 draws to a close we want to offer our own selection for “Person of the Year.”  Our pick is…Glenn Greenwald, who had the courage to take on a personally risky battle with the American national security state by reporting on and writing about the Snowden documents, enabling them to have their extraordinary impact.

We have long admired Glenn’s work as a columnist and author.  As we wrote in April 2013 (before the Snowden story broke), when we posted a podcastinterview about our book, Going to Tehran, that Glenn did with us for The Guardian, “We admire Glenn deeply for all he has done and continues to do to bring reality and principle back into America’s ongoing debates about national security and about civil liberties…If our children inherit a republic still even marginally worthy of the name, it will be, in no small part, because enough people were motivated by Glenn to demand that American elites stop eviscerating our country’s international position through a counter-productive quest for imperial dominance, and stop shredding the Constitution in pursuit of an illusory notion of ‘security.’”

But Glenn’s reporting and commentary on the Snowden documents took Glenn’s contributions to a new level.  As we wrote to him directly in June 2013, after the Snowden story broke, “As two former U.S. government officials who once swore to defend the Constitution, we simply want to say thank you—for it is increasingly difficult to discern that Constitution in the way our government operates.”

Internationally and in the United States, the Snowden revelations have prompted a more fundamental debate about the nature of the American state and its role in the world than we’ve seen before.  We do not know how far the consequences of this debate will extend—but there already are some consequences.

–European governments (with, undoubtedly, no small measure of hypocrisy) are beginning to question publicly their long-standing intelligence cooperation with the United States—not because these governments have suddenly decided to have truly independent foreign policies, but because the outrage among European publics over Snowden’s revelations is so great.

–In the United States, we suspect that the Snowden revelations have contributed to President Obama’s plummeting poll numbers.  More significantly, it is doubtful that, absent the Snowden revelations, the American public would have reacted so decisively against Obama’s call for U.S. military strikes in Syria following the use of chemical weapons there in August 2013This episode is important—for it underscored that, after strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States cannot now credibly threaten the effective use of force for hegemonic purposes in the Middle East.  And that has potentially profound ramifications for American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Just a few days ago, a Federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush declared from the bench that the NSA wiretapping programs disclosed by Snowden are probably unconstitutional.  This statement is far from the last legal word on the subject—but it is notable all the same.  See here and here to watch interviews that Glenn Greenwald gave (to BBC Newsnight and Al Jazeera America, respectively) about it.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


You Can’t Make Sound Policy by Disregarding Reality—Flynt Leverett on the Syria Conflict

The U.S. posture toward the conflict in Syria exemplifies some of the worst aspects of America’s Middle East policy.  In recent years, the limits on America’s ability to shape important outcomes in the region unilaterally have been dramatically underscored by strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Just this year, President Obama’s largely self-inflicted debacle over his publicly declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there on August 21 made it abundantly clear that the United States can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of military force in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, American foreign policy elites persist in thinking that it is up to them to dictate Syria’s future—and with it the future of the Middle East.

This outlook is epitomized by Obama’s August 2011 declaration that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”—even though the Obama administration’s preferred strategy of working with the Syrian “opposition” to effect Assad’s departure was, from the outset, doomed to fail, as we have predicted for more than two and a half years.  While intended primarily to undermine Iran’s regional position, it has done nothing of the sort.  All that this strategy has accomplished or can accomplish is to prolong bloodshed in Syria and to bolster the strength of al-Qa’ida-like jihadi elements across the Middle East.  Moreover, by staking out a maximalist demand for Assad’s removal, Obama fundamentally undercut the prospects for seriously pursuing a negotiated settlement in Syria.  Even by recent American standards, this sets a new standard for destructively dysfunctional policymaking toward the Middle East.

Of course, neoconservatives and liberal imperialist champions of the “responsibility to protect” continue to advocate more direct forms of U.S. intervention in the conflict—notwithstanding the utter illegality of such a course absent UN Security Council authorization and the utterly lousy track record of such interventions (see the references to the Afghan, Iraqi, and Libyan interventions above—all three of which were strongly championed by liberal imperialists as well as by neoconservatives).  But perennially mistaken advocates of ever more American intervention in the Middle East keep running into the same problem that Obama, in his own hapless way, has encountered:  you can’t make sound and effective policy by disregarding on-the-ground reality.

In a recent interview with Syria Chronicle, see here, Flynt sought to describe some relevant aspects of on-the-ground reality in Syria.  (Syria Chronicle is a relatively new online site run by students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.)  We append the interview below.

The Syrian Conflict:  No End in Sight?  An Interview with

Prof. Flynt Leverett of Penn State

The historical perspective:  I would think about it not in terms so much of specific historical events that got us here but of some very important, historically grounded dynamics in Syria.  Two strike me as really important to understanding how this conflict is shaped.  The first is that, while Syria is obviously a society with multiple divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines, the really fundamental divide in Syrian politics, since the country became independent, is between those constituencies that think their interests are best served by living in an at least, nominally secular state, and those that aspire to live in some version of a Sunni Islamist state.

If you look at who is on which side of this divide, the constituencies that want to live in a secular state are obviously non-Sunni Muslims—most importantly the Alawis—and other religious minorities, especially Christians.  You also have those Sunnis who don’t want to live in an Islamist order.  These constituencies provided the social base for the government of Hafez al-Assad, and they provide as well the social base for his son, Bashar al-Assad.  If you look at the demographics, these constituencies have amounted to at least a narrow majority of Syrian society for decades.

On the other side of this divide, you have basically Sunni Arab constituencies. Sunni Arabs make up about two-thirds of the population, but if you break out those Sunni constituencies that want to live in some version of an Islamic state, you are talking about a very significant minority in Syrian society.  This group constituted the social base for the Muslim Brotherhood’s insurgency against Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s and early 1980s, and is an important part of the social base for the opposition to Bashar al-Assad since early 2011.

The second historically conditioned dynamic important for understanding the current conflict is what I call the imperative of foreign policy independence.  If you look at the way Syria was born as an independent state in the late 1940s, what became Syria is not the territory Syrians thought they were historically entitled to have.  The historically conditioned notion of Syria is Bilad al-Sham, which covers what we now call Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan.  In the wake of World War I, that area was broken up by the League of Nations into the British and French mandates.  Turkey took a little piece of it, but most of it was divided by the League of Nations and distributed to the French and British mandates.  The French then divided the Syrian mandate into Syria and Lebanon.  So, at the time of independence in 1949, most politically engaged Syrians felt that Western powers had territorially truncated Syria.

The Assad government—whether under Hafez or under Bashar—has not been out to restore Bilad al-Sham, but an important part of how the Assad government legitimates itself has been by espousing and at least appearing to practice foreign policy independence.  This was very important to Hafez al-Assad’s ability to consolidate power in the 1970s and 1980s and hold onto it through the 1990s, and it has been important for his son, Bashar, as well.

And, if you put those two dynamics together, it helps to explain why Bashar al-Assad is still in power more than two-and-a-half years into the current conflict.

How it compares to other conflicts:  In Syria, it’s not really a Sunni-Shite divide; it’s more a divide between those who want to live in a nominally secular state and those who want to live in a Sunni Islamist state.  In Libya, there was certainly an Islamist element in the opposition to Gadhafi, but you don’t really have the kind of sectarian divide in Libya or Egypt that you do in Syria.

The geopolitical context of the Syrian conflict is also different. Syria, in the end, is more geopolitically important than, say, Libya or Yemen.  That’s one reason the Assad regime has enjoyed more international support than Gadhafi did in Libya.  The United States was able to get a UN Security Council resolution authorizing an intervention in Libya in March 2011.  Russia and China abstained on that resolution, letting it go through, but both came to believe that the United States and its partners have abused this resolution.  Moscow and Beijing quickly concluded that letting the Libya resolution through had been a mistake—a mistake they were determined not to repeat where Syria is concerned. 

Where the United States stands:  It was extremely foolish for Obama to say in August 2011 that “Assad must go,” because it means that the United States cannot be serious about conflict resolution in Syria.  Likewise, it was foolish for Obama to draw his “red line” about chemical weapons use during his reelection campaign.  So when chemical weapons were used in Syria in August this year, Obama was trapped by his own rhetoric.  He said he would use force, but of course, the UN Security Council wouldn’t endorse it.  The Arab League, NATO and the British Parliament wouldn’t endorse it.  And it soon became apparent that, because of public opposition, even Congress wasn’t going to endorse it.  Since then, the US has really not had a coherent Syria policy. Supporting the opposition has failed.  Only a diplomatic resolution, which the United States can’t seriously support because of Obama’s August 2011 remarks, will work.

What Happens Next:  Assad will continue to strengthen his position on the ground.  But as long as Saudi money and weapons get to the opposition groups, they will be able to continue a campaign—and so the violence will go on.  The only way out is diplomacy aimed at a political settlement between Assad and the opposition.  Until the Obama administration is willing to walk back from some of the positions it has taken regarding Assad and is willing to push allies like Saudi Arabia to halt the flow of weapons to oppositionists, it will be difficult to get a serious political process going.  In the absence of a serious political process, the violence could go on for a very long time.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Now in Paperback–“Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran”

We are pleased to note that the paperback edition of our book, Going to Tehran:  Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran, with a new Afterword, will be officially released on December 31.  Please click here to access the Amazon.com page for the paperback edition (from which one can pre-order for delivery on December 31).  We encourage everyone to get a copy—and to give copies to your friends, loved ones, and colleagues.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Nelson Mandela, Iran, and the Critique of American Hegemony

As the world commemorates Nelson Mandela, it is unfortunate that so much of the public discussion is dominated by the pious bloviating of politicians whose own careers seem not just unspeakably trivial compared to Mandela’s, but run directly against so much of what Mandela worked so hard to accomplish in his life.  We think it is better to remember Mandela’s own words and deeds.  In particular, we want to recall Mandela’s ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, and his clear criticism of what he saw as America’s drive to dominate the Middle East and the Muslim world.

As Cyrus Safdari points out, everyone should remember that “Islamic Iran was strongly supporting the freedom movement [in South Africa], the US sided with the S African apartheid regime and Reagan in particular was opposed to the sanctions on that government.  Israel too was a close cooperator with the racist regime there, and may have even jointly developed a nuclear weapon with South Africa.  Israel was the most significant arms supplier to that regime throughout the 1980s and served as a lifeline for the apartheid government during a period when Pretoria faced growing international condemnation and heightened domestic unrest.”

So it is hardly surprising that in 1992—two years after his release from prison and two years before his election to South Africa’s presidency, during one of the most intense and difficult phases in the negotiations and political struggle to end apartheid in his own country—Mandela visited the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Upon his arrival in Tehran, Mandela said, “We are here to thank the Iranian government and nation for their support in the black people’s struggle against apartheid.”  And watch the short video embedded above, see here, in which Mandela meets Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, addressing Khamenei as “my leader.”  Mandela also laid a wreath at Imam Khomeini’s tomb.

Mandela visited Iran again as President of South Africa.  Throughout his presidency, he was publicly dismissive of efforts—including those by American presidents—to persuade him to turn away from the Islamic Republic.  As he said of the United States in 1997, “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us who our friends should be?”  And after he left office in 1999, he was utterly clear in his critique of the increasingly hegemonic orientation of America’s post-9/11 policy in the Middle East.

In this spirit, Mandela spoke to Newsweek in 2002 about the George W. Bush administration’s accelerating drive to invade Iraq:

“We must understand the seriousness of this situation.  The United States has made serious mistakes in the conduct of its foreign affairs, which have had unfortunate repercussions long after the decisions were taken.

Unqualified support of the Shah of Iran led directly to the Islamic revolution of 1979.  Then the United States chose to arm and finance the [Islamic] mujahedin in Afghanistan instead of supporting and encouraging the moderate wing of the government of Afghanistan.  That is what led to the Taliban in Afghanistan.  But the most catastrophic action of the United States was to sabotage the decision that was painstakingly stitched together by the United Nations regarding the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.

If you look at those matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peaceBecause what [America] is saying is that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries.  That is the message they are sending to the world.

That must be condemned in the strongest terms…[T]here is no doubt that the United States now feels that they are the only superpower in the world and they can do what they like.”

Regarding the Bush administration’s fraudulent “case” about Saddam Husayn’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, Mandela said that there was “no evidence whatsoever of [development of weapons of] mass destruction.  Neither Bush nor [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair has provided any evidence that such weapons exist.  But what we know is that Israel has weapons of mass destruction.  Nobody talks about that.  Why should there be one standard for one country, especially because it is black, and another one for another country, Israel, that is white.”

We know from our own experience in the George W. Bush administration that the Bush White House was concerned about Mandela’s criticisms—for he was one of the few international voices of unquestioned moral stature that the United States couldn’t manage to silence during the run-up to America’s illegal invasion of Iraq.  Such concern undoubtedly prompted our boss at the time, then-national security adviser Condoleeza Rice, to take a phone call from Mandela in which he offered basic political and moral correction on other aspects of American Middle East policy.  Rice could not have been more pleasant during her conversation with Mandela—but then, of course, she and her colleagues went ahead and did exactly as they had planned.

In the end, the Bush White House needn’t really have been concerned about Mandela’s outspoken criticisms of U.S. policy.  Too few people in post-9/11 America were willing to be galvanized into action to demand a different course—not even by an international icon whose own dedication to doing the right thing as he saw it was unsurpassed.  But Mandela’s words were absolutely on the mark.

It’s nice that, in the wake of Mandela’s death, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have publicly praised his life.  But we wish that they would reflect seriously on Mandela’s critique of Western policy—for it might compel them to reorient that policy, especially toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, in a fundamentally different direction.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Bacevich and Chomsky on the Iran Nuclear Deal

This week, Andrew Bacevich and Noam Chomsky—two public intellectuals whose work on American foreign policy we greatly admire (and who have been very generous in their praise for our book, Going to Tehran)—published important commentaries on the recent Iran nuclear deal.  In contrast to the overwhelming bulk of the voluminous drivel that has appeared on the subject in mainstream op-ed pages and online venues, the pieces by Chomsky and Bacevich are truly provocative, in the best sense of the word.  We want to highlight them here.

Appearing in the Washington Post’s Outlook, Bacevich’s essay, titled “With Iran, Obama Can End America’s Long War for the Middle East,” see here, offers a contrarian (and fundamentally correct) assessment of the drivers for the Geneva nuclear deal on the U.S. side.  Bacevich—in our view the most consistently and deeply insightful historian writing today about American foreign policy—places Washington’s current diplomatic effort vis-à-vis Tehran in a grand strategic context:  the failure of America’s decades-long imperial project in the Middle East.

In Bacevich’s reading, this project commenced in January 1980 with the enunciation of what came to be known as the Carter Doctrine.  Now, he writes,

“What Jimmy Carter began, Barack Obama is ending.  Washington is bringing down the curtain on its 30-plus-year military effort to pull the Islamic world into conformity with American interests and expectations.  It’s about time.

Back in 1980, when his promulgation of the Carter Doctrine launched that effort, Carter acted with only a vague understanding of what might follow.  Yet circumstance—the overthrow of the shah in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—compelled him to act.  Or more accurately, the domestic political uproar triggered by those events compelled the president, facing a tough reelection campaign, to make a show of doing something.  What ensued was the long-term militarization of U.S. policy throughout the region.

Now, without fanfare, President Obama is effectively revoking Carter’s doctrine.”

According to Bacevich, this nascent—and, as yet, largely unarticulated—shift in American grand strategy in the Middle East is hardly the product of policy success, as Obama and his acolytes would have us think.  Rather,

“Like Carter in 1980, Obama finds himself with few alternatives.  At home, widespread anger, angst and mortification obliged Carter to begin girding the nation to fight for the greater Middle East.  To his successors, Carter bequeathed a Pentagon preoccupied with ramping up its ability to flex its muscles anywhere from Egypt to Pakistan.  The bequest proved a mixed blessing, fostering the illusion that military muscle, dexterously employed, might put things right.  Today, widespread disenchantment with the resulting wars and quasi-wars prohibits Obama from starting new ones…In calling off a threatened U.S. attack on Syria, for example, the president was acknowledging what opinion polls and Congress (not to mention the British Parliament) had already made plain:  Support for any further military adventures to liberate or pacify Muslims has evaporated.  Americans still profess to love the troops. But they’ve lost their appetite for war…

Nothing is half so melancholy as to compare the expectations informing recent American wars when they began—Enduring Freedom!—with the outcomes actually achieved.  So in Obama’s Washington, moralism is out, and with good reason.  Only nations with a comfortable surfeit of power can permit themselves the luxury of allowing moral considerations to shape basic policy…

As America’s War for the Great Middle East winds down, it leaves the Islamic world in worse condition—besieged by radicalism, wracked by violence, awash with anti-Americanism—than back in 1980.  The list of dictators the United States has toppled or abandoned and of terrorists it has assassinated is impressively long.  But any benefits accruing from these putative successes have been few.  Ask Afghans.  Ask Iraqis.  Ask Libyans.  Or ask any American who has been paying attention.”

Against this long record of policy failure, the United States needs a new, reality-based template for dealing with the Middle East—and, especially, with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Like us, Bacevich finds President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s a salutary model:

“Back in 1979, the “loss” of Iran provided much of the impetus for launching America’s War for the Greater Middle East.  The shah’s overthrow had cost the United States an unsavory henchman, his place taken by radicals apparently consumed with hatred for the Great Satan.

At the time, the magnitude of the policy failure staggered Washington.  It was as bad as—maybe worse than—the “loss” of China 30 years before.  Of course, what had made that earlier failure so difficult to take was the presumption that China had been ours to lose in the first place.  Discard that presumption, and doing business with Red China just might become a possibility.  Cue Richard Nixon, a realist if there ever was one.  By accepting China’s loss, he turned it to America’s advantage, at least in the short run.

So too with Iran today…Accept the “loss” of Iran, which will never return to America’s orbit anyway, and turn it to U.S. advantage…The exit from America’s misadventures in the region is through the door marked “Tehran.”  Calling off the War for the Greater Middle East won’t mean that the political, social and economic problems roiling that part of the world will suddenly go away.  They just won’t be problems that Uncle Sam is expected to solve.  In this way, a presidency that began with optimism and hope but has proved such a letdown may yet achieve something notable.”

Published in Truthout, see here, Chomsky’s piece, “The ‘Axis of Evil’ Revisited,” underscores just how much America’s political class is going to have to change to go beyond the Geneva toward genuine rapprochement with Iran—and to end, really and truly, America’s wantonly destructive imperial project in the Middle East.  Chomsky writes,

“The ‘landmark accord’ indeed includes significant Iranian concessions—though nothing comparable from the United States, which merely agreed to temporarily limit its punishment of Iran.

It’s easy to imagine possible U.S. concessions.  To mention just one:  The United States is the only country directly violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and more severely, the United Nations Charter) by maintaining its threat of force against Iran.  The United States could also insist that its Israeli client refrain from this severe violation of international law—which is just one of many.

In mainstream discourse, it is considered natural that Iran alone should make concessions.  After all, the United States is the White Knight, leading the international community in its efforts to contain Iran—which is held to be the gravest threat to world peace—and to compel it to refrain from its aggression, terror and other crimes.

There is a different perspective, little heard, though it might be worth at least a mention.  It begins by rejecting the American assertion that the accord breaks 10 years of unwillingness on Iran’s part to address this alleged nuclear threat.

Ten years ago Iran offered to resolve its differences with the United States over nuclear programs, along with all other issues.  The Bush administration rejected the offer angrily and reprimanded the Swiss diplomat who conveyed it.

The European Union and Iran then sought an arrangement under which Iran would suspend uranium enrichment while the EU would provide assurances that the U.S. would not attack.  As Selig Harrison reported in the Financial Times, “the EU, held back by the U.S. … refused to discuss security issues,” and the effort died.

In 2010, Iran accepted a proposal by Turkey and Brazil to ship its enriched uranium to Turkey for storage.  In return, the West would provide isotopes for Iran’s medical research reactors.  President Obama furiously denounced Brazil and Turkey for breaking ranks, and quickly imposed harsher sanctions.  Irritated, Brazil released a letter from Obama in which he had proposed this arrangement, presumably assuming that Iran would reject it.  The incident quickly disappeared from view.

Also in 2010, the NPT members called for an international conference to carry forward a long-standing Arab initiative to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region, to be held in Helsinki in December 2012.  Israel refused to attend.  Iran agreed to do so, unconditionally.

The U.S. then announced that the conference was canceled, reiterating Israel’s objections.  The Arab states, the European Parliament and Russia called for a rapid reconvening of the conference, while the U.N. General Assembly voted 174-6 to call on Israel to join the NPT and open its facilities to inspection.  Voting “no” were the United States, Israel, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau—a result that suggests another possible U.S. concession today.

Such isolation of the United States in the international arena is quite normal, on a wide range of issues.

In contrast, the non-aligned movement (most of the world), at its meeting last year in Tehran, once again vigorously supported Iran’s right, as a signer of the NPT, to enrich uranium…A large majority of Arabs support Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear program.  Arabs are hostile to Iran, but overwhelmingly regard the United States and Israel as the primary threats they face…The United States can be held to lead the international community only if that community is defined as the U.S. and whoever happens to go along with it, often through intimidation, as is sometimes tacitly conceded…

There are in fact two rogue states operating in the region, resorting to aggression and terror and violating international law at will:  the United States and its Israeli client…It is understandable that those rogue states should strenuously object to a deterrent in the region, and should lead a campaign to free themselves from any such constraints.

Just how far will the lesser rogue state go to eliminate the feared deterrent on the pretext of an “existential threat”?  Some fear that it will go very far.  Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations warns in Foreign Policy that Israel might resort to nuclear war.  Foreign policy analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski urges Washington to make it clear to Israel that the U.S. Air Force will stop them if they try to bomb.

Which of these conflicting perspectives is closer to reality?  To answer the question is more than just a useful exercise.  Significant global consequences turn on the answer.”

President Obama will, no doubt, continue to insist—as he did today in a public dialogue with Haim Saban at the annual Saban Forum on U.S.-Israel relations—that the next six months are a test to see if Iran is serious about negotiating a comprehensive nuclear settlement.  But the real test is for Obama, his administration, and the rest of America’s political order.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett