Can the United States Come to Terms with an Independent, Technologically Sophisticated, and Truly Sovereign Iran?

As negotiations on a final nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 proceed, CCTV’s news talk program, The Heat, invited Hillary earlier this week to offer her perspective on the requirements for successful negotiations, click on the video above or see here.  The program also included interview segments with Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran and with former Iranian diplomat and nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian.  All three segments are worth watching.  We want to highlight here some of Hillary’s more important points.

Hillary notes that, while the chances for diplomatic breakthrough between Washington and Tehran are “the best they have been for at least a decade,” gaps between the United States and Iran remain “wide” on key issues.  Most importantly, “at this point, the United States doesn’t want Iran to have an industrial-scale nuclear program.

In Hillary’s view, the “big picture” strategic challenge for the United States in pursuing a diplomatic opening with Iran is recognizing that the Islamic Republic “has sovereign rights, treaty rights, and can be treated like a normal state.”  In the context of the nuclear talks, more specifically, the question is whether the United States “can countenance a country that will be strong, independent, and a real nuclear power—not a weapons power, but a real nuclear power.”

On this point, Seyed Mohammad Marandi says that, from an Iranian perspective, “the crux of the problem is the very notion that Western powers are in a position or they have the authority to determine what Iran is allowed to have and is not allowed to have.  Iran is not going to accept anything less than its full rights within the framework of international law.”

Hillary describes how, to a considerable degree, Washington has been compelled to drop thirty-five years of rejecting the Islamic Republic’s very legitimacy and to consider cutting some sort of deal with it because of the erosion of U.S. military options vis-à-vis Iran and the strategic failure of American sanctions policy.

–With regard to military options, Hillary observes that “one of the things that has made these negotiations possible in a constructive manner is that, from August 2013, when President Obama declared that the United States would attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there, and then had to walk it back and say, “No, actually I can’t do that, Congress isn’t going to support me, no one around the world is going to support me’—with that, the United States’ ability to credibly threaten the effective use of force greatly diminished.  So now you don’t hear President Obama say nearly as much, ‘all options are on the table’—not because the United States doesn’t want to have that [option], but because we don’t have it.  We lost it over Syria, and over some of the other failed military interventions over the last decade.”

–While “the idea that sanctions have so crippled the Iranians, and especially the Iranian leadership, that they have come crawling to the table” is popular in American political discourse, this is a false assessment, “put out there to justify a policy that we have put in place for thirty-five years that has not brought down the Islamic Republic, has not overthrown its government, and has not weakened it.  We’ve seen Iranian power rise and rise.  And I think in some ways the Iranians are letting us have a bit of that narrative, to justify how sanctions have, in a way, let the United States come to the table…It’s a bit the reverse of what the American rhetoric is here, from Washington—it’s not so much that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table; they really brought the Americans to the table.”

Hillary explains that, because of these difficulties, the Obama administration has, over the last two years, determined that the United States might be able to “accept” the Islamic Republic—but “only if it can become part of a pro-American, U.S.-led security and political order in the Middle East.”  To join such an order,  “states in the region have to give up some elements of sovereign rights—to have a big, functioning military; to have full industrialization—and to have policies that support the United States.  So I think what the U.S. team is really trying to test is whether the Islamic Republic of Iran can join this pro-American political and security order”—and, to show that the Islamic Republic could do this, whether Iran “would limit [its] ability to have a civilian nuclear program, according to American wishes.”

Hillary elaborates that, in broader perspective,

“The nuclear deal is almost like, when Nixon and Kissinger first went to China and the relationship opened, we had the Shanghai Communique.  At the end of the day, it was just a piece of paper; it means nothing in the broader scheme of what has become a huge relationship between the United States and China.  The nuclear deal between the U.S. and Iran would essentially serve that function; it would be the equivalent of the Shanghai Communique, to allow for this opening of a relationship between Iran and the United States.

Now the big difference is that the United States wants this relationship on terms that would shore up a pro-American political and security order throughout the region, throughout the Middle East.  What Iran wants in that relationship is to maintain its independence, maintain its sovereignty, and to continue to have this ability to rise as an important power.  Now it may be possible for those two goals to be met, but it’s going to be extremely difficult.”

This difference in fundamental goals is also manifested in U.S.-Iranian disagreements over sanctions, with the Iranians seeking to end sanctions while the Americans talk about suspending them, with specific triggers for re-imposing them.  Hillary explains that the U.S. position grows out of Washington’s greater goal,

“which is to bring Iran into this pro-American political and security order in the region that allows the United States to punish states that don’t go along with U.S. policy preferences—including by the re-imposition or increasing of sanctions on them.  So that is a big strategic goal for the United States.

For Iran, though, Iran has not had trade relations with the United States for thirty-five years.  Their strategy is, if they can get all U.S. sanctions lifted, great.  But the real goal is not this idea that the United States is somehow going to change overnight.  But if the United States can at least get out of the way, stand to the side, not enforce those sanctions, waive those sanctions at least every six months, that would allow room for other states that Iran is very focused on—in Europe, in Asia, especially with China, and other countries—to allow them to trade and invest more freely (and without the constant threat of punishment from the United States), to allow them to invest in the Iranian economy.  That’s the real economic prize; it’s not to open up U.S. trade or U.S. investment per se.”

Looking ahead to a prospective final agreement, Hillary cautions that negotiators “are going to try to have it as specific as possible, to really hold each side to account—not to build trust, but essentially to build in triggers to punish the other side if something goes wrong.  That is not going to be a durable agreement.”  Instead of this approach, Hillary argues that

“the most effective agreement that could come to fruition, whether its July 20 (the self-imposed deadline) or after that, will be something more vague.  It will be something more along the lines of the Shanghai Communique between the United States and China, which essentially will say that Iran will be recognized as a sovereign state.  There may be some interim period for confidence building, but that will be temporary, and after that interim period Iran will be recognized—especially by the United States, but by all of the P5+1—as a normal sovereign state exercising normal sovereign rights, including those for a civilian nuclear program…If they get bogged down in the details of exactly how many centrifuges Iran can run for exactly how much time, that’s a recipe for failure.

The rest of Hillary’s interview is worth watching, as are the segments with Seyed Mohammad Marandi and Seyed Hossein Mousavian.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Can America Pivot from its “Axis of Evil” Doctrine?

As negotiators begin working on the text of a prospective “final” nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1, there is a proliferation of commentaries in the mainstream media offering various prognostications on the talks.  Some are relatively optimistic, stressing the need of political leaders in both Washington and Tehran to resolve the nuclear issue and the progress that has been made so far in nuclear diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.  Alternatively, some assessments are relatively pessimistic, stressing the wide gaps that still remain between the United States and its Western partners, on one side, and Iran, on the other, over core issues—e.g., Iranian enrichment and the lifting of American sanctions.

In our view, the success or failure of the nuclear talks ultimately hinges on a more fundamental question—something that Hillary pointed out in a “primer” on nuclear diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1 that NBC News recently published, see here.  Hillary underscores that the real importance of the Obama administration’s acceptance of the Joint Plan of Action in November 2013 was a tentative, but potentially strategic shift in U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic:

The very idea of allowing Iran to have a nuclear program is indicative of the Obama administration’s reversal of the “Bush doctrine,” which held that Tehran was an “evil” regime that must be prevented from doing any nuclear research, noted Hillary Mann Leverett, author of Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran and professor at American University’s School of International Service.  “The key point is not the numbers of centrifuges or levels of enrichment,” Leverett told NBC News.  “The key point is a post-9/11 American recognition that a former member of President [George W.] Bush’s ‘axis of evil’ can be treated like a normal state with rights and interests that need to be accommodated.”

For the current nuclear talks, the key question is whether the Obama administration can follow through on this recognition and treat the Islamic Republic as a truly sovereign state, with a right to the highest levels of technological sophistication it can attain—including in the nuclear arena.  If not, the options for the United States in the Middle East will be very poor indeed.  As Hillary told NBC,

“The best case is that a nuclear deal becomes the catalyst for a ‘Nixon to China’-like opening between the United States and Iran,” said Leverett. “The worst case is that President Obama listens to the same cadre of Middle East ‘experts’ that have mislead the American people into disastrous military interventions—from Iraq to Libya.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


With Washington’s Syria Gambit in Tatters, Iran’s ‘Smart Power’ Strategy Working

One of the more persistent tropes in Western discourse about the Syrian conflict is that, by “siding with” the Assad government, the Islamic Republic of Iran has marginalized itself in regional affairs and squandered much of the soft power it had accumulated as the champion of regional resistance to Western and Israeli abuse.  From the outset of the Syrian conflict, we have been critical of this view (and of the Western approach to Syria more generally).  For three years, we have argued that Iran is an indispensable player in any serious effort to negotiated a political settlement in Syria—and that such a settlement will necessarily be reached between the Syrian government, headed by President Bashar al-Assad, and those elements of the opposition who understand that they cannot defeat Assad either on the battlefield or at the ballot box.  In other words, a political settlement may reform Syria’s current political order—but it won’t overturn that order.

Now, events of the ground are providing ever more abundant evidence that our analysis is correct.

Late last week, the Syrian government and opposition fighters in the city of Homs reached agreement on a ceasefire.  Beyond a ceasefire, the agreement is drawn to let opposition fighters leave Homs for other rebel-held areas, effectively surrendering Syria’s third-largest city back to the government.  Yesterday, the New York Times and other media outlets reported that, while the evacuation of opposition fighters had not yet occurred, the ceasefire in Homs is holding.  If the agreement is fully implemented, the departure of opposition fighters from Homs would constitute another significant military advance by the government in its campaign against rebel forces—helping set the stage for Syrian presidential elections on June 3, with President Assad standing for a third term. 

One of the more striking things about this story is that, according to the Wall Street Journal, the talks between the Syrian government and opposition fighters that produced this agreement were “brokered by the United Nations and the Iranian Embassy in Damascus.”  Western discourse about Syria wants to limit any discussion of a “peace process” in Syria to the Geneva process—but the United States and its Western partners have rendered the Geneva process utterly dysfunctional by their continued insistence on Assad’s departure as an essential precondition for a political settlement.  By contrast, the Islamic Republic of Iran, by having a clear political strategy of supporting elections and by being willing to deal with all relevant players—even “a hard-line Sunni Muslim rebel group,” as the Wall Street Journal describes its interlocutors in Homs—is actually able to accomplish things on the ground in Syria.

So, which parties are in fact marginalizing themselves in regional affairs by unreservedly aligning themselves with one side—and refusing to have anything to do with the other side—in the Syrian conflict?  At this point, it seems that the Islamic Republic of Iran is pursuing a much smarter and more effective strategy in Syria than the United States and its partners.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett