In “America’s Iran Policy and the Undermining of International Order,” published in The World Financial Review, see here, we argue that “strategic competition between America and Iran will shape not only the Middle East’s balance of power, but also the dynamics of international order through much of the 21st century.” As we elaborate,
“How Washington deals with Tehran will show whether America is open to sharing the prerogatives of global governance with rising powers in the global South. Such openness would greatly enhance prospects for conflict resolution with Iran; as the balance of economic and political power shifts from West to East, it would also enhance prospects for more effective global governance by aligning responsibility and capacity more accurately. Furthermore, it would help sustain America’s influence even as its relative power declines.
But Washington and a coterie of European states remain focused on forcing the Islamic Republic to abandon its nuclear program, accept open-ended American and Israeli military dominance, and acquiesce in its (Western-sponsored) secular liberal transformation. Determination to compel Iran’s surrender prompts ever more assiduous efforts by America and its partners to coerce other states into helping them press Tehran. In the process, Western powers violate basic principles of the rules-based regimes governing key dimensions of international security and global commerce.
This dynamic makes negotiating plausible solutions with Tehran, on the nuclear issue and other challenges, virtually impossible. It also makes U.S. foreign policy the biggest source of political risk in the global economy. More broadly, hegemonic assertions by America and a few European partners are increasingly at odds with the realities of relative clout in world affairs. If continued, these assertions will provoke backlash from rising non-Western powers that will undermine the functioning of rules-based regimes for nuclear nonproliferation, trade, and other vital issues, and damage America’s long-term position in international affairs.”
In our article, we explore in greater depth how Western obsession with compelling Iran’s surrender on the nuclear issue corrodes the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the nuclear nonproliferation regime. We also explore how America’s increasing reliance on secondary sanctions in its Iran policy undercuts international economic order and hurts U.S. interests in multiple ways, including by “accelerat[ing] the shift of economic power from West to East.” We conclude,
“Putting America on a better strategic trajectory will take thoroughgoing revision of its Iran policy. In this regard, the election of Hassan Rohani—who ran the Islamic Republic’s Supreme National Security Council for sixteen years, was its chief nuclear negotiator during 2003-2005, and holds advanced degrees in Islamic law and civil law—as Iran’s next president is an opportunity. If America wants a nuclear deal grounded in the NPT, Rohani is an ideal interlocutor. But this would require Washington to bring its own policy in line with the NPT—first of all, by acknowledging Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment.
Strategic recovery will also entail reversing Washington’s reliance on secondary sanctions—not because of Iranian surrender (which won’t be forthcoming), but because they delegitimize America’s claim to continuing leadership in international economic affairs. This, however, is even more difficult than revising the U.S. position on Iranian enrichment—for Congress has legislated conditions for lifting sanctions that stipulate Iran’s abandonment of all alleged WMD activities, cutting all ties to those Washington deems terrorists, and political transformation. Overcoming this will require Obama to do what President Nixon did to enable America’s historic breakthrough with China—going to Tehran, strategically if not physically, to accept a previously demonized political order as a legitimate entity representing legitimate national interests.
None of this is particularly likely. But if America doesn’t do these things, it commends itself to a future as an increasingly failing, and flailing, superpower—and as an obstacle, rather than a facilitator, of rules-based international order.”
Since our article was published, Rohani has been inaugurated as the Islamic Republic’s president and has announced his choices for the cabinet and other key positions. Commenting on the nomination of Mohammad Javad Zarif as the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Flynt told CCTV on the day of Rohani’s inauguration, see here or click on the embedded video above, that Zarif’s appointment contains an important message for Washington:
“If you want to do a deal that’s based on international legality, based on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, based on a sense of respect for Iran’s legitimate interests and rights, then, with the appointment of Ambassador Zarif to be the new foreign minister, Rohani—and, by extension, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei—they’re putting the ‘A team’ in there, they’re putting the best possible team that the United States could have on the other side of the table.”
Unfortunately, though, “the Obama administration and its Western partners are looking to Rohani—I think mistakenly—as someone who may be willing to suspend enrichment, possibly even down the road surrender enrichment.” If the United States and its partners persist in this,
“We’re going to head toward diplomatic deadlock pretty quickly…You have a team here that sees potentially great value for Iran in reaching some kind of rapprochement with the United States and with the West. But it will be a big mistake, on the West’s part, if we think that they’re prepared to do it at what basically any Iranian elite would tell you at this point would be too high a price. They won’t suspend enrichment; they certainly won’t surrender enrichment.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett