Our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran provided a rich in-depth interview to the WBUR “On Point” program, which is syndicated on many NPR stations. In the same program, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, Thomas Erdibrink, and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari, are also interviewed. The program can be heard by clicking the audio link above or by going to http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/04/14/iran-nuclear-deal-view-from-tehran.
What the Nuclear “Framework” Means, Doesn’t Mean, and Could Yet Mean: Hillary Mann Leverett on CCTV’s The Heat, MSNBC, CNN, RT, and NPR
Hillary appeared on CCTV’s The Heat this week to discuss the “framework” Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, see here (Hillary’s segment runs from 2:45 to 12:40). Hillary notes that, in itself, the JCPOA is not so important, that “there’s not so much of a ‘there’ there, to say that there’s an agreement.” But, she stresses, the JCPOA is very important in terms of its “potential”:
“It’s the potential, particularly for the United States, in our own interest, to get off this incredibly self-damaging trajectory of never-ending war in the Middle East—the failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. This gives us the chance to get off of all that, and to actually have constructive relations with one of the most, if not the most important power in the Middle East.”
In multiple recent media appearances—on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry, see here, and The Cycle, see here and here; on CNN, see here, here, here, here, and here; on RT, see here; and on NPR, see here—Hillary has been emphasizing that the real value of a prospective nuclear deal is the “strategic opportunity” it presents for the United States to “come to terms with the Islamic Republic” as a “rising regional power” and to “realign its relations in the Middle East.”
But President Obama seems to be going out of his way not to seize this opportunity. Appearing on CNN’s New Day with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hillary took on Albright’s defense of the JCPOA as a narrowly technical arms control agreement that is in U.S. interest primarily because it lets America and its allies put more constraints on a threatening actor. (Albright’s position, is, of course, very much in keeping with the Obama administration’s public defense of the JCPOA). More specifically, Hillary argued that
“[T]he critical problem here is for President Obama to make the strategic sell. If he focuses on it just as an arms control agreement, my concern is that it will die on the vine, just like President Carter’s SALT II treaty with the Soviets over their strategic arsenal.
We’ve seen failure before. We could see failure again if it’s a narrow arms control issue. If there’s a broader strategic case like Nixon and Kissinger vis-à-vis China, I think it will sell. But President Obama has been extremely reluctant to make that strategic case. Instead, he seems to be going down the path of President Carter, where he’s dependent on a Congress to OK an arms control agreement when there may not be any arms control agreement with Iran that would be good enough for them.”
More broadly, as Hillary explains on The Heat, unwillingness to adjust U.S. strategy to the reality of a truly independent Iran is the most basic, even primordial driver of opposition to a prospective nuclear deal:
“The problem the critics have here is not with the agreement itself; it’s with the system in Iran, with the Islamic Republic itself. What they want to see is a different government there, what we had under the Shah—a government that is very obedient to American interests and carries what we see as our policy preferences. Then they actually might be happy with that government having nuclear weapons, as they were apparently happy and prepared to have the Shah have nuclear weapons, as they are happy to have and prepared to accept Israel with nuclear weapons, and apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons. The issue is not the nuclear program, even though so much of the attention is put on that; the issue is the system. And this is the central question for American policymakers: can we accept, in our own interest, this fiercely independent Islamic Republic of Iran, align with it where we can, like against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, perhaps even in Yemen against al-Qa’ida there, and bracket the areas where we disagree, perhaps like Israel?”
In this regard, if President Obama seizes the “strategic opening” that a nuclear deal with Iran can potentially create, then
“We could for the first time in decades decrease our dependency on our so-called allies, particularly the Saudis and the Israelis, that—for all Americans think they’ve benefitted the United States—have done things that have been profoundly damaging to U.S. interests: in the Saudi case, to fund and arm Sunni jihadists across the Middle East, and in the Israeli case, to be overseeing this perpetual, never-ending occupation. We could lessen our dependency on those countries—not dump them as allies, but lessen our dependency—and have more constructive relations with all the countries. That could be as profound as what Nixon and Kissinger did when they opened to China and realigned our relations fundamentally in Asia.”
The need for such realignment and diplomatic flexibility could hardly be clearer. As Hillary told Melissa Harris-Parry,
“Today, it is Iran that is fighting against ISIS, it is Iran that is fighting against al-Qa’ida, and it’s our allies, for example the Saudis, that are bombing in Yemen today, enabling al-Qa’ida to take over more and more territory there. It’s the Saudis that just supported a group, an al-Qa’ida group, to take over yet another Syrian city. That’s not going to end up well for the United States. We know where that trajectory goes; it leads to more and more war. [Obama] needs to make the strategic case, like Nixon did about China.”
Our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, appeared on the same episode of The Heat as Hillary; his segment starts 15:50 into the video. Mohammad underscores how the Obama administration’s efforts to “spin” the JCPOA, continuing uncertainty “whether the United States is ready to come to terms with post-revolutionary Iran, Iran as a sovereign and independent and powerful country,” and America’s unreconstructed Middle East policies are affirming already strong doubts in Tehran about U.S. intentions, toward the Islamic Republic and in the region more generally. Mohammad explores these themes as well in an important recent segment of RT’s Op-Edge, see here.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
The National Interest has published our latest article, “Reality Check: America Needs Iran,” see here; we’ve also appended the text below. The piece argues that by trying to pursue a narrow arms control agreement with Tehran, while doubling-down on failed policies of offensively and unconditionally arming and supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Obama Administration “ignores an overwhelming strategic reality: America’s position in the Middle East is in free fall, and the only way out is to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on The National Interest’s Web site.
Reality Check: America Needs Iran
by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
Since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was announced last week, the Obama administration—echoing previous pledges that nuclear talks with Tehran do not presage a U.S.-Iranian “grand bargain”—has assiduously reaffirmed that progress on the nuclear issue does not signal a wider diplomatic opening.
Such a posture ignores an overwhelming strategic reality: America’s position in the Middle East is in free fall, and the only way out is to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington must do this as purposefully as it realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, when it struggled to extricate America from the self-inflicted debacle of the Vietnam War and to renew its diplomatic options, for the Cold War’s last phase and beyond. By not using nuclear diplomacy as a catalyst for broader, “Nixon to China” rapprochement with Iran, Obama and his team ensure further erosion of America’s standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally.
U.S. engagement in the Middle East over the past quarter century is a textbook example of what Paul Kennedy famously described as “imperial overstretch”—a great power’s expansion of strategic ambitions and commitments beyond its capacity to sustain them.
In the U.S. case, trying to remake and, ultimately, subordinate the Middle East through military campaigns and other forms of coercive intervention has not just failed; it has been profoundly self-damaging to America’s strategic position. By seeking to dominate the region—in the process imposing missions on U.S. armed forces that not even the world’s most powerful military could accomplish, squandering vast human and material resources on a scale that not even the world’s largest economy could sustain, and eviscerating the perceived legitimacy of U.S. purposes for the vast majority of Middle Easterners—America has made itself weaker.
To recover, Washington must embrace a new Middle East strategy—one aimed not at coercive dominance but at a reasonably stable balance of power in which major regional states check one another’s reckless impulses.
Such a strategy requires two things.
First, Washington needs to engage—positively and comprehensively—with all important regional actors. Second, Washington needs to recalibrate relations with America’s traditional Middle Eastern allies—most notably, Israel and Saudi Arabia. A robust diplomatic opening to Iran is essential to both these tasks.
Whether American elites like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable power in today’s Middle East. The Islamic Republic’s influence is due to its revolutionary commitment to independence and its participatory Islamist order (not despite these things). Its influence is, therefore, rising in arenas across the region—and will continue to do so when and as Middle Eastern Muslims gain greater access to participatory politics.
This prompts increasingly alarmist warnings from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their mouthpieces that Iranian “proxies” are “gobbling up the Middle East.” In fact, Tehran has grown its influence by supporting unavoidable constituencies marginalized by unrepresentative power structures.
Iran did not create Shi’a majorities in Iraq and Bahrain, or Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality; it did not invent Yemen’s Zaidi community (the Houthis’s base) or occupied Palestinians. But Tehran has helped these constituencies organize to press their legitimate grievances—so that virtually any expansion of political participation in these venues empowers Iranian allies.
This approach makes it impossible to circumscribe Iranian influence over time. America must recognize that influence as an indispensable factor in regional politics. Washington needs positive relations with Tehran not only to fight common foes like the Islamist State, but also to promote genuine regional security.
To these same ends, Washington should look soberly at its allies’ regional impact. Today, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia truly represents most of those it governs; neither can endorse more participatory politics in the region.
Likewise, neither can compete with Iran’s capacity to exercise positive political influence and facilitate real conflict resolution in contested regional arenas; on their own, Israel and Saudi Arabia can only make things worse. And, regardless of whatever various segments of America’s political class may perceive Israel and Saudi Arabia to have done for the United States, both pursue policies harmful to U.S. interests (e.g., Israel’s open-ended occupation of Arab populations and aggressive military posture; Saudi Arabia’s support for violent Sunni jihadis and suppression of moderate Sunni Islamists across the region willing to compete for political power through elections).
To reduce the mounting costs that Israeli and Saudi policies impose on America’s position in the Middle East, Washington needs to reduce its dependence on Israel and Saudi Arabia. A rising Iran could be very helpful in checking the counter-productive policies of America’s traditional regional allies.
But, instead, Obama and his team are reducing a prospective nuclear deal with Iran to the latest version of a self-deluding but widely held ambition among American elites: to “contain” the Islamic Republic while playing on what those elites imagine are its internal contradictions, so as to hasten its demise. America has tried this before in the Middle East—against Saddam’s Iraq, which had vastly inferior sources of legitimacy than the Islamic Republic. Notwithstanding sanctions that killed over half a million Iraqis (half of them children) over thirteen years, Iraqis did not replace Saddam with figures ready to implement sanctioning powers’ preferred policies. Unseating Saddam required a U.S.-led invasion that proved a blunder of historic proportions for America.
As it follows this well-trod path to strategic failure, the Obama administration is also doubling down on some of the unhealthiest aspects of America’s traditional regional partnerships.
Following the JCPOA’s announcement, Obama promised to maintain Israel’s “qualitative edge”—Washington-speak for continued U.S. backing for offensive Israeli military actions. In recent weeks, his administration has acquiesced to the Saudi-instigated capture of a Syrian city by an al-Qa’ida affiliate and is providing intelligence, logistical, and political support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen that has killed hundreds of civilians and is enabling al-Qa’ida affiliates to make territorial gains. Now Obama wants to convene Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab monarchies to deepen collaboration on Middle Eastern “security,” without in any serious way engaging Tehran.
This is folly. Rather than gamble anew on demonstrably failed policies, America needs to take charge of its own strategic destiny—through full-fledged rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory—The Case for U.S.-Iranian Rapprochement That Obama Must Still Make: Leveretts in The National Interest
As the Iran nuclear talks reach a critical juncture and Saudi Arabia invades yet another neighboring in its increasingly desperate efforts to contain the Islamic Republic’s rising regional influence, The National Interest has published our latest article, “Busted Stuff: America’s Disastrous Iran Policy,” see here; we’ve also appended the text below. The piece explains how the Obama administration, because of its continuing unwillingness to engage the Islamic Republic as a truly rising power, risks turning a possible nuclear deal with Tehran—which should be the greatest triumph of American diplomacy since the U.S. opening to China in the 1970s—into something that actually “ends up exacerbating America’s ongoing marginalization in the Middle East.”
As always, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on The National Interest’s Web site.
Busted Stuff: America’s Disastrous Iran Policy
By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
Stakes in the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 couldn’t be higher for the countries involved—especially for the United States. After nearly a decade and a half of disastrously self-damaging wars, “counter-terrorism campaigns,” and military occupations in the Middle East, the dysfunction and incoherence of U.S. policy is now on full display, from Iraq to Libya, Syria, and now Yemen. To recover, Washington must accept on-the-ground realities: U.S. efforts to dominate the region have failed and the Islamic Republic of Iran is now a rising power with which America must come to terms.
But President Obama has yet to explain why the United States—for its own interests, not as a favor to Iran, or simply because Americans are war-weary—needs rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. Absent such advocacy, his administration may still reach a nuclear deal with Iran. But it will lose the political fight at home over a new Iran policy, squandering the chance for a broader strategic opening with Tehran and locking the United States into increasingly steep strategic decline in the Middle East and globally.
Today, America cannot achieve any of its high-priority goals in the Middle East—e.g., combatting the Islamic State, forestalling another violent Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, and resolving conflicts in Syria and Yemen—without better ties with Iran. Under any political order, Iran is a pivotal country, given its demographic and territorial size, its geostrategic location, its identity as a civilizational state with a history as long as China’s, and its hydrocarbon resources. But, under the Islamic Republic—which, since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, has worked to forge an indigenously-designed political system combining participatory politics and elections with elements of Islamic governance, and to pursue foreign policy independence—Iran enjoys a powerful legitimacy that bolsters its regional impact.
For too many Americans, thirty-five years of demonizing caricature mask an essential fact: the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the Middle East’s only successful participatory Islamist order, has been able to pursue an independent foreign policy that has steadily bolstered its influence in critical arenas across the Middle East. If America is to recover its strategic position, it must devise a fundamentally different relationship with this rising power. It must do so not only because of Iran’s unique importance, but also as a first step toward coming to terms with Middle Eastern Muslims’ manifest desire—reflected in polls and in electoral outcomes whenever they get to vote in a reasonably open way—to define their political futures in terms of participatory Islamism and foreign policy independence.
Ignoring these realities, the Obama administration treats a nuclear deal as, at most, a “nice to have” option. Obama rarely identifies potential U.S. gains from realigning relations with Iran; instead, he stresses how Washington is providing Tehran with an “opportunity” to “benefit from rejoining the international community.”
It’s probably never a good idea to try selling a politically controversial diplomatic initiative by stressing the initiative’s presumptive benefits for the other side. To the extent that the Obama administration has touched on potential upsides for the United States, it has done so in narrowly technical terms, positing that a multilateral agreement is the most cost-effective way to manage theoretical proliferation risks associated with Iran enriching uranium under international safeguards (risks posed by uranium enrichment in any country).
This restricted focus opens U.S. diplomacy up to three major problems. First, it conditions U.S. demands on Tehran with no grounding in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or other aspects of international law. This may seem useful to show constituencies in the United States and allied countries that the Obama administration is putting Iran’s nuclear capabilities in a very tight “box”—e.g., by requiring the dismantling of an arbitrarily large number of Iranian centrifuges or refusing to lift UN Security Council sanctions on Iran for years into the implementation of an agreement. But it also makes clear that America is not prepared to deal with the Islamic Republic as the legitimate representative of legitimate Iranian interests—the only basis for real rapprochement.
Second, a narrowly technical approach is vulnerable to criticism that it does not actually accomplish the goals its advocates set (criticism epitomized in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s charge that diplomacy “doesn’t block Iran’s path to the bomb; it paves Iran’s path to the bomb”). In the 1970s, the Carter administration insisted that the SALT II agreements it had negotiated with the Soviet Union put meaningful limits on the growth of Moscow’s strategic arsenal. But this technical argument was trumped by more politically resonant claims that SALT II left an unreconstructed Soviet adversary with too much nuclear capability; ultimately, congressional opposition killed SALT II. If Obama does not make the case for a nuclear deal as a catalyst for broader (and strategically imperative) rapprochement with Tehran, he will face mounting political pushback against meeting U.S. commitments essential to implementing a deal.
Third, Obama’s posture makes it increasingly probable that the geopolitical benefits of diplomatically resolving the nuclear issue will accrue primarily not to the United States, but to China and Russia. It seems all too likely that the Obama administration will continue to resist packaging a nuclear deal as part of comprehensive, “Nixon to China” rapprochement with Tehran. It seems virtually certain that, under a deal, the administration will only commit to “waive” America’s Iran-related sanctions, for six months at a time, through the balance of Obama’s presidency. Indeed, senior administration officials told Congress last week that current sanctions legislation should stay on the books until a deal’s end, years from now, so that Washington can continue leveraging Tehran’s actions.
By contrast, even before a nuclear deal is concluded, Beijing and Moscow are laying the ground to deepen their already significant economic and strategic cooperation with Iran. (Both Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin will visit Tehran this spring.) The Obama administration’s technically reductionist approach to Iran relations raises the risks that what should be the greatest triumph of American diplomacy since the U.S. opening to China in the 1970s will end up exacerbating America’s ongoing marginalization in the Middle East.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett
Appearing on RT’s CrossTalk, click on the video above or see here and (for YouTube) here, Hillary explored the anti-Muslim bias and even outright racism driving some aspects of the opposition to a prospective Iran nuclear deal here in the United States. (Her foil on this point was Fred Fleitz, former CIA analyst who established his neoconservative foreign policy credentials as chief of staff to John Bolton and Bob Joseph during their tenures as Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.) Evaluating domestic political dynamics in Tehran and Washington vis-à-vis the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran, Hillary says,
“I am not so concerned about the so-called ‘hardliners’ in Iran who may derail this deal. I think we’re dealing with an Iranian government that has been very clear-eyed about what it wants to get out of these negotiations and has focused on it very seriously. And they have the support of the Supreme Leader and others…
But I am very concerned on the American side here…My colleague [Fred Fleitz] used this language that the Obama Administration needed ‘adult supervision.’ You see that reflected in the [Republican senators’] letter, you see it in the commentary—some very insulting terms about President Obama himself, as if he’s not an adult, he’s a child. The letter supposedly warns the Iranians that any deal would just be a deal between Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei, as if the Iranians really had to worry about that. That line is directed toward the American people, to sow questions in a pernicious narrative here that maybe Obama is really sympathetic with ‘the ayatollahs,’ he’s really sympathetic with Islamists. And maybe he’s not really, exactly ‘American.’ We heard former [New York City] Mayor Giuliani make such comments about Obama, too, that maybe Obama doesn’t really love America. There’s always been an undercurrent here, since Obama started campaigning, and I think it’s rearing its ugly head again, now that the Republicans control both the House and the Senate.”
When Hillary asked Fleitz directly why he used language that Obama needs ‘adult supervision,’ he had no response. Elaborating on her critique, Hillary explains,
“There are two very pernicious narratives that have taken hold in Washington.
One…is what Prime Minister Netanyahu gave voice to when he spoke before Congress, which is that essentially all Islamists are brutal, bloody terrorists—that the Islamic Republic is the same thing as the Islamic State, equating all Islamists, regardless of what they’re doing, as bloody, brutal terrorists—and that we have no choice but to eliminate and then impose puppet regimes on them, so they’ll behave. That’s a very dangerous narrative for the United States, because it keeps our head in the sand, in defiance of reality that there are more than a billion Muslims in this world and we’re somehow going to have to come to terms with them—especially in the Middle East, where they’re seeking real foreign policy independence.
The other pernicious narrative that’s linked to this is an attempt to tie President Obama to that, personally.”
In a telling display of how anti-Muslim bias warps American discourse about Iran, Fleitz reacted to the moderator, Peter Lavelle, pointing out that Iran has a sovereign right—acknowledged in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—to enrich uranium with an emblematic declaration: “It shouldn’t have that right.” In response, Hillary notes,
“It’s really interesting, because this point that Iran ‘shouldn’t have that right’ really gets to the heart of this. There’s a group here in Washington who thinks that they should be able to pick and choose which countries can have which rights. And the nuclear issue is critically important there. It’s fine for them that Israel has nuclear weapons; it’s fine for them that India as an American friend has nuclear weapons…The problem that opponents have is they don’t like the Islamic Republic. And so people like Sen. Cotton and his supporters here, they’re fine with a deal with Iran—but not this Iran, not the Islamic Republic of Iran. They want it to be with a puppet regime in Iran that takes dictated terms from Washington. That’s just not going to happen, no matter how much people want it. That defies reality.”
Extending her analysis, Hillary underscores that “the real concern” of a prospective nuclear deal’s opponents is “the changing balance of power in the Middle East and, whether they like it or not, the changing balance of power around the world. The concern is not whether it’s 2, 200 or 2,000 centrifuges. The concern is the rise of Iran and what that means in the Middle East. The concern is the rise of Russia, the rise of China, and what that means for international politics. I think that, for all of its flaws, the Obama administration is trying to navigate those reality-based changes in the balance of power, in the Middle East and around the world. And this deal will focus the United States on those necessary correctives in our own foreign policy—to get us off the track of trying to impose military dominance all over the Middle East and around the world. That’s the importance of this agreement. But President Obama hasn’t actually explained that to the American people, and therefore he opens the window for all of these various kinds of insulting tactics against his policies.”
Interestingly, as negotiators from the P5+1 and Iran appear to be getting close to agreement on key substantive aspects of a prospective nuclear deal, implementation—mainly on the U.S. side, is emerging as an ever more salient challenge. In this regard, Hillary points out that Iran has been careful not to put “all their eggs in the American basket. They have working constructive partnerships with Russia, China, European countries. And I think they will focus on the UN and the UN Security Council to give them the international security guarantees required since the United States may not be able to live up to its word,” in terms of actually implementing a deal.
The endgame for this process promises to be very interesting, indeed.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett