Diplomacy with Iran Won’t Work if It’s Tied to Sanctions, Coercion, and American Fantasies of Regime Change

In a Reuters Op-ed last week, we held that simply expressing an interest in “talking” to Tehran would not be enough for the Obama administration to launch successful diplomacy with Iran.  The essential ingredient, we argued, is American “acceptance” of the Islamic Republic as “a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests”—just as President Richard Nixon’s acceptance of the People’s Republic of China enabled the realignment of U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s.

Subsequent events have demonstrated the accuracy of our analysis.  On February 2, Vice President Biden said that the Obama administration was open to direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran, if “the Iranian leadership, Supreme Leader, is serious.”  We warned then that:

“This formulation completely obscures how it is the Obama administration, not Ayatollah Khamenei, that has not been diplomatically serious.  That’s because the Obama administration remains unwilling to detach itself from the neo-imperial strategy in the Middle East that it inherited from its predecessors.”

Four days later, on February 6, new U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, recently signed into law by President Obama, went into effect.  And today—as should have been expected—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei responded, saying that “Iran will never accept to negotiate with he who threatens us with pressure.  The offer of talks is meaningful when the other side shows goodwill.”

As we noted in our Reuters Op-ed, the Obama Administration’s current strategy—“negotiating on terms that could not possibly interest Iran while escalating covert operations, cyber attacks, and economic warfare against it”—will not work.  Indeed, it puts the United States on a trajectory toward yet another, even more self-damaging war in the Middle East.

In our new book, Going to Tehran:  Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, we lay out what serious U.S. diplomacy would look like—and why it is imperative for American interests that the United States pursue “Nixon-to-China”-like rapprochement with Tehran.  As he moves into his second term, President Obama is apparently no more inclined to formulate and implement a reality-based Iran policy than he was during his first term.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


35 Responses to “Diplomacy with Iran Won’t Work if It’s Tied to Sanctions, Coercion, and American Fantasies of Regime Change”

  1. ldubinsky says:

    whether the talks with Iran succeed or not is of less importance than are the sanctions, coercion and goal of getting the Iranian theocratic regime to change

  2. James Canning says:

    According to The New York Times (in report from Tehran today), the P5+1 are prepared to accept Iranian enrichment to low level (5%). This is a step forward.

    Does Obama have the strategic thinking ability to do a “Nixon to China” trip? I very much doubt it.

  3. James Canning says:


    (From prior thread): If we end up with a blockade, the world will have to do without Iranian oil.

  4. Fiorangela says:

    ldubinsky says:
    February 7, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    “whether the talks with Iran succeed or not is of less importance than . . .the goal of getting the Iranian theocratic regime to change”
    = = =

    -Change what?
    -Change from what to what?
    -On whose mandate?
    -Do the Iranian people get a say in if or how their government should “change”?

  5. Neil M says:

    “And today—as should have been expected—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei responded, saying that “Iran will never accept to negotiate with he who threatens us with pressure.”

    I’m reading the Ayatollah’s response in conjunction with reports that, in the past few days, both Russia and China have performed drive-by provocations of Obama’s “pivot” partners in Asia-Pacific. The world’s second ex-superpower has lots of hardware but not much tactical or strategic ability against entities which can shoot back.

    The US’s global network of bases looks impressive to armchair rednecks but the reality is that such a (dangerously interdependent) network is hugely vulnerable to a co-ordinated attack by competent foes.

    It’s time for Obama to sober up and demand some sensible advice from his (seduced by their own balderdash) chickenhawk advisers.

  6. Dan Cooper says:

    Ayatollah Khamenei also noted that during the past four years, nothing has been seen from the United States but continuation of conspiracies, abetting seditionists and supporting the terrorists which assassinated Iranian nation’s scientists.


  7. Sineva says:

    It does make me laugh,the west wants iran not to install next generation centrifuges at fordow,it then offers the possibility of one on one talks but then slaps new sanctions on iran,it reminds me a little of some of the arms reduction negotiations between east and west during the cold war,the west said that it would not begin production and deployment of cruise missiles in europe if the russians scrapped the already in service ss20 naturally the west would be getting the better deal so the russians said nyet,the west thought the russians were trying to leap frog them,the russian tho` considered that they were just playing catch up with the west

    James Canning says:
    February 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm
    Actually james if there is a blockade the world will have to do without middle eastern oil ie around 25-30%+ of the worlds oil,how do you think the west will cope with oil at $200-300+ per barrel? I don`t think they will,why do you think iran has the largest stock of sea mines and ashcm`s in the middle east,any blocade would be met with a counter blocade

    Neil M says:
    February 7, 2013 at 10:51 pm
    I agree

  8. masoud says:

    Persian Gulf:

    I take the exact opposite view of recent events in the Majles than you do. I recommend that you actually watch the speech that Ahmadinejad gave rather than judging the merit of Larijani’s response. Ahmadinejad really is amazing at what he does. Larijani is quite a bit weaker by comparison.


    In any case, how can you say that the Larijani clan’s attempt to shakedown Mortezavi, when the issue before the Majles is retaliation against the government for blocking it’s attempt to fire Mortezavi, is useless and irrelevant? If Ali Larijani was unelectable in 2005, he and his entire family are going to be toxic going forward, and no one who appears allied to them will have a chance. I have to wonder how long Khameini can allow himself to be associated with them.

    The entire point of this exercise was to remind certain quarters that they better not forget who they’re dealing with. Maybe the guardian council won’t let Mashaei through, but they’ll have to let someone else from his camp, Rahimi for example. For one thing, there’s only going to be one principlist candidate, and no on really takes the reformists seriously anymore.

    I’ve been reading predictions that Ahmadinejad is a spent force since 2005, and things only get more interesting. You really think Ahmadinejad is going to sit quiet and let his inner circle get carted off to jail? He is the single most popular politician in the history of country, and he didn’t need the backing of a party or coalition to get there. No one is going to want to pick a fight with him when he doesn’t have the restraints of his office moderating his actions.
    Where not dealing with Khatami here.

  9. yemi says:

    “James Canning says:
    February 7, 2013 at 7:00 pm


    (From prior thread): If we end up with a blockade, the world will have to do without Iranian oil.”

    Not the whole world, but those that are not willing to buy because Iran would sell its oil. And if we should see a total blockade not only Iranian oil would be affected, and in such case little or no oil would circulate in the world market!

  10. BiBiJon says:

    Chronology is everything

    Iran informs IAEA on Jan 31st

    she plans to add 3,000 faster centrifuges to its main uranium enrichment facility

    Joe (loquacious) Biden on Feb 2nd:

    “We have made it clear at the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership”

    Iran FM, Salehi on Feb 3rd:

    “No red lines for talks”, “But we have to make sure … that the other side comes with authentic intentions with a fair and real intention to resolve the issue.”

    Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen on Feb 6th:

    New sanctions, passed by Congress 6 months ago, to take effect.

    Iran’s SL on Feb 7th:

    “you (US) should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated by these actions”

  11. Fiorangela says:

    masoud says: February 8, 2013 at 4:17 am

    The behind-the-scenes manipulations and power struggles you discuss might just as well have taken place in Knesset or US Congress.

    The government and politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran are rough-and-tumble; reveal the efforts of power bases to exert their influence; and attempt to manipulate the public and ‘buy’ their votes with public rials [dollars]. Who knew”

  12. Kathleen says:

    On the front page of the Diane Rehm Show the International Friday Hour has this sentence front lining ” Iran’s Supreme Leader Rejects direct talks with the US”

  13. Kathleen says:

    Katy Kay opened the Rehm Interantional hour by saying the Iranian Supreme leader has rejected talks with the US about Iran’s nuclear program. I don’t think she said weapons

  14. James Canning says:

    I was not expecting Khamenei to accept the US offer of direct talks. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel will need to work through third-parties to give Iran assurances the US does not seek “regime change”.



  15. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Mousavian has a new piece in Foreign Policy…

    Embrace the Fatwa

  16. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Few hopes for Iran breakthrough

    See my comment to this piece.

  17. Richard Steven Hack says:

    M K Bhadrakumar on Khamenei plays hardball with Obama

  18. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Nahal commander: If we go into Lebanon, there will be lasting quiet

    Again, Israel reveals what its real motivations are.


    “The most effective blow to Hezbollah will be if we enter its territory, dismantle its rockets and destroy as many launchers and terrorists as possible. This could give us lasting quiet.”

    End Quote

    “Lasting quiet” – until they can get the Iran war started.

  19. James Canning says:


    If you are saying a blockade of Iranian oil exports would likely result in blocking most oil exports from the Persian Gulf, I think you are correct.

  20. James Canning says:


    Yes, I agree that an American blockade of Iranian oil exports likely would cut off most oil exports from the Persian Gulf, at least for some time, if Iran retaliated.

  21. James Canning says:


    (From prior thread) Have you dropped your contention that “the West” refuses to accept Iranian enrichment to 5%?

  22. Nasser says:

    CSIS – Dealing with a Nuclear Iran


    The general all but admits Iran needs nuclear weapons to guarantee her sovereignty amd also cannot be militarily prevented from building nuclear weapons.

  23. Fiorangela says:

    from the link to Asia Times article by Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar that Richard Steven Hack posted, February 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    QUOTE: “To be sure, Iran played a signal role in the grim battle of nerves over Syria through the recent months. Strangely, it is Iran today, which is on the “right side of history”, by urging dialogue and negotiations [to which opposition forces have agreed] and democratic elections as holding the key to reform and change in Syria – or, for that matter, in Bahrain.

    The shift in Syria has actually enabled Iran to cross over the Sunni-Shi’ite barriers that were tenaciously put up to isolate it. Thus, President Mahmud Ahmedinejad’s historic visit to Egypt this week has a much bigger regional dimension to it than the restoration of the Iran-Egypt bilateral relationship. The trilateral meeting held between Ahmedinejad and his Egyptian and Turkish counterparts Mohammed Morsi and Abdullah Gul signified Iran’s compelling relevance as an interlocutor rather than as an implacable adversary for the two major Sunni countries.

    Interestingly, Morsi added, “Egypt’s revolution is now experiencing conditions similar to those of Iran’s Revolution and because Egypt does not have an opportunity for rapid progress like Iran, we believe that expansion of cooperation and ties with Iran is crucially important and necessary.” END QUOTE

  24. BiBiJon says:

    “Few hopes for Iran breakthrough”

    Among the few, Peter Jenkins: “Don’t Rule Out Bilateral Talks with Iran”

    Moreover the [Supreme] Leader did not explicitly rule out bilateral talks. He merely voiced deep scepticism as to whether they would lead to a resolution of the nuclear dispute. He did so in terms consistent with his past utterances and with one of Minister Salehi’s underlying messages on Monday.

    From http://www.lobelog.com/dont-rule-out-bilateral-talks-with-iran/

  25. BiBiJon says:

    Richard Steven Hack says:
    February 8, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    “Nahal commander: If we go into Lebanon, there will be lasting quiet”

    Cannot recommend highly enough to the commander: try doing it with your left hand for variety’s sake.

  26. James Canning says:


    You have trouble grasping a simple fact: the P5+1 want Iran to stop enriching to 20%. So, the question is whether Iran suspends such enrichment on its own accord, or more serious problems develop. Zero chance enrichment to 90% would be allowed.

  27. James Canning says:


    Excellent piece by Peter Jenkins that you linked. Jenkins knows Ali Akbar Salehi, which is a point worth noting here.

  28. Sineva says:

    Richard Steven Hack says:
    February 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm
    I imagine thats exactly what they said in 2006 as well,just how wrong they were no doubt came as an enormous shock to them,tho` in the aftermath things have been fairly quiet.The danger of course is that the israelis will convince themselves that the outcome of the 06 war was an aberration,a glitch that couldn`t possibly happen again just like the us with the vietnam war after the successful outcome of desert storm,it was all the fault of the homo,pinko,hippee,tree hugger politicians who stabbed us in the back,the good old Dolchstoßlegende ie we would have won but for….[insert excuse here],it had nothing to do with a capable enemy who was ready and waiting for us.The israelis need to knock off drinking their own kool-aid

    James Canning says:
    February 8, 2013 at 2:18 pm
    Until the west comes out and openly says without preconditions “we accept irans right to enrich uranium” then all the rest including your “hints” is just wishful thinking,its pretty clear that the west has yet to officially change its zero enrichment for iran policy

    James Canning says:
    February 8, 2013 at 2:10 pm
    I`m glad we can agree on something James

  29. Rehmat says:

    Last year, professor Graham Allison (Harvard University) told David Ignatius, the Zionist columnist with the Washington Post, that the United States will finally have to reach an agreement with Iran. To prove this, he had brought examples of the past steps taken in the US foreign policy. He added that Washington has been forced more than once to give up its urgent demands and avoid of pursuing to achieve a maximum degree of its demands, such as, with Russia and China during the Cold War.

    Israeli leaders claim that Iran is secretly developing a nuclear bomb to “wipe Israel off map”. The Zionist-controlled regimes in the US, Britain, France and Germany agree with Israeli leaders. Iranian leaders have denied Israeli allegations saying they don’t need nuclear bombs to destroy Zionist regime which was defeated by Hizballah fighters in 2006.


  30. BiBiJon says:

    John Kerry: “And so my plea to the Iranians…is a clear statement,” “We are prepared to let diplomacy be the victor in this confrontation over their nuclear program.”

    Read more: http://backchannel.al-monitor.com/index.php/2013/02/4393/kerry-urges-iran-to-let-diplomacy-succeed/#ixzz2KNVCYVgm


    Save my face, I save yours.


    The harebrained ‘ragtagism’ unleashed by the neo-colonilaist Anglo-French upon Libya and Syria has run its course into a very deep hole — time to stop digging. Also, US has tired of being the dope at the end of the Sino-Russo rope.

    Way Forward

    Develop some manners.

  31. James Canning says:


    “The West” has tried to avoid internal disagreements regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. Thus, while William Hague called for approval of the Iranian application to buy replacement nuclear fuel for the TRR, Hillary Clinton refused to back it. Presumably due to her own political calculations. And Hague did not make noise about her refusal.

    If The New York Times says it is generally accepted the P5+1 will allow Iranian enrichment to 5%, this virtually certainly is the case.

    Once again, I did not see or hear the “hint” made by John Kerry at his confirmation hearing (that he is willing to accept Iranian enrichment to 5%). This was reported by Geoff Dyer in the Financial Times Jan. 25th (“Kerry calls for foreign policy to begin at home”).

  32. James Canning says:


    Your reading between the lines of John Kerry’s statement is fair.

    The Anglo-French attack on Gaddafi was not “neocolonialist”. Both countries were enjoying improving relations with Gaddafi prior to the outbreak of the revolt. Bernard-Henri Levy was a crucial factor in that mistaken military intervention. He has close ties to neocons in America, and he is a close friend of Nicolas Sarkozy.

  33. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Nasser: “CSIS – Dealing with a Nuclear Iran
    The general all but admits Iran needs nuclear weapons to guarantee her sovereignty amd also cannot be militarily prevented from building nuclear weapons.”

    Then he’s an idiot. Nukes are useless to Iran both strategically and tactically and while bombing Iran short-term can not stop them from building nukes long-term, it’s impossible for Iran to build nukes DURING a hot war. As long as the US will attack Iran every time it attempts to build nukes, then Iran cannot build nukes. It’s that simple. Not to mention that such nukes would also be undeliverable since it would be impossible for Iran to develop a missile delivery system under conditions of a hot war.

    Which is irrelevant because of part one – Iran has no need for nukes and the leadership is well aware of that and has repeatedly said so.

  34. Richard Steven Hack says:

    Sineva: “I imagine thats exactly what they said in 2006 as well,just how wrong they were”

    Of course that’s what they said. They were only wrong because they relied on air power and not a ground invasion through the Bekaa Valley (which would have necessitated attacking Syria which was not feasible given the the alleged “justification” for the war, i.e., the soldier kidnapping.)

    Which by the way doesn’t necessarily mean I think they would succeed even then. But they probably would improve their strategic situation and damage Hizballah’s to some degree. Whether that degree would be enough in an Iran war is open to question.

    But the point is: They have to TRY if they want a “cheap (or at least cheaper) war” with Iran.