Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States and we urge our readers to re-read a piece we wrote previously honoring his extraordinary insight. It is also the day on which implementation of the Joint Plan of Action that the P5+1 and Iran announced on November 24 formally commences. And, of course, two days from now, the Geneva II conference on the Syrian conflict is scheduled to take place.
In anticipation of the beginning of implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, negotiations on prospective “final” nuclear deal, and the Geneva II conference, Hillary taped an interview with Scott Horton for Pacifica Radio. It was broadcast/posted yesterday; click here to listen.
Regarding President Obama’s ongoing struggle with the Senate over Iran policy, Hillary cautions against premature claims of “victory” for the Obama administration’s efforts to avert new sanctions legislation while the Joint Plan of Action is being implemented. She points out that “the foes of the Iran nuclear deal, of any kind of peace and conflict resolution in the Middle East writ large, are still very strong and formidable. For example, the annual AIPAC policy conference—a gathering here in Washington of over 10,000 people from all over the country, where they come to lobby congressmen and senators, especially on the Iran issue—that will be taking place in very early March. There’s still a lot that can be pushed and played here.”
To be sure, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry “have put a lot of political capital on the line.” No other administration has so openly staked out its opposition to a piece of legislation or policy initiative favored by AIPAC and backed by a bipartisan majority on Capitol Hill since the 1980s, when the Reagan administration successfully defended its decision to sell AWACs planes to Saudi Arabia. But, Hillary notes, if the pro-Israel lobby is able to secure a vote on the new sanctions bill, and to sustain the promised veto of said bill by President Obama, “that would be such a dramatic blow to President Obama, and not just on his foreign policy agenda, but it would be devastating to his domestic agenda.” So Obama “has a tremendous amount to lose, and by no means is the fight anywhere near over.”
Of course, to say that Obama has put a lot of political capital on the line over the sanctions issue begs the question of whether he is really prepared to spend the far larger amounts of capital that will be required to close a final nuclear deal with Tehran. As Hillary points out, if Obama were “really trying to lead this country on a much more constructive, positive trajectory after failed wars and invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya—Libya entirely on President Obama’s watch—[he] would be doing a lot more, rather than just giving these lukewarm talks, basically trying to continue to kiss up to major pro-Israel constituencies, and then trying to bring in some of political favors” on Capitol Hill.
Compare Obama’s handling of Iran and other Middle East challenges to President Nixon’s orchestration of the American opening to China—including Nixon’s willingness to “break the crockery” of the pro-Taiwan lobby—and the inadequacy of Obama’s approach become glaringly apparent. And that, Hillary underscores, is why we wrote our book, Going to Tehran—because “we think it’s absolutely essential for President Obama to do what Nixon did and go to Tehran, as Nixon went to China,” for “the Middle East is the make-or-break point for the United States, not just in our foreign affairs but in our global economic power and what we’re able to do here at home. If we can’t get what we’re doing in the Middle East on a much better, more positive trajectory, not only will we see the loss of our power, credibility, and prestige in the Middle East, but we will see it globally.”
Getting the nuclear issue right is, arguably, just one piece of the project of realigning U.S.-Iranian relations—but it is a uniquely critical piece. As Hillary notes, in Iran, “they see reaching a nuclear deal with the United States as absolutely essential [to any prospect of broader realignment]—even though they absolutely believe it is a ‘show’ issue. For if they could get the United States to accept the Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear capability, this is the essential step to getting it to accept Iran as an independent, sovereign power.” Of course, that is something Western governments have been manifestly unwilling to do for decades, going back even decades before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. For the Iranians, “if they can get the United States to recognize their independence and sovereignty through this nuclear deal, recognizing Iran’s right to nuclear capability, that’s [how] you can open the way to go forward.”
But, “if negotiations with the United States fail, the thinking in Iran—and I was just there a couple of months ago—is that this will show both Iranians inside Iran and (this is critically important) countries like China, in other emerging markets…that Iran was the rational actor here. Iran tried its best to work within a framework of international law, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it was the United States, as it has treated key countries in the Middle East for decades, that was unwilling to work within the parameters of international law and to recognize basic sovereign and treaty rights. That’s their Plan B—if the United States can’t do the deal, they still come out ahead in terms of important actors both at home and abroad.”
On Syria, Hillary suggests that the growing Western focus on al-Qa’ida-like jihadis in opposition ranks obscures a much more important point—even if al-Qa’ida-like elements had not permeated the opposition, why does the United States think it should be supporting armed rebels to overthrow the recognized government of a UN member state? As Hillary recounts, “This didn’t work in Iraq (before al-Qa’ida was there; of course, now al-Qa’ida is there, after we said we had a dog in that fight), it didn’t work in Libya, it didn’t work in Afghanistan. The idea that when we choose to become involved in a fight, it’s going to turn out to help us is just not borne out by history, but we continue to make the mistake.”
As for an appropriate American approach to the Syrian conflict and other Middle Eastern challenges, Hillary says that the United States shouldn’t just “go home and essentially be isolationist. I believe very much in free trade, and I believe very much in diplomacy and conflict resolution. And there does need to be real conflict resolution in Syria.” In this regard,
“We have a real asset in Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy. He has worked on exactly these kinds of problems in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Haiti, and in Afghanistan, where I worked with him personally for about two years. And in each of those situations, he didn’t come up with a fantastic, Pollyanna government for each of these places. But he has a core formula [that] would really help to stop the destabilization and killing that we see in Syria, which is: you work with the sitting government, and you work with forces on the ground to gradually bring them into not a liberal democracy, but into a much more representative and inclusive power-sharing arrangement…You’re not going to get great ‘good governance,’ with no corruption and fantastic human rights treatment—but you will, over time, have a much more stable environment, where far fewer people are killed, and the opportunity for that country to politically reconstitute itself along its own lines, its own values, and its own position in the world.”
Hillary’s interview preceded the tragicomic antics surrounding UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Iran to participate in Geneva II—which Ban spinelessly rescinded less than 24 hours later after tantrum-like outbursts from the Syrian National Council and (more consequentially) strategically witless (and utterly predictable) pressure from the Obama administration. Clearly, the Brahimi formula is not going to be given a chance to work in Syria anytime soon—but something like it will probably prove critical to any eventual political settlement to the conflict there.
In the interview, Hillary also discusses Iran’s internal political dynamics regarding a possible improvement in relations with the United States, the strategic incoherence of Israeli and Saudi opposition to any U.S. opening to the Islamic Republic, continuing Western mythmaking about Iran’s “nuclear weapons” program, and more.
Finally, as the Joint Plan of Action formally goes into effect, we want to call attention to two recent posts on Dan Joyner’s Arms Control Law that do an excellent job criticizing some of the more egregious distortions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and international law more generally that various American pundits have advanced in their bloviations about the Joint Plan. One, see here, lambastes Orde Kittrie’s assertion that the implementing agreement for the Joint Plan—not the Joint Plan itself, mind you, but the implementing agreement—is actually a secret treaty; the other, see here, takes on the chronically wrong Ray Takeyh. His latest missive, misrepresenting the Additional Protocol to the NPT, is co-authored by Mitchell Reiss, who appeared in advertisements publicly advocating for the MEK—many of whose advocates acknowledge receiving at least $20,000 per endorsement—while the U.S. government still designated it as a foreign terrorist organization.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett