The Leveretts in Tehran: Our Mashregh Interview

Since mid-November, we have been on the road a lot—including a trip to Iran and two trips to China—and took a hiatus from posting.  With the turn of the (Western) New Year and our return home (at least for a while), we resume again.

In the course of our most recent visit to Tehran, in late November 2014, we sat for a number of interviews with various Iranian media organizations.  The most extensive was conducted by MashreghMashregh published its interview with us, in Farsi, at the end of December, see here.  We are pleased to publish it in English below.

Our trip to Tehran spanned the days just before and just after the November 24 announcement of yet another extension in the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran.  (Once again, we are grateful to the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies for inviting us.)  Not surprisingly, the Mashregh interview starts with the negotiations, the impact of the Republican victory in the 2014 U.S. congressional elections on prospects for a final deal (and for the enactment of further Iran-related secondary sanctions by the United States), and the diplomatic influence of Saudi Arabia and Israel.  But the interview goes on to consider a wide range of other topics, including:  how the United States is (not) coping with the emergence of a more multipolar world; President Barak Obama’s letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei and Obama’s overall weakness as president; how our own views about Iran have evolved, both during our service in the U.S. government and afterward; why it is so important that the United States not only deal with the Islamic Republic as a rational foreign policy actor but accept it as a legitimate political order; and our role in the American debate over Iran’s 2009 presidential election and what was at stake in this episode.

Q:  I would like to start with the nuclear negotiation, the extension of the Geneva deal, the Republicans coming to take control of the Congress, the Obama administration and congressional opposition as an obstacle to reaching a nuclear agreement, the diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1, the extension of the talks in Vienna, and the positive and negative reactions to this in Iran.  How do you assess the situation?

Hillary:  I think it’s not accurate to put Congress as an obstacle to what would otherwise be a smoother process.  I think one of the problems was that the Obama administration decided to work with the Congress.  Congress is never going to agree; it doesn’t matter whether it is Democrat or Republican.  The leading sponsor of sanctions against Iran is a Democrat, Senator Menendez from New Jersey.  He is completely in favor of sanctions. It’s not so much the Democrats or Republicans.  The problem is that there was not a decision on the U.S. side that the United States, for its own interests, needed a deal with Iran and that the United States would do what was necessary to get a deal, like what President Nixon did with China in the 1970s.  Nixon decided—over the opposition of Congress, over the opposition of the anti-China lobby (which was very strong, like the pro-Israeli lobby today)—that the United States, for its own interests, needed a better relationship with China, and he went and got it.  That’s what he did.  With regard to Iran, a decision like that has clearly not been taken on the American side.  I thought in particular that it was a very bad sign, the night before the most recent extension in negotiations was announced, that President Obama spoke to the American public only about the benefits of a deal for Iran—that Iran would have the chance to rejoin the international community, that it would be good for Iran, this country with 77 million people, to come back into the international community.  The issue, for an American president, is not to do Iran a favor.  The issue for an American president is that, when it is in America’s interests to have a deal, then the American president should do what he needs to do to get the deal.  That, to me, is the fundamental problem here.

Flynt:  I absolutely agree with that.  Fundamentally, the reason we didn’t have a deal is because the United States keeps insisting that, as part of a deal, Iran must dismantle some significant portion of its nuclear infrastructure.  Maybe the number of centrifuges that the United States is willing to tolerate has going up.  But, as I understand the current US position, the United States is still asking Iran to dismantle about half of its operating centrifuges.  Iran rejects this.  The Iranian positions is very well grounded in the NPT, in international law.  As I understand it, the Iranian position is that Iran would be prepared to limit the growth of its centrifuge infrastructure for some period of time, but Iran is not going to shrink this infrastructure to satisfy the United States and, at some point in the foreseeable future, Iran wants to be able to start growing this infrastructure again, under international safeguards.  If the Obama administration were prepared to work out a deal on that basis, I think there could be a deal on the nuclear issue in a matter of weeks.  Technical experts could work out various details and you would have a deal.  The reason you don t have a deal is because the United States still thinks it is in a position in which it can dictate the terms for a deal.  The language in the United States is still, “How many centrifuges should the United States allow Iran to have?  It seems to us that, at this point, Iran is not going to accept the United States allowing Iran to have some number of centrifuges.  That’s why we don’t have a deal.  Now the Republicans are going to control the senate.  Is that going to be a further obstacle to progress?  Yes, I think it will be.  What Hillary said is absolutely right—that there is broad bipartisan support for sanctions in the Congress for a new sanctions bill.  But the Obama administration has been able to hold off a new sanctions bill because the outgoing Senate Majority Leader, Senator Reid (a Democrat from Nevada) never put the bill on the schedule for a vote.  Because if it were ever put to a vote there would be a strong bipartisan majority in the Senate in favor of the bill.  The big difference now is that Senator Reid will no longer be the majority leader.  His replacement will be a Republican who has already said publicly that the Republicans will schedule a vote on a new sanctions bill early in 2015, after they take control of the Senate in January.  They will schedule a vote on a new sanctions bill and, if it actually comes to a vote, there will be a bipartisan majority in favor of it.

Q:  Despite this, does Obama have the power to hold off the imposition of new sanctions, and will Congress resist him?

Flynt:  It would be a fight.  It would be real fight.  President Obama said that, while the Joint Plan of Action was being implemented, if Congress passed a new sanctions bill, he would veto it.  Given the terms of the Joint Plan, he really had to say that.  But he never faced the issue because Senator Reid made sure the bill never came up for a vote.  Now that bill is going to come up for vote.  Will Obama, when the bill passes, veto it?  And then, after he vetoes it, will he be prepared to work very hard to get enough democrats in the Senate to help him sustain his veto?  Will he be able to persuade enough of them not to vote again in favor of the bill, not to vote to override his veto.  In our system, if Congress passes a law the president can veto it, but then congress can vote on it again and, if there is not just a majority but a two-thirds majority in favor of the bill, then it becomes law over the president’s veto.  How hard is Obama willing to work to block a new Iran sanctions bill?  First of all to veto that bill, and then to see how he can sustain the veto. I think it could be a real battle.

Q:  Saudi Foreign Minister visited in the last round of talks in Vienna and met with John Kerry.  And nothing came of the talks but an extension of the negotiations.  What is your assessment of the role of Saudi Arabia?

Hillary:  There were two meetings. They also met in Paris.  Secretary Kerry coordinates very closely with Prince Saud al-Faysal and with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Israael.  I think the importance is for American domestic politics.  The Obama administration wants to show American domestic audiences that they are respecting the interests of these longstanding U.S. allies, and that the United States will not sign a deal with Iran going beyond the interests of these allies.  Kerry and the Obama administration thought it was important to show that the Israelis and Saudis are satisfied, rather than doing something that would anger them.

Q:  About the recent struggles between America and Russia, is this confrontation of two countries between the two countries a move to a new system and the formation of a bipolar world—or a multipolar world, with a view toward China and other emerging powers—and toward a new Cold War?

Flynt:  I would be more inclined to put it in the frame of moving from American-led unipolarity to a more multipolar world.  I think both China and Russia have wanted to see movement toward a more multipolar world for some time, but each of them has had its own interests in what they see as positive and productive relations with the United States.  But now US policy toward both Russia and China is accelerating efforts by these countries to move even more rapidly toward a more multipolar world.  The United States, as a declining unipolar power, is trying desperately to hold on to more power than it can sustain.  In the process, it is doing more and more things that impinge on core Russian interests, core Chinese interests.  I think that both Russia and China have to calculate a balance in their foreign policy–to what extent do they seek to maintain a cooperative relationship with the United States and to what extent to they try to move the world toward this multipolar condition.  Now, both China and Russia are tilting more and more toward the promotion of multipolarity.  U.S. policy toward Iran is part of that dynamic.  But U.S. policy toward Russia leaves fewer and fewer Russian believing that, at this point, Russia has a serious option to cooperate with the United States.  Likewise, Chinese are increasingly concerned that the United States is trying to contain China as a legitimately influential player, in Asia and globally, and that the United States wants to try and reassert its hegemony in Asia.  I think that U.S. foreign policy has really accelerated those trends.

Hillary:  I think it reflects not having a real strategy, along with an inability to think about how issues connect.  So, to look at U.S. policy toward Russia and Ukraine, to look at U.S. policy toward China or Iran—U.S. policymakers do not think about how these issues connect and overlap.  What are the tradeoffs:  if you want to sanction Russia over Ukraine, how can you expect Russia to work with you on Iran?  There is no strategy for how the United States wants to position itself in a changing world.  I think that this is due basically to a refusal to accept that the world is changing.  Instead, the United States pretends that it can continue as the world’s sole superpower.  American elites persist in arguing, based on ideas of American primacy and American exceptionalism, that there is just something about the United States that will keep it the greatest country in the world.  This is a deep strategic problem.  It’s not just President Obama or his foreign policy.  It is deep in American culture, and is reflected in many ways—for example, in how Americans tell themselves that the United States won the Cold War, that we defeated the Soviet Union, and that this is because of American exceptionalism.  Instead, the United States needs to accept that the world is changing.

While we were writing our book, Going to Tehran, we came to think that the United States was in a similar situation in the 1960s as it is in today.  When Nixon came to office, the United States was facing strategic catastrophe in Asia.  We were stuck in Vietnam, with tens of thousands of Americans killed.  Tens of thousands had also been killed during the Korean War.  The dollar was going down, and the economy was declining.  We didn’t have enough money to continue these wars.  The situation between black Americans and white Americans in the United States was bad; there were riots everywhere.  America was in a real crisis at the end of the 1960s.  President Nixon was able to say to American public that the United States had to prioritize, that it needed to stop pursuing hegemony in Asia.  Pursuing hegemony in Asia was working against American interests, and that’s why Nixon went to China.  China didn’t give the United States anything.  Not a single centrifuge, and not anything else.  But President Nixon made it clear that the United States needed to realign relations with China so that America could withdraw from Vietnam and rebuild its credibility and strategic standing.  In our book, we argue that the same kind of leadership is needed to remake American policy toward Iran.

Having a better relationship with Iran doesn’t mean that the United States will become pro-Iranian or that it would take sides in Iranian domestic politics.  It means that, if the United States can have a more normal relationship with Iran, then Iran can rise as a normal power in its region along with Saudi Arabia and Israel and Turkey and that these regional powers could balance among themselves.  There would be normal balancing in the Middle East—which means that, while the United States might not leave entirely, it wouldn’t be using military force in or against every country from Libya to Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan to Iran to Saudi Arabia.  The United States has a lot of interests in the Middle East, but those interests are not well served by having a large military presence everywhere.  We argue in our book that this is the kind of policy that the United States needs to pursue today—to accept Iranian power so that Iran can rise with other regional powers.

Q:  A former intelligence minister and current advisor to President Rouhani (Ali Younesi) has said that Obama is the weakest president in the U.S. history.  How much do you agree with this view?

Hillary:  In the United States there are more and more comparisons being drawn between President Obama and President Carter.  A lot of people look at President Carter after he left the presidency and see him as a good person who has done a lot of humanitarian things.  But while he was president, Carter was seen as unable to set priorities and to focus on what was really in America’s interests.  He was also unable to work with Congress.  So a lot of people today see a similarity between Carter’s presidency—which is not widely seen as a strong or successful presidency—and Obama’s presidency.

Flynt:  I don’t know whether Obama is the weakest president in American history, but I think he has proven to be a very weak president.  We expect Obama to disappoint those who oppose him.  What is really striking about Obama is how many of his supporters are disappointed with him on a wide range of issues.

Q:  The American president, in a move unprecedented since the Islamic Revolution, has written three letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader and has requested further cooperation from Iran.  What is your view of Obama’s letters to the Iranian Leader?  Are these signs of Obama’s weakness and the ineffectiveness of America’s regional policy?

Flynt:  It is a weakness.  Obama is not the first president to do this, but it is a weakness.  There is a reluctance in the United States to accept the Islamic Republic as a system—I know you like the word Nezam—to accept the Islamic Republic as a system with a constitution.  There is a Leader with particular responsibilities, there is an elected president with particular responsibilities, there is a Majlis that has its responsibilities, and so on.  There is always a sense in the United States that the U.S. government can find some part of the Iranian system which it can work with to get what it wants, and that part of the system can somehow work around the other parts.  This never works out well for the United States, but the United States keeps trying.  I think that’s part of what is going on with President Obama’s letter to Ayatollah Khamanei.  We obviously don’t know directly what was in the letter; we know only what was reported in the American media about the contents.  But, if those reports are reasonably accurate, it also underscores just how delusional the American approach is.  To me, Obama’s letter to Ayatollah Khemeni essentially says, OK, if Iran will make concessions on the nuclear issue, if it will compromise its sovereignty on the nuclear issue, that the United States will allow Iran to take part in U.S. military campaign in Iraq and Syria that Iran has already assessed to be a bad idea.  There is a certain detachment from reality in a message like that:  make a compromise on something you really care about, so that you can be part of a project you have already said you are not going to be a part of.  We will not speculate on Ayatollah Khamenei’s reaction if that’s the kind of letter he got.  But, if I received a letter like that, I would be really wondering about the strategic logic behind U.S. policy.

There is the book, Going to Tehran, and there is the story behind this book.  Have you always had the same opinion about Iran or have your views changed?

Hillary:  We both worked as Middle East experts in the U.S. government for about 20 years.  Yet we had never met an Iranian from the Islamic Republic who supported the Islamic Republic.  We had learned about (even from our best “experts” and best universities), read about, come to know about Iran only through the prism of expatriate Iranians who had left Iran during the revolution or during the war.  We never really questioned this view until about a year before the September 11 attacks, when I was assigned by the State Department to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York.  I was a Middle East expert and was assigned to cover Middle East issues.  But I was also given Afghanistan, because nobody in the U.S. government cared about Afghanistan at the time and I was both relatively junior and, I think, the only woman at the U.S. Mission at the time.  So I was “stuck” with Afghanistan.  But it was my good fortune, because the UN Representative Lakhdar Brahimi had a very good idea—to bring Afghanistan’s six neighbors (which, of course, include Iran) together with the United States and Russia to form a contact group called the “6+2.”

When I initially joined the contact group, I assumed that the delegate from Pakistan was going to be my ally, because Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been traditional allies of the United States for the past 20 years.  But, as I started to talk to the delegate from Pakistan, I realized that he was a supporter of the Taliban and bin Laden; he would refer to the capital of Afghanistan as Kandahar, rather than Kabul.

Then there was the Iranian delegate.  In U.S. law, American officials were not allowed to say “Hello” to Iranian officials.  We were not allowed to engage them—except if you were in a multilateral working group on an issue that has nothing to so with U.S.-Iranian relations.  This only happens at the United Nations, where both Iran and the United States could be talking about peacekeeping or economics or something else.  So it was OK for me to talk to Iranian officials, because it was not about the United States and Iran, it was about Afghanistan.

The discussions were enlightening, because the Iranian official was very well educated about Afghanistan, very well educated about Central Asia.  It started off that way.  And then I realized that not only is he very educated and understands the issue in a very sophisticated way, but his understanding is very similar to mine.  I did not have the knowledge he had (he had much more knowledge), but his view of Afghanistan, his view of geopolitics in the Middle East and Central Asia was much more similar to mine than the view of the delegate from Pakistan, who was supposed to be my ally.  So we started to talk a lot about Afghanistan and to coordinate some of our positions, because they were so similar.

Then the terrorist attacks happened on September 11.  My colleagues and I at the U.S. Mission were about to be evacuated from our building.  In the course of my conversations with my Iranian colleague, I had told him that my sister worked at the World Trade Center, which had been bombed.  In the chaos, my colleague called from the Iranian Mission to ask about my sister—it turned out that she was OK—and to say how terrible this was and that this is what we have been working on—the growing terrorism threat coming from al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan.  He was sure that there would be a condemnation from Tehran, and a few days later it was shocking for me and for many Americans when the Supreme Leader condemned terrorism wherever it happened in the world—including in Washington and New York.  I wrote back to the State Department that this was a very important development and that we should intensify the talks with the Iranians in New York because we really had common interests.  So, from what had started as just one person (me) talking to an Iranian counterpart, a couple of people joined me from Washington and then more people joined my Iranian colleague from Iran.  We talked together about Afghanistan over the next two years.  I think that this dialogue helped to keep the situation in Afghanistan in relatively good shape from 2001 to 2003.  After that, though, we stopped talking and U.S. policy, in my view, became much more militarized in Afghanistan.  In these discussions about Afghanistan, I had the opportunity for the first time to hear, from an Iranian perspective, how the Islamic Republic sees itself in its neighborhood—the threats that it faces, the interests that it has.  And I didn’t hear this from the perspective of an expatriate Iranian or someone who wants to see the Islamic Republic overthrown.  This was really enlightening for me.

I was strongly supportive of continuing and expanding these talks.  I was asked to come to the White House to work on Afghanistan policy and Iran policy for the National Security Council, but there were different people with different views at the White House.  Fortunately for me, Flynt was also at the White House.  So we became a team, but we had a lot of opposition.  The first opposition was with the Axis of Evil speech, which I was not told about even though I was the person in charge of Iran policy.  It was a big shock and I started to question how can I still work for the U.S. government?  Eventually, Flynt and I both resigned in protest.

Initially, when we moved out of the U.S. government, we thought we should try to educate Americans about how Iran looks at the world, about areas of cooperation and the potential for cooperation.  So we started to write about that.  Not anything about Iran’s domestic politics, just foreign policy.  Our initial idea was that the United States could work with Iran on what we called a “grand bargain.”  Our idea was that, because U.S. and Iranian interests were similar, if the United States gave Iran a chance, Iran could join with the United States to be part of the pro-American political and security order.  That was our initial idea.

But our idea evolved from there, because we started to see that the pro-American security order is not very good for the United States.  The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel is not healthy for the United States.  It would not make sense to try to get Iran to be part of that.

So we started to look at what makes Iran important.  We had a feeling that we did not understand that as clearly as we do today.  We do not take a position on Iranian domestic politics or try to say that the system here is the most perfect, fantastic thing in the world.  But we recognize that, after a history of western and Russian penetration and domination, Iran has been able to develop an indigenous, self-made system.  We started to look at how that self-made model has influence beyond Iran’s borders in a way that the Shah’s Iran never did.  Why does the Islamic Republic have more influence on its neighbors than the Shah’s Iran?  We concluded that it must be something about the domestic system, something that has enabled this system not only to survive for 35 years but to have influence beyond Iran.  We spent a lot of time reading Imam Khomeini’s lectures in Najaf, going over a lot of his speeches, which we thought were very important.  We wanted to bring some of Imam Khomeini’s ideas to an American audience, and to explain some of the Islamic Republic’s achievements in healthcare, in education, even in gender issues.  In the United States, the idea is that women are garbage here, but if you look at jobs and education, the reality here is a very different story.  We wanted to bring that to American audiences as well.  Our book is first and foremost about American interests.  And we argue that, instead of having the false idea that Iran is a terrible state that treats everybody terribly that is going to collapse tomorrow, the United States needs to recognize the real foundations of legitimacy here.  It’s important for the United States to accept that and to accept Iran as an independent power, not be afraid of it, and to embrace Iran’s independence as a way of having a more stable balance of power.

Q:  In your book, you talk about three myths about Iran.  Please explain how lobbies and the American media foster these myths about Iran?

Flynt:  The idea of three myths was a way of trying to help readers think critically about a seemingly infinite number of bad ideas in the United States about Iran.  The first myth is the irrationality myth—that the Islamic Republic is this ideologically driven system that cannot think about foreign policy in terms of national interests; we really wanted to challenge that.  The second myth is the illegitimacy myth:  that the Islamic Republic is an illegitimate political system with no popular support and is always at risk of being overthrown (if not today, then maybe by next week); we wanted to challenge that myth, too.  The third myth is what we called the “isolation myth”—that the Islamic Republic does not have any real influence in this region and can easily be isolated, regionally and globally, and can be pressured to a point where it either surrenders or disappears.  These are the three myths we wanted to challenge.

Challenging these myths puts you up against some very powerful forces in American society.  We have made some progress on the irrationality myth.  There is a greater willingness among American elites to consider that Iran has a rational foreign policy and that it can be engaged on that basis.  There are still people who reject this idea, but we have made some progress.  It is on the other two myths that we have gotten the strongest opposition.  There are any number of people who will basically agree with us that Iran could have a very rational foreign policy and that the United States should be talking with Iran.  But, they ask us, why do have to say the Islamic Republic is a legitimate system?  Why don’t you just say that it is a terrible dictatorship but that this does not matter and that the United States should talk to Iran anyway.

Hillary:  In the U.S. government, we also worked on Libya, on U.S.-Libyan rapprochement in the early 2000s.  We thought that, for Libya, too, the U.S. sanctions should be lifted and that the United States should engage Libya.  The United States could say that Qadhafi is crazy and the Libyan system is a dictatorship, but it is in U.S. interests to realign relations with Libya.  Then look what happened.  As soon as there was a protest in Libya, the United States was intervening on one side, against Qadhafi.  Any small problem can be used in the U.S. system as the reason to overthrow political orders in other countries, as we saw in Libya.

Flynt:  And the U.S. government did this even though the Libyan government had basically surrendered to the United States on weapons of mass destruction, on terrorism, and on the nuclear issue in return for an American commitment to normalize relations, lift sanctions, and stop trying to overthrow it.  That was the deal.  The Libyans did not even dismantle their nuclear infrastructure themselves—they let American technicians come in and dismantle their centrifuges.  Those centrifuges are now in the United States.

Q:  Were the centrifuges and other facilities transferred to America reassembled there?  And how can the situation with Iran be dealt with under current conditions in the American system—from the administration and Congress?   

Flynt:  That’s a good question; I really don’t know.  But this is why it is important for the United States to make accepting the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy part of coming to terms with the Islamic Republic.  This means not just recognizing that Iran has legitimate national interests, but also recognizing that this political order is a legitimate representative of those interests.  But neoconservatives in the United States do not want to accept the Islamic Republic, the pro-Israel lobby does not want to accept it, even a lot of liberals on what you might call the left side in the United States can be very interventionist on what they think of as human rights.   They say that they do not like war but they are in favor of what they call humanitarian intervention.

Hillary:  Each of them, neoconservatives and liberals, funds think tanks and gives money to universities to have centers for the Middle East.  As a result, they have this production of knowledge which is not based on facts.  It is not based on being in Iran or even on data and statistics you can find in the United States.  Anybody in the United States could look at UN statistics on education here in Iran.  They could see the Islamic Republic’s record on education for boys and girls, how the Islamic Republic has nearly eliminated the difference in education for boys and girls that prevailed under the Shah, and see how much progress has been made since the revolution.  But they don’t, because these think tanks are paid for the production of information to advance a particular agenda.  The lobbies dominate the debate, with the help of think tanks and a lot of media.

Q:  You investigated Iran’s 2009 election and concluded that election was conducted accurately and with no fraud.  Can you explain more about this research?

Hillary:  About the 2009 election—we are not Iranian officials; it is not our place to verify an election here, one way or the other. Our analysis of the election made two points.  First, there were many polls before the election.  When we examined these polls, it seemed very clear that President Ahmadinejad could have won the election, and could have done so with around 60 percent of the vote.  Second, when we looked at various claims that there was fraud in the election, we never found any evidence of fraud. Different people had different ideas on how there could have been fraud, but no one as far as we know ever offered actual evidence of fraud.

As Americans, we do not want to take a side in Iranian domestic politics, and it is not our place to say that there was no fraud. However, we thought it was important to say that the best polls indicated Ahmadinejad was going to win, and that no one had presented actual evidence of fraud.  It was important for us to say that in the United States, because the overwhelming majority of American analysts, including some of our best friends, said—without any evidence—that the election was a fraud.  Many of them went on to argue for regime change in Iran, because the election had supposedly been a fraud.  We thought it was important to dispute this charge, in part because the charge was intellectually dishonest and disregarded real information and facts.   It was also important to dispute the charge because the charge was dangerous, given the historical direction of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and in the Middle East more generally.  I suppose that, tomorrow, someone might come out with evidence of fraud. But we did not see any evidence at the time; we still have not seen it.  And even if there was fraud, it is still not America’s business.  We saw what happened in Libya, when there were protests and the United States intervened.  Look what happened to Libya after the United States overthrew Qadhafi.  It’s a disaster.

Q:  What was the feedback from publishing the book?

Flynt:  It was extremely polarized.  On one side, people said that it was a brilliant book, and important book—including people like Noam Chomsky.  On the other side, our critics said we had not just written a bad book; they literally said we had written an evil book, a “morally deformed” book.  Our critics said, “You are trying to get us to accept an evil system”—Iran.  This is, we think, an indicator of how hard it is going to be for the United States to reformulate its foreign policy toward Iran.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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The Iranian Nuclear Issue and Sino-Iranian Relations

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As the world waits to see if Iran and the P5+1 reach a final nuclear agreement by November 24, we remain relatively pessimistic about the prospects for such an outcome.  Above all, we are pessimistic because closing a comprehensive nuclear accord will almost certainly require the United States to drop its (legally unfounded, arrogantly hegemonic, and strategically senseless) demand that the Islamic Republic dismantle a significant portion of its currently operating centrifuges as a sine qua non for a deal.

–While we would love to be proved wrong on the point, it seems unlikely that the Obama administration will drop said demand in order to close a final agreement.

–Alternatively, a final deal would become at least theoretically possible if Iran agreed to dismantle an appreciable portion of its currently operating centrifuges, as Washington and its British and French partners demand.  However, we see no sign that Tehran is inclined to do this.  Just last week, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi reiterated that, in any agreement, “all nuclear capabilities of Iran will be preserved and no facility will be shut down or even suspended and no device or equipment will be dismantled.”

Still, almost regardless of the state of U.S./P5+1 nuclear diplomacy with Iran a month from now, the Islamic Republic’s relations with a wide range of important states are likely to enter a new phaseAmong these states, China figures especially prominently.

To explore the historical factors and contemporary dynamics shaping the prospective trajectory of Sino-Iranian relations, we have written a working paper, American Hegemony (and Hubris), the Iranian Nuclear Issue, and the Future of Sino-Iranian Relations.  It has been posted online, see here to download, as part of the Penn State Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series.  It will soon be published as a chapter in a forthcoming volume on The Emerging Middle East-East Asia Nexus.

As our paper notes, the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran have, over the last three decades, “forged multi-dimenstional cooperative relations, emphasizing energy, trade and investment, and regional security.”  There are compelling reasons for this.  Among other things, both political orders were born of revolutions dedicated to restoring their countries’ independence and sovereignty after extended periods of dominance by foreign—above all, Western—powers.  Today, both are pursuing what we describe as “counter-hegemonic” foreign policies, especially vis-à-vis the United States.

But, while U.S. primacy incentivizes closer Sino-Iranian ties, it has also kept those ties from advancing as far as they might have otherwise, particularly on the Chinese side.  Over the years, Beijing has tried to balance its interests in developing ties to Tehran with its interest in maintaining at least relatively positive relations with Washington.  Our paper examines a series of trends that are reducing China’s willingness to continue accommodating U.S. pressure over relations with Iran.

–We assess that, as these trends play out, “Chinese policymakers will continue seeking an appropriate balance between China’s relations with the Islamic Republic and its interest in maintaining positive ties to the United States.  Nevertheless, [this] balance will continue shifting, slowly but surely, toward more focused pursuit of China’s economic, energy, and strategic interests in Iran.”

–We also argue that, unless the United States fundamentally revises its own posture toward the Islamic Republic, “a deepening of Sino-Iranian relations will almost certainly accelerate trends in the international economic order—e.g., backlash against Washington’s increasingly promiscuous use of financial sanctions as a foreign policy tool and the slow erosion of dollar hegemony—that are weakening America’s global position.”

We look forward to a lively discussion.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Seyed Mohammad Marandi on the Islamic State, the United States, and the Islamic Republic of Iran

marandi

Our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi, professor of North American studies and dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, published a powerful Op Ed, “ISIL, US Intervention and the Rise of the Iranian Model,” on Al Jazeera English earlier this week, see here.  We also append the text below.  As usual, we encourage readers to post comments, Facebook likes, etc., both on this site and on the Al Jazeera Web site.

ISIL, US Intervention and the Rise of the Iranian Model 

Seyed Mohammad Marandi

Western media coverage of Islam and the “Middle East” regularly dismisses any possibility of meaningful participatory politics outside the frame of western liberal democracy.  When the West faces a challenge such as that posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or al-Qaeda before that, most western elites fall back on the notion that the only long-term solution is the (externally supported) consolidation of secular politics in the Muslim world.

But, even if one assumes that liberal democracy truly exists, it is, historically, a uniquely western phenomenon which has never gained real traction in Muslim societies.  Like other people, Muslims want a say in shaping the political life of their societies.  But they want the frame for participatory politics to be authentic—meaning, for most Muslims, grounded in Islam, not in alien notions of “separating religion and state.”  So far, only one political order in the Middle East is enjoying appreciable success in providing participatory Islamist governance to its people—the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The West cannot bring itself to admit this.  Looking at the coverage of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s successful prostate surgery in the western media, one cannot help but smile at the often twisted loathing directed towards him and the political order he leads.  The BBC, which is usually a bit more sophisticated than other western outlets in attempting to conceal its animosity, reporting on the surgery stated that his personal life is kept “a secret topic in Iran”; only the “critical situation in Iran and the region” forced him to be more open and announce the news of his operation.  In another report, the BBC implied that Ayatollah Khamenei is unpopular and that Iranians were critical about the high level of care provided to him in the hospital.

Inconsistent narrative

The fact that Ayatollah Khamenei was operated on in a public hospital and that an earlier operation in 1991 on his gall bladder was also publicly announced is inconsistent with the BBC narrative.  Likewise, the sheer number of people who have turned up (and continue to turn up) at his public appearances during his quarter-century as leader casts doubt that he and the Islamic Republic are anywhere near as unpopular as the BBC indicates.  That the Ayatollah’s wife, four sons, and two daughters are not celebrities, high ranking politicians, or involved in business may make his personal like seem a bit uneventful, but that does not make it a “secret topic,” just different from Western norms.

Western mythology notwithstanding, the reality is that, despite decades of irrational western hostility and violence, the Islamic Republic has indeed evolved into the region’s “island of stability,”  Ironically, this phrase was first used in a toast in Tehran by the former US President Jimmy Carter to describe a very different sort of Iran:  Iran, Carter said in 1978, “because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”

A year later the shah fled the country, amid a popular revolution in which a key slogan was “Independence, Freedom, Islamic Republic.”

In recent years, other political figures in West Asia and North Africa considered “great leaders” in western eyes have met similar fates.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once praised Tunisian dictator Zein El Abidine Ben Ali for the “progress” he had made in advancing prospects for Tunisia’s youth.  At the height of the January 2011 protests in Cairo, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as “immensely courageous and a force for good.”

Popular demands for change have already brought down much of the Middle East’s older order, but there are few signs of anything more than a provisional, shaky stability.  Making matters worse, when client regimes began failing or showing serious instability, oil-rich monarchies, with western coordination and support, funded rebel groups in Libya and Syria, violating international law and dragging the Middle East towards further decline and collapse.

Of course, state-funded militancy is not a new phenomenon.  In the 1980s the United States cooperated with the Saudi and Pakistani governments to promote, train, and arm the mujahedeen “freedom fighters” to fight the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan.  During and after this struggle, a number of countries invested heavily in religious schools and other outlets across the Muslim world, spending billions of dollars each year to export an extremist ideology.

Powerful force

As a result—and with the West’s silent approval—this extremism has grown into a powerful force that casts its shadow upon many parts of the world.  After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was supported by almost all regional states except Iran, funding from a number of these countries again flowed to extremist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda—this time in Iraq, to undermine the new Iraqi political order.

Events in Yemen, Bahrain, and Egypt underline that the remnants of the old order cannot last much longer.  However, what is currently on offer in the Arab world has so far brought neither great optimism nor social cohesion.  In Egypt, regardless of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the July 2013 coup, the fact remains that the Muslim Brotherhood failed to develop a model of participatory politics capable of accommodating public needs in accordance with indigenous values.

The Brotherhood’s historic failure has helped fuel the rise of a takfiri (apostate) governance model.  This model has evolved from al-Qaeda to groups like al-Nusra Front, the Islamic Front in Syria, and ultimately the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  The evolution reflects the ideology’s utilisation by western and regional countries for strategic purposes in countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.  Today, not only has ISIL turned into a global terrorist threat; it has become an existential threat to countries that have traditionally advocated its underlying ideology and are now a part of a new US-led coalition.

The single force that has blocked this emerging threat from imposing its hegemony from Damascus to Baghdad—perhaps even from Beirut to Riyadh—is the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Endless western attempts to destabilise the Iranian political model have ended in failure—and today, as a result of illegal western support for extremists in Syria and continued violation of its sovereignty, the Islamic Republic is now leading the region’s struggle against extremism and emerging global powers increasingly recognise this.

After Ayatollah Khamenei’s surgery was announced, life in Iran continued normally—not merely because the public was assured their leader was in excellent health, but also because an elected constitutional body, the Assembly of Experts, which is charged with electing the country’s highest authority, had already shown its effectiveness years ago by quickly and successfully choosing Ayatollah Khamenei to succeed Imam Khomeini as leader.

Western media outlets and human rights organisations would serve themselves better by toning down their unrelenting caricature of Iran, and by engaging in some self-reflection concerning their Syria narrative.  If they did, the West might even manage to get some better policies.

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Barack Obama, the Islamic State, and America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East

The World Financial Review has published our latest piece, “America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East.”  To read the article, click here; we’ve also appended the text (with links) below:

 America’s Never-Ending War in the Middle East 

While President Obama continues—at least for now—to resist redeploying large numbers of U.S. soldiers to fight the Islamic State on the ground, the military components of the anti-Islamic State strategy he has laid out effectively recommit the United States to its post-9/11 template for never-ending war in the Middle East.  In the end, such an approach can only compound the damage that has already been done to America’s severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East by its previous post-9/11 military misadventures.       

Thirteen years after the fact, most of America’s political and policy elites have yet to grasp the strategic logic that motivated the 9/11 attacks against the United States.  Certainly, al-Qa’ida was not averse to damaging America’s economy and punishing its people.  But Osama bin Laden knew that effects of this sort would be finite, and thus of limited strategic value; he had no illusions about destroying “the American way of life.”

The real objective of the 9/11 attacks was to prompt American overreaction:  to goad Washington into launching prolonged military campaigns against Muslim lands.  These campaigns would galvanise popular sentiment across the Muslim world against the United States, mobilise Middle Eastern publics against regional governments (like the one in bin Laden’s native Saudi Arabia) that cooperate politically and militarily with it, and rally them in favor of jihadi fighters who resist American domination.  Looking ahead, the al-Qa’ida leader anticipated that local backlash against U.S. overreaction to a terrorist provocation would ultimately undermine the regional foundations of America’s ability to project massive amounts of military force into the Middle East, compelling it to disengage from the region and go home.

Viewed through this frame, the United States fell for bin Laden’s plan with appalling alacrity.  America’s post-9/11 invasions cum campaigns of coercive regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have been strategic failures, leaving the United States weaker—in terms of its ability to achieve its stated goals in the Middle East, its economic position, and its standing as a global superpower—than before.  And the most important factor ensuring the failure of these campaigns was that they eviscerated the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people living there.  As a result, America’s self-declared “war on terror” has made the threat to U.S. interests from violent jihadi extremists vastly more broad-based, complicated, and dangerous than it was thirteen years ago.

Doing the Same Thing…   

Now, in response to the Islamic State’s dramatic rise, the Obama administration wants to go down the same, well-worn, and colossally self-damaging path of strategic overreactions.  The administration’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is a veritable case study in Einstein’s (apocryphal) definition of insanity—“doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”  For there is absolutely no rational basis on which to think that, this time, the United States will get a different—presumably better—result.  This makes Obama’s military campaign against the Islamic State exactly the sort of “dumb war” that, as a presidential candidate in 2008, he promised American voters he would oppose.

President Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic—but the movement starts its fight against the United States with an extraordinary level of support from Sunni Muslim publics.  In July 2014—that is, before the United States began its current air campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq—a poll by the (Saudi-owned) pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat showed that 92 percent of Saudis believe that the group “conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”  In Jordan and Kuwait, Facebook posts by the Islamic State draw tens of thousands of likes in just a few hours; Twitter feeds and other social media suggest that there is a considerable reservoir of popular support for the movement among Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Saudis, and other Arab populations.  Saudi Arabia and Jordan have generated large contingents of young men who have left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State, which draws holy warriors from across the Sunni world.

Under these conditions, U.S. military action against the Islamic State will once again play into the jihadi grand strategy:  to draw “crusaders” (the West, embodied in the United States) and “infidels” (Shi’a) into battle against Sunni holy warriors, thereby rallying support for them across the Sunni world.

Far from deterring Islamic State provocations, U.S. airstrikes will actually incentivize it to do more.  The movement did not execute any of the American journalists it has been holding hostage (for well over a year in some cases) until after the United States started bombing it in August.  That month, as an Islamic State fighter beheaded journalist James Foley for what (thanks to an initial posting on YouTube) turned out to be a worldwide audience, the group warned that, if U.S. military forces continued bombing, it would execute another prisoner, Steven Sotloff.  Of course, the bombing continued; at the beginning of September, as it had promised, the Islamic State beheaded Sotloff for another worldwide video audience.

These gruesome executions have sparked enough elite outcry and sufficient turnaround in American public opinion to prompt the Obama administration to escalate U.S. military action against the Islamic State.   But one utterly predictable consequence of not just escalating the U.S. air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq but expanding it into Syria (as President Obama seems set on doing) will be more provocations like the beheadings of Foley and Sotloff.

In effect, the Islamic State is continuing the strategy pioneered by bin Laden thirteen years ago, daring Washington to escalate U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria.  Sustained U.S. military action against the Islamic State—even if confined to what Obama calls “a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists”—will, in the eyes of Arab publics, cast the movement and those allied to it as resisting continued U.S. efforts to dominate the Muslim world.  This will not only boost the Islamic State’s already substantial popular support in the Muslim world; it will further erode America’s already severely weakened strategic position in the Middle East.

…Over and Over Again 

Likewise, Obama’s pledge to boost American “support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground” will put the United States in the surreal position of combating the threat to U.S. interests posed by jihadi fighters by funding, arming, and training…jihadi fighters.  The proposition that there is a moderate Syrian opposition with enough military potential and—even more importantly—popular support inside Syria to overthrow the Assad government is a myth.  To claim in addition that these mythical moderate oppositionists can take on and defeat the Islamic State is either blatantly dishonest or dangerously delusional.

To have even a token chance of dealing effectively with the Islamic State, Washington needs to acknowledge the mistaken premises of its Syria policy—that Assad has lost the support of most Syrians and can be overthrown by externally-supported oppositionists—and recognize that ending the anti-Assad insurgency is essential to cutting of the Islamic State’s base in northeastern Syria.  Ostensibly moderate and secular Syrian opposition groups have, for the most part, been well penetrated by their Islamist counterparts.

The White House is (to put it mildly) dancing around reports that elements in one of the supposedly “moderate” and secular Syrian opposition groups to which the Obama administration now wants to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in additional military and financial support sold Steven Sotloff to the Islamic State militants who would later behead him.  For those reports highlight a big problem with the administration’s strategy:  the main thing that will be achieved my stepping up U.S. support for “moderate” Syrian oppositionists is to open up more channels through which the Islamic State can obtain more Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.

Needed:  A Real Regional Strategy 

The point about the mistaken premises of the Obama administration’s Syria policy highlights another debilitating contradiction at the heart of its stated strategy for stopping and, ultimately, dismantling the Islamic State.  This contradiction grows out of the gap between the administration’s rhetoric on the need for a regional strategy vis-à-vis the Islamic State and the actual conduct of its regional diplomacy.

Without doubt, there needs to be a regional strategy for dealing with the Islamic State.  Obama and his senior advisors pay lip service to this idea.  But their notion of a regional strategy encompasses only established and unrepresentative Sunni regimes dependent on Washington for their security—e.g., Saudi Arabia, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, and Jordan.  These governments, by providing various types of support to Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria, have actually facilitated the Islamic State’s extraordinary ascendance.  There is no way that this sort of “regional strategy” can meaningfully contribute to halting and ultimately undermining the movement.

A real regional strategy against the Islamic State would necessarily include Russia, Iran, and Syria’s Assad government—in leading positions.  For those actors are all essential players in any serious effort to contain and roll back the multifaceted challenged this movement poses.  Yet senior Obama administration officials have ruled out working with either Iran or the Assad government, and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, complains that the administration’s dialogue with Moscow about the Islamic State—if it can appropriately be called “dialogue”—is much more pro forma than substantive.

Obama’s strategy toward the Islamic State provides damning testimony as to how little he has done—or, in his second term, is willing to do—to challenge the foreign policy orthodoxies against which he ran his initial presidential campaign, and which have done so much to weaken America’s international position in the two and a half decades since it came out of the Cold War as the most powerful state in history.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 

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Flynt Leverett Critiques Obama’s Syria Strategy and its Regional Implications

Flynt went on Russia Today’s CrossTalk to discuss the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State; click on the video above or see “Washington’s Jihad,” here or here (YouTube).  As this campaign expands into Syria, we think the points that Flynt made on CrossTalk, and that Hillary has been making in several appearances on CNN, remain important—and underrepresented in what passes for a policy debate in Washington.

Flynt opens by setting the current U.S. campaign against the Islamic State against the backdrop of U.S. policy since 9/11:

America’s self-declared post-9/11 ‘war on terror’ has been strategically disastrous for the United StatesIt has weakened America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally; squandered vast material and human resources; and has basically destroyed the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East for the vast majority of people who live in this strategically critical region.  And now President Obama is effectively recommitting the United States to this profoundly self-damaging, post-9/11 template for never ending war in the Middle East.”

As Flynt points out, one of the clearest indicators of the thought-free character of the Obama administration’s policy toward the Islamic State is its emphasis on stepped-up support for Syrian oppositionists:

I have been saying for over three years that the idea there is some moderate, secular Syrian opposition with enough military potential and, even more importantly, enough political standing in Syria to overthrow the Assad government flies in the face of realityTo say that this mythical moderate Syrian opposition is now going to be able to take on the Islamic State is, I think, just delusional.

The Syria policy that the United States and its partners in the region have been pursuing since the spring of 2011 has helped, in a big way, to create the situation in Iraq, with this dramatic ascendance of the Islamic State.  We have created this problem, and now we’re coming up with pseudo-solutions that are only going to make the problem worse…The one thing that could come of this is that you’re going to create more channels for the Islamic State to get hold of Western weapons and military equipment than it already has.  Having the Saudis train these so-called moderate fighters is just going to augment the problem that we’re supposedly trying to deal with.

We have fed the creation of the Islamic State through our policy of support for the Syrian opposition.  And it’s going to have huge repercussions regionally.

Obama can declare all he wants that the Islamic State isn’t IslamicBut the fact is—as evidenced in polls, in social media across the Sunni Arab world—is that this movement has a lot of sympathy and support, even among constituencies that don’t like some of its tactics, don’t like prisoner beheadingsBy launching this military campaign against them, the United States is basically—in the eyes of a lot of Sunni Muslims—it is basically re-launching a post-9/11 war against Islam.  And the one thing we know, over thirteen years since 9/11, is that that drives jihadi recruitment more than anything.  It is going to make the problem vastly worse.”

In the program, Flynt also critiques the Obama administration’s thoroughly warped notion of what a “regional strategy” against the Islamic State should look like.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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