HuffPost: Demanding What You Can’t Get: Obama’s Gamble with the Iran Talks in Vienna

The Huffington Post has published our latest piece, “Demanding What You Can’t Get: Obama’s Gamble with the Iran Talks in Vienna.”  We also append it below:

As nuclear talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna extend past yet another (largely U.S.-imposed) deadline, the dysfunctionality of the Obama administration’s approach becomes increasingly apparent.  Since April, when the parties announced a set of “parameters” for a final deal, senior administration officials have staked out public positions on the most important unresolved issues that, frankly, are inconsistent with what was agreed in April.  These include a U.S. demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime.

There has never been any serious prospect that these U.S. positions could actually provide bases for negotiated outcomes.  Take, for example, the Obama administration’s demand for open-ended retention of a conventional arms embargo and other aspects of the United Nations Security Council-authorized sanctions regime against Iran.  Not only does Tehran object to this demand; Russia and China—like the United States, veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—do, too.

The Obama administration defined stark stances on the future of UN sanctions and some of the other outstanding issues ostensibly to rebut charges of “weakness” from domestic opponents and to deflect criticism from traditional U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia that it is “appeasing” Iran.  But, if Obama and his team ultimately want to conclude a deal, they will, at some point, have to retreat from the diplomatically untenable positions they have so publicly assumed—thereby exposing themselves to even stronger political attacks.

This is the (entirely self-generated) dilemma currently looming over the Obama administration.  Going into this week, relative optimism was rising that the Vienna talks might be on the verge of producing a final deal.  Officials from participating governments say that compromises have been found over previously disputed aspects of lifting U.S., European, and most UN sanctions against Iran.  U.S. and Iranian negotiators have also been making progress toward resolving differences over the kinds of nuclear research that Iran will conduct while a final agreement is in effect.

Against this backdrop, the most difficult challenges facing the seven delegations in Vienna pertain to the drafting of a prospective UN Security Council resolution that would nullify previous resolutions authorizing international sanctions against Iran and formally start implementation of a final deal.  It is in this context that unrealistic U.S. demands to keep in place an open-ended arms embargo against Iran have become the main obstacle blocking conclusion of a comprehensive nuclear agreement.

There was considerable speculation, in Washington as well as in Vienna, that the Obama administration would be eager to finish negotiations before July 9.  (According to recently enacted U.S. law, if the administration had presented the text of a final nuclear agreement to Congress by July 9, Congress would have had thirty days to review it; from July 9 until September 7, the law gives Congress sixty days.)  Such speculation, however, overlooked the White House’s real calculation:  that, by modifying U.S. negotiating positions to permit agreement on terms of a new Security Council resolution—thus setting the stage to conclude a final deal this weak—the administration would receive more political criticism than if it appeared to “hang tough” and let July 9 pass.

This calculation explains why, according to officials from participating governments, the U.S position regarding the terms of a new Security Council resolution has, over the last few days, become less conducive to reaching a final agreement.  Moreover, the United States appears to be encouraging its British and French partners in the talks to define their own increasingly individuated positions on the issue.  As a result, P5+1 delegations are now spending more time in Vienna negotiating among themselves than with their Iranian counterparts.  When they do interact with Iranian representatives, their dialogue becomes, in effect, ever less a multilateral negotiation between the P5+1 and Iran and ever more a series of bilateral negotiations between Iran and various P5+1 states.

The Obama administration appears to calculate that it can posture in this way for some as yet unspecified period time, after which it can then quietly modify U.S. negotiating positions and reach a final agreement—claiming all the while that, by “hanging tough,” Washington persuaded Tehran and Moscow to take more “reasonable” stances.  This will be political theater with little connection to diplomatic reality.  But it is the narrative that Obama and company want to craft.

No doubt, Obama and his White House advisers think they are handling difficult domestic political dynamics with admirable adroitness.  But, in diplomatic terms, their approach assumes that other key players—including Iran—will wait indefinitely for Washington to get serious about closing a deal.  It also assumes that, if the process breaks down due to a U.S.-induced impasse over terms for a new Security Council resolution, the rest of the world will buy the Obama administration’s narrative that this is Iran and Russia’s fault.

Odds that these assumptions will prove false are greater than Obama and his team are ready to acknowledge—a reality that makes their course strategically irresponsible.  Fundamentally, this irresponsibility stems from failure to appreciate the full importance of an Iran nuclear deal—and, beyond that, of a broader realignment of U.S. relations with Tehran—to American interests, in the Middle East and globally.

The Obama administration continues to treat a prospective nuclear deal as what might be described as an asymmetric arms control agreement, whereby Iran gives up ambitions—regularly alleged by American politicians and just as regularly denied by Tehran—to develop nuclear weapons, and the United States gives up…well, not very much.  The administration has yet to treat a potential nuclear deal as American interests actually require:  that is, as a critical initial step in a broader process of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran—rapprochement as profound as the realignment of U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s.

Hopefully, the Obama administration will get through its political theater over a new Security Council resolution over the next few days and close a final nuclear agreement with Iran.  But it would be far better if the administration renounced this kind of theater entirely—and got down to the serious business of reformulating U.S.-Iranian relations.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  


Obama’s Failure to Make the Strategic Case for an Iran Nuclear Deal: The Leveretts on CNN and CNBC

The Iran nuclear talks may be getting close to some sort of conclusion in Vienna, but American political and policy elites remain, to an appallingly large extent, clueless as to what is really at stake in the negotiations.  (This was a significant theme yesterday in Hillary’s appearance on CNN, see here, and in Flynt’s appearance on CNBC, see here, to discuss the Vienna talks.)  And, while the headline from a recent NBC News poll notes that Americans favor an Iran nuclear deal by a “2 to 1” margin, in fact, the polls shows that a plurality of Americans say they don’t know what to think about a possible Iran nuclear deal.

These observations underscore a point that we have been making for some time:  President Obama has yet to make the case to his fellow Americans for why an Iran nuclear deal—and, beyond that, a potential realignment of U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic—is not just profoundly in American interests, but is strategically imperative for the United States.

–This failure will almost certainly make it more difficult for Obama (and his successor) to implement a deal.

–Furthermore, this failure will severely circumscribe the strategic benefits that the United States can accrue from a deal.

At the moment, many American elites convey particular distress over the Obama administration’s inability simply to dictate the terms of a prospective United Nations Security Council resolution that would endorse a final nuclear agreement and, to help implement such an agreement, remove international sanctions previously authorized by the Council against the Islamic Republic.

–In its approach to drafting a new Security Council resolution, the Obama administration has been demanding that previously authorized limits on exports of conventional weapons and missile-related technology remain in place.  Iran, for its part, resists any text that would imply its “acceptance” of continuing international sanctions.  Moreover, Russia and China are not going along.

–Likewise, Moscow and Beijing have rejected the Obama administration’s demand that UN sanctions be lifted only for six months at a time, subject to renewal—renewal which the United States, on its own, could veto, thus realizing U.S. ambitions to be able to “snap” sanctions back into place without being blocked by Russia and China.

That the Obama administration has been pushing these positions reveals much of what is so fundamentally wrong with the U.S. approach to diplomacy with Iran.  As Flynt pointed out on CNBC, “This was an approach that not only were the Iranians going to object to it, but I don’t think the administration ever had a serious chance of getting consensus within the P5+1, among the permanent members of the Security Council…It was foolish, really, for the administration to take those positions on those issues.”  Yet these are the positions the administration took, and now it must either find a way to walk back from them or (foolishly) embrace diplomatic impasse.

Of course, this reflects weakness on Obama’s part—but not the sort of weakness for which neoconservatives and others constantly lambaste him.  As Hillary noted on CNN,

“We have tried [the interventionists’] version of strength—invading Iraq; invading Libya; occupying Afghanistan for more than a decade; arming, training, and funding various jihadis in Syria and all across the Middle East.  And all it has brought us is damage to ourselves.

The real strength would be, just like Nixon and Kissinger went to China and accepted the People’s Republic of China, we need to go to Tehran, as we wrote in our book, and make our peace with Iran.  It will help us.  It will resurrect our position in the Middle East and around the world.  And if we don’t, we will see ourselves continue to flail across the Middle East and around the world…

The Islamic Republic of Iran is here to stay, like the People’s Republic of China.  What we need to recognize is that rising Iran, just like rising China, is a strong, independent power.  And we need to work with them, not constantly try to bring them down and align with other countries like Saudi Arabia that get us into strategic disaster after strategic disaster.”

But that is precisely what Obama has been unwilling to do.  Could the United States still “walk away” from the process?  As Hillary said on CNN, “A decision by the United States to ‘walk away,’ to cut off talks with Iran would be just as strategically damaging, if not more so, to the United States than the decision to invade IraqIt would have enormously devastating consequences for the United States in the Middle East, keep us on a trajectory to get into one never-ending, unwinnable war after anotherAnd it would have repercussions for us globally, in economic terms and military terms.”

Stay tuned.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  


What Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen and Iran’s Regional Strategy Are Really About

The World Financial Review has published our latest piece, “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Offensive, Iran’s ‘Proxy’ Strategy, and the Middle East’s New ‘Cold War.’”  To read the article, click here; we’ve also appended the text (with links) below:

 Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Offensive, Iran’s ‘Proxy’ Strategy, and the

Middle East’s New ‘Cold War’      

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 Riyadh’s war in Yemen marks a dramatic escalation in its efforts to roll back Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia portrays its Yemen campaign simply as a battle of “good” Arabs and Sunnis supporting Yemen’s legitimate government against “evil” Iranians trying to overthrow it via local Shi’a “proxies”—reiterating a generalized Saudi (and Israeli) narrative about Iran’s use of proxy allies to consolidate regional “hegemony.”  More considered analysis shows that Iran’s “proxy” ties are part of an effective strategy to expand political participation in contested regional venues.  While Saudi Arabia (like Israel) considers this a mortal threat, it is essential to effective conflict resolution.  Riyadh’s intensely sectarian response—including its Yemen war—now fuels what some call a new Saudi-Iranian/Sunni’- Shi’a “Cold War” in the Middle East.

Riyadh’s increasingly destructive war in Yemen has sparked overripe discussion in Western capitals about Iran’s use of “proxies” to subvert otherwise “legitimate” Middle Eastern governments.  Driving such discussion is a self-serving narrative, promoted by Israel as well as by Saudi Arabia, about Tehran’s purported quest to “destabilize” and, ultimately, “take over” the region.

Assessments of this sort have, of course, been invoked to justify—and elicit Western support for—Saudi intervention in Yemen.  More broadly, the Israeli-Saudi narrative about Iranian ambitions is framed to prevent the United States from concluding a nuclear deal with Tehran—or, failing that, to keep Washington from using a deal as a springboard for comprehensively realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.

Determination to forestall Iran’s international normalization by hyping its “hegemonic” regional agenda was on lurid display in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s much-watched March 3, 2015 address to the U.S. Congress.  As Netanyahu warned his audience,

“Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq.  Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea…Iran is busy gobbling up the Middle East.”

Two days after Netanyahu spoke in Washington, then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal offered Riyadh’s version of this narrative, stressing Iran’s “interference in affairs of Arab countries.”  With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry beside him, Saud recapitulated a reading of Tehran’s regional strategy regularly expounded by Saudi elites:

“We are, of course, worried about atomic energy and atomic bombs.  But we’re equally concerned about nature of action and hegemonistic tendencies that Iran has in the region.  These elements are the elements of instability in the region.  We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq…Iran is taking over [Iraq]… It promotes terrorism and occupies lands.  These are not the features of countries which want peace and seek to improve relations with neighboring countries.”

Given all that is at stake in the Middle East, it is important to look soberly at claims by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their surrogates about Iran “gobbling up” the region.  Sober evaluation starts by thinking through, in a fact-based way, how Iranian strategy—including its “proxy” component—actually works.  It also entails dispassionate examination of what really concerns Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states about Iran’s regional role.

Playing Defense

Since the 1979 revolution that ended monarchical rule in Iran and created the Islamic Republic, Iranian strategy has been fundamentally defensive.  Unlike other Middle Eastern powers—or the United States, for that matter—the Islamic Republic has never attacked another state or even threatened to do so.

The revolutionaries who ousted the last shah promised to restore Iran’s real sovereignty after a century and a half of rule by puppet regimes beholden to external powers.  From the Islamic Republic’s founding, its leaders have viewed the United States—the world’s superpower, whose ambitions to consolidate a highly militarized, pro-American political and security order in the Middle East condition it to oppose independent power centers there—as the biggest threat to fulfilling this revolutionary commitment.  After the United States, Iranian policymakers have seen Israel—a U.S. ally with aspirations to military dominance in its neighborhood—as a serious threat to the Islamic Republic’s security and strategic position.  Tehran has also been deeply concerned about Saudi Arabia leveraging its ties to Washington to advance its intensely anti-Iranian agenda—including the arming and funding of violently anti-Shi’a groups like al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.

The Islamic Republic’s leaders have designed its foreign policy and national security strategy to preserve Iran’s territorial and political integrity in the face of these threats.  The aim is not to establish Iran’s regional hegemony; it is to prevent any other regional or extra-regional power from attaining hegemony over Iran’s strategic environment.  Even the U.S. Defense Department acknowledges the defensive character of Iranian strategy; as a recent Pentagon report puts it, “Iran’s military doctrine is defensive.  It is designed to deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor, and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities while avoiding any concessions that challenge its core interests.”

Leaving aside intentions, there is the more objective matter of the Islamic Republic’s capabilities to perpetrate aggression in its regional neighborhood.  Simply put, Iran today has effectively no capacity to project significant conventional military power beyond its borders.

To be sure, the revolutionaries who took power in 1979 inherited the last shah’s U.S.-built military.  But Washington cut off logistical and technical support shortly after the revolution—a debilitating measure exacerbated by an embargo on military transfers from most other countries as the fledgling Islamic Republic fought off, from 1980 to 1988, a (U.S.-and Saudi-backed) war of aggression by Saddam Husayn’s Iraq.  After the war, Iran shifted resources from the military into reconstruction and development, reducing its conventional military capabilities to marginal levels.  Today, the United States spends almost seventy times more on its military than Iran does.  Saudi Arabia, with one-quarter Iran’s population, spends over five times as much; the GCC collectively spends eight times as much.

Cultivating “Proxies”

Given these realities, assertions that the Islamic Republic poses an offensive threat to its neighbors are baseless; to borrow a phrase from the U.S. Army, Iran won’t be parking its tanks in anybody’s front yard anytime soon.  To protect Iran’s territorial and political integrity, the Islamic Republic has developed increasingly robust capabilities for asymmetric defense and deterrence that it can credibly threaten to use in response to aggression against it.  Among these capabilities are ballistic missiles armed with conventional explosives and a range of interrelated systems—anti-ship missiles, submarines, mine-laying systems, and large numbers of small “fast attack” boats—to disrupt Persian Gulf shipping, including both U.S. warships and vessels transporting oil.

Even with such capabilities, threats to the Islamic Republic’s security and independence are magnified by what military planners call “lack of strategic depth.”  Iran today has land, maritime, and littoral borders with fifteen states.  None is a natural ally; most have been hostile to the idea of an Islamic republic in Iran.  Many of the Islamic Republic’s neighbors and other states in its regional environment are also susceptible to co-optation as anti-Iranian platforms by America, Israel, and/or Saudi Arabia.  To compensate, Tehran has cultivated ties to sympathetic constituencies in other states open to cooperation with the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic Republic has made a point of aligning with constituencies systematically marginalized by their countries’ existing power structures:  Shi’a majorities in Iraq and Bahrain; Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality; Shi’a and anti-Taliban Sunnis in Afghanistan; Zaidis in Yemen; Iraqi Kurds; occupied Palestinians.  By helping such communities organize to press their grievances more effectively, Tehran creates options for influencing on-the-ground developments in contested venues across the Islamic Republic’s strategic environment.

For more than three decades, Tehran’s proxy partnerships have helped it push back against hostile initiatives—e.g., U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, Saudi-backed expansion of Taliban control in Afghanistan, Saddam’s antagonism toward the Islamic Republic, U.S. occupation of Iraq—that threatened Iran’s strategic position.  They have also enabled Tehran to reduce the chances that nearby states—Lebanon, Afghanistan, post-Saddam Iraq, Bahrain (where America’s Fifth Fleet is based)—will again be used as platforms to attack the Islamic Republic or otherwise undermine its security and independence.

Over time, these payoffs from the proxy component of the Islamic Republic’s regional strategy are amplified by Iranian allies’ political gains.  Given the chance, Iran’s partners have repeatedly shown themselves capable of winning elections in their local settings, and winning them for the right reasons:  because they represent unavoidable constituencies with legitimate grievances.  Tehran doesn’t manufacture its partners by paying people as mercenaries.  It didn’t create Iraq’s Shi’a majority, or Bahrain’s; it didn’t create Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality, occupied Palestinians, or the Zaidis in Yemen.  But Iranian support for these communities means that any expansion in political participation in their countries empowers Tehran’s allies.

Stoking a New Middle Eastern “Cold War”

It is this aspect of Iranian strategy that most alarms Saudi Arabia, some other GCC states, and Israel.  Today, neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel truly represents most of those it governs.  Neither can endorse more participatory politics in the region; neither can endorse proliferation of regional states genuinely committed to foreign policy independence.  This also means that neither can exercise positive political influence to facilitate conflict resolution in contested regional arenas; on their own, Israel and Saudi Arabia can only make things worse.

This is why, when U.S. forces invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam in 2003, Saudi Arabia played a critical role in funding and organizing Sunni insurgents there, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to forestall a more representative political order which Iraq’s Shi’a majority would inevitably dominate.  This is also why Riyadh viewed the outbreak of the Arab Awakening in late 2010—which Tehran welcomed—as a mortal threat.  The Saudi response has been:

–to undermine Sunni movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, prepared to compete for power in elections;

–to build up violent jihadi groups, including groups that have aligned with al-Qa’ida and coalesced into the Islamic State, as alternatives to the Brotherhood; and

–to co-opt popular demands for reform by coercively intervening—including through jihadi proxies—in Libya, Syria, and now Yemen, with disastrous humanitarian and political consequences.

As it has done these things, Riyadh has reframed political struggles around the region in starkly sectarian, anti-Iranian/anti-Shi’a terms.  This is especially striking vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict.  Saudi intervention in Syria ensured that jihadis — many non-Syrian—dominate opposition ranks, killing any potential Brotherhood role in leading anti-Assad forces.  It also turned what began as indigenous protests over particular grievances into a heavily militarized (and illegal) campaign against a UN member state’s recognized government—but with a popular base too small either to bring down that government or to negotiate a settlement with it.

In the process, Saudi Arabia has exploited Tehran’s support for Syria’s government to swing the balance of opinion in Sunni publics—which had increasingly seen the Islamic Republic as championing more participatory politics and resistance to U.S. and Israeli hegemony—against Iran.  The turn in Sunni attitudes gives Riyadh political cover to double down on supporting violent jihadis—as with Saudi backing for a new “Conflict Army,” organized around the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra, that recently captured a major Syrian city.

Deconstructing the Yemen War

These dynamics are fueling a new Saudi-Iranian/Sunni-Shi’a “Cold War” in the Middle East; Saudi military action has made Yemen an important battleground in this wider contest.  In Yemen, Tehran has followed its established strategic template of helping an unavoidable constituency with legitimate grievances—the Houthis and Ansar Allah, based in the country’s non-Sunni Zaidi community—organize to press for a meaningful share of power.  And the roots of Riyadh’s current campaign against the Houthis go back to the Arab Awakening’s early days.

Following the ouster of Tunisian’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, peaceful mass protests calling for the removal of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh broke out in Sana’a and other Yemeni cities.  Ansar Allah—which had been prosecuting a relatively successful revolt in north Yemen against Saleh’s rule before agreeing to a ceasefire in 2010—endorsed the demonstrations; it also joined other anti-Saleh groups in a so-called National Dialogue, set up to lay the foundations for a more representative and regionally federalized political order.

As pressure for change mounted, Saudi Arabia—determined to perpetuate the Zaidis’ marginalization—set out to thwart Yemenis’ manifest desire to replace Saleh’s autocracy with more representative and participatory political structures.  In particular, Riyadh worked to block implementation of the National Dialogue agenda by engineering Saleh’s replacement by his then-vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.  To this end, the Saudis upped financial support to intensely sectarian Sunni salafi groups while undercutting the more moderate, Muslim Brotherhood-related Islah party—including by designating Islah as a terrorist group.  These steps ensured that no Sunni party was empowered to work with Ansar Allah and the Houthis to stand up a new, more representative political order; in the end, Hadi was the only candidate on the ballot for Yemen’s February 2012 presidential election.  Riyadh also worked to exclude Iran from the group of regional states ostensibly set up to help Yemen chart its political future.

Faced with these provocations, Ansar Allah and the Houthis renewed their military campaign against the central government in late 2011; their military gains accelerated over the next two and a half years.  Hadi’s provisional term expired in 2014, two years after his February 2012 election.  By that point, support for Hadi had crumbled—in no small part because of popular perceptions that he was a U.S. puppet collaborating with America’s ongoing “counter-terrorism” campaign in Yemen, including high-profile drone strikes killing large numbers of civilians.  In early 2015, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.  Left with no political options for imposing its preferences on Yemen, Riyadh launched military operations in March 2015, appealing not only to its Western backers for support but also to Sunni publics to back its leadership of a millennial holy war against infidel Shi’a.

Defusing Crises

Ansar Allah says it wants to realize the vision of the National Dialogue, but lacks sufficient support across Yemen to do this on its own.  Tehran, for its part, has long recognized that there ultimately has to be a political solution in Yemen, based on a negotiated settlement among the country’s disparate regional, tribal, and sectarian elements.  Since the start of the Saudi military campaign, the Islamic Republic has stressed the need for a negotiated resolution to the conflict—just as it has consistently held that a political settlement is the only way to end the conflict in Syria.  It is Riyadh that rejects negotiation—regarding Yemen or Syria—unless it can, in effect, dictate outcomes in advance.  In Yemen, as in Syria, Saudi actions are now enabling al-Qa’ida to make territorial gains.

Looking ahead, creating a genuinely more stable Middle East will require wider recognition of how dangerous the Saudi-stoked “Cold War” really is, and how much more damage it could do to an already severely stressed region.  It will also require deeper appreciation of Iran’s regional importance, and of the indispensability of its influence to putting the Middle East on a more positive long-term trajectory.


Hillary Mann Leverett to Argue that “The West Should Get Out of Bed with the House of Saud” in Upcoming BBC/Intelligence Squared Debate

On Thursday, May 28, at 6:45 in Cadogan Hall, London, Hillary will take part in an Intelligence Squared debate, “The West Should Get Out of Bed with the House of Saud”; the debate will subsequently be broadcast by BBC and posted as a podcast.  Hillary and Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy will argue for the motion; arguing against will be Jamie Rubin, former spokesman for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during President Clinton’s second term, and Sir Alan Duncan, a Conservative MP and former Minister of State for International Development.  Readers in London can click on the link above for tickets.

Also, Hillary appeared last week on Press TV’s The Debate to discuss the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1, see here.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  


Obama Panders to GCC States Over a Prospective Nuclear Deal with Iran: Leverett and Marandi on CCTV’s The Heat

Hillary assessed the Obama administration’s exceptionally maladroit handling of President Obama’s “summit” with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC leader) at Camp David on CCTV’s The Heat last week, see here.  She noted that, while ostensibly called to “reassure” GCC elites, Obama’s gathering at Camp David failed utterly to address the concerns that some Gulf Arab rulers actually have:

“Although there is some language that the U.S. would potentially use force to protect our Gulf allies, it’s very carefully caveated, with this language:  that we would be prepared—prepared, not that we would, but we would be prepared—to potentially use force if their territorial integrity, according to the UN Charter, is threatened.  That means, first and foremost, a very loud signal to them that if there’s an uprising in your country and they want to change the government, the United States is not coming.  That’s a very pointed message.  We have the example of Bahrain, where there’s been a lot of unrest.  If the people of Bahrain decided to rise up and change the government, the United States isn’t going to be there.

This is just about this speculative concern that maybe Iran, somehow, would invade these [GCC] countries and we would protect them.  But that’s not their fear; their fear is from their internal populations.  They call these segments of their populations—which, in some case, have been restive; they’ve often been marginalized, especially among the Shi’a communities—the Gulf States have taken to calling them ‘foreign, Iranian-backed elements.’  But they are part of their populations; these are their domestic constituencies…

Their [GCC] concerns are [also] about rising Iranian power in the region.  I have never met an official or an analyst from a Gulf state—or from here, in the U.S. government in Washington—that thinks Iran is going to send its military into any one of these countries.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded another country, and has never even threatened to do so.

Their [GCC] concern is not that a nuclear-armed Iran is going to use nuclear weapons to annihilate them.  Their concern is that, the more money Iran could amass coming out from under sanctions, the more it will have economic power, and it will translate that into military power, which it could use to support—either militarily or just philosophically—these domestic constituencies in the Gulf states, to rise up against their governments or to constrain their governments from attacking Iran.  That’s their concern; it’s not about Iran acquiring some mythical nuclear weapon.”

Hillary explained that the refusal of the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to “even show up” at the meeting with President Obama was a particularly significant development:

“It was a very deliberate message, signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia may be going its own way.  Even more important, in some ways, than the Saudi king not coming—he said it was ostensibly because of developments in Yemen—was the probable Saudi instruction to the King of Bahrain, this small state where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, that the King of Bahrain not come here and instead go to London for a horse show with the Queen of England.  There could not be any greater insult…What it signifies is a profound shift, by the Saudis, away from the United States, and potentially for them even to deploy some of the elements of their power against the United States, in a way we’ve seen some precursors of before, but we’ve not really seen full force.”

Hillary goes on to elaborate some of the ways in which Saudi Arabia can deploy some of the elements of its power against the United States.

Of course, if the Obama administration really wanted to use a prospective nuclear deal with Iran to recast America’s Middle East strategy in more positive ways—including by recalibrating U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia—then GCC leaders’ unhappiness with the Camp David summit wouldn’t matter that much.  But the administration isn’t seeking to use an Iran nuclear agreement as the springboard for a comprehensive revision of America’s Middle East strategy.  In this regard, preemptively circumscribing the potential diplomatic impact of an Iran nuclear deal is the Obama administration’s most consequential—and foolish—way of pandering to GCC (and Israeli) concerns about nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes made this clear on the day GCC representatives met Obama at Camp David.  Speaking about a prospective nuclear deal with Iran, Rhodes presented the administration’s perspective in stark terms:

“It’s a transaction on the nuclear issue.  This is not a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran on a range of issues; it is a very specific agreement that will deal with the Iranian nuclear program…We’ll still be just as concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities, support for terrorism and proxies across the region.”

The episode of CCTV’s The Heat on which Hillary appeared also includes an important and in-depth discussion with our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies, see here and (for YouTube) here.


Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett