Iran, Syria and the Tragicomedy of U.S. Foreign Policy


Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States and we urge our readers to re-read a piece we wrote previously honoring his extraordinary insight.  It is also the day on which implementation of the Joint Plan of Action that the P5+1 and Iran announced on November 24 formally commences.  And, of course, two days from now, the Geneva II conference on the Syrian conflict is scheduled to take place.

In anticipation of the beginning of implementation of the Joint Plan of Action, negotiations on prospective “final” nuclear deal, and the Geneva II conference, Hillary taped an interview with Scott Horton for Pacifica Radio.  It was broadcast/posted yesterday; click here to listen.

Regarding President Obama’s ongoing struggle with the Senate over Iran policy, Hillary cautions against premature claims of “victory” for the Obama administration’s efforts to avert new sanctions legislation while the Joint Plan of Action is being implemented.  She points out that “the foes of the Iran nuclear deal, of any kind of peace and conflict resolution in the Middle East writ large, are still very strong and formidable.  For example, the annual AIPAC policy conference—a gathering here in Washington of over 10,000 people from all over the country, where they come to lobby congressmen and senators, especially on the Iran issue—that will be taking place in very early March.  There’s still a lot that can be pushed and played here.”

To be sure, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry “have put a lot of political capital on the line.”  No other administration has so openly staked out its opposition to a piece of legislation or policy initiative favored by AIPAC and backed by a bipartisan majority on Capitol Hill since the 1980s, when the Reagan administration successfully defended its decision to sell AWACs planes to Saudi Arabia.  But, Hillary notes, if the pro-Israel lobby is able to secure a vote on the new sanctions bill, and to sustain the promised veto of said bill by President Obama, “that would be such a dramatic blow to President Obama, and not just on his foreign policy agenda, but it would be devastating to his domestic agenda.”  So Obama “has a tremendous amount to lose, and by no means is the fight anywhere near over.”

Of course, to say that Obama has put a lot of political capital on the line over the sanctions issue begs the question of whether he is really prepared to spend the far larger amounts of capital that will be required to close a final nuclear deal with Tehran.  As Hillary points out, if Obama were “really trying to lead this country on a much more constructive, positive trajectory after failed wars and invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya—Libya entirely on President Obama’s watch—[he] would be doing a lot more, rather than just giving these lukewarm talks, basically trying to continue to kiss up to major pro-Israel constituencies, and then trying to bring in some of political favors” on Capitol Hill.

Compare Obama’s handling of Iran and other Middle East challenges to President Nixon’s orchestration of the American opening to China—including Nixon’s willingness to “break the crockery” of the pro-Taiwan lobby—and the inadequacy of Obama’s approach become glaringly apparent.  And that, Hillary underscores, is why we wrote our book, Going to Tehran—because “we think it’s absolutely essential for President Obama to do what Nixon did and go to Tehran, as Nixon went to China,” for “the Middle East is the make-or-break point for the United States, not just in our foreign affairs but in our global economic power and what we’re able to do here at home.  If we can’t get what we’re doing in the Middle East on a much better, more positive trajectory, not only will we see the loss of our power, credibility, and prestige in the Middle East, but we will see it globally.”

Getting the nuclear issue right is, arguably, just one piece of the project of realigning U.S.-Iranian relations—but it is a uniquely critical piece.  As Hillary notes, in Iran, “they see reaching a nuclear deal with the United States as absolutely essential [to any prospect of broader realignment]—even though they absolutely believe it is a ‘show’ issueFor if they could get the United States to accept the Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear capability, this is the essential step to getting it to accept Iran as an independent, sovereign power.”  Of course, that is something Western governments have been manifestly unwilling to do for decades, going back even decades before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  For the Iranians, “if they can get the United States to recognize their independence and sovereignty through this nuclear deal, recognizing Iran’s right to nuclear capability, that’s [how] you can open the way to go forward.”

But, “if negotiations with the United States fail, the thinking in Iran—and I was just there a couple of months ago—is that this will show both Iranians inside Iran and (this is critically important) countries like China, in other emerging markets…that Iran was the rational actor hereIran tried its best to work within a framework of international law, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but it was the United States, as it has treated key countries in the Middle East for decades, that was unwilling to work within the parameters of international law and to recognize basic sovereign and treaty rightsThat’s their Plan B—if the United States can’t do the deal, they still come out ahead in terms of important actors both at home and abroad.”

On Syria, Hillary suggests that the growing Western focus on al-Qa’ida-like jihadis in opposition ranks obscures a much more important point—even if al-Qa’ida-like elements had not permeated the opposition, why does the United States think it should be supporting armed rebels to overthrow the recognized government of a UN member state?  As Hillary recounts, “This didn’t work in Iraq (before al-Qa’ida was there; of course, now al-Qa’ida is there, after we said we had a dog in that fight), it didn’t work in Libya, it didn’t work in AfghanistanThe idea that when we choose to become involved in a fight, it’s going to turn out to help us is just not borne out by history, but we continue to make the mistake.”

As for an appropriate American approach to the Syrian conflict and other Middle Eastern challenges, Hillary says that the United States shouldn’t just “go home and essentially be isolationist.  I believe very much in free trade, and I believe very much in diplomacy and conflict resolution.  And there does need to be real conflict resolution in Syria.”  In this regard,

“We have a real asset in Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy.  He has worked on exactly these kinds of problems in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Somalia, in Haiti, and in Afghanistan, where I worked with him personally for about two years.  And in each of those situations, he didn’t come up with a fantastic, Pollyanna government for each of these places.  But he has a core formula [that] would really help to stop the destabilization and killing that we see in Syria, which is:  you work with the sitting government, and you work with forces on the ground to gradually bring them into not a liberal democracy, but into a much more representative and inclusive power-sharing arrangement…You’re not going to get great ‘good governance,’ with no corruption and fantastic human rights treatment—but you will, over time, have a much more stable environment, where far fewer people are killed, and the opportunity for that country to politically reconstitute itself along its own lines, its own values, and its own position in the world.”

Hillary’s interview preceded the tragicomic antics surrounding UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Iran to participate in Geneva II—which Ban spinelessly rescinded less than 24 hours later after tantrum-like outbursts from the Syrian National Council and (more consequentially) strategically witless (and utterly predictable) pressure from the Obama administration.  Clearly, the Brahimi formula is not going to be given a chance to work in Syria anytime soon—but something like it will probably prove critical to any eventual political settlement to the conflict there.

In the interview, Hillary also discusses Iran’s internal political dynamics regarding a possible improvement in relations with the United States, the strategic incoherence of Israeli and Saudi opposition to any U.S. opening to the Islamic Republic, continuing Western mythmaking about Iran’s “nuclear weapons” program, and more.

Finally, as the Joint Plan of Action formally goes into effect, we want to call attention to two recent posts on Dan Joyner’s Arms Control Law that do an excellent job criticizing some of the more egregious distortions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and international law more generally that various American pundits have advanced in their bloviations about the Joint Plan.  One, see here, lambastes Orde Kittrie’s assertion that the implementing agreement for the Joint Plan—not the Joint Plan itself, mind you, but the implementing agreement—is actually a secret treaty; the other, see here, takes on the chronically wrong Ray Takeyh.  His latest missive, misrepresenting the Additional Protocol to the NPT, is co-authored by Mitchell Reiss, who appeared in advertisements publicly advocating for the MEK—many of whose advocates acknowledge receiving at least $20,000 per endorsement—while the U.S. government still designated it as a foreign terrorist organization.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Will It Take 130,000 More Dead Syrians for the Obama Administration to Engage Iran in a Serious Effort to End the Syrian Conflict?

A week ago, in analyzing the Obama administration’s unwillingness to let Iran take part, in any sort of remotely normal way, in the Geneva II conference on January 22, we noted that Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would meet to discuss the matter on January 13.  We flagged the outcome of this discussion as an important indicator whether “the Obama administration can actually decide that it wants to resolve the conflict in Syria, rather than prolonging it further.”

Well, Kerry and Lavrov have had their meeting—and the Obama administration’s position on Iranian participation in Geneva II remains effectively unchanged.  For nearly three years, America and its so-called allies have been arming, training, funding, and goading ever more al-Qa’ida-aligned fighters to overthrow the recognized government of a United Nations member state.  Their efforts have not come anywhere close to removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office but have killed 130,000 Syrians.  Nevertheless, the administration would rather keep the conflict going than pursue a plausible political settlement that would, in all likelihood, leave Assad in power and strengthen those who have refused to back another U.S.-instigated effort at coercive regime change in the Middle East.

Earlier this week, in the wake of the Kerry-Lavrov session, Hillary assessed U.S. policy on the issue for RT.  For a video, see here.  Her interview was also published on RT’s Op-Edge page; see here or the text appended below.

We Need Iran in Geneva to Stop Spread of Terror Throughout Middle East

RT Op-Edge, Jan. 15, 2014

“Iran could bring to Geneva-2 its good relations with Assad, Iraq and Turkey, which are necessary for a political solution, Hillary Mann Leverett, author and expert on Iran, told RT.

RT:  The UN Secretary-General has just reiterated his support for Iran being at Geneva-2.  Since its an UN-sponsored event, is that enough to make that happen or not?

Hillary Mann Leverett:  Unfortunately, at this point it’s not.  At this point both Russia and the United States have veto power on who may attend, on which delegations may attend.  [Russia is for Iran] but the US is not.  At this point the US is blocking Iran’s participation.

RTYesterday the US Secretary of State John Kerry as good as invited Iran to take part.  Yet back home a few hours later, the State Department laughed off any such invitation. Why the mixed signals, do you think?

HML:  I don’t know [if] he messed up.  I think what it demonstrates is the real incoherence in strategy and policy coming out of Washington, London and Paris, which seeks to somehow not just have a negotiation, but to have essentially a table where Syria just comes to surrender.  And that’s not something Syria is going to do, it’s not something Iran is going to support.  I don’t think that’s something Russia or the vast majority of the countries around the world would support, but that iss essentially what Washington, London and Paris are trying to do.  But it tends to be incoherent because it’s just not possible.

RT: Weve had the significant thaw in the US-Iran relations:  theres a good progress between them on the nuclear program.  So why is Washington so hesitant to work with Tehran on Syria?

HML:  It’s very strange.  When I was at the White House and the State Department with the US government, I negotiated with the current Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over Afghanistan.  We negotiated with the Iranians, with the Russians very effectively to deal with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in the Afghanistan.  So there is a real track record of the US being able to work with Iran, with Russia on a really difficult problem.

It doesn’t make sense that the US doesn’t want to solicit Iran’s participation and work with Iran on this issue, except that America’s so-called allies, particularly in Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf, don’t really want to see Iran’s participation there because they don’t want Assad to be able to consolidate his authority in his country.

RT:Let’s look at the practical side of this.  Why is Irans presence seen by some as crucial for the success of Geneva talks?

HL:  Iran brings not only a deep long-standing relationship with the sitting government in Syria, the government of Bashar Assad, but also brings an ability to work with countries around Syria as well.  It has a very good solid relationship with the current government in Iraq.  The Iranian foreign minister has a good working relationship with the Turkish foreign minister, and Turkey has been heavily involved in the conflict in Syria.

Right now the Iranian foreign minister is doing a regional tour, visiting all of the countries surrounding Syria—Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan.  The Iranian foreign minister is very, very active and focused on using international law and conflict resolution to actually come to a political solution to a range of issues, especially on Syria.  That’s incredibly important because there is no military solution to the problem in Syria.  You cannot kill the Assad government, you cannot kill all those who support it.  There is no military solution.

If we want to have a political solution, if we want to stop the killings, if we want to stop the spread of the radical jihadist terror throughout the Middle East, and even beyond the Middle East, then we need a political solution and that means we need Iran at the table.

RT:Your forecast—will it happen?  Will we see Iran among the participants?

HML:  There is an inevitability to Iran’s participation because there is no military solution.  I’ve been saying this, unfortunately, for three years and over a 130,000 dead Syrians later, now Washington is trying in some ways to think about whether or not maybe in some way, shape and form Iran could help, maybe from the sidelines.  That’s not good enough but that’s progress.  I just hope it doesn’t take another three years and another 100,000 dead Syrians before we come to reality, come to some sort of sanity and work with Iran and the key players for the political solution.”

Beyond Syria, the Obama administration’s participation in Geneva II is, as Flynt told RT, “a bad indicator that the administration is not serious about building a new kind of relationship with IranThey won’t be able to accept the Islamic Republic of Iran as an important regional player, as a legitimate actor representing legitimate national interests that is really crucial to dealing with a number of regional problems.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Is Obama Trying to Resolve or Prolong the Conflict in Syria?


Suppose a great power declares that it supports a peace process aimed at finding a political solution to a terrible, ongoing conflict.  Then suppose that this great power makes such declarations after it has already proclaimed its strong interest in the defeat of one of the main parties to said conflict.  And then suppose that this great power insists on preconditions for a peace process—preconditions effectively boiling down to a demand for pre-emptive surrender by the party whose defeat the great power has already identified as its major goal—which render such a process impossible.  Is it not reasonable to conclude that the great power in question is (how to put this gently) lying about its purported support for peace?

That, in a nutshell, is the Obama administration’s posture toward the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Earlier this week, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon began sending out invitations for the Geneva II conference on Syria scheduled for January 22.  And, as Ban’s spokesperson acknowledged, the Islamic Republic of Iran was not among the “first round” of nations asked to take part.

According to the spokesperson, invitations to the talks are subject to the approval—or veto—of the two “initiating states,” Russia and the United States.  The Islamic Republic has said repeatedly that it is prepared to attend and to contribute constructively to the search for a political settlement.  Of course, Russia supportsIran’s participation in Geneva II—as does China, Germany, Turkey, every other state seriously interested in resolving the conflict in Syria, and the United Nations itself.  (Ban’s spokesperson publicly stated this week, “The secretary-general is in favor of inviting Iran.”)

It is the United States—whose leader, President Obama has demanded for more than two years that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad relinquish his position—that is blocking Iranian participation in Geneva II.  And it is attempting to justify this position by continuing to insist on Assad’s pre-emptive surrender as part of the Geneva II agenda.  Moreover, Washington is couching its demand for Assad’s pre-emptive surrender in a shamelessly dishonest reading of the 2012 Geneva I communique, which is supposed to set the terms of reference for Geneva II.

On this last point, Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week (before Ban started sending out invitations) reiterated the Obama administration’s opposition to Iran’s participation in Geneva II as a “ministerial partner.”  In the administration’s view, Iran can’t come to the meeting because it has not signed on to the Geneva I document—in particular, the passage positing that a “transitional governing body” for Syria “shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent” among “the present government and the opposition and other groups.”

Since Iran (at Washington’s insistence) was not invited to Geneva I, it is not clear exactly how or why Tehran should sign up to a communique it had no part in producing.  But the most shamelessly dishonest aspect of the Obama administration’s posturing on the matter is its insistence that Iran accept the administration’s warped reading of the passage from Geneva I just cited, which Team Obama (including Kerry) interprets as a requirement that Assad leave office and play no future political role—whether as part of a transitional government or as Syria’s first president elected after a settlement is negotiated.

We suspect that Assad would, in all likelihood, win another national mandate—even in the “free and fair multi-party elections” envisioned in Geneva I.  But Washington doesn’t want Syrians to have the chance to make that choice.  And so Washington continues to block Iranian participation in Geneva II—save perhaps, as Kerry pompously suggested earlier this week, “from the sidelines” (a proposition that Iran has roundly rejected).

What is so appallingly arrogant about the Obama administration’s position is that it was explicitly rejected at Geneva I.  Then-UN envoy Kofi Annan’s draft communique originally contained U.S.-backed language barring figures from the  conflict resolution process whose participation would block creation of a national unity government—language that the United States, Britain, and France crafted to exclude Assad.  Russia and China insisted that this language be removed from the final communique.  But the Obama administration has disingenuously continued asserting that the language in Geneva I bans Assad from any future political role—even though it is as clear as day that Geneva I, as actually adopted, does not do any such thing.

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are supposed to discuss the question of Iranian participation in Geneva II on January 13.  Let’s see if the Obama administration can actually decide that it wants to resolve the conflict in Syria, rather than prolonging it further.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Iran, the United States, and the Middle East in 2014

First of all, our very best wishes for the New Year!

2013 was, for many reasons, an important year for the Islamic Republic of Iran, for U.S.-Iranian relations, and for the Middle East more generally.  Looking back, one thing which strikes us as especially important is that, during 2013, the failures of U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East (and the gradual implosion of America’s position in the region) became evident even to some who were too analytically obtuse or ideologically reluctant to notice it earlier.

President Obama’s largely self-inflicted debacle over his declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there in August was particularly crucial in this regard.  It is no accident that the Obama administration became at least superficially more interested in diplomacy after this episode.  For Obama’s flailing over Syria underscored that, after strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States cannot now credibly threaten the effective use of force for hegemonic purposes in the Middle East.

If 2013 was a year in which the profound deficiencies of America’s Middle East strategy were on extended display, we expect that 2014 will be a year in which the effectiveness of Iranian strategy comes to the fore.  We are not optimistic that Obama and his team will get diplomacy with Iran “right.”  Fundamentally, official Washington remains unwilling to accept the Islamic Republic as an enduring political entity representing legitimate national interests, and to incorporate such acceptance into U.S. policy on the nuclear issue, the Syrian conflict, and other Middle Eastern challenges.

But Iran’s strategy does not depend on Washington getting things right.  Indeed, Iranian strategy takes seriously the very real (even likely) prospect that Washington is not capable of negotiating a nuclear settlement grounded in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and respectful of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear rights.  Likewise, Iranian strategy takes seriously the very real (even likely) prospect that Washington cannot disenthrall itself from Obama’s extremely foolish declaration in August 2011 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go—and therefore that the United States will not contribute constructively to the quest for a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.

If the United States can truly reform its approach to the Middle East, certainly Iran can work with that.  But if Washington continues down its counter-productive path in the region, Tehran can play off America’s accumulating policy failures and the deepening illegitimacy of its regional posture to advance the Islamic Republic’s strategic position.  We look forward to charting and analyzing the course of events in the Middle East, along with all of you, during 2014.

To round off our retrospective look at last year, we recall that, back in February 2013, our newly published book, Going to Tehran, served as the launch point for a Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs symposium on “The U.S.-Iranian Relationship and the Future of International Order.”  As a final gift from 2013, we want to share (see here) the issue of the Penn State Journal of Law and International Affairs, published in November 2013, presenting the penetrating papers that grew out of this symposium—by Dan Joyner, Richard Butler, Mary Ellen O’Connell, and Jim Houck, along with the two of us.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Going to Tehran’s Person of the Year for 2013

This is the season when a number of internationally prominent media outlets select a “Person of the Year.”

TIME did better than usual this year with its selection of Pope Francis, one of the most interesting religious leaders of our day.

The Guardian, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post’s “The Switch” blog all chose Edward Snowden, whose disclosure of documents related to National Security Agency eavesdropping activities has rocked much of the world.

–The Washington Post’s “World View” blog chose Russian President Vladimir Putin.  (With all due respect to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, we think that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping should have received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for their governments’ use of international law and international organizations like the United Nations Security Council to constrain an outlaw superpower—the United States.  But that’s another matter.)

While these are all worthy choices, as 2013 draws to a close we want to offer our own selection for “Person of the Year.”  Our pick is…Glenn Greenwald, who had the courage to take on a personally risky battle with the American national security state by reporting on and writing about the Snowden documents, enabling them to have their extraordinary impact.

We have long admired Glenn’s work as a columnist and author.  As we wrote in April 2013 (before the Snowden story broke), when we posted a podcastinterview about our book, Going to Tehran, that Glenn did with us for The Guardian, “We admire Glenn deeply for all he has done and continues to do to bring reality and principle back into America’s ongoing debates about national security and about civil liberties…If our children inherit a republic still even marginally worthy of the name, it will be, in no small part, because enough people were motivated by Glenn to demand that American elites stop eviscerating our country’s international position through a counter-productive quest for imperial dominance, and stop shredding the Constitution in pursuit of an illusory notion of ‘security.’”

But Glenn’s reporting and commentary on the Snowden documents took Glenn’s contributions to a new level.  As we wrote to him directly in June 2013, after the Snowden story broke, “As two former U.S. government officials who once swore to defend the Constitution, we simply want to say thank you—for it is increasingly difficult to discern that Constitution in the way our government operates.”

Internationally and in the United States, the Snowden revelations have prompted a more fundamental debate about the nature of the American state and its role in the world than we’ve seen before.  We do not know how far the consequences of this debate will extend—but there already are some consequences.

–European governments (with, undoubtedly, no small measure of hypocrisy) are beginning to question publicly their long-standing intelligence cooperation with the United States—not because these governments have suddenly decided to have truly independent foreign policies, but because the outrage among European publics over Snowden’s revelations is so great.

–In the United States, we suspect that the Snowden revelations have contributed to President Obama’s plummeting poll numbers.  More significantly, it is doubtful that, absent the Snowden revelations, the American public would have reacted so decisively against Obama’s call for U.S. military strikes in Syria following the use of chemical weapons there in August 2013This episode is important—for it underscored that, after strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States cannot now credibly threaten the effective use of force for hegemonic purposes in the Middle East.  And that has potentially profound ramifications for American policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Just a few days ago, a Federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush declared from the bench that the NSA wiretapping programs disclosed by Snowden are probably unconstitutional.  This statement is far from the last legal word on the subject—but it is notable all the same.  See here and here to watch interviews that Glenn Greenwald gave (to BBC Newsnight and Al Jazeera America, respectively) about it.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett