Can Obama Do Nixon-to-China on Iran?

President Obama has indicated that he wants a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran, especially limiting its nuclear program, but he has hesitated taking the kind of positive steps that President Nixon did in his opening to China more than four decades ago, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett observe.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

The Obama administration will be making a big mistake if it interprets Iran’s insistence that the U.S. not “point a gun” at it as a rejection of serious diplomacy. Appearing on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, Flynt pushed back against the mainstream narrative about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei’s statement on bilateral negotiations with the United States last week. Flynt explained,

“It is actually incorrect to say that the Supreme Leader rebuffed bilateral negotiations with the United States. If you look at his record, he’s been Supreme Leader for 23 years; for eight years before that he was the Islamic Republic’s elected president. He has a very long record. Throughout his tenure in public life, he has said that the Islamic Republic would be open to improved relations with the United States, would even welcome that, but that this would only be possible on the basis of mutual respect and with the United States accepting the Islamic Republic as a legitimate order representing legitimate national interests.

President Richard Nixon meets with Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Beijing, Feb. 21, 1972.

“It is simply incoherent and ineffective for the United States to think it’s going to be able to get into negotiations while it is continuing to conduct economic warfare, cyber warfare, and basically say it wants to see regime change in Tehran. This is not going to work, and if we stay on this path, it’s ultimately going to lead to another U.S.-initiated war in the region.”

Though some assert that President Obama offered Iran “negotiations based on mutual respect” in his March 2009 Nowruz message, Flynt recounted, “Two days after Obama’s video for the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, the Supreme Leader, in his own annual Nowruz speech, addressed this video. And he said, we have this long litany of grievance against the United States. But this is a new administration; we have no experience with this administration. President Obama says he wants change, he wants better relations; that’s good.

“And I say to him, if he changes his policies toward Iran, we will change, too. And from an Iranian perspective, they have been waiting for some sign, in terms of policy, that this administration is really serious about improved relations. And instead, the policy, from an Iranian perspective, on sanctions, on cyber warfare, on covert ops, all of this stuff, has gotten worse.

“If you want to know what serious diplomacy would look like, look what Richard Nixon did toward China after he came to office, knowing that it was strategically vital for the United States to open a door to this rising regional power. Nixon ordered the CIA to stand down from covert operations in Tibet. He ordered the Seventh Fleet to stop aggressive patrolling in the Taiwan Strait. He did this so when he actually reached out to the Chinese leadership, they would know he was serious. The Iranian leadership is looking for something like that from Obama, and they have never gotten it.”

Flynt also took on facile claims that both sides are too bound up with their own domestic politics and internal conflicts to make much diplomatic progress with one another:

“I certainly acknowledge that there is a lot of politics in Iran, including over its foreign policy. But I think if you look at the record, the Islamic Republic has shown itself, on multiple occasions over the last quarter century, of being able to cooperate effectively with the United States on issues where there was some common overlap, and it has frequently expressed an interest in building on that, to try and build a different sort of strategic relationship. Each time it has been the United States that pulls the plug on that tactical cooperation, even though the Iranians have been delivering in it

“On the American side, and I say this as an American, I think what’s really important is, What is America’s interest here? We may not like to face this reality, but the reality is that, in relative terms, the United States is a power in decline in the Middle East; the Islamic Republic of Iran is a rising power. At this point, the United States can’t achieve any of its objectives in the Middle East absent a better and more productive relationship with Iran.

“But instead of dealing with that reality, the Obama administration, like the George W. Bush and the Clinton administrations before it, pursues a counterproductive search for dominance in the region, where it can micromanage political outcomes, where its ally Israel has an almost absolute freedom of unilateral military advantage.

“That strategy is not working for the United States; the United States is getting weaker as it continues to pursue this strategy, and we need to realize what is in our interest and realign our relations with Iran, just as thoroughly as we realigned our relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s.”

In discussing the possibilities and requirements for diplomatic progress, Flynt disputed descriptions of the nuclear issue as exceptionally complex and contentious:

“The nuclear issue is very simple. If the United States would recognize Iran’s right to safeguarded enrichment, you could negotiate a deal on the nuclear issue in a matter of weeks. But the administration won’t do that.”

In this context, Flynt also disputed characterizations of the Obama administration’s October 2009 proposal for a “fuel swap” deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor as containing an implicit recognition of Iran’s right to enrich: “The October 2009 deal did not recognize Iran’s right to enrich. That’s why it was a bad deal; that’s why the Leader rejected it. A few months later, Iran agreed to every single condition that the administration had laid out, in a document that it negotiated with Brazil and Turkey. But that document said Iran also has a right to enrich. And it’s the Obama administration that rejected that deal.”

The Obama administration is coming very close to discrediting engagement as a vastly superior alternative to war with Iran. As the administration prepares for the next round of nuclear talks in Kazakhstan later this month, President Obama and his national security team should treat Khamenei’s statement laying out what is necessary for serious negotiations as the important diplomatic opening that it is.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of the new book, Going to Tehran. [For a direct link with video, click here:

7 comments for “Can Obama Do Nixon-to-China on Iran?

  1. incontinent reader
    February 12, 2013 at 06:19

    What the Leveretts propose would be marvelous, but you need the right guy to execute it.

  2. incontinent reader
    February 12, 2013 at 06:11

    The opportunity is there, but the will, vision, and courage to defy the lobbies in a meaningful way is not (the nomination of Hagel notwithstanding). Moreover, BO can’t have his cake and eat it too, because that would presuppose “negotiating” while forcing regime change, which he seems still to want, and that the damned idiots at WINEP, Brookings, and CFR (including Ray Takeyh) and their affiliates keep demanding, but it is a contradiction that the Grand Ayatollah just called him on. At least he (the Ayatollah) is not a dope- he knows you can’t get half pregnant even if you get half married, (or was it you can’t conduct a negotiation while the other side is trying to stick a shiv in you?). Regardless, the aftertaste of Hillary, the presence of Susan Rice and Samantha Power, and noise from all of them Congressional ideologues who are either in the pay of, or are being coerced by their Israeli friends would contaminate the venture or kick up a storm, and don’t forget the moles in the CIA and Pentagon who would report back to their handlers (though with Brennan there, they wouldn’t have to, he’d do it for them in periodic visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel). It’s an idea that has come and is presently idling over us in the sky like a tantalizing butterfly drone, and then will be gone. I’d hope I was wrong, but for, that the word has been overused and slipped from my vocabulary…. for now.

  3. santosh
    February 12, 2013 at 02:24

    Well said Mr Rehmat ! Jews and Israel does not want muslims to become stronger and prowerfull.Even europe and US wants all GCC and other muslim countries to be their slaves for ever.hence they keep threatening them with one issue or other.Now that they destroyed IRAQ, libya etc.. they are targeting Iran, pakistan and other countries..As you can see they are creating trouble in Egypt and Tunis recently for their own benefit as these countries have legitimate Islamic Govt.

  4. Vinayprasad
    February 12, 2013 at 01:38

    It seems to me after a thousand times introspection on the Iran attack issue, it seems the US has given up on a strike. Nobody these days is ever talking on the military option. As Flynt points out, the US is rapidly loosing its influence in the ME. There is a high possibility some “allies” in the ME will do a Brutus to America should a strike happen. America has tried every military threat – like parading two aircraft carriers on the Persian Gulf, thinking the kindergarten Iranians will scareoff and run away and give up. Instead the Iranians threatened to convert those nuclear powered ducks into a modern day Chernobyl / Fukushima in the Persian Gulf for the world to see. There is no other option than to be friends with Iran. Period. And that will mean gradual demobilization and exit of America from the ME permanently.

  5. William L. Bingham
    February 11, 2013 at 22:52

    I hope and pray that the Obama Administration can be as smart in diplomatic negotiations as they were in campaigning for office. They must find a way to placate Israel and also to avoid another useless war in the Middle East. That is a tall order; but if we can imagine it, let’s work toward that.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    February 11, 2013 at 21:13

    Ever have one of those moments when something pops into your head, and you just can’t help it: you start to laugh? This scenario nearly always occurs when, for some external reason, you’re not supposed to laugh. They call that “gallows humor”. So, I’m reading this article, and that joke about RooRoo pops into my head. It’s about the American who has been captured by (justifiably) angry natives. The counsel of elders pronounces him guilty of various sacrilegious offenses, and offer him a choice: “Death, or RooRoo”. Having already informed himself of the horrors of RooRoo, he chooses, “Death”! The chief, in his most grave and imperious manner turns to the assembled village and announces, “The sentence is death…by RooRoo”! What do you want to bet that given the choice between diplomacy and the other “options on the table”, our administration will choose………RooRoo!

    • incontinent reader
      February 12, 2013 at 06:17


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