Obama Shies from Iran Agreement

Official Washington can’t get over its addiction to tough-guy-ism, especially as it relates to confrontations in the Middle East. Now, President Obama’s timidity about taking on that challenge is undermining hopes for a negotiated settlement with Iran, say Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

As Washington and its great power partners prepare for more nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration and policy elites across the political spectrum talk as if America is basically in control of the situation. Sanctions, we are told, are inflicting ever-rising hardship on Iran’s economy. Either Tehran will surrender to U.S. demands that it stop enriching uranium or, at some point, the American military will destroy Iranian nuclear installations.

This is a dangerous delusion, grounded in persistent American illusions about Middle Eastern reality. Because of failed wars-cum-occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan; a war on terror that has turned Muslim societies ever more firmly against U.S. policy; and de factosupport for open-ended Israeli occupation of Arab populations, America’s position in the region is in free fall.

Increasingly mobilized publics will not tolerate continuation of such policies. If, in this climate, the United States launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, the blowback against American interests will be disastrous. Nonetheless, that is where our current strategy negotiating on terms that could not possibly interest Iran while escalating covert operations, cyber-attacks, and economic warfare against it leads.

For its own interests, Washington must take a fundamentally different approach. President Barack Obama needs to realign U.S. relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran as thoroughly as President Richard Nixon realigned relations with the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s. Simply “talking” to Iran will not accomplish this.

Every American administration since the Iranian Revolution has talked to Tehran, usually to ask its help on particular U.S. concerns. The Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations sought Iran’s help to free American hostages in Lebanon. The Clinton administration coordinated with Tehran to arm beleaguered Bosnian Muslims when U.S. law prevented Washington from doing so. After 9/11, Iran cooperated with the George W. Bush administration against al Qaeda and the Taliban a dialogue in which Hillary Mann Leverett participated for nearly two years.

In all these episodes, Washington got most of what it specifically asked for. But, each time, Washington pocketed Tehran’s cooperation, terminated dialogue, and used the purported “failure” of diplomacy to raise tensions, impose more sanctions, and come ever closer to confrontation.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, then-Sen. Obama pledged as part of a broader commitment to end the “mindset” that produced the 2003 Iraq invasion to engage Iran. As he embarks on his second term, President Obama is in danger of discrediting engagement by saying that he tried but failed to reach out to Tehran when in fact he has never seriously tried.

Since 2009, the Obama administration has participated in multilateral nuclear talks with Iran and used Iran’s unwillingness to surrender to U.S. demands as a reason to impose the most draconian sanctions on a country since sanctions on Iraq during 1991-2003 killed more than one million Iraqis, and to come ever closer to regime change as the ultimate goal of America’s Iran policy.

While U.S. officials excoriate Tehran for either “playing for time” or being too internally conflicted to negotiate seriously, it is Washington that has not been diplomatically serious. Iran has consistently been prepared to accept more intrusive monitoring of and perhaps negotiated limits on its nuclear activities, if Western powers would in turn recognize its right to enrich uranium under international safeguards.

But Obama like his predecessor refuses to acknowledge Iran’s right to enrich. For this would require acknowledging the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests and as a rising regional power unwilling to subordinate its foreign policy to Washington (as, for example, Egypt did under Sadat and Mubarak). No American president since the Iranian Revolution not even Barack Obama has been willing to deal with the Islamic Republic in this way.

Yet we return from our latest visit to Iran convinced this is the only way diplomacy can succeed. No one who has walked the streets of Tehran, seen that Iran’s economy is not imploding, and talked with a range of Iranians could think that sanctions as severe as they are and might become will compel either Iran’s collapse or its surrender. The only thing that will work is accepting the Islamic Republic and acknowledging its interests and rights including safeguarded enrichment.

Accepting a rising regional power as a legitimate entity pursuing its interests in a fundamentally rational and defensive way is how Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger enabled the historic opening to China in the early 1970s. Their achievement was not to “talk” to Beijing; Washington had been doing that for years, through ambassadorial-level discussions.

Their achievement was to accept and persuade Americans to accept the People’s Republic and its leaders as (in Nixon’s words) “pursuing their own interests as they perceive these interests, just as we follow our own interests as we see them,” and to work with them on that basis.

Nixon’s initiative saved America’s position in Asia after the draining disaster of Vietnam and restored Washington’s global leadership. If Obama accepted the Islamic Republic in the same way, an equally thorough realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations would be possible.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the three Iranian presidents elected over the course of Khamenei’s 22-year tenure as Supreme Leader have all said that they are open to better relations with America but only on the basis of mutual respect, equality, and American acceptance of the Islamic Republic.

Today, engaging Iran on this basis is Obama’s single biggest foreign policy challenge. It’s also the only way for him to rescue America’s position in the Middle East and avert strategic catastrophe in his second term.

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. [This article was originally published as a blog post at Reuters.com. Direct link: http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2013/01/31/the-u-s-needs-a-completely-different-approach-to-iran/

Doubting Obama’s Words on Diplomacy

In his two Inaugural Addresses, President Obama has called for diplomacy to replace military bluster, but his failure to rein in U.S. imperial impulses during his first term has made the world dubious of his rhetoric as he enters his second, write Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at GoingToTehran.com.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

When Barack Obama first ran for the presidency, his most important foreign policy campaign promise was to end not just the Iraq War, but also the “mindset” that had gotten the United States into that strategic travesty.

His First Inaugural emphasized the idea that America would exercise real leadership by resurrecting diplomacy and “engagement” as essential elements of American strategy. Leaders and publics in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and many other places around the world were eager for him to deliver.

In his Second Inaugural, President Obama recalled this vision, reminding Americans that they are “heirs to those who won the peace and not just the war; who turned sworn enemies into the surest of friends. We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully, not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

But now his words fall flat in much of the world. For his administration never understood that, to be effective, “engagement” had to mean more than simply reiterating longstanding U.S. demands while not just continuing to reject other parties’ interests and concerns, but acting even more assertively against them.

In the Middle East, Obama promised to engage Iran, make resolving the Palestinian issue a top priority, and redefine America’s posture toward the Muslim world.

Obama’s approach to engaging Tehran entailed reiterating the same demands on the nuclear issue as his predecessor while intensifying the coercive aspects of American policy (e.g., sanctions, covert operations, and cyber-attack) when Iran did not surrender.

If, in his second term, Obama launches another war to disarm yet another Middle Eastern country of weapons of mass destruction it does not have, this will be a disaster for America’s position in the Middle East. But this is where Obama’s current strategy inexorably leads.

Obama’s decisions to allow Israel and the pro-Israel lobby to hype the Iran “threat” and to appease the Netanyahu government with the most robust U.S. military assistance to Israel ever not only derailed nuclear diplomacy with Tehran; they also made it impossible for Obama to exert any leverage over Netanyahu regarding Israeli settlements or to support Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

As a result, Obama is not just presiding over a stalled peace process; he is overseeing the demise of the two-state solution.

These policies destroyed whatever hope Middle Easterners might have invested in Obama. After Obama’s First Inaugural, it seemed like he could have gone anywhere in the Muslim world. He chose Cairo as the venue for a major address ostensibly aimed at starting a new relationship with the Muslim world, based on dialogue rather than dictation.

Today, with Middle Eastern publics asserting more of a role in shaping their own political futures than ever before, it would be hard to find a Middle Eastern capital that would freely host Obama for such an address.

Obama’s vaunted “reset” of relations with Russia turned out, from Moscow’s perspective, to be not just insincere, but duplicitous.

Examples of American perfidy include NATO’s ongoing plans to deploy anti-missile radars in Europe, Obama’s appointment of someone with no diplomatic experience and essentially neoconservative views on Russia as his ambassador in Moscow, his distortion of a UN Security Council resolution authorizing humanitarian intervention in Libya into a regime-change campaign, his support for the overthrow of Syria’s government, and his endorsement of human rights legislation specifically targeting Russia.

Since returning as Russia’s President last year, Vladimir Putin has declined all invitations to come to the White House.

In Beijing, Chinese leaders are increasingly persuaded that what Obama administration officials first described as a U.S. “strategic pivot” from the Middle East to Asia and now call a “rebalancing” is really meant to contain China and “keep it down,” even as its economic development moves ahead.

China’s political and policy elites are growing concerned that the fundamental strategic bargain underlying Sino-American rapprochement in the 1970s, that Washington accepted a peacefully rising People’s Republic and that neither country would seek military hegemony in Asia, is being eviscerated, by the United States.

The world is increasingly giving up on the proposition that the United States can act in any manner other than that of an imperial power, even as more and more important players in global affairs are coming to see it as an imperial power in decline.

Obama’s Second Inaugural displayed no appreciation for this reality. And that does not augur well for any meaningful recovery of America’s international standing during Obama’s second term.

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. [This article was originally published at GoingtoTehran.com. Direct link: http://goingtotehran.com/obama-and-the-mismanagement-of-imperial-decline ]

Iran Appears Ready for Nuke Deal

Behind the scenes, diplomacy appears to be making slow progress toward a resolution of the Iranian-nuclear stalemate, possibly early in the new year. But obstacles remain and they are mostly in Washington, say Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at RaceforIran.com.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

We are just back from another visit to the Islamic Republic and see even more clearly that the real obstacles to successful nuclear diplomacy with Iran lie in Washington, not Tehran. Prior to our visit, we outlined several of the reasons for this in an extended interview on Ian Masters’ Background Briefing about our forthcoming book, Going to Tehran.

We open by taking issue with the conventional wisdom that the upcoming talks between the P5+1 and Iran will be the “last chance” to reach a nuclear deal with Tehran before the Islamic Republic gears up for its presidential election next year.

On this point, Flynt notes that the only reason nuclear talks over the next few months would be a “last chance” is “because of arbitrary deadlines and frameworks that the United States and some of its partners have imposed on these negotiations.

In the end, the Iranian nuclear problem is actually quite simple: if the United States was prepared to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium, under safeguards, on its own territory, you could have a deal in fairly short order.

“You could probably get limits on Iran’s 20-percent enrichment, you could get much more intrusive verification on its nuclear activities. But you would have to accept the Islamic Republic as kind of a normal state, with legitimate interests and rights.”

The Obama administration, of course, has shown no willingness to approach nuclear talks with Iran on such a basis. Instead, it has imposed the arbitrary deadlines and frameworks highlighted by Flynt. The dysfunctionality of this approach is reinforced by deeply flawed, and self-deluding, assessments of Iranian decision-making.

As Hillary explains, “The anxiety here, or the urgency, is because it’s put out that, if we don’t do something now, if we don’t try to make a deal now, the Iranian elections will come and that will somehow derail any possibility for talks. This is something that, time and time again, permeates the American debate, that somehow the problem with negotiating with Iran is in Iran, is in Tehran.

“It’s either the ‘mad mullahs’ are so crazy, so irrational that we can’t count on them to negotiate like a rational state, or various things are going to come up in their calendar, particularly elections (which in itself should make us question this idea that there are ‘mad mullahs’ there)

“The whole debate here [in Washington] is that something is wrong in Iran, something is wrong in Tehran that is going to derail talks. There’s never any examination of what drives American politics to demonize countries like the Islamic Republic of Iran. The issue is something here; it’s about domestic politics here.

“If President Obama cannot get a negotiation going with the Iranians in the next few months, he has a problem domestically here, because domestic constituencies here, and the Israeli government, will say, ‘Time is up. You’ve had enough time. We can’t let the Iranians continue to progress in their nuclear program. You have to take even more coercive action, either more coercive sanctions or military action.’

“It’s a domestic problem here. It’s not because of something going on in the decision-making or some irrational craziness among Iranian clerics or Iranian lay leaders.”

On Israel’s role, and its motives for constantly pushing an alarmist view of the Islamic Republic, Flynt says, “The Israelis are perpetually concerned, I think that their concern is exaggerated, but they are perpetually concerned that the Obama administration is going to try, in a serious way, to pursue a deal.

“Because the Israelis know that the only kind of deal you could really get out of this process that would have any meaning for both sides would be a deal that actually recognized Iran’s right to enrich, again, under safeguards, not building a nuclear weapon, but they do have a right to enrich.

“That’s what the Israelis are out to stop. They do not want the United States, other Western powers, to accept this basic fact of international law and international life, that the Iranians have this right, and they are not going to be bullied into giving it up.

“This is something that I think the United States really has to come to terms with. For its own interests, it needs to get a nuclear deal with Iran; it needs to start realigning its relations with this important country in the Middle East.

“And we need to be able to separate Israeli preferences, that have more to do with [Israel’s] own commitment to military dominance in the Middle East, and Israeli security. Iran enriching uranium under safeguards doesn’t affect Israeli security at all. But we need to be able to sort out what our real interests are.”

Against the stereotypes of Iranian “irrationality” and internal political divisions that render effective diplomatic engagement with Tehran impossible, Hillary outlines some important realities about the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and national security strategy:

“There is consensus [among Iranian policymakers] that Iran should and can engage with almost any country in the world, if [engagement] is to protect its own interests. Where it draws the line is anywhere that Iran would be asked to or expected to cede any of its sovereign rights. Iran is not going to agree to that kind of negotiation.

“In terms of what Iran should push for, what kind of deal Iran could make in the end, there is certainly discussion and debate, vociferous debate, in Iran about those kinds of tactics. But the strategy, that Iran is a strong country, that it can and should negotiate and deal with other countries in its own interests, is something that is really put forward by the Supreme Leader, by Ayatollah Khamenei. And it’s something, I think, that every senior official follows

“You hear in Washington, especially, periodic discussion some days it’s Ahmadinejad is the hardliner and he would never be able to deal with the United States. And then someone points out, ‘Well, he actually wrote a 20-page letter to Bush. He actually wrote a congratulatory letter to President Obama on his first election.’

“Then people say, ‘Well, maybe the issue is really the speaker of the parliament, or maybe it’s this person or that person.’ There’s a constant attempt in the United States, particularly in Washington, to read the tea leaves, as if [the Islamic Republic is] a very opaque system. These kinds of critics analogize it to the Soviet system.

“But it’s not really opaque. If you listen, read, talk to [Iranian] officials, talk to a range of people in their political class, on their political spectrum, and take what they have to say seriously you can really understand their strategy. You can understand where they’re coming from, and their strategic determination to be a very strong, independent country.

“The problem, I think, on our side, why we try always to see where there’s some daylight, where this person is competing with that person, is that we’re very reluctant to accept that Iran could be a strong, independent, not secular, not liberal, but still legitimate political entity.

“We document rather exhaustively in our book the number of times that the Iranians have engaged with the United States. [In one of these episodes, I] worked personally with them as an official in the State Department and in the White House, with a small team of American officials, to deal with Afghanistan and the problem we were facing there after 9/11 with Al-Qa’ida

“[The Iranians] were not paralyzed by internal conflict. The internal conflict was here. It’s the opposition that I had when I was in the White House, from my superiors or people who worked for Vice President Cheney, trying to undermine what Ryan Crocker and I were trying to do with the Iranians.”

Looking ahead, Flynt underscores that, notwithstanding recurrent debate among American political and policy elites over Tehran’s willingness to talk directly, on a bilateral basis, with Washington, “the Iranian position on dealing with the United States has been pretty clear and consistent for a long time, for years. They are open to improved relations, they are open to dialogue and diplomacy to facilitate serious improvement in relations.

“But they want to know, upfront at this point, that the United States is really prepared to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political order representing legitimate national interests. And they want to know upfront that the United States is really serious about realigning relations with them.

“They are not interested in having negotiations just for the sake of having negotiations. They are not interested in having negotiations if they think that the United States is just going to keep piling sanctions on them. They want to know upfront that the United States is serious.

“So they will go the P-5+1 talks; they certainly are not refusing to participate in the P-5+1 process. And if, as part of that, the United States makes it clear that it really is interested in a different sort of relationship, that it really does accept the Islamic Republic and wants to come to terms with it as an important player in the Middle East, at that point the Iranians would be very open, very receptive to bilateral dialogue.”

In the interview, we also discuss the 2003 non-paper sent to Washington by Iran via Swiss intermediaries and why incremental, step-by-step cooperation between the United States and the Islamic Republic doesn’t work to improve the overall relationship (mainly because Washington won’t allow it to do so).

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For direct link, click: http://www.raceforiran.com/the-real-obstacles-to-successful-nuclear-diplomacy-with-iran-lie-in-washington-not-tehran]

Understanding the ‘Crazy’ Iranians

For more than three decades, many Americans have viewed Iran through the lens of the painful hostage crisis of 1979-81, seeing the Islamic Republic as irrational and dismissive of international law. But the fuller story is more complicated and less frightening, write Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

One of the main themes in our new book, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran, is that America’s Iran debate is fundamentally distorted by a series of myths, namely, that the Islamic Republic is irrational, illegitimate, and can easily be isolated in its regional environment and, ultimately, undermined by the United States.

An excerpt in Harper’s (see here), entitled “The Mad Mullah Myth: The Dangers of Misunderstanding Iran’s Strategy,” lays out some of the main points in our critique of the irrationality myth. It opens by noting that:

“In the more than thirty years since the Iranian Revolution, Western analysts have routinely depicted the Islamic Republic as an ideologically driven, illegitimate, and deeply unstable state. From their perspective, Iran displayed its fanatical character early on, first in the hostage crisis of 1979-81, and shortly afterward with the deployment of teenage soldiers in ‘human wave’ attacks against Iraqi forces during the 1980s.

“Supposedly the same Shi’a ‘cult of martyrdom’ and indifference of casualties persist in a deep attachment to suicide terrorism that would, if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, end in catastrophe. Allegations of the Iranian government’s ‘irrationality’ are inevitably linked to assertions that it is out to export its revolution across the Middle East by force, is hell-bent on the destruction of Israel, and is too dependent for its domestic legitimacy on anti-Americanism to contemplate improving relations with the United States.”

Of course, the veteran diplomat Chas Freeman has pointed out that “to dismiss a foreign government, policy, or circumstance as ‘irrational’ is to confess that one does not understand its motivations, causes, or calculus, has no idea how to deal with it short of the use of force, and has no intention of making the effort to discover how to do so.”

And we point out that “if Western political elites were to make an effort to understand Iran and its motivations, they would discover that the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be a highly rational actor in the conduct of its foreign policy. The Iranian government did not launch a holy war against Iraq in the 1980s; rather, it struggled to defend the Iranian people against a brutal Iraqi invasion that was directly supported by many of Iran’s neighbors as well as by Western power, including the United States.

“When in the course of that was Iran was subjected to years of chemical-weapons attacks, Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founding father, and his associates chose not to weaponize Iran’s stockpiles of chemical agents, a move that would have enabled it to respond in kind.

“And for years now the Islamic Republic’s most senior political and religious leaders have rejected the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons, both on strategic grounds and because, in their view, nuclear weapons violate Islamic morality.”

We go on to debunk Western conventional wisdom about Tehran’s “support for terrorism.” We describe how, “if Westerns looked soberly at the record, they would discover that Iran is not aggressively exporting revolution.”

Likewise, we explain that, while Iranian policymakers believe that Israel is an illegitimate state, “Iran is not out to destroy” it, and has never threatened to do so, contrary to Western mythology.

Iranian leaders “take a long view of their standoff with Israel, expecting that the unsustainability in the twenty-first century of apartheid-like arrangements will lead to the fall of Israel’s current political structure, not to the annihilation of the Jewish people. Such an expectation, although disturbing to many Israelis, does not constitute a threat to liquidate Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.”

Furthermore, “The record also shows that Iran has not been stubbornly antagonistic toward the United States. Over the past two decades, Tehran has consistently cooperated on issues when Washington has requested its assistance, and it has frequently explored the possibilities for improved American-Iranian relations.

“It is the United States that has repeatedly terminated these episodes of bilateral cooperation and rebuffed Iranian overtures, reinforcing Iranian leaders’ suspicion that Washington will never accept the Islamic Republic.”

The Islamic Republic continues to frame its foreign policy around principles that reflect its religious and revolutionary roots. But for many years now it has defined its diplomatic and national-security strategies in largely non-ideological terms, on the basis of national interests that are perfectly legitimate: to be free from the threat of attack and from interference in its internal affairs; to have its government accepted by its neighbors and by the world’s most militarily powerful state.

For more than 20 years, the Islamic Republic has shown itself to be capable of acting rationally to defend and advance these interests. Americans may not like Tehran’s strategic and tactical choices, its links to political factions and their associated militias in Afghanistan and Iraq, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its pursuit of nuclear-fuel-cycle capabilities. But these choices are far from irrational, particularly in the face of continuing animosity from Washington.

As America enters a period of perhaps decisive choices in its Iran policy during President Obama’s second term, we offer Going to Tehran (as we write in the Introduction) as “a challenge to our fellow Americans and others to reconsider what they think they know about the Islamic Republic.”

We hope that it has an impact. (Going to Tehran will be published by Henry Holt’s Metropolitan Books imprint on Jan. 8, 2013.)

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For a direct link of this piece, click here: http://www.raceforiran.com/iran-and-the-mad-mullah-myth-leveretts-forthcoming-book-excerpted-in-harpers

Undercutting Iran Nuke Talks

Having won reelection, President Obama appears interested in a deal on Iran’s nuclear program. But key U.S. commentators continue to embrace baseless fraud charges about Iran’s 2009 election while pressing unrealistic negotiation demands, a recipe for failure, say Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at RaceforIran.com.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

As President Obama signaled renewed interest last week in a “diplomatic resolution to the problem” with Iran, liberal advocates of soft regime change are again coming out of the woodwork to profess their support for engaging Tehran.

The New York Times’ Roger Cohen published a columnin this week that reveals much about the outlook of many liberal political and policy elites regarding diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. As the re-elected Obama administration gears up for another go at nuclear negotiations with Tehran, the kind of mendaciousness and self-deception manifested in Cohen’s piece is all too likely to characterize the Iran policy debate in Washington.

Cohen opens by noting that, “in re-electing Barack Obama, [the American people] voted for peace and against a third war in a Muslim nation in little over a decade.” At the same time, Obama faces “no more immediate strategic challenge” than the Iranian nuclear issue:

“The question of whether the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace or for a breakthrough with Iran should be the first diplomatic priority for Obama’s second term amounts to a no-brainer. It’s Iran, stupid. (There are no good options in Syria and, as with most Middle Eastern issues, American non-communication with Iran on the matter is unhelpful. Iran’s constructive role in the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan is too often forgotten.)

“War with Iran would be devastating, to a Middle East in transition, to U.S. interests from Afghanistan to Egypt, and to the global economy. The time available for averting conflict is limited.”

These considerations, and other factors of longer standing, should point the United States toward diplomacy with Tehran. Yet, in Obama’s first term, Cohen writes, “Republican machismo prevailed on many fronts. Demonization of Iran was a never-ending source of rhetorical inspiration. Democrats were not far behind.” Now, “diplomacy is in urgent need of resurrection.”

On the surface, anyway, so far so good. But what Cohen fails to mention is that a cadre of Obama supporters, himself included, are at least as responsible as neoconservatives for sabotaging prospects for successful U.S.-Iranian diplomacy during Obama’s first term.

And these self-professedly well-meaning liberals did so because, fundamentally, they are no less devoted than neoconservatives to the pursuit of regime change in Iran.  In contrast to the neocons, liberals don’t think that war is the smart way to go about encouraging regime change in Iran, but they are no less focused on regime change as their ultimate objective there.

Following the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election, Roger Cohen was one of the most assiduous voices in the Western media claiming that the election had been stolen, that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had lost his popular support, and that the massive electoral fraud required to deprive challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi of his electoral victory had undermined the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy.

See, for example, this piece, from early July 2009, in which Cohen describes the re-elected President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, and the basij as “Iran’s ruthless usurpers,” asserting that “the government is now illegitimate” and, therefore, should not be engaged.

Of course, Cohen had no evidence for any of these claims. Neither Mousavi nor anyone in his campaign or anyone connected with the Green Movement ever presented any hard evidence of electoral fraud, either at polling stations or in the counting of votes, even though, given the way the election was conducted, it would have been relatively easy to do so had fraud actually occurred.

Moreover, every methodologically sound poll carried out in Iran before and after the election, 14 in all, by Western polling groups as well as by the University of Tehran, see here, indicated that Ahmadinejad’s re-election with just over 60 percent of the vote (what the official results showed) was eminently plausible.

As weeks and months went by, and no proof of electoral fraud emerged, much less fraud on the scale needed to account for Ahmadinejad’s 11-million vote victory margin, Cohen ultimately fell back on “sometimes you have to smell the truth.” (For its part, The New York Times seemed all too happy to publish such fatuousness.)

It was also evident that the Green Movement did not represent anything close to a majority of Iranians and that within a week of the election its social base was already contracting.

Cohen was certainly not alone in advancing this kind of evidence-free analysis. Other liberal stalwarts, including Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, Thomas Friedman (Cohen’s colleague at The New York Times), Barbara Slavin, and Robin Wright, joined in.

The West’s “best” and “most respected” Iran analysts, including Ali Ansari, Reza Aslan, Farideh Farhi, Suzanne Maloney, Trita Parsi, Karim Sadjadpour, and Ray Takeyh (several of them expatriates who want the Islamic Republic to disappear so that their vision of a secular liberal Iran might be fulfilled, even though that is manifestly not what most Iranians who actually live in their country want), gave it their imprimatur.

Virtually all of these figures had anticipated that Mousavi’s electoral challenge to Ahmadinejad would succeed. Their hopeful expectation rested not on dispassionate analysis of Iranian political trends, but on a deeply held, largely unquestioned assumption: that Iran is inevitably headed toward liberal democracy, because that’s what American liberals and many U.S.-based Iranian expatriates want it to become, just like neoconservatives do.

(What is the ultimate goal for Parsi and the organization he heads, the National Iranian American Council? According to NIAC’s Web site, “a world in which the United States and a democratic Iran”, no mention of the Islamic Republic, “enjoy peaceful, cooperative relations.”)

And when those pesky Iranian voters did not defer to liberal outsiders’ vision for their future, most Iranians, it seems, want a system that seeks to combine participatory politics with principles of Islamic governance, many of the same liberals and expatriates persisted in their penchant for analysis-by-wishful-thinking, cavalierly dismissing the election results as the product of fraud.

This sort of wishful thinking is not benignly incorrect; it has had real (and negative) impact on the prospects for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy, which most liberals say they prefer to U.S. military action against Iran or another ill-begotten American campaign for coercive regime change in the Middle East.

Cohen, Parsi, and other like-minded activists and commentators led the charge in pressing the Obama administration to take what Parsi called a “tactical pause” from diplomacy with Tehran, which had not even commenced at that point, because the Islamic Republic was potentially on the verge of collapse.

Or, as Cohen wrote (rather floridly) in early July 2009: “Obama must leave [Khamenei and Ahmadinejad] dangling for the foreseeable future. He should refrain indefinitely from talk of engagement. To do otherwise would be to embrace the usurpers.

“I’ve argued strongly for engagement with Iran as a game-changer. America renewed relations with the Soviet Union at the time of the Great Terror and China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Operation Jackboot has not, as yet at least, involved mass killings.

“But the Iran of today is not the Iran of three weeks ago; it is in volatile flux from without and within. Its Robespierres are running amok. Obama must do nothing to suggest business as usual. Let Ahmadinejad, he of the bipolar mood swings, fret and sweat. Let him writhe in the turbid puddle of his self-proclaimed ‘justice’ and ‘ethics’ The price of Obama’s engagement may just have become Ahmadinejad’s departure. I think it has.”

Deploying such unsubstantiated but inflammatory claims, it was Obama’s liberal base in 2009 which derailed possibilities for U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy, just as Bush’s neoconservative stalwarts did with their designation of Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” in the wake of 9/11.

The Obama administration had previously decided to delay serious engagement with Tehran until after the June 2009 election, hoping that it could then deal with a Mousavi-led government. There was, of course, no reason to expect that such a government would have taken a fundamentally different tack in nuclear negotiations with the United States, but that wasn’t the point for Mousavi’s backers in Washington.

The point was to enhance Mousavi’s chances for victory, and with that victory, get Iran back on the path toward a more Westernized, liberalized, and ultimately secularized political future.

With the controversy (fueled by Cohen, Parsi and others) that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election victory, the administration did not get back on track to start nuclear talks with Iran until the fall of 2009, even though Obama had promised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that, if negotiations had not produced results by the end of 2009, the United States would put diplomacy aside and push for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

This meant that the Obama administration put its (convoluted and one-sided) proposal for a fuel “swap” to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor on the table as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, thereby dooming prospects for a deal, just as a re-elected Obama administration is today considering making even more one-sided, take-it-or-leave-it proposals to Iran regarding its nuclear activities.

More broadly, the unsubstantiated portrayal of the 2009 election as stolen, the portrayal pushed by Cohen, Friedman, Parsi, Sadjadpour et al., has helped to enable neoconservative policy outcomes. Thus, NIAC’s advocacy of “targeted” or “precision” sanctions against the Iranian government has served only to facilitate the passage of broad-based sanctions.

Similarly, by arguing that he was all in favor of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, just not after a particular election and not with what he alleged (again, with no evidence), were political thieves, Cohen provided de facto legitimation to neoconservatives, supporters of the MEK, the pro-Israel lobby and others who say that (take your pick) Iranian officials’ rhetoric about Israel, Tehran’s support for groups resisting Israeli occupation, the Islamic Republic’s insistence on including religion in its constitution, its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, and/or Iranians’ annual commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom on Ashura render engagement with Iran a fool’s errand, politically, morally, and strategically.

For U.S. policymakers, the most fundamental question with regard to pursuing diplomacy with Iran should be: Is diplomatic engagement with Tehran, with the goal of strategic realignment between the United States and the Islamic Republic, in America’s interest?

If it is (as we strongly believe to be the case), then the only question left is: What does the United States need to do to make engagement work? Anything else is not just unhelpful; it is dangerously counter-productive, ensuring that diplomacy will fail and that the risks of a strategically disastrous war (disastrous, first of all, for the United States) will rise.

But that is what the liberal approach, epitomized by Cohen, Parsi, Slavin et al. has done: it has made real rapprochement between the United States and Iran less likely and war ultimately more likely.

Today, Cohen, Parsi, Slavin and others have hopped back on the pro-diplomacy bandwagon. But look at what they and other like-minded commentators think diplomacy should entail.

As Cohen writes: “What do we want from Iran? Open up all its nuclear facilities, get rid of all its 20 percent enriched uranium, end all threats to Israel, stop rampant human rights abuses, changed policies on Hamas and Hezbollah, a constructive approach to Syria.”

Outside the nuclear sphere, an Iran that accepted such an agenda would no longer be the Islamic Republic. Indeed, John Bolton wouldn’t have any problem with that agenda; he would simply disagree with Cohen that it is possible to get Tehran to accept, through diplomacy, such thoroughgoing revision of its (internal as well as external) political orientation.

Likewise, Parsi and NIAC once again favor diplomacy, but they stipulate that American engagement with Tehran must include “human rights as a core issue.”

This is strategic and diplomatic nonsense.  Sino-American rapprochement would never have worked had Nixon and Kissinger made human rights a “core issue”; U.S.-Iranian rapprochement won’t work on that basis either.

Insisting that Iran “end all threats to Israel”, when, in fact, the Islamic Republic has never threatened to attack Israel while Israel assassinates Iranian scientists and routinely threatens to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, is a formula for failure.

However much they may cringe at the term, the liberals’ commitment to what might be described as a strategy of “soft” regime change in Iran is clear. In his latest Op-Ed, Cohen quotes Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund president Stephen Heintz as saying that he avoids “the phrase ‘diplomatic solution’ in conversations about Iran on Capitol Hill” in favor of “’political solution.’ Diplomacy just sounds too wimpy.”

For Heintz, it undoubtedly does. For the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has provided funding to Parsi’s NIAC to conduct “nonpolitical trainings” for Iranian oppositionists, just as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund supported efforts to encourage political change in the former Yugoslavia and color revolutions in former Soviet-bloc states.

(Also, and, we suspect, not coincidentally, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund underwrote Ali Ansari’s substantively flawed “scholarly” work to delegitimate the Islamic Republic’s 2009 election.)

We are all in favor of a “political solution.” But such a solution requires real rapprochement between the United States and Iran, based on American acceptance of the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing real (and legitimate) national interests.

It would seem that liberals are not any more inclined toward a genuine political solution than neoconservatives are.

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com.]

Israel’s Strategic ‘Dead End’

The expectation at the annual UN General Assembly has been for Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to come across as wacky while the U.S. media lauds Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu for his seriousness, except that the script went differently this year, as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett note at RaceForIran.com.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York last week for his valedictory appearances as President of the Islamic Republic before the United Nations General Assembly. He gave several significant addresses, multiple interviews, and even held a session with a small group of Americans who have written or are writing books about Iran, in which we took part.

Although, as usual, Ahmadinejad had a rich and multifaceted set of messages that he worked to convey, media and public attention focused on his observations about Israel and the threat of an Israeli or U.S. attack on the Islamic Republic. On this topic, Ahmadinejad had two main points.

First, Israel is at a strategic “dead end,” or, as he explained in greater detail (see here):  “Fundamentally, we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists. We believe the Zionists see themselves at a dead end and the way to find an adventure to get out of this dead end. While we are fully ready to defend ourselves, we do not take these threats seriously.”

Second, the reason why Israel finds itself in a “dead end” is not because of the Islamic Republic and its nuclear activities. It is because of the mobilization of Arab and other Muslim populations to demand more participatory political orders in their countries.

Although this was surely not his intent, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu confirmed Ahmadinejad’s assessment when Netanyahu addressed the General Assembly later in the week. The heart of Netanyahu’s address, of course, was his remarks about the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program.

By now, most people who might read this have, we are sure, already seen footage of Netanyahu deploying his Looney Tunes-like drawing of a cylindrical bomb with a hand-lit fuse, 25 minutes into the video linked above. (For those who were too dumbstruck by the absurdity of his visual aid to take in easily its intended message, Netanyahu pointed out, “This is a bomb. This is a fuse.”)

Bottom line: Netanyahu holds that the United States should commit to bombing Iranian nuclear facilities before the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iran has stockpiled enough uranium enriched to the near-20 percent level so that, if Iran reconfigured its centrifuges and put its 20-percent enriched uranium back through those centrifuges, it might be able to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material to fabricate a single nuclear weapon.

Where to begin deconstructing all of this? Simply as a technical matter, Netanyahu’s analysis is deeply flawed on multiple levels.

Netanyahu claims that, once Iran reaches his suggested red line, Israel, the United States and others cannot rely on their intelligence services to detect an Iranian move to turn near-20 percent enriched uranium into weapons-grade fissile material.

But, by Netanyahu’s own testimony, his analysis of Iran’s fuel-cycle program is “not based on secret information. It’s not based on military intelligence. It’s based on public reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

But it is also these public reports which will tell Netanyahu and others when the Islamic Republic has accumulated enough 20-percent enriched uranium to meet his red line. And in order to blow past this red line, Iran would have to take steps, breaking seals on IEAE-inventoried uranium stockpiles, reconfiguring centrifuges to produce weapons-grade fissile material, or moving stockpiles out of IEAE-monitored facilities, that the IAEA (not U.S. or Israeli intelligence) would detect.

Furthermore, Netanyahu said nothing to demonstrate that, even if Iran were to produce enough weapons-grade fissile material for a nuclear device, it has either the intention or the capability to weaponize the material, which is a considerably more complicated task than just stuffing highly-enriched uranium into the Prime Minister’s cartoon bomb and lighting the fuse.

Strategically, as we’ve argued before, there is no way that a mythical nuclear-armed Iran, much less an Iran enriching uranium at well below weapons grade, poses an “existential threat” to Israel.

In New York, Netanyahu made much of the Islamic Republic’s alleged irrationality, even citing Bernard Lewis that “for the Ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.”

But countless senior Israeli officials, including the commander of the Israel Defense Forces, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, including even Netanyahu himself (see here and here), have acknowledged, on the record, that it is highly unlikely that Iranian leaders would use nuclear weapons.

(For the record, Iranian leaders have said repeatedly over many years that they don’t want nuclear weapons and, in the assessment of both U.S. and Israeli intelligence services, they have not taken a decision to produce them. In fact, we believe that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, has taken a clear decision not to do so.)

The real existential threat to Israel comes from what Israelis see going on around them right now, and which Ahmadinejad so aptly pointed out, the mobilization of Arab and other Muslim populations to demand more participatory political orders.

For as Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei and other Iranian leaders understand very well, the governments that grow out of this demand will not succumb to American pressure cum blandishments to “make peace” with Israel, even as it continues to occupy Arab land, suppress Arab populations, and flout international law in its grossly disproportionate applications of military force around the region.

Such governments will insist, before they can accept Israel, that it must change its policies in fundamental ways, ways so fundamental that most Israeli elites would see it as an abandonment of the Zionist project. And over time, perhaps measured in decades rather the merely years, that will persuade most of the rest of the world to demand basic changes in Israel, too.

Like President Obama in his speech to the UN General Assembly, Netanyahu expressed confidence that “modernity” will triumph over “medievalism.”

But the success of the Zionist project rests ultimately on the ability of Israeli governments to tell Israeli Jews and those who might come to Israel from elsewhere that it is utterly feasible to live surrounded by hundreds of millions of people who do not accept Israel as a political order.

Israeli governments have to be able to tell their target audiences that they do not have to be concerned about the long-term implausibility of such a proposition, because Israel, with its superior military forces and with the vast power of the United States deployed to keep genuinely independent power centers from emerging in the region, has its strategic situation under control.

Today, Israel clearly does not have its strategic situation under control. Indeed, Israel has not faced a strategic situation this challenging since the 1950s, the last time it faced the prospect of genuinely independent political orders emerging in Middle East that would refuse to accept an aggressive, territorially acquisitive interloper in their midst.

Now, superior military forces no longer suffice to keep the regional balance tilted so overwhelmingly in Israel’s favor. And the power of the United States to shape the Middle East’s strategic environment is hardly what it once seemed to be, and is shrinking virtually by the day.

At their root, of course, Israel’s problems are of Israel’s making. It would be disastrous for the United States to go along with the idea of using military power to enforce a technically and strategically nonsensical red line on Iran’s nuclear activities.

Such an attack would have no legitimacy: there would be no United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing it, and outside of Israel, Britain, and a few other subservient European states, no one would support the action.

A U.S.-initiated war on the Islamic Republic would do so much damage to America’s long-run strategic position that it would make the Iraq debacle, in comparison, look almost like a success.

And if we think anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, indeed, in most of the non-Western world, is at dangerously high levels now, imagine what those levels will be after the United States bombs Iran over nuclear activities that Arab populations, other Muslim populations, and other non-Western populations overwhelmingly see as legitimate.

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For direct link, click here: http://www.raceforiran.com/ahmadinejad-and-netanyahu-on-the-iranian-nuclear-issue-at-the-un-general-assembly

Obama Relents on Delisting MEK

The Obama administration is acquiescing to a high-priced lobbying campaign to “delist” the Iranian dissident movement, MEK, from the U.S. terrorism list. The move signals a readiness to intensify the confrontation with Iran, write Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at www.RaceForIran.com.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

The U.S. Department of State took the moral and strategic bankruptcy of America’s Iran policy to a new low, by notifying Congress that the Obama administration intends to remove the mojahedin-e khalq (MEK) from the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs).

At a macro level, we are disdainful, even scornful, of the U.S. government’s lists of both FTOs and state sponsors of terrorism. We have seen too many times over the years just how cynically American administrations have manipulated these designations, adding and removing organizations and countries for reasons that have little or nothing to do with designees’ actual involvement in terrorist activity.

So, for example, after Saddam Hussein invaded the fledgling Islamic Republic in 1980, on September 22, no less, and starting killing large numbers of innocent Iranians, the Reagan administration (which came to office in January 1981) found a way to remove Iraq from the state sponsors list, in order to remove legal restrictions prohibiting the U.S. government from helping Saddam prosecute his war of aggression as robustly as the administration wanted.

(During that war, the MEK, after having tried but failed to bring down the Islamic Republic through a bloody campaign of terrorist bombings and assassinations conducted against the new Iranian government’s upper echelons, ended up collaborating with an Iraqi government regularly carrying out chemical weapons attacks against targets, civilian as well as military, inside Iran.)

But, when the same Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the George H.W. Bush administration couldn’t get Iraq back on the state sponsors list fast enough. We are very skeptical that Saddam’s ties to groups that the United States considers terrorist organizations changed all that much during this period.

Yet, precisely because we know how thoroughly corrupt and politicized these designations really are, we recognize their significance as statements of U.S. policy. Today, the Obama administration made a truly horrible statement about U.S. policy toward Iran.

The statement is horrible even if one wants to believe that FTO designations have some kind of procedural and evidentiary integrity about them. (We don’t, but we also recognize that letting go of illusions is often not easy.)

Just this year, U.S. intelligence officials told high-profile media outlets that the MEK is actively collaborating with Israeli intelligence to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists, see here; Iranian officials have made the same charge. Since when did murdering unarmed civilians (and, in some instances, members of their families as well) on public streets in the middle of a heavily populated urban area (Tehran) not meet even the U.S. government’s own professed standard for terrorism?

Of course, one might rightly point out that the United States is responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent civilians across the Middle East. But Washington generally strives to maintain the fiction that it did not intend for those innocents to die as a (direct and foreseeable) consequence of U.S. military operations and sanctions policies. (You know, the United States didn’t really mean for those people to die, but, as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said, “Stuff happens.”)

Here, the Obama administration is taking an organization that the U.S. government knows is directly involved in the murder of innocent people and giving this group Washington’s “good housekeeping seal of approval.”

But, to invoke Talleyrand’s classic observation that a certain action was “worse than a crime, it was a mistake,” delisting the MEK is not just a moral abomination; it is a huge strategic and policy blunder.

It is hard to imagine how the Obama administration could signal more clearly that, even after the President’s presumptive reelection, it has no intention of seeking a fundamentally different sort of relationship with the Islamic Republic, which would of course require the United States to accept the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing legitimate national interests.

Count on this: once the MEK is formally off the FTO list, a legally defined process that will take a few months to play out, Congress will be appropriating money to support the monafeqin as the vanguard of a new American strategy for regime change in Iran.

In the 1990s, similar enthusiasm for Ahmad Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress, who were about as unpopular among Iraqis as the MEK is among Iranians, led to President Bill Clinton’s signing of the Iraq Liberation Act, which paved the way for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

The chances for such a scenario to play out with regard to Iran over the next few years, with even more disastrous consequences for America’s strategic and moral standing, got a lot higher today.

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For direct link, click here: http://www.raceforiran.com/by-delisting-the-mek-the-obama-administration-is-taking-the-moral-and-strategic-bankruptcy-of-america%e2%80%99s-iran-policy-to-a-new-low

Misreading the Arab Street’s Anger

The neocon response toward the anger against the U.S. on the Arab and Muslim “street” is to lash out at those countries and to chastise President Obama for his early efforts at out-reach. But Middle East specialists Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett say the real problem was the lack of follow-through.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

We begin by noting our sadness over the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the others who were killed at the consulate in Benghazi. Hillary knew and worked with Chris Stevens during her service in the State Department; he was very highly regarded, professionally and personally, among his colleagues.

In the United States, much of the early discussion about the attack in Benghazi has focused on a question that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself laid out: “How can this happen in a country we helped liberate, in a city we helped save from destruction?”

In fact, it is not so hard to understand how “this”, along with the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, subsequent protests at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Sanaa, Khartoum and across the region, and myriad other manifestations of resentment against the United States in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds, could happen.

But most Americans don’t really want to understand it. For, as Hillary underscored on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC, “the critical issue here is the deep-seated resentment that people have for U.S. policy throughout the region. Hatred and resentment for U.S. policy are the heart of the problem here. Communities throughout the Middle East are angry.”

This reality is now crashing in on U.S. ambitions in the Middle East every day. Yet, as Hillary noted, Americans “have not even begun to grapple with the enormity of the challenge we face as countries become more politically participatory, and people have a voice.”

Over the past few days, we’ve heard more than a few politicians and commentators recommend cutting off aid, or demand that Egyptian President Morsi adopt a tougher rhetorical stance against “extremist” discourse in his own Muslim Brotherhood if he wants a coveted meeting with President Barack Obama.

Against this, Hillary countered that “it a fantasy to think that [the United States] has cards to play,” with which it can leverage key local actors. “The President of Egypt, before he comes to the United States, his first trips were to China and Iran. The train has left the station in these countries, and unless [Washington] figures out how to adapt, [its] strategic position in the Middle East and, therefore, globally will continue to erode.”

So far, though, the United States is clearly not adapting. Why are Americans so reluctant to grapple with Middle Eastern reality? Hillary addressed this critical question on Al Jazeera:

“There’s a really fundamental flaw in U.S. strategic policy and it has to do with empire. We look at each country, at each place, and we see the expatriates that we want to see in the cafés in Paris, who parrot our line about secular liberalism, and we arm, fund, and train them to go back and, in effect, impose a political order on those societies that have very different histories, characters, cares, and concerns. Those expatriates we listen to repeatedly, in Iraq, Iran, Libya, everywhere, we listen to them not because we’re stupid but because we have a very determined focus for dominance.”

Especially in a political season, American elites do not seem at all inclined toward soul-searching about their country’s foreign policy after the events of the past few days. Much has been made of Mitt Romney’s “shoot first, aim later” (to use President Obama’s phrase) comments on events in Libya and Egypt. But Hillary pointed out on Al Jazeera that other prominent Republicans, for example, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, have gone even further than Governor Romney, arguing that President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world during his first year in office, most notably through major addresses delivered in Istanbul and Cairo, was a “mistake” that showed “weakness.”

This is, Hillary noted, the “wrong critique.” For Obama hardly fulfilled the promise that some believed was embodied in his 2009 Istanbul and Cairo speeches, or his campaign pledge not just to end the Iraq war but also to end the “mindset” that had gotten the United States into that strategically and morally failed project. Rather the Obama administration “walked back completely” from those commitments.

The real critique, which Romney, of course, won’t put forward, is “why is the Obama administration really so dishonest in its policies, and how could people in the Middle East really take America’s word seriously as a constructive force.” Until Americans and the politicians can address that, they never will understand “what is the reason” for Middle Easterners’ anger.

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For direct link, click here: http://www.raceforiran.com/protests-in-the-muslim-world-can-the-united-states-deal-effectively%e2%80%94and-honestly%e2%80%94with-politically-empowered-muslim-societies


Would US Intervention Help Syria?

Political pressure is building on the Obama administration to intervene in Syria’s civil war on the side of the anti-government rebels, but an escalation of the violence might only prolong the conflict and prevent serious national reconciliation, say Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at RaceForIran.com.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Across most of the American political spectrum, policy elites are urging that the United States double down on the Obama administration’s failing Syria policy. America’s reliably pro-intervention senatorial trio (Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, and John McCain) recently argued that the “risks of inaction in Syria,” now outweigh the downsides of American military involvement.

Last week, the Washington Post prominently featured a pieceby Ken Pollack, asserting that negotiated settlements “rarely succeed in ending a civil war” like that in Syria, even though that it precisely what ended the civil war in Lebanon, right next door to Syria. From this faulty premise, Pollack argues that the only way to end a civil war like that in Syria is through military intervention.

(After his scandalously wrong case for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, we wonder why the Washington Post or anyone else would give Pollack a platform for disseminating his views on virtually any Middle Eastern topic, but especially not for a piece dealing with the advisability of another U.S. military intervention in the region. In this regard, we note that the bio line at the end of Ken’s op-ed makes no mention of his book that made the case for the U.S. invading Iraq, The Threatening Storm, describing him instead as “the author of A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.)

A more chilling, and, in some ways, more candid, indicator of the direction in which the debate over American policy toward Syria is heading was provided last week in Foreign Policy by Robert Haddick (managing editor of the hawkish blog, Small War Journal).

Remarkably, Haddick argues that: “rather than attempting to influence the course of Syria’s civil war, something largely beyond Washington’s control, U.S. policymakers should instead focus on strengthening America’s diplomatic position and on building irregular warfare capabilities that will be crucial in future conflicts in the region.

“Modest and carefully circumscribed intervention in Syria, in coordination with America’s Sunni allies who are already players in the war, will bolster critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities the United States and its allies will need for the future.”

And why is bolstering these relationships and capabilities so critical? Because, as Haddick writes, “The conflict in Syria is just one front in the ongoing competition between Iran and America’s Sunni allies on the west side of the Persian Gulf. The Sunni countries have a strong interest in stepping up their irregular warfare capabilities if they are to keep pace with Iran during the ongoing security competition. The civil war in Syria provides an opportunity for the United States and its Sunni allies to do just that.

“U.S. and GCC intelligence officers and special forces could use an unconventional warfare campaign in Syria as an opportunity to exchange skills and training, share resources, improve trust, and establish combined operational procedures. Such field experience would be highly useful in future contingencies. Equally important, it would reassure the Sunni countries that the United States will be a reliable ally against Iran.”

Foreign Policy has become arguably the leading online venue for topical discussion of key issues on America’s international agenda. And it is giving its platform to an argument that Washington should leverage the “opportunity” provided by the civil war in Syria to help its regional allies get better at killing Shi’a.

And Washington should do this for the goal of prevailing in “the ongoing security competition” between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States (along with America’s “Sunni allies).

Such trends in the American policy debate show an appalling incapacity to learn either from either current experience or history. And these trends are, in fact, influencing actual policy.

Late last week, during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Turkey, Ankara and Washington agreed that “a unified task force with intelligence, military and political leaders from both countries would be formed immediately to track Syria’s present and plan for its future.”

After meeting with her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoðlu, Secretary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey are discussing various options for supporting opposition forces working to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad, including the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over rebel-held territory in Syria.

In the wake of Clinton’s remarks, Flynt Leverett appeared on CCTV’s World Insight weekly newsmagazine to discuss the internal and international dimensions of the Syrian conflict. Flynt and both of the other guests on the segment, Jia Xiudong from the China Institute of International Studies and our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran, agreed, contra Pollack, that the only way to resolve what has become a civil war in Syria is through an inclusive political process.


Getting to the heart of the matter, Flynt pointed out that “the United States and its regional partners are trying to use Syria to shift the balance of power in the Middle East in ways that they think will be bad for Iran.” This strategy is “ultimately doomed to fail”, but, as long as Washington and others are pursuing it, “the international community is going to be challenged to find ways to keep the violence from getting worse and try to get a political process started.”

Flynt also observed that China and other players in the international community have historical grounds for concern about the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria to create so-called “humanitarian safe havens” could lead to: since the end of the Cold War, every time that the United States has imposed humanitarian safe havens, in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, and most recently in Libya, this has ultimately resulted in a heavily militarized intervention by the United States and its partners in pursuit of coercive regime change.

In part, American elites persist in their current course regarding Syria because they continue to persuade themselves that, in the “security competition” between America and Iran, the United States is winning and the Islamic Republic is losing.

At roughly the same time that Pollack and Haddick were holding forth last week, the New York Times offered an Op-Ed by Harvey Morris purporting to explain Iran’s “paranoia” over Syria’s civil war by describing “What Syria Looks Like from Tehran.”

Morris claims that “the impact of regime change in the Arab World has in fact been largely negative from Tehran’s perspective. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt is closer to Saudi Arabia than it is to Iran. If the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus were to fall, it would mean the loss of a non-Sunni ally.”

Our analysis, of both of Tehran’s perspective on and the reality of how the Arab Spring is affecting the regional balance of power, is diametrically opposite to Morris’s. For an actual (and genuinely informed) Iranian view, we note that Al Jazeera devoted last week’s episode of its Inside Syria series to the topic, “Can Iran Help End the Syrian Crisis?”

Once again, our colleague from the University of Tehran, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, gave a clear and concise exposition of Iranian views on the imperatives of and requirements for serious mediation of the struggle in (and over) Syria.

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For a direct link, click: http://www.raceforiran.com/how-much-will-america%e2%80%99s-animus-against-iran-distort-u-s-policy-toward-syria.]

Can Iran Help on Syrian Crisis?

Official Washington, including the U.S. press corps, depicts the Syrian crisis as a civil war between black hats and white hats with no room for talks with dictator Bashar al-Assad and certainly no role for Iranian negotiators, but Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett at RaceForIran.com see that position as shortsighted.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

This past week, Iran hosted an international conference on the conflict in Syria, a conference that is more important than most Western media coverage conveyed.

The conflict in Syria is not just a civil war; it has become a highly militarized proxy war, involving major regional and international powers (including the United States). In such a situation, establishing a political process involving not only the full range of relevant internal actors but also all relevant regional and international players is critical to forestalling strategic and humanitarian catastrophe.

Against this backdrop, Hillary Mann Leverett appeared on Al Jazeera to talk about the prospects for resolving Syria’s internal conflict through diplomacy. [Click here.]

Hillary compared the current situation in Syria to previous civil wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan, places where, after the external militarization of local conflicts had fueled years and years of fighting, with “dire” consequences for civilian populations, domestic factions and their external backers finally found their way to a political settlement based on negotiated power sharing.

She argued that the 1989 Ta’if Accord, that ended Lebanon’s civil war after 15 years of bloody violence still stands as a model for this approach to conflict resolution. (It is noteworthy, in this regard, that one of the main architects of the Ta’if Accord, former Algerian foreign minister Lakdar Brahimi, is reportedly a leading candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Syria.)

Turning to Iran’s role, Hillary held that, notwithstanding the criticism heaped on the Islamic Republic by the United States and some neighboring countries, Tehran deserves “respect” for its efforts to promote a political settlement in Syria.

The logic behind those efforts was well presented in an op-ed.by the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, published in the Washington Post earlier in the week in advance of the Tehran conference.

Dr. Salehi points out that “civil war in the Levant is not a thing of the distant past. With Syria descending into worsening violence, the 15-year Lebanese civil war should provide frightening lessons of what happens when the fabric of a society unravels.”

In this context, he highlights some of (the many) illogical aspects of the Western position toward Syria: “Little, if anything, is said about the increasing presence of armed extremists in Syria. Even while preoccupied with the rising extremism in Afghanistan, thousands of miles away, European leaders seem unconcerned that they may soon have an Afghanistan on their doorstep.”

American leaders do not seem to us to be much more concerned than their European counterparts about this prospect. Indeed, U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, is raising the chances for its realization.

During the 1990s, Iran regularly warned other states, including the United States, about the rise of the Saudi-backed Taliban and the dangers posed by Al-Qa’ida’s relocation to Afghanistan under the Taliban’s hospitality. If Washington and other capitals had taken Iranian assessments seriously, it might have been possible to avert the 9/11 attacks.

Instead, Tehran’s warnings fell largely on deaf ears. Given the course of subsequent events, Iranian warnings about what could come to pass in Syria should be taken more seriously than most Western governments seem inclined to do, at least at the moment.

Noting that “abrupt political change without a roadmap for managed political transition will lead only to a precarious situation that would destabilize one of the world’s most sensitive regions,” Salehi also warns that “some world powers and certain states in the region need to stop using Syria as a battleground for settling scores or jostling for influence. The only way out of the stalemate is to offer Syrians a chance to find a way out themselves.”

To do this, Salehi argues that three things are essential: first, “ensure an immediate cease-fire to stop the bloodshed”; second, “dispatch humanitarian aid to the Syrian people”; and, third, “prepare the ground for dialogue to solve the crisis.” In this vein, he endorses Kofi Annan’s outgoing observation that “a political agenda that is neither inclusive nor comprehensive willfail.”

On a practical level, he conveys Iran’s “willingness to facilitate talks between the Syrian government and the opposition” as well as its “support for political reform in Syria that will allow the Syrian people to decide their destiny. This includes ensuring that they have the right to participate in the upcoming free and fair presidential election under international supervision.”

The final statement produced at the Iranian-sponsored conference on Syria reflects both Salehi’s analysis and his practical approach. It underscores “the necessity of pursuing political solutions based on national dialogue as the only way to resolve the Syrian crisis with the main objective of bringing the violence to a total end and encouraging the two sides to prepare the ground for the national dialogue.”

To these ends, the statement calls on “the conflicting parties to end clashes and violence for three months on the occasion of the arrival of Eid al-Fitr” (which will come on the evening of Aug. 18). Furthermore, it stresses the “need to uphold the principles of international law regarding non-intervention in domestic affairs of other countries and the respect of their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

In contrast to statements from the various Western-dominated “Friends of Syria” meetings, the Tehran statement also urges a cessation of hostilities “by putting an end to any military assistance to armed groups” while “warning of the dangerous impacts of support for armed groups on regional peace and security.”

Furthermore, it recognizes the importance of “establishing a contact group from among the participating countries aiming to end the violence and starting the inclusive dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.”

This all sounds great, right? Who could possibly be opposed to such eminently logical ideas and proposals? Well, the Obama administration is opposed to them. The administration has steadfastly resisted any contact group on Syria that would include the Islamic Republic and, as noted, is intensifying its material support for one side in Syria’s civil war.

Of course, Washington professes support for a political process to resolve the conflict, but only one in which Washington’s preferred outcome, President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, is stipulated at the outset. That is hardly the posture of a major power seriously committed to diplomacy.

The Islamic Republic could, indeed, play a constructive, not to say indispensable role in standing up a real political process and finding a meaningful political settlement in Syria. As Dr. Salehi writes, “Iran is part of the solution, not the problem. As the world has witnessed during the past decade, we have acted as a stabilizing force in Iraq and Afghanistan, two other Muslim countries thrown into turmoil.”

Hillary recounts in her Al Jazeera appearance that she was “personally part of the U.S. negotiations with Iran over Afghanistan,” which were “critically important” in bringing Tehran “into the problem of Afghanistan in a constructive way that allowed us to move forward” and make real progress (at least initially).

Notwithstanding these historical and contemporary realities, the United States, even under the Obama administration, continues to disparage Iran’s “destabilizing” role in Iraq and Afghanistan, to which it has now added criticism of Iran’s role in Syria.

The hard truth, though, is that Iraq and Afghanistan were “thrown into turmoil” (to use Dr. Salehi’s phrase) not by Iran but by U.S. policies, including invasions and prolonged occupations that managed to combine strategic incompetence with cruelty to civilian populations. The overwhelming majority of Iraqis and a majority of Afghans see the Iranian role in their countries as vastly more positive than that of the United States.

Although the George W. Bush administration initially accepted the imperative of working with Iran in Afghanistan after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other hardliners were able to undermine that and to thwart any move to cooperate with Tehran on post-conflict stabilization in Iraq.

The consequences were deeply damaging for American policy in both the Afghan and Iraqi theaters. Of course, the United States eventually had to face the reality of Iranian influence in both places, but only after it had largely blown the possibility of leveraging this influence in ways that could have served American interests.

Today, Iranian involvement is critical to the search for a political solution in Syria. But, like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration does not want such a solution, certainly not if this entails cooperating with Tehran, because that would require it to abandon its real goals in Syria: getting rid of the Assad government and thereby recasting the Middle East’s balance of power in ways that, in Washington’s fantastical view of these things, would undermine the Islamic Republic’s regional position and perhaps even reignite the Green movement.

(We are not making this up; Obama administration officials have been feeding it to the New York Times’ David Sanger at least since April 2011.)

Driven by these ambitions, the administration has, as Hillary put it, dealt with Iran “precisely in the opposite way” from how Washington dealt with Tehran in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Rather than engaging the Iranians constructively, the United States has “tried to isolate them and make them the problem. This is a fatal flaw in the U.S. strategy, and will lead to a further decline in U.S. influence in the region and a further uptick in Iran’s influence.”

In the process, a lot more Syrians will die than would otherwise have had to, just as many of the civilian deaths that occurred during the U.S. occupation of Iraq could have been avoided if the United States had cooperated with the Islamic Republic, and the risks to regional stability from the prospective creation of an Afghanistan-like state in the heart of the Levant will continue to grow.

That doesn’t matter in Official Washington, however; as Hillary encapsulates it, “Syria is very much the piece on the chessboard here for the United States.” Iran is the most important regional actor “willing to push back against what the United States wants to do. So the United States is trying to contain that resistance, to contain that opposition. And the Obama administration thought it had a window of opportunity to do so when this revolt happened in Syria in March 2011.”

The window turned out to be illusory and the administration’s effort to exploit it has “failed.” As a result, “the United States has tried to increasingly militarize this conflict” in “a desperate attempt to contain Iranian influence.”

Hillary concludes with a broader and very important point about the strategic challenge facing the United States in the Middle East today:

“In the information age the issue is not who has the most guns, who can use the most force. It’s who has the best narrative. The United States is not going to carry the day here with the narrative of trying to arm the opposition to try to win the story here.

“That’s something that the Syrians are going to have to do for themselves, without foreign intervention, and that’s something that Iran is trying to harness, and potentially can harness very effectively to increase its influence in the region.”

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. [This article was originally published at RaceforIran.com. For direct link, click here: http://www.raceforiran.com/iran-deserves-%e2%80%9crespect%e2%80%9d-for-its-efforts-to-foster-a-political-settlement-in-syria