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The Race for Iran

Video of the Leveretts on Charlie Rose

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett appeared on The Charlie Rose Show last night.

The video can be viewed here.

— Ben Katcher



We want to let readers know that we will be featured in a segment on the acclaimed PBS/Bloomberg interview program, Charlie Rose, airing initially in the United States on PBS on Monday, March 29.  Flynt first appeared on Charlie Rose on June 15, 2009, as part of a panel on the Iranian presidential election and its aftermath that also included Nicholas Burns, Hooman Majd, and Abbas Milani.  Along with an interview in Der Spiegel (in German and English and our Op Ed, “Ahmadinejad Won. Get Over It”, Flynt’s appearance on Charlie Rose was an important and high-profile opportunity for us to begin advancing the arguments that Ahmadinejad has a considerable popular base, that his re-election was eminently plausible, and that what would come to be known as the Green Movement was not likely to be a catalyst for fundamental political upheaval in the Islamic Republic.  (Flynt’s performance on the Charlie Rose panel apparently made an impression on Abbas Milani.  Seven months later, when Milani wrote an article in The New Republic excoriating our January 5, 2010 Op Ed in The New York Times Op-Ed as “the most infuriating Op Ed of the new year”, he opened his article by referencing his appearance on Charlie Rose with Flynt.)    

We believe that our assessments have held up well with the passage of time.  We taped a long (roughly 60 minutes) interview with Charlie Rose a couple of weeks ago, on Iran and other Middle East issues, and are looking forward to seeing the edited segment.  Once the program has aired, we will post it on ww.TheRaceForIran.com.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett




There are two countries in the world which are routinely described by American politicians across the political spectrum as having a “special relationship” with the United States–Israel and the United Kingdom.  We have all grown more familiar than we probably like to acknowledge with Israel using its channels to Capitol Hill and in America’s pro-Israel community to “outflank” an American administration–and virtually always to the right.  (As we discussed earlier this week on www.TheRaceForIran.com, this dynamic was on high-profile display in the context of AIPAC’s recent policy conference.)  By contrast, we are not at all accustomed to seeing the most senior diplomatic representatives of Her Majesty’s Government doing this.  But that may be what Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the British ambassador in Washington, and Foreign Secretary David Miliband are doing. 

On Monday, March 22—the day that the annual AIPAC conference opened in Washington—Sir Nigel spoke to The American Jewish Committee of Miami/Broward County on the topic, “Iran:  The Threat and Our Strategy:  The British Approach.”  Today, Sheinwald has published an Op Ed in POLITICO highlighting the Iranian threat.  In his speech and follow-on Op Ed, Sir Nigel acknowledged that, at times, Tehran has cooperated with U.S. and Western initiatives (although he is factually wrong to describe Iran’s post-9/11 cooperation with Washington on Afghanistan and Al-Qa’ida as “occasional contacts”).  But the Ambassador’s summary judgment about the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic record is that, since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, “Iran has preoccupied foreign policy makers largely for the wrong reasons”.  More specifically, he cites     

“…Iran’s aggressive attempts to export the Revolution in the 1980s and its continued state support for terrorism, including groups that use violence to undermine the Middle East Peace Process:  today Iran is the only state in the region that does not support the idea of a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.  My own government has strongly condemned the Iranian regime’s repugnant threats to the State of Israel and denial of the Holocaust.  We also have longstanding concerns about Iran’s human rights record, concerns that have deepened during the prolonged period of disturbances and state intimidation since last June’s elections.”     

Sir Nigel’s dominant focus, though, is clearly the nuclear issue.  On this issue, the Ambassador’s rhetoric is subtle, and one must know something about the details of the P-5+1 nuclear talks (as a proper European, Sheinwald describes them as the “EU-3+3” talks) and the discussions about how the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) might be refueled to appreciate the full significance of his words.  In this regard, two topics in Sir Nigel’s speech deserve special attention.

First, the Ambassador heaps considerable praise on the P-5+1/EU-3+3 incentives “package” as a “generous package of benefits”, to which Iran could enjoy access if only it would suspend uranium enrichment.  But this characterization, both of the incentives package itself and the requirement that Iran first suspend its fuel cycle activities, is disingenuous on three levels. 

Sir Nigel’s characterization of the suspension requirement is disingenuous because it completely overlooks the fact that Tehran suspended its fuel cycle activities for almost two years, during 2003-2005, when the “EU-3”-Britain, France, and Germany-were conducting their own nuclear negotiations with Iran.  Conversations with a wide range of current and former Iranian officials from across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum indicate that there is a widespread sense in Iran today that the decision to suspend, which is commonly attributed (at least in its instigation) to then-President Khatami, was a strategic and tactical mistake.  Iran received no tangible benefits for this suspension, the Europeans largely failed to carry through on their reciprocal commitments because of pressure from the George W. Bush Administration in Washington, and Tehran lost valuable time in developing its fuel cycle infrastructure.  Indeed, it is not hard to find people in Tehran today who supported and, in some cases, even worked for President Khatami who believe that he did not serve Iran’s national interests well by pushing within the Islamic Republic’s decision-making circles for a commitment to suspend Iran’s enrichment activities.   

Sheinwald’s characterization of the P-5+1/EU-3+3 incentives package as “generous” is also disingenuous because that package does nothing to address the Islamic Republic’s core security concerns.  To understand this point, it is illuminating to compare the incentives package finally and grudgingly tabled by the EU-3 (without Washington) in August 2005 as the Iranians were taking the decision to resume enriching uranium, to the package tabled by the P-5+1/EU-3+3 in June 2006, after the George W. Bush Administration had consented to join the multilateral process regarding Iran’s nuclear program. 

Regarding the prospects for economic and technological cooperation with Iran, the two packages are broadly similar—indeed, in a few passages, the two documents are almost identical, word-for-word.  But there is a profound disconnect between the two packages regarding regional security issues. 

–The 2005 EU-3 package offers the Islamic Republic positive security assurances, negative security guarantees and a commitment to cooperate in establishing ”confidence-building measures and regional security arrangements” as well as a regional weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone.  But, as European diplomats involved in nuclear discussions with Iran readily acknowledge, security assurances and guarantees from Europe alone were never especially interesting to Tehran—to be meaningful for the Islamic Republic’s strategic needs and interests, it was essential that the United States endorse such measures. 

–But the George W. Bush Administration refused to join in offers of security assurances and guarantees to the Islamic Republic.  In contrast to the 2005 EU-3 package, there is little mention of security issues in the 2006 P-5+1/EU-3+3 package endorsed by the United States, except for an offer of ”support for a new conference to promote dialogue and cooperation on regional security issues”.  Conversations with officials from P-5+1/EU-3+3 governments indicate that the George W. Bush administration insisted that fuller references to security be removed as a condition for US endorsement.  Within the EU-3, Britain took the lead in arguing that it was more important to get the George W. Bush Administration into the diplomatic process than to get the substance of the policy right. 

Having helped to sell this flawed bill of goods to the P-5+1/EU-3+3, Britain has been determined ever since to make sure that the flaws are not addressed.  Certainly, the deficits in the package were not substantially corrected in the ”revised” P-5+1/EU-3+3 package tabled in June 2008.  Although the revised package included more language on regional political and security issues than the 2006 package, on the core issue of the Islamic Republic’s national security, the document only reaffirms states’ ”obligation under the UN Charter to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the integrity or political independence of any state or in any manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations”.  But, unless the United States and the United Kingdom are prepared to acknowledge that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was inconsistent with those countries’ obligations under the UN Charter, it is not clear why Iranian leaders should be satisfied with this revised P-5+1/EU-3+3 package.

Strikingly, when the Obama Administration, in its initial months in office, considered whether the incentives package should be modified to correct these deficiencies and, perhaps, make the package actually respond to Iranian security interests, Her Majesty’s Government—with Sheinwald in the lead here in Washington—lobbied hard against any substantial modification of the package.  China and Russia both understood very well why the package needed to be modified, and Germany was quietly supportive of such an approach.  But Britain, with French support, worked hard to ensure that this did not happen—and in the end, it did not, an outcome that has helped to render the Obama Administration’s vague expressions of interest in negotiations with Tehran incredible in the eyes of Iran’s leadership. 

Additionally, Sir Nigel’s characterization of the suspension requirement is disingenuous because it obscures the reality that Her Majesty’s government is determined to avoid any diplomatic outcome that would legitimate enrichment on Iranian soil, and has been deeply concerned from before Obama’s election as president that he would be willing to accept such an outcome.  On this point, the Daily Telegraph reported during the 2008 campaign that Sir Nigel had sent a cable to London warning that

“If Obama wins, we will need to consider with him the articulation between (a) his desire for ‘unconditional’ dialogue with Iran and (b) our and the [United Nations Security Council]’s requirement of prior suspension of enrichment before the nuclear negotiations proper can begin.” 

Similarly, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler reported during the campaign that British officials including senior diplomats here in Washington, were concerned

“that Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to begin direct talks with Iran on its nuclear program without preconditions could potentially rupture U.S. relations with key European allies early in a potential Obama administration.”  

Kessler’s report, as well as our own conversations in Washington and Europe, indicate that this perspective was shared by senior French diplomats as well.

Against this backdrop, Sir Nigel’s speech and Op Ed should be read, at least in part, as a reflection of further British efforts to keep the Obama Administration from going “wobbly” (to use Mrs. Thatcher’s famous phrase) on the enrichment question.  Zero enrichment might be an ideal outcome from a strict non proliferation standpoint—and would keep Iran’s nuclear progress from eroding whatever strategic value London believes it accrues from its own small nuclear weapons arsenal.  But, to insist on zero enrichment as the goal of nuclear negotiations with Tehran, at this point, is a wholly unrealistic proposition that undermines possibilities for winning Iran’s agreement to rigorous international monitoring of its fuel cycle activities to minimize their associated proliferation risks.  Her Majesty’s representatives are working to minimize the chances—which we do not believe are that high to start with—that the Obama Administration might actually end up taking a diplomatic position with some higher probability of sparking productive negotiations with Tehran.    

The second issue raised by Sheinwald that warrants a corrective look is the discussion about refueling the TRR.  The Ambassador points to Iran’s “refusal to engage” with the ElBaradei proposal for refueling the TRR, but this formulation is inaccurate to the point of being misleading.  As we have demonstrated repeatedly on www.TheRaceForIran.com, Iran has accepted the idea of a “swap”, in which some part of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium would be exchanged for new fuel for the TRR.  However, Tehran wants to negotiate important details of the arrangement.  It is the Obama Administration which has defined the ElBaradei proposal as a “take it or leave it” proposition.  What is particularly galling about Sir Nigel’s presentation is that some of his senior colleagues in the Foreign Office have told us that, as a matter of policy, Her Majesty’s Government does not want a deal on refueling the TRR to go through—because, as a practical matter, that would preclude movement in the United Nations Security Council to impose additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic, which is the real goal of British policy at this point.  So, just in case President Obama and his advisers might be considering a more flexible position on the details of the ElBaradei proposal, Sheinwald is seeking, ever so subtly, to hem them in. 

Sir Nigel’s efforts this week were reinforced today by the publication of an Op Ed in the International Herald Tribune by the Ambassador’s boss, Foreign Secretary David Miliband.  Miliband’s piece is an argument for moving forthwith to new sanctions in the Security Council, without stopping to explore whether diplomatic proposals which actually met Iranian needs and accommodated Iranian interests might work better than the initiatives currently on the table. 

It is bad enough that Her Majesty’s Government is promoting such predictably counterproductive policy approaches to Iran.  But it is especially appalling given the Blair Government’s dismal performance in empowering the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision-making in the run up to the Iraq war—an initiative that has done profound damage to America’s long-term strategic position. 

Her Majesty’s government may be doing the same thing now with regard to Iran.  Sheinwald’s speech and op-ed and Miliband’s op-ed are permeated with fulsome rhetoric about the potentially transformative character of the Green Movement and suggestions of the current power structures’ illegitimacy.  We, of course, believe this is a fundamentally wrong-headed reading of Iranian politics.  Is London really ready to help Washington go down the primrose path of regime change in the Middle East one more time?  Because, if Washington follows London’s diplomatic advice, that is, in all probability, the place where American policy will end up.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett




The all-too-predictable dynamics surrounding a potential new Iran sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council continue to play out just as we have anticipated.  As some commentators are leaping on media stories that one of China’s diplomats took part in a P-5+1 conference call yesterday about a possible resolution, The Wall Street Journal reports today that the Obama Administration is already backing away from a number of the “tougher” measures that it originally included in the current draft resolution, primarily to maximize chances for winning Russian support and Chinese acquiescence (at least) for a watered-down resolution.  According to the WSJ,

“Among key provisions removed from the original draft resolution the U.S. sent to key allies last month were sanctions aimed at choking off Tehran’s access to international banking services and capital markets, and closing international airspace and waters to Iran’s national air cargo and shipping lines…The cargo sanctions initially named Iran Air and Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines and demand a blanket ban of their airplanes and ships from other countries’ airspace or territorial waters.” 

As the WSJ points out, these measures “would have made it difficult for Iran to insure imports and exports of oil and other essential commodities, by barring foreign insurers from serving international transport contracts from Iran.”  Other provisions deleted from the original draft text would “have barred Iran’s access to international capital markets by prohibiting foreign investment in Iranian bonds.”           

According to the WSJ, the current draft still contains a prohibition against states offering financial assistance or credits for trade with Iran as well as a comprehensive international arms embargo against Iran.  Furthermore, the current draft contains provisions specifically targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  In particular, the current draft

“would force an international freeze on the assets of the entire Revolutionary Guard and ‘any individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction,’ and on ‘entities owned or controlled by them, including through illicit means’…If enforced, the proposed sanctions could force the Revolutionary Guard to divest itself of some holdings to prevent major disruptions in the economy.  The Revolutionary Guard’s affiliation with the country’s telecom operator, for example, could prompt foreign partners to stop connecting international calls.” 

We would anticipate that some, if not all of these provisions would be watered-down or perhaps even eliminated before a final text of a new sanctions resolution could move ahead.  Obama Administration officials remain relatively confident that they can win Russia’s support for a new sanctions resolution, but they will almost certainly have to give up more on the extent and rigor of the specific measures included in the resolution to guarantee Moscow’s backing.  Russia, for example, has consistently insisted that proposals for an international arms embargo against the Islamic Republic be excluded from previous sanctions resolutions.  Getting Beijing to abstain, at least, is essential for any resolution to move forward—and that, too, is likely to require more concessions on substance from Washington and its European partners.  It seems unlikely that China (or even Russia, for that matter) would ultimately endorse a blanket prohibition on dealing with the Revolutionary Guard and U.S. Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey’s “hit list” of Revolutionary Guard affiliates and asset holdings—including in the Islamic Republic’s all-important energy sector. 

And, of course, the United States and its European partners continue to face an uphill battle to get Brazil and Turkey (two of the Security Council’s most important rotating members) to support a new sanctions resolution against Iran.  But this, too, will be necessary to get to what Obama Administration officials identify as their goal of a 14-1 vote in New York in favor of additional sanctions.  (The Administration privately acknowledges that Lebanon is unlikely to do more than abstain.)

Looking ahead, the most probable endgame will play out along the lines we have anticipated:  the United States and its European partners will get a new sanctions resolution, but it will be greatly watered-down from the measures they originally proposed.  Moreover, the Obama Administration is likely to fall short of its goal of a 14-1 vote in the Council, which will mean that this resolution will be passed by a more divided Security Council than any of the three previous sanctions resolutions adopted against Iran.  And, it’s much more likely to be June, rather than April, before we get there. 

So what, exactly, is all of this going to do to advance U.S. interests?  In an article this week in Time, Tony Karon recounts Secretaryy of State Hillary Clinton’s pledge to “prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”  Reviewing the state of play on international sanctions, Karon then argues that,

“The actual level of progress on the Iran sanctions front, however, has not yet caught up with Clinton’s tough talk — and there’s little sign that any of the pressure being mustered will realistically stop Iran from slowly acquiring the means to create a nuclear bomb (though the U.S. believes Tehran has not yet decided to actually build such weapons).”

The Obama Administration is still deeply in need of a serious Iran policy.             

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett




Yesterday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) concluded its annual policy conference in Washington, DC.  This year saw the largest-ever turnout for AIPAC’s annual conference, with 7,800 people in attendance, an important percentage of whom were not Jewish but evangelical Protestant Christians.  At the climax of the conference, participants deployed to Capitol Hill to lobby for AIPAC’s top policy priorities.  As AIPAC’s lobbying packet underscores, the conference was heavily focused on “the Iranian threat”, which topped Israeli-Palestinian peace and even the state of U.S.-Israeli relations in the wake of Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent trip to Israel for pride of place on AIPAC’s agenda. 

This year’s lobbying effort was concentrated on the imperative to “prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability.”  To this end, AIPAC wants the United States “to lead the international community in imposing crippling sanctions on Iran without delay.”  According to AIPAC, “American and international sanctions on Iran must be immediate, broad and overwhelming in order to force the regime to confront the choice between abandoning its pursuit of nuclear weapons or facing crippling sanctions.”  AIPAC’s material does not explicitly call for military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, but, subtly and ominously, the group notes that “tough sanctions that are strictly enforced still remain the best option at this time to persuade Iran’s leaders to alter their course” (emphasis added). 

Some of AIPAC’s congressional guests leaned further forward than the group’s own materials did about the possibility of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.  In his address, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) departed from the Obama Administration’s approved talking points by asserting that,

“Diplomatic efforts have failed.  We are too close (to a nuclear Iran) to simply continue those efforts.  The U.S. must hit Iran first, on our own, with unilateral sanctions, no matter what the other nations of the world do.  And, we cannot wait, we must push those sanctions now…we cannot afford to wait for Russia or China.”     

Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) went even further, portentously claiming that “time is not on our side” with regard to Iran’s nuclear program and that this year’s AIPAC conference could be the last before Iran actually acquired nuclear weapons.  To deal with this threat, Graham underscored that “all options must be on the table” and “you know exactly what I’m talking about”.  But Graham argued that, if military strikes against Iran are initiated, they should not be limited to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear infrastructure: 

“If military force is ever employed, it should be done in a decisive fashion.  The Iran government’s ability to wage conventional war against its neighbors and our troops in the region should not exist.  They should not have one plane that can fly or one ship that can float.”                     

Why are AIPAC and its supporters putting all of this effort into pushing the Obama Administration into a more assertive “war footing” toward Iran?  What does this focus tell us about Israel’s perception of its strategic interests vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic?  As we have written previously, the idea that an Iran which is capable of enriching uranium—or even an Iran which has actually fabricated a nuclear weapons—is an “existential threat” to Israel does not hold up to serious scrutiny.  So what really is at stake here for Israel and its friends in the United States? 

From an Israeli perspective, three points are important.  First, Israel’s political and policy elites want to eliminate Iran’s fuel-cycle capabilities in order to preserve a regional balance of power that is strongly tilted in Israel’s favor.  Regional perceptions that the Islamic Republic had achieved a nuclear “breakout” capacity would begin to erode Israel’s long-standing nuclear-weapons monopoly in the Middle East, thereby chipping away at the image and reality of Israel’s strategic hegemony over its neighborhood. 

Second, the emergence of an increasingly nuclear-capable Iran might begin to constrain Israel’s own strategic and tactical choices in the region, at least on the margins.  For many years now there has been a broad-based consensus within Israeli political and policymaking circles that Israel’s security requires that an Israeli government be able to use military force unilaterally in the Middle East at any time and for any purpose that it chooses.  Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu himself alluded to this view in his address to AIPAC yesterday.  Netanyahu noted that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, “two of history’s greatest leaders”, had “helped save the world.  But they were too late to save six million of my own people.”  He then declared that “the future of the Jewish state can never depend on the goodwill of even the greatest of men.  Israel must always reserve the right to defend itself.”  The Prime Minister went on to apply this idea directly to Iran and its nuclear program, noting that “Israel expects the international community to act swiftly and decisively to thwart this danger.  But we will always reserve the right to defend ourselves.” 

In this context, it is clear that Netanyahu is not referring to self-defense against an active threat, for which Article 51 of the United Nations Charter might be invoked as a legal justification.  Rather, Netanyahu is reiterating longstanding Israeli policy that Israel claims the right to initiate, at its own discretion, not just preemptive wars, but also preventive wars.  From this perspective, anything which might begin to constrain Israel’s currently unconstrained freedom of military action is problematic.  Thus, a nuclear-capable Iran is bad because in some circumstances its might make Israeli strategic planners and decision-makers think twice about the unilateral initiation of military conflict.  (Similarly, the accumulation of more capable rockets and conventional military hardware by Hizballah in Lebanon since 2006 is a problem for Israel not because Hizballah will, some day, decide to launch massive rocket barrages against northern Israel for no reason.  Rather, Hizballah’s military capabilities are a problem primarily because they constrain, at least to some degree, Israeli decision-making about initiating military confrontation in the region.  This is true with regard to prospective strikes against Iranian targets—because Israeli planners must worry about Hizballah’s response.  It is also true with regard to sending Israeli ground forces into Lebanon—because Hizballah, having become capable of what Tom Ricks usefully describes as a “high-intensity insurgency” campaign, can now fight the IDF to an effective standstill on the ground.)      

The third point relates to the Palestinian issue.  From an Israeli perspective, keeping America focused on Iran as an urgent threat is useful in distracting Washington from working too seriously on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.   This is particularly attractive to a Prime Minister like Netanyahu, who is disinclined to take the concrete steps necessary to reach a two-state solution—whether in the near-term on settlements or in the longer-term on final status issues.  Netanyahu—or any other Israeli Prime Minister with a similar view of the Palestinian issue—will always argue for prioritizing Iran over the Palestinians.  An Israeli Prime Minister can always claim that his government’s bureaucratic and national security capacities—as well as his own political capital—are finite.  There is simply not enough of those resources for an Israeli government to deal effectively with an “existential threat” from Iran and, at the same time, make and implement the “painful concessions” entailed in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. 

Those who claim that the Obama Administration could use the argument that resolving the Palestinian issue would marginalize Iran to leverage greater cooperation from Israel on Arab-Israeli peacemaking miss this important reality:  the Israeli government is exagerating the Iranian “threat” as a way of fending off pressure to do more on the Palestinian issue, not as a way of facilitating greater American intervention on the Palestinian issue.  Moreover, this position ignores what we have frequently identified as a major weakness in the current U.S. position vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic and the Middle East more generally—at this point, the United States cannot broker negotiated settlements on the unresolved tracks of the Arab-Israeli peace process without a more positive and productive relationship with Tehran.     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett