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The Race for Iran

IRAQ REDUX, REDUX: THIS TIME THE WASHINGTON POST IS REHASHING DEFECTORS’ ARGUMENTS, BUT NOW ABOUT IRAN

The Washington Post had another piece on Iran today, this time on the front page, that could easily have been run about Iraq back in 2002.  We have recently criticized the Post for relying on Green Movement partisans for ostensibly objective “analysis” about Iranian politics.  Today’s piece relies almost entirely on unnamed U.S. officials and a known terrorist organization to make the Iraq-redux argument that Iranian “defectors” are providing the U.S. government with critical information that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. (The Post’s story refers specifically to three alleged, relatively recent defections.) 

The Post seems to take as fact that, “Iran’s political turmoil,” created by the country’s June 12, 2009 presidential election, “has prompted a growing number of the country’s officials to defect or leak information to the West, creating a new flow of intelligence about its secretive nuclear program.” But, the Post’s journalists do not appear to have asked some basic questions about the information they are being fed by U.S. officials.

At least four main points from the Post’s story do not stand up to serious scrutiny.

1. What is the factual basis for the U.S. officials’ claims that there is any real “political turmoil” in Iran today that would prompt mass defections from an important, prestigious, and sensitive industry like Iran’s nuclear program?  All the evidence at this point shows that support for the Green Movement has dropped precipitously and that the government is firmly in control.  

2. What is the factual basis for linking the three alleged Iranian defections cited by the Post to the supposed “political turmoil” precipitated by Iran’s June 12, 2009 election?  Two of the three defectors named in the Post piece (and the only two with any connection to Iran’s nuclear program), appear to have defected before the June 12, 2009 election. 

–The only individual cited in the story who clearly defected after the June 12, 2009 election was one diplomat at the Iranian embassy in Norway, who had no access to Iran’s nuclear program.

–The second defector cited by the Post reportedly defected in 2007—two years before the 2009 election. 

–The third defector named is Shahram Amiri, now 32, who supposedly disappeared in June 2009 while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia—at about the same time as the election in Iran that supposedly prompted a mass of defections.  Given the planning that would be required for someone to defect (both by the defector and by his handlers), it does not seem plausible that Amiri became so dissatisfied with the political order in Iran after June 12, 2009 that, within days, and with significant political demonstrations going on in Iran, he was able to arrange to leave his supposedly sensitive job to travel abroad and establish arrangements for his defection with Western handlers.  If Amiri, in fact, disappeared in June 2009, it more likely that his decision to work with Western handlers and eventually to defect was taken well before the June 12, 2009 election.

3. Amiri’s case deserves more scrutiny than the Post’s journalists gave it.  The reporters cite U.S. and European officials claiming that Amiri

“has provided spy agencies with details about sensitive programs, including a long-hidden uranium-enrichment plant near the city of Qom… Amiri is described by some as the most significant Iranian defector since Brig. Gen. Ali Reza Asgari, a former deputy defense minister and Revolutionary Guard Corps commander who switched sides during a 2007 trip to Turkey.” 

The reporters also cite the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) to claim that “Amiri had been associated with sensitive nuclear programs for at least a decade.”  The NCRI is identified by the Post only as “an opposition group that publicly revealed the existence of a secret uranium-enrichment program in 2003” without readers being informed that the NCRI is part and parcel of the notorious MEK, which the U.S. government has officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization. 

The Post reporters also have their facts wrong about the NCRI’s previous nuclear “revelation”.  In August 2002—not 2003, as claimed by the Post, the NCRI held a press conference to “expose” two nuclear facilities in Iran (Natanz and Arak) that they claim to have discovered.  However, the sites were already known to U.S. and other intelligence agencies and, under the terms of Iran’s then-existing safeguards agreement with the IAEA, Tehran was under no obligation to disclose the facilities while they were still under construction and not yet within 180 days of the actual introduction of nuclear materials.

Furthermore, how could it be that Amiri, who would have been 31 years old at the time of his defection, would have had meaningful access to anything sensitive about Iran’s nuclear program—much less to have had such access “for at least a decade”?  Unless Amiri completed his doctorate as a teenager and was given a senior position in Iran’s nuclear program with high level access at the age of 20 or 21, this claim literally does not add up.    

4. According to the Post, “Some [unnamed] observers say the Tehran government has been unnerved by the defections and point to the death of an Iranian physics professor more than three months ago as a sign that it has begun a crackdown designed to frighten would-be spies.”  Their evidence for this, yet again, are claims only attributable to the NCRI, which is part of the MEK, a terrorist organization dedicated to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. 

These claims rest on the January 12, 2010 assassination in Tehran of an Iranian professor, Masoud Ali Mohammadi, who, it is implied, was killed by the Iranian government because of his knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program and sympathy to Iranian opposition groups.  The Post cites only the NCRI for the ominous claim that, “The day before his death, Iranian intelligence agents had searched his home and confiscated documents and notes.” The Post fails to mention that Dr. Mohammadi was a quantum field theorist with interests in such diverse fields as condensed matter physics, cosmology, and string theory.  These subjects are all quite distinct from nuclear physics, nuclear engineering in general, and nuclear weapons in particular.  Therefore, the claim that Dr. Mohammadi was a nuclear physicist with access to sensitive aspects of Iran’s nuclear program is highly suspect.

Oddly, the Post then features a subheading, “Learning from mistakes,” under which the journalists report that U.S. officials are “under pressure to avoid their predecessors’ mistakes”.  Unfortunately, rather than learning from “their predecessors’ mistakes” in perpetrating one of the biggest intelligence in modern American history in their bungled assessments of Iraqi WMD, U.S. officials are instead seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program—which concluded, among other things, that Iran had stopped work on purely weapons-related aspects of its program.  If that conclusion remained on the table, how could Washington argue for intensified sanctions against the Islamic Republic—much less keep the military option “on the table”? 

It would also be constructive if reporters in America’s most prestigious media outlets sought to learn from “their predecessors’ mistakes” in helping to disseminate the manufactured “intelligence” about Iraqi WMD (much of it based on defectors’ stories) which was used to make the case for invading Iraq. 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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IRAQ REDUX: “CONVENTIONAL WISDOM” AND ACCOUNTABILITY FOR IRAN ANALYSTS

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler had an important story yesterday, “On Iran, containment could be only option”.  Glenn states his thesis up front: 

“After months of first attempting to engage Iran and then wooing Russia and China to support new sanctions against the Islamic Republic, the Obama Administration appears within reach of winning a modest tightening of U.N. measures targeting Tehran.  But administration officials acknowledge that even what they call “crippling” sanctions could prove ineffective in keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  That stalemate, in the view of many analysts, means that a strategy of containing Iran is inevitable—diplomatic isolation backed by defense systems supplied to Persian Gulf allies.” 

Some of the analysts that Glenn cites for his thesis depict this desultory scenario as entirely the product of Iranian intransigence, unrelated to the strategically deficient approaches to Iran pursued by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations.  This interpretation—that the problems in U.S.-Iranian relations are all caused by an ideologically driven and illegitimate leadership in Tehran—is well on its way to becoming “conventional wisdom” among the political classes here in the United States. 

This is an important point.  A certain “conventional wisdom”—pushed by a mix of Iraqi expatriates like Ahmad Chalabi and American analysts like Ken Pollack—took hold in American political and policy circles before the Iraq war in 2003.  That conventional wisdom was wrong in virtually all of its particulars, but few public intellectuals (or journalists or Congressmen) were willing to question it.  In fact, most rolled over for the conventional wisdom that took hold regarding Iraq.  And, to the best of our knowledge, not a single public intellectual or journalist among the many who got Iraq so glaringly wrong paid any sort of professional price for that.  

Whether on Wall Street or in American foreign policy, lack of accountability for duplicity and/or incompetence sets up all of us for profoundly damaging outcomes.  No one paid a price for the colossal analytic failures that neutered our debate about the war in Iraq—and, now, the political classes are once again falling for an intellectually lazy but politically convenient conventional wisdom regarding an important foreign policy issue, this time about the Islamic Republic of Iran.  To illustrate the point, we will review some of the claims made by analysts in Glenn’s piece, and juxtapose those claims against corrective observations. 

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article:  “Indeed, few experts think that any negotiations will amount to much.  Iran has been engaged, off and on, with European and U.S. interlocutors since 2003 over its nuclear program.  Over time, the offers from the U.S.-European side have grown sweeter, with little response from Iran.”   

Corrective observations:  In fact, very little of Iran’s extensive diplomatic interaction with outside powers over its nuclear program has directly involved the United States—because the United States has declined to show up to more than a grand total of three meetings with Iranian representatives about the nuclear issue since 2003.  In the course of its nuclear discussions with the Europeans, Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program (or, depending on one’s definition, it suspended the most critical elements of that program) for almost two years.  As our colleague at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Mark Fitzpatrick, correctly pointed out in a comment on www.TheRaceForIran.com, the suspension delayed American efforts to move the Iranian nuclear file from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the United Nations Security Council.  But, from an Iranian perspective, it did not get Tehran any longer-lasting strategic payoff. 

As far as the various incentives packages getting “sweeter”, it does not matter if the parts of the packages that are strategically irrelevant for Tehran got sweeter when the packages have never addressed the Islamic Republic’s most fundamental security interests.  This is a point that Glenn Kessler understands well.  As we have explained it:       

“[I]t is illuminating to compare the incentives package tabled by the ‘EU-3’ (Britain, France and Germany) in August 2005, when the United States was still refusing to participate in multilateral nuclear talks, to the package tabled by the ‘P-5+1’ (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany) in June 2006, after the Bush administration had conditionally agreed to join the process. 

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 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 governments indicate that the George W. Bush administration insisted that fuller references to security be removed as a condition for US endorsement.  This deficit was not substantially corrected in the ‘‘revised’’ P-5+1 package tabled in June 2008.” 

(In a footnote on the 2008 revised package, we point out that,

“although the revised package included more language on regional security and political 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 package.”)      

As we have also noted,

“the Obama administration has decided not to go beyond the terms of the P-5+1 package in its representations to Iran.  Since President Obama took office, there has been no offer to Tehran of comprehensive engagement with a well-defined agenda and the clearly stated goal of realigning US–Iranian relations in a manner that would address the Islamic Republic’s legitimate security interests and regional role.  In private communications to Iranian leaders as well as in public statements, there has been only vague rhetoric.”

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article:  “The U.N. Security Council has imposed three sets of sanctions on Tehran for failing to negotiate seriously about its program.  So far, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pressure has ‘cost the Iranian economy but has not affected Iranian decision-making.’  But he warned that containment will be ‘hard and difficult and may require the use of force to enforce red lines.’” 

Corrective observations:  With regard to sanctions, the Security Council did not impose sanctions on Iran for “failing to negotiate seriously”.  The Council, by its own testimony, imposed sanctions because Iran did not meet its demands to stop enriching uranium or clear up unanswered questions about the Islamic Republic’s past reporting to the IAEA.  But the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) does not prohibit Iran from enriching uranium; indeed, as part of an effort “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”, the Treaty acknowledges the “inalienable right” of Iran or any other NPT signatory to enrich uranium.  And, Tehran argues that some of the IAEA’s “unanswered questions” about their nuclear activities are based on intelligence from the United States and Israel that those governments do not allow the IAEA to show to the Iranians. 

With regard to Ray’s comments about militarized containment (Ray and James Lindsay recently published a Washington Post Op Ed and a Foreign Affairs article on the subject), they at least go beyond those of most analysts, who seem to assume that the Islamic Republic will simply acquiesce to militarized containment without any kind of response.  In the face of what Tehran will see as a heightened threat to Iranian security, the Islamic Republic will almost certainly continue to take steps—developing its nuclear capabilities, supporting regional proxies, etc.—that the United States will view as provocative, perhaps unacceptably provocative.  But what this means, and what Kessler fails to point out, is that containment is not going to be a stable situation—in fact, as we have argued, America’s pursuit of a containment strategy against Iran is dangerous and likely to lead to war.        

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article:  “Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that ‘there is a clique in power’ in Tehran that ‘does not respond to incentives and does not respond to disincentives.’  The Iranian government, under siege from the popular uprising last year after a disputed presidential election, views the nuclear program as a rallying point for national pride—and it thrives on the perception of the United States as an implacable enemy, he said.  ‘The overwhelming focus of this leadership is on the narrow focus of enriching uranium,’ Sadjadpour said.  ‘If the Iranian government makes the decision that Iran wants to bet the farm on the nuclear program, it will be difficult to deter them from doing so.’”    

Corrective observations:  Where to begin?  There is not a “clique in power” in Tehran—there is an Iranian government, with multiple power centers, that functions as a system.  That is why repeated efforts by American administrations to game that system, by trying to identify and work with individual Iranian leaders we see as relatively “moderate” and ignoring those we find unpleasant, always fall flat.  That is why the Obama Administration’s decision to ignore communications from President Ahmadinejad and try to establish an exclusive channel to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei—a course recommended by Karim, among others—was such a blunder

As far as incentives and disincentives are concerned, the Iranian government has rejected this “donkey” approach of carrots and sticks.  But Tehran has repeatedly indicated, and continues to indicate, its openness to strategically-grounded engagement, aimed at dealing with and resolving the full range of issues on the U.S.-Iranian agenda. 

We certainly agree with Karim that Iran will continue to enrich uranium.  But this does not mean that Iran wants or has decided to go all the way to fabricating nuclear weapons.  In the context of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, it would be relatively easy to agree on Iran’s implementation of the Additional Protocol and other international measures to control the proliferation risks associated with its fuel cycle activities.           

Karim’s claim that the Iranian government is “under siege from the popular uprising last year after a disputed presidential election” is a wholly unsubstantiated—and, to put it frankly, false—assertion.  The evidence of the Green movement’s decline since June 2009 is clear and irrefutable.  One of the very strong impressions we took away from our visit to Tehran in February—shortly after the publicly promised and widely anticipated show of strength by the Green movement on February 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding, had turned out to be an almost complete “bust”—is that the Iranian government is far from being “under siege” and is, in fact, quite confident in its base of popular support.

Likewise, the notion that the Iranian political system “thrives on the perception of the United States is an implacable enemy” is becoming a key element in the emerging conventional wisdom in Washington about Iran—but it is as wrong as claims about the system’s internal fragility.  For more than 20 years, a critical mass of Iranian elites, cutting across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum, has supported the pursuit of rapprochement with the United States.  To be sure, Iran does not want rapprochement with the United States at any price, and Tehran is considering other options for the Islamic Republic’s long-term strategic orientation. 

But, since the late 1980s, decision-makers in Tehran have recognized that some of the Islamic Republic’s most basic national security and foreign policy needs can only be met—or, at least, only optimally met—through rapprochement with Washington.  The Islamic Republic’s efforts at exploring the possibilities for a diplomatic and strategic opening to the United States began during Rafsanjani’s presidency, continued during Khatami’s presidency, and have been carried forward under Ahmadinejad’s administration.  And, across all three presidencies, exploration of rapprochement with the United States has been endorsed by Ayatollah Khamenei—notwithstanding Khamenei’s deep suspicion that the United States will never be prepared to accept and live with the Islamic Republic.  

Claims that the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy debate is too ideologically constrained to allow for a strategic opening to the United States are simply not supported by the historical record.  On this point, we recommend a recent interview with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Islamic Republic’s Atomic Energy Organization and our piece about that interview.  In particular, Salehi’s words in this interview about America should be read by all those who continue to circulate the false and ahistorical argument that the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is irrevocably grounded in hostility to the United States. 

Emerging conventional wisdom, from Kessler’s article:  “Sadjadpour says that the purge of moderates from the decision-making structures in Iran has made it more likely that the country will attempt ‘the Pakistan option.’  Under this scenario, Iran would declare itself a nuclear weapons state, endure the condemnation and then watch as the world comes crawling back, anxious to bring it back into the international fold.  Any military strike at that time would only temporarily set back the program and then ‘preserve the worst elements of the regime,’ Sadjadpour said.  ‘It would buy the regime another decade or even a generation.’”    

Corrective observations:  Did Glenn ask Karim just who are the moderates that have been “purged” from high-level decision-making about nuclear matters?  There is ample evidence that, since Ahmadinejad became President in 2005, Ayatollah Khamenei has taken numerous affirmative steps to ensure that he continues to hear a wide range of views about nuclear issues.  Ali Larijani, Hassan Rohani, Kamal Kharrazi, even Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—all continue to play important roles in the ongoing discussion of nuclear matters in Iranian leadership circles.  At the same time, there is no evidence that Iran is moving toward a “Pakistan option”—which, we suppose, Karim would distinguish from a so-called “Japan option”.  Our understanding is that, while Ayatollah Khamenei strongly supports continued development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, at this point he also continues to oppose any move toward overt weaponization. 

We must make one further observation about the role of Green movement partisans, like Karim, in the Iran debate here in the United States.  The fact of the matter is that their analyses of Iranian politics since the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election have been completely wrong—and have been proven wrong by the course of actual events.  It is certainly the right of Green movement partisans in Washington to hold their views and advocate for the overthrow of a foreign government.  But those who do so should not be considered disinterested and objective—or accurate—analysts of Iranian issues. 

In the years preceding America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, many American elites allowed themselves to be taken in by Ahmad Chalabi and others espousing a romantic view of the possibilities for political transformation in Iraq that would solve all of the major challenges to American interests in the Middle East.  Politicians, policymakers, journalists and others should not allow themselves to be taken in again—or excuse bad and misleading analysis of Iranian developments because those promoting that analysis must surely “mean well”.  At this point in America’s post-9/11 engagement in the Middle East, we cannot afford that kind of sentimentality anymore.           

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Sanctions And Unintended Consequences


(Photo Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

German Marshall Fund Senior Transatlantic Fellow Ian Lesser has an important piece on Turkey’s dilemma with regard to the Iran nuclear issue.

On the one hand, Turkey is loathe to support sanctions that will threaten its growing commercial and energy relationship with Iran and that are unlikely to change the Islamic Republic’s nuclear plans.

At the same time, Turkey’s long-standing alliance with the United States and its European Union aspirations put Ankara in a difficult position as a member of the United Nations Security Council.

Lesser predicts that Turkey will split the difference and ultimately abstain if and when a sanctions resolution is voted on at the Security Council.

One of the themes of this blog has been to catalog the strategic consequences of the Obama administration’s decision to pursue a sanctions policy that runs the realities that a serious, “crippling” sanctions resolution with international support is unlikely and that additional sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear calculations in any strategically meaningful way.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have also pointed out that Washington’s sanctions-centric Iran policy is imposing costs on the United States and opening up opportunities for geopolitical rivals such as China.

At the same time, the United States’ ill-conceived drive for sanctions is putting one of Washington’s most significant allies in the region, Turkey, in a very uncomfortable position. As Lesser points out in his piece, Turkey’s uneasy European Union accession process is likely to deteriorate further if its position on Iran ultimately diverges from that of the large European states – a prospect that appears increasingly likely.

Obviously the United States cannot base its Iran policy on Turkey’s or any other country’s needs, but it is important to note that those who say “sanctions probably won’t work, but we might as well try” are failing to take into adequate account the policy’s unintended consequences for both America’s allies and its competitors.

— Ben Katcher

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GENERAL JONES AT THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE: STILL GETTING THE IRAN-PALESTINE CONNECTION WRONG

National Security Adviser James Jones was the headline speaker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s 25th-anniversary gala dinner in Washington last night.  Substantively, General Jones’ speech focused on “two defining challenges” confronting the United States and its allies in the region: 

“preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them, and forging a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians as part of a comprehensive peace in the region.” 

Unsurprisingly, Jones drew a specific relationship between these two challenges, explicitly linking progress in brokering negotiated settlements on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian tracks and improved chances for successfully containing Iran:        

“One of the ways that Iran exerts influence in the Middle East is by exploiting the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.  Iran uses the conflict to keep others in the region on the defensive and to try to limit its own isolation.  Ending this conflict, achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians and establishing a sovereign Palestinian state would therefore take such an evocative issue away from Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas.  It would allow our partners in the region to focus on building their states and institutions.  And peace between Israel and Syria, if it is possible, could have a transformative effect on the region.  Since taking office, President Obama has pursued a two-state solution—a secure, Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with a viable and independent Palestinian states.  This is in the United States’ interest.  It is in Israel’s interest.  It is in the Palestinians’ interest.  It is in the interest of the Arab countries, and, indeed, the world.  Advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.” 

In strategic terms, belief in this particular kind of linkage—that, by pushing on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, the United States can marginalize and contain the Islamic Republic and its regional allies—is the equivalent of believing that the earth is flat:  both ideas are wrong and stand in the way of real progress.  But Arab-Israeli peace should be pursued on its own merits—not as part of a futile effort to diminish a pivotal state in the region—and with a realistic assessment of what it will take to broker regional peace. 

In response to General Jones’ remarks, we want to highlight three of our recent pieces, “Getting the Iran-Palestine Connection Wrong”, “Syria Is Emerging as Important Player in the ‘Race for Iran’”, and “Syria’s Strategic Ties to the Islamic Republic: Diplomacy in the Post-Iraq/Post Peace Process Middle East”.  We believe that these pieces provide a much more accurate picture of the Middle East’s strategic dynamics and a better guide for policymaking by the United States.  Three points deserve special emphasis: 

–First, it is simply not possible today—if it ever were possible at some point in the past—to achieve Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace in a manner that excludes and marginalizes the Islamic Republic and its regional allies.  HAMAS and Hizballah have become indispensable political players in their respective national and regional contexts.  For multiple reasons, the United States cannot get sustained peace agreements on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks without their buy in.  And that means the Islamic Republic is bound to be at least an indirect party to any serious Middle East peace process.        

–Second, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants better relations with the United States and a peace settlement with Israel that meets well-established Syrian red lines.  But, as President Assad made clear to us and has repeated publicly, Syria’s relations with Iran, Hizballah, and HAMAS “are not on the table”.  That is why Assad has, since late 2008, adopted a position on Arab-Israeli diplomacy emphasizing the need for a “comprehensive” Arab-Israeli settlement, encompassing the Palestinian track along with the Syrian and Lebanese tracks, and with HAMAS playing a central role on the Palestinian side.  In this regard, Assad underscores that he can play a critical role in bringing HAMAS and other “rejectionist” groups into a truly comprehensive regional settlement—a settlement that would also normalize Iran’s standing as an important regional player.  (And, as senior figures in HAMAS have pointed out to us, if the United States and others do not deal with them, in a relatively short period of time we may be dealing with much more radicalized set of actors on the ground in Gaza and, perhaps, elsewhere.)

–Third, the Obama administration continues to buy into a Bush-era delusion: that concern about a rising Iranian threat could unite Israel and moderate Arab states in a grand alliance under Washington’s leadership. In reality, the prospect of strategic cooperation with Israel is profoundly unpopular with Arab publics.  Even moderate Arab regimes cannot sustain such cooperation.  Pursuit of an Israeli-moderate Arab coalition united to contain Iran is not only delusional, it will continue to leave the Palestinian and Syrian-Lebanese tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict unresolved and prospects for their resolution in free fall—as these tracks cannot be resolved without meaningful American interaction with Iran and its regional allies, HAMAS and Hizballah.

Reflecting the politically convenient paradigm that currently prevails in the Administration he serves, General Jones continues to draw the wrong relationship between Iran and Arab-Israeli peacemaking.  In reality, the relationship between Iran and Arab-Israeli peacemaking runs in exactly the opposite direction from that described by General Jones:  today, one of the reasons that the United States needs a better and more productive relationship with the Islamic Republic is that it will be impossible to achieve Arab-Israeli peace without U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

Is there a strategist in the (White) House? 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Flynt Leverett Discussion with Iranian Students

Iran’s Press TV dedicated last week’s episode of its current affairs discussion program, “The Link,” to the state of U.S.-Iranian relations.  Flynt participated from Washington, along with a group of graduate students from the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies in the Press TV studios in Iran.  The program (please press play in the video screen above to view) provides important insights about the perceptions of educated Iranians regarding President Obama’s Iran policy and America’s ultimate intentions towards the Islamic Republic.  The students’ observations provide powerful confirmation for our argument that U.S.-Iranian engagement has “failed” not because Iran is not interested in better relations but because President Obama has not shown Iranian leaders or the Iranian public that he is genuinely prepared to take American policy in a fundamentally different direction.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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