We're posting new material at GoingToTehran.com. Please join us there.

The Race for Iran



President Obama’s already diminishing chances to “steam roll” the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration by ramming new sanctions against the Islamic Republic through the United Nations Security Council during the next few weeks got even smaller this morning, when Israeli naval commandos stormed Turkish-flagged ships in international waters off Gaza, killing at least 16 people in the process.  Turkey—currently a non-permanent member of the Security Council—promptly asked that the Council convene in emergency session; this session convened in New York at 1 pm today. 

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s government will surely demand a response from the Council which the Obama Administration will just as surely be unwilling to support.  Even before this incident, during a visit to Brasilia this past weekend, Erdoğan publicly criticized the United States and its European partners for refusing to take a “fair, sincere, and honest approach” to the Iranian nuclear issue.  If the United States declines to condemn Israel for attacking Turkish vessels on the high seas and killing civilians in the process, but still insists that the Security Council sanction Iran over enriching uranium, one can only imagine the reaction of Erdoğan’s government—and, for that matter, many other governments around the world—to such an egregious display of hypocrisy and double standards.       

The Israeli attack on the Turkish ships comes at a particularly inopportune moment, from Washington’s perspective, as the Obama Administration was already losing support among key international players—most notably China—for moving rapidly to impose new sanctions on Iran

Since the announcement of the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration in Tehran on May 17 and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement the next day that the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany had agreed on the (incomplete) text of a draft sanctions resolution, we have been deeply skeptical that China would be willing, in the end, to ram a new sanctions resolution through the Council without giving the Joint Declaration a chance to “work”. 

Certainly, the proximity of these two developments has complicated Beijing’s ongoing effort to balance the various interests it has at stake in the Iranian nuclear issue—e.g., China’s increasingly strategic ties to Iran, its crucially important relationship with the United States, its place as a permanent member of the Security Council, and its commitment to dealing with international problems through diplomacy.  (For a fuller discussion, see the monograph on Sino-Iranian relations that we co-published last year, through the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies).  Along with these other interests, Chinese decision-makers must now also consider China’s place as a recognized leader of the “global South”, and the potentially negative impact on its interests and international standing if Beijing is seen to be helping the Obama Administration “shut down” the Brazilian-Turkish diplomatic initiative with Iran. 

That this balancing act is extremely sensitive for Beijing is evident in China’s public posture.  As we have predicted for some time (see here and here), China extracted substantial substantive concessions from the Obama Administration regarding the specific measures contemplated in the draft sanctions resolution.  As Tony Karon reported last week,

“Not only has Beijing watered down the sanctions to be adopted by the Security Council in order to ensure they don’t restrain China from expanding its already massive economic ties with Iran; Chinese analysts also claim that, in the course of a protracted series of negotiations with Washington, their government also won undertakings from Washington to exempt Chinese companies from any U.S. unilateral sanctions that punish third-country business partners with the Islamic Republic.” 

China was perhaps understandably reluctant to “stiff” the United States on Iran sanctions immediately after the extent of the concessions it won from the Obama Administration was publicly revealed in the draft text of the new sanctions resolution.  Since May 17-18, official China has been, to say the least, restrained in its public pronouncements on next steps with the Joint Declaration and in the Security Council.  Indeed, beyond reiterating China’s support for the “two-track” approach and saying vaguely positive things about the Joint Declaration, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen have not offered much insight into the government’s thinking. 

But, on May 29, China Daily published what we believe is an important Op Ed, “Iran Deserves a Break”, by Zhai Dequan, deputy secretary-general of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, which is linked to the Foreign Ministry and various government-sponsored research institutions working of international security and foreign policy issues.  While, at an official level, China continues working to avoid a public confrontation with the United States over diplomatic “next steps” on the Iranian nuclear issue, we believe that this Op Ed supports our hypothesis about where Beijing will ultimately come down: 

“The recent tripartite agreement on nuclear-material swapping among Iran, Turkey and Brazil shows that influential countries other than major Western powers have started helping resolve sensitive global issues.  Such efforts should be applauded and encouraged, especially because last year, US President Barack Obama said that instead of depending on America alone, other countries, too, should try and resolve world issues. 

Before the tripartite agreement was signed, the UN Security Council was expected to adopt a resolution imposing fresh sanctions on Iran for refusing to swap its low-enriched uranium with another country.  Now, Iran has agreed on the location, time and amount of low-enriched uranium to be swapped and has submitted the list of provisions to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), although it does not fully conform to the [Agency’s] conditions. 


The Op Ed then appears to challenge directly the Obama Administration’s renewed insistence that Iran must suspend uranium enrichment in order to avoid new sanctions: 

“Since Iran is party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and is legally entitled to peaceful use of nuclear power, IT IS PREPOSTEROUS TO SAY THAT IT SHOULD NOT PROCESS NUCLEAR MATERIALS TO GENERATE ELECTRICITY” (again, emphasis added). 

The writer also appears to caution both Russia and the United States against trying to “shift the goalposts” on Iran after the fact: 

“US and Russian leaders had hinted that the participation of Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran on May 17 was the last chance for Iran to avoid fresh UN sanctions.  The tripartite nuclear deal was reached after strenuous efforts, and Iran earnestly hopes it would help it to avoid further sanctions.  So high is Iran’s hope that it has threatened to scrap the deal and go it alone if the UN Security Council still goes ahead with its plan to impose fresh sanctions…sanctions, actually, are a way of dragging a country to the talks’ table.  Hence, they should not be imposed randomly.” 

And, just in case anyone missed the bottom line, here is the conclusion: 

“As for the Iranian nuclear issue, it can be settled only through dialogue, interaction and cooperation, and hence the UN Security Council should not impose fresh sanctions against the country, because it may only succeed in causing suffering to the Iranian people”.  

The Islamic Republic, of course, has so far carried out its specific obligations under the Joint Declaration—in particular, it has provided an official letter to the IAEA Director General, Yukiya Amano, indicating its commitment to the Declaration’s terms.  (It is now up to the “Vienna Group”—the IAEA, along with the United States, Russia, and France—to respond to the Iranian letter.) 

As long as Iran continues to act in what China and other important non-Western players consider a reasonable way regarding implementation of the Joint Declaration, the sanctions train is not leaving the station—no matter how many times Secretary Clinton and America’s UN ambassador, Susan Rice, announce “All aboard”. 

–And, if the Obama Administration continues to fix on suspension of enrichment as its main substantive argument for not working with the Joint Declaration, it will lose the “P-5” unity it claims to have forged

Moreover, if the Obama Administration continues refusing to work with the Joint Declaration and pushes for sanctions at the same time it blocks any meaningful response to Israel’s latest provocation, it will not only “lose” on the Iranian nuclear issue—it will severely damage America’s already strained credibility as an international leader

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett




On May 26, Charlie Rose taped an hour-long interview in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, view here, which is well worth viewing in its entirety.  The interview offers a rich tour d’horizon of the region, including Arab-Israeli issues, Iraq, Lebanon, America’s regional role, and the challenges of maintaining a secular state in today’s Middle East.  It is also something of a tour de force for President Assad.  Of course, the interview dealt with Iran, as well.  We highlight below some excerpts from the interview that focus on Iran, and are very much in line with our own conversation with President Assad in February. 

When asked about the Middle East’s emerging “northern tier”—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—Assad responded:  

“Normally you should have good relations with your neighbors, something we’ve learned from our experience during the last decades.  We’ve been in conflict, Syria and Turkey, Iraq and Turkey, and other countries.  What did we get?  Nothing.  We’ve been losing for decades.  We have learned here in the last decade that we have to turn the tide, so everybody is going for good relations with the other, even if he doesn’t have the same vision or they—even if they disagree about most of the things, not some things.  So, this relation, Syria/Iraq, we are neighbors.  Syria/Turkey, we are neighbors.  We’ll affect each other directly.  Iran is not my neighbor, but at the end, Iran is one of the big countries in the Middle East, and it’s an important country, and it plays a role and affects different issues in the region.  So, if you want to play a role and help yourself and save your interests, you should have good relations with all these influential countries.  That’s why this relation, I think, is very normal.”

When Charlie Rose pressed the point that there are many in America who would like to “put some distance” between Syria and Iran, Assad pushed back:   

“They contradict themselves.  They talk about stability in the region.  Stability starts with good relations.  You cannot have stability and have bad relations.”

Assad then reiterated what he had said to us about Iran’s posture vis-à-vis the Middle East peace process: 

“Sometimes they talk about the relation between Syrian and Iranian relations and the peace.  That’s not true.  That’s not realistic because Iran supported our efforts to achieve, to get back our land through the peace negotiations in 2008 when we had indirect negotiations in Turkey.”

Clearly struck by the significance of this statement, Rose drew President Assad into a remarkable exchange.

“Rose:  Let me underline that.  You believe that Iran, even though it says that it does not recognize Israel’s right to exist, when you, through Turkey, were trying to negotiate with the Israelis, the Iranians were supportive of that.

Assad:  Exactly.

Rose:  And so you’re saying actions speak louder than words.

Assad:  Exactly.  That’s what I mean.  I feel that they said it in words, they say publicly we support you.  They said it twice during negotiations, and formally.  So you cannot see with one eye.” 

This interview also provides powerful confirmation for Flynt’s asssesment of Bashar’s potential to emerge as a major regional leader, as presented in Flynt’s 2005 book, Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire.  At that time, Flynt was criticized in some quarters as being an “apologist” for the “Assad regime”–just as we are criticized in some quarters today for being “apologists” for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the “Iranian regime.”  But, as with Syria, truly objective analysis of the Islamic Republic’s politics and foreign policy has been and will continue to be proven right.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Brazilian President Lula, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, and their foreign ministers have been too polite in their characterization of President Obama’s role in the nuclear deal they mediated with Iran last week.  For we now have documentary evidence that President Obama’s Secretary of State and his White House spokesman are simply not telling the truth when they say that the Brazil-Turkey deal does not meet the standards that the United States has defined for an acceptable international arrangement on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR). 

That documentary evidence comes in the form of a letter (click here for the letter) from Obama, dated April 20, 2010, to President Lula

The bottom line:  On April 20, roughly a month before the Joint Declaration between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil was announced in Tehran, President Obama conveyed, in writing, to President Lula that, to be acceptable to the United States, a deal to refuel the TRR would need to include Iran’s shipment of 1,200 kg of LEU to Turkey for “escrow” for one year, pending the delivery of new fuel.  In the deal they brokered with Iran, Brazil and Turkey delivered on every one of those points.  Obama’s letter says nothing about a U.S. requirement that Iran halt its enrichment program, or even stop enriching uranium at near-20 percent levels—which Obama Administration officials now claim are irredeemable flaws in the Brazil-Turkey deal.   

In his letter, Obama notes that he had promised his Brazilian counterpart a detailed response to Lula and Erdoğan’s proposal to try to mediate an agreement on refueling the TRR, reaffirming that “the TRR is an opportunity to pave the way for a broader dialogue dealing with the more fundamental concerns of the international community regarding Iran’s overall nuclear program.”  In Obama’s own words, his letter is meant “to offer a detailed explanation of my perspective and suggest a way ahead.”   

Specifically, Obama states that “for us, Iran’s agreement to transfer 1,200 kg of Iran’s low enriched uranium (LEU) out of the country would build confidence and reduce regional tensions by substantially reducing Iran’s LEU stockpile.  I want to underscore that this element is of fundamental importance for the United States” (emphasis added).  The Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal, of course, stipulates that Iran will transfer 1,200 kg of LEU out of the country. 

On the issue of timing for a fuel swap and third-country custody of the Iranian LEU, Obama writes:  “We understand from you, Turkey, and others that Iran continues to propose that Iran would retain its LEU on its territory until there is a simultaneous exchange of its LEU for nuclear fuel.  As General Jones noted during our meeting, it will require one year for any amount of nuclear fuel to be produced…There is a potentially important compromise that has already been offered.  Last November, the IAEA conveyed to Iran our offer to allow Iran to ship its 1,200kg of LEU to a third country—specifically Turkey—at the outset of the process to be held ‘in escrow’ as a guarantee during the fuel production process that Iran would get back its uranium if we failed to deliver the fuel.  Iran has never pursued the ‘escrow’ compromise and has provided no credible explanation for its rejection.  I believe that this raises real questions about Iran’s nuclear intentions, if Iran is unwilling to accept an offer to demonstrate that its LEU is for peaceful civilian purposes.  I would urge Brazil to impress upon Iran the opportunity presented by this offer to ‘escrow’ its uranium in Turkey while the nuclear fuel is being produced” (again, emphasis added).  As part of the Brazil-Turkey deal, Iran has agreed to take the “opportunity” presented to “escrow” its uranium in Turkey, for one year, pending the delivery of new fuel for the TRR.   

Finally, Obama notes that “throughout this process, instead of building confidence Iran has undermined confidence in the way it has approached this opportunity.  That is why I question whether Iran is prepared to engage Brazil in good faith, and why I cautioned you during our meeting.  To begin a constructive diplomatic process, Iran has to convey to the IAEA a constructive commitment to engagement through official channels—something it has failed to do.  Meanwhile, we will pursue sanctions on the timeline that I have outlined.  I have also made clear that I will leave the door open to engagement with Iran.”  Pursuant to the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal, Iran has, of course, now conveyed a “constructive commitment to engagement through official channels” to the IAEA.

And, with regard to enrichment, Obama had written earlier in the letter that “notwithstanding Iran’s continuing defiance of five United Nations Security Council resolutions mandating that it cease its enrichment of uranium, we were prepared to support and facilitate action on a proposal that would provide Iran nuclear fuel using uranium enriched by Iran—a demonstration of our willingness to be creative in pursuing a way to build mutual confidence”.    

It saddens us to write this—but is President Obama prepared to engage Iran, Brazil, Turkey, or anybody else in good faith on this issue?

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Since launching www.TheRaceForIran.com, we have very rarely intervened in the comments that many of our readers have written with regard to our pieces.  However, in response to the piece we published on May 25, “Obama Steps Up America’s Covert War Against Iran”, one reader seemed to misconstrue passages from one of our previous articles regarding Iranian military capabilities and the consequences of a prospective U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.   

We have indeed written previously (in 2008) that “the United States is and will remain vastly superior to Iran in every category of military power, conventional or otherwise.  Almost thirty years after the Iranian revolution, the Islamic Republic is incapable of projecting significant conventional military force beyond its borders, and would be severely challenged to mount even a conventional defense against U.S. invasion.”  We continue to believe that this is an accurate assessment of the U.S.-Iranian military balance.  However, we draw some very different policy implications from this assessment than does a particular reader. 

–First, a proper assessment of Iranian military capabilities should put to rest the constantly recycled, hyperbolic rhetoric in the United States and some quarters of the Middle East about the Iranian “threat” to peace and security.  Iranians correctly point out that their country has not invaded any of its neighbors for centuries—and, since 1979, they have not developed the military capabilities that would let them carry out large-scale offensive operations, which we think is to their credit.     

–Second, we believe that it would be profoundly wrong-headed for this assessment of the U.S.-Iranian military balance to be used as justification for U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic.  To quote Talleyrand, such an outcome would be “worse than a crime—it would be a mistake”. 

To elaborate on the second point:  We judge that, in any large-scale conventional engagement between U.S. and Iranian military forces—on the ground, in the air, or at sea—the United States would prevail, in a short run, battlefield outcomes sense.  But we also judge that the United States would not achieve any positive strategic gain by initiating a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic—an action that would almost certainly be a crime as well as a mistake.  (For the record, we think crimes are bad, too.) 

Moreover, we believe that Iran has an enormous capacity for “asymmetric” resistance to armed violations of its sovereignty.  If an American President were ever so foolish as to order an invasion of the Islamic Republic, U.S. military forces would get bogged down in a horrible occupation that would make what American troops experienced in Iraq seem like a picnic by comparison.  In a long-term, strategic sense, the United States would surely lose such a conflict.  Even if an American president opts “only” to launch air and/or missile strikes against Iranian targets, Iran has ways to put substantial (and effective) pressure on American positions in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Again, the outcome would be a net loss for the United States.

Furthermore, any wars that the United States chooses to fight in the Middle East in the future will be fought on borrowed money—money borrowed from creditors like China and Saudi Arabia that will not be amused by Washington undertaking a military initiative that would be so harmful to their own interests.  Starting a war with Iran would “break the back” of America’s increasingly strained superpower status—just as surely as the British mistake of invading Egypt and seizing the Suez Canal in 1956 (with help from France and Israel, to be sure) forever ended the United Kingdom’s claims to great power status.

As Americans, we hope our government will do better than that—in strategic as well as moral terms.             

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


The Brazil-Turkey-Iran Deal And American Power

(Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy Photo)

Former Vice Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA Graham Fuller has a provocative op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor on the uranium fuel-swap agreement reached among Iran, Brazil, and Turkey in the context of the United States’ posture toward rising powers.

Fuller is critical of the Obama administration’s dismissal of the agreement and suggests that Washington will actually benefit from the emergence of rival power centers with diverse interests and perspectives on global political issues.

From Fuller’s piece:

After the Lula-Erdogan success, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton immediately proclaimed her own success at garnering Russian and Chinese support for enhanced sanctions against Iran – a stunningly insulting response to the remarkable accomplishment of Brazilian and Turkish negotiation. These states are, after all, immensely important to US regional and global interests. To blow them off like that was a major blunder, not just in terms of Iran, but in broader global strategy. The rest of the world has surely taken further negative note that Washington’s game remains depressingly familiar.

But do we really believe Clinton has in fact garnered Russian and Chinese support? Just as Tehran had every incentive to accept a proposal from “equals,” offered with respect instead of bluster and threats, so too Russia and China have every reason to welcome this initiative from Brazil and Turkey. Yes, the terms of the agreement do matter somewhat, but what is far more important for them is the slow but inexorable decay of US ability to deliver international diktats and to have its way. This is what Chinese and Russian foreign-policy strategy is all about. Neither of these countries will, in the end, permit the US hard-line approach to win out over the Brazilian-Turkish one in the Security Council, even if the Brazilian-Turkish deal requires a little tweaking. Russia and China champion the emergence of multiple sources of global power and influence that chip away at dying American unipolar power.

China and Russia, of course, represent the alternative polarity in the emerging struggle to end American hegemony in international affairs. But of greater moment, they now witness the political center in international politics shifting away from Washington as well. These two countries that defied American wishes are not just some Third World rabble-rousers scoring cheap points off the US. They are two major countries that are supposedly close friends of the US This makes the affront even crueler.

You can read the entire article here.

— Ben Katcher