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The Race for Iran


When, in an Op Ed published in The New York Times in May 2009, we first criticized President Obama’s early decision to continue covert anti-Iranian programs he inherited from George W. Bush, some expressed disbelief that Obama would undermine his own rhetoric about engaging Tehran in a climate of mutual respect by conducting a dirty war against the Islamic Republic.  But, in an important piece of reporting published today in The New York Times, Mark Mazzetti documents that Obama has not just failed to roll back covert anti-Iranian programs he inherited from his predecessor—he is instead presiding over a dramatic intensification of America’s covert war against the Islamic Republic.  And, in a manner powerfully reminiscent of Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the intensification of America’s covert war against Iran is taking place through the efforts of General David Petraeus and CENTCOM—because military intelligence operations are not subject to the same congressional oversight and reporting requirements as the Central Intelligence Agency.  

We excerpt the critical passages from Mazzetti’s article below: 

“The top American commander in the Middle East has ordered a broad expansion of clandestine military activity in an effort to disrupt militant groups or counter threats in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and other countries in the region, according to defense officials and military documents. 

The secret directive, signed in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, authorizes the sending of American Special Operations troops to both friendly and hostile nations in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa to gather intelligence and build ties with local forces.  Officials said the order also permits reconnaissance that could pave the way for possible military strikes in Iran if tensions over its nuclear ambitions escalate.” 

We would note that Mazzetti has actually seen the directive—the “Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order”—signed by General Petraeus on September 30, 2009, and has talked directly with several government officials who are familiar with the directive and how it is being implemented. 

Furthermore, in response to concerns about troop safety raised by CENTCOM, Mazzetti “withheld some details about how troops could be deployed in certain countries”.  The very fact that CENTCOM raised such concerns provides powerful confirmation for Mazetti’s reporting.  His article continues: 

While the Bush administration had approved some clandestine military activities far from designated war zones, the new order is intended to make such efforts more systematic and long term, officials said.  Its goals are to build networks that could “penetrate, disrupt, defeat or destroy” Al Qaeda and other military groups, as well as to “prepare the environment” for future attacks by American and local military forces, the document said…

The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive.  The Obama administration insists that for the moment it is committed to penalizing Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions.  Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans to be prepared in advance, in the event that President Obama ever authorizes a strike.”  

Mazzetti’s article also provides important insights into the rationale for conducting these operations through the military rather than through CIA:

“During the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld endorsed clandestine military operations, arguing that Special Operations troops could be as effective as traditional spies, if not more so. 

Unlike covert operations undertaken by the C.I.A., such clandestine activity does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress, although Pentagon officials have said that any significant ventures are cleared through the National Security Council.  Special Operations troops have already been sent into a number of countries to carry out reconnaissance missions, including operations to gather intelligence about airstrips and bridges.” 

Mazzetti’s article clearly raises urgent and disturbing questions about the direction of America’s Iran policy under President Obama.  It also provides important context for Iranian actions which are routinely derided in the American media as either paranoid or gratuitously vicious—e.g., the ongoing detention of three American hikers who illegally entered Iran last year, or the detention of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari in 2007. 

Mazzetti writes that

“General Petraeus’s September order is focused on intelligence gathering—by American troops, foreign businesspeople, academics or others—to identify militants and provide ‘persistent situational awareness,’ while forging ties to local indigenous groups.” 

If that is American policy, exactly how should Iran deal with three Americans who entered the Islamic Republic, without visas, by crossing the Iraqi-Iranian border in an area with no immigration checkpoints?  If what Mazzetti reports is American policy, why is every American academic who visits Iran not a legitimate subject of concern for Iranian security agencies?  We have known Haleh Esfandiari and her husband, Shaul Bakhash, for many years.  We do not believe that she is a security threat to anyone.  But the Bush Administration’s overt efforts to destabilize the Islamic Republic in the name of “democracy promotion”, as well as its anti-Iranian covert campaign, put Haleh in a position in which no innocent American should be placed by his or her government.  The Obama Administration’s policies will only exacerbate the risks to Americans—especially those of Iranian origin—who travel to Iran.    

In our criticism of President Obama’s early decision to continue the anti-Iranian covert programs he inherited from his predecessor, we compared his lack of strategic vision to the statesmanship of President Richard Nixon—who, on coming to the White House in 1969, ordered the CIA to stand down from a longstanding covert action program in Tibet, to show Beijing that he was serious about rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.  As we predicted early on, Obama is, unfortunately, headed in exactly the opposite direction.

President Obama’s policies are not only generating risks for innocent, non-official Americans.  They are further eroding the already deteriorating prospects for an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations—and increasing the chances of an eventual U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.                

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Today, Iranian representatives, accompanied by Brazilian and Turkish counterparts, met with the IAEA’s Director General, Yukiya Amano.  The purpose of the meeting was to present a letter to Amano—as called for in the May 17, 2010 Joint Declaration by Iran, Turkey, and Brazil—formally notifying the IAEA of the Islamic Republic’s acceptance of the terms laid out in the Declaration, including its commitment to deposit 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU) in Turkey. 

So what happens now?  The Joint Declaration is, in its way, a complicated diplomatic undertaking.  The odds that it will actually be executed in full seem relatively small, in our view.  But, over the next several weeks, both the United States and Iran will be working to position themselves so that they are not blamed by important “audiences” if the deal falls apartThese “audiences” include domestic constituencies, but, even more significantly, they include critical players on the United Nations Security Council—e.g., Brazil, Turkey, and China.        

Here is a guide to the next steps in the process.      

With the transmission of the Iranian letter, the proverbial ball is now in the court of the so-called “Vienna Group”—the United States, Russia, France, and the IAEA.  These players were, of course, centrally involved in the development of the Baradei proposal for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) last October. 

How will the Vienna Group respond to Iran’s letter?  In broad terms, four alternative responses are possible: 

  • “Yes”—the Vienna Group can accept the proposal. 
  •  “No”—the Vienna Group can reject the proposal. 
  •  “Yes, but…”—the Vienna Group can indicate that it is willing to work with the Joint Declaration, but wants to clarify specific issues—i.e., the precise amount of (LEU) to be transferred out of Iran and/or whether Iran will continue enriching uranium at the significantly higher level (almost 20 percent) required to produce new fuel for the TRR.  Other possible concerns requiring clarification could include who will pay for the fabrication of new fuel for the TRR (something which is not addressed at all in the Joint Declaration) and how much time is actually required to fabricate new fuel (France now seems to be indicating that it could take longer than the one year stipulated in the Joint Declaration).     
  • “No, but…”—the Vienna Group can decline to work with the Joint Declaration, unless Iran complies with some additional requirements—such as cessation of uranium enrichment at the nearly 20 percent level, or suspension of all enrichment activities.   

It is unlikely that the Vienna Group will offer an unequivocal “yes” or “no” in responding to the Iranian letter.  So far, the Obama Administration’s position toward the Brazil-Turkey deal has been a version of option #4, “no, but…”  Since last week, the Administration has said, in effect, that, even if Iran did everything required of it by the Joint Declaration, it would still need to suspend enrichment in order to avoid the imposition of new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. 

To avoid being perceived as not being able to take “yes” for an answer, will Washington be willing and able to pivot to some version of “yes, but…” with regard to the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal?  And, if it does make such a pivot, will the concerns raised by the United States as part of its “yes, but…” be perceived by key international constituencies as legitimate, or at least reasonable?  Or, will U.S. concerns be seen either as poorly disguised “poison pills” meant to kill the Joint Declaration or as attempts to renegotiate the Declaration’s terms?    

In this regard, if the United States offers “yes, but…”, with the matter of Iran’s continued enrichment to the near-20 percent level as its principal concern, that position might attract at least some international support, given that a number of non-Western countries question why Iran would need to continue enriching at this higher level if the basic issue of refueling the TRR had been addressed.  (In writing this, we recognize the legal argument that Iran has a right to enrich up to this level; we are making a fundamentally political point here.) 

On the other hand, if the United States offers “yes, but…” and focuses on increasing the quantity of LEU to be shipped out of Iran as its main concern, that is more likely to be perceived by key countries as an attempt to renegotiate the deal—and would almost certainly be rejected by the Iranians.  Indeed, if Washington proceeds in this way, it confirms our hypothesis that the Obama Administration is, in fact, not interested in finding a way to make the Brazil-Turkey deal work.    

Once the Vienna Group has responded to the Iranian letter, what will Tehran do?  Even if the United States behaves in “provocative” ways, will Iranian negotiators still be authorized to sit down with representatives from the Vienna Group parties to discuss details of the Joint Declaration and its implementation?  How will those negotiators (be perceived to) handle their discussions with the Vienna Group?  And—assuming that the United States does not go ahead and ram a new sanctions resolution through the Security Council during the next month—will Iran actually transfer 1,200 kilograms of LEU to Turkey, as specified in the Joint Declaration? 

How these questions get answered during the next few weeks will largely determine who “wins” and who “loses” from the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal.          

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Turkey and its foreign policy are obviously at the top of the news agenda these days because of Turkey’s increasingly central role in international diplomacy surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue.  We have written previously about the intellectual framework for Turkey’s foreign policy toward the Middle East and the Islamic Republic of Iran more specifically; see here, here, and here.  But today, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu published an authoritative and exceptionally rich piece in ForeignPolicy.com, “Turkey’s Zero-Problems Foreign Policy”, which we want to highlight here

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



****This piece also appears today in The Huffington Post.****

The unfolding drama of the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal and the Obama Administration’s reactive push to move a draft sanctions resolution in the United Nations Security Council will have profound effects on the character of international relations for years to come.  At least two such effects warrant particular attention.   

First, for those in official Washington or anywhere else who still doubt that the “post-American world” is here, the deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) brokered by Brazil and Turkey should serve as a blaring wake-up call.  As we noted earlier, two rising economic powers from what we used to call the “Third World” have now asserted decisive political influence on a high-profile international security issue.  And, in doing so, they have signaled that Washington can no longer unilaterally define terms for managing such issues.  As a consequence, President Obama’s most serious foreign policy challenge—repairing America’s image as a global leader—just got more daunting.      

Second, by answering Brazil and Turkey’s extraordinary diplomatic effort with an arrogant assertion of the P-5’s power to demand the rapid imposition of new sanctions on Iran and reinstating a demand that Iran must suspend enrichment to avoid new sanctions, the Obama Administration is following a course that could inflict serious damage not only on America’s global standing, but also on the legitimacy of the Security Council itself

As we noted previously, getting P-5 agreement on a substantially watered down and incomplete draft resolution is not the same as ensuring the requisite nine affirmative votes for it.  But, even if Washington is able to ram new sanctions through a deeply divided Council, that course carries huge long-term risks. Already, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan is questioning the Council’s “credibility” to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue.  If Washington torpedoes the new nuclear deal before it can be tested, expect Turkey, Brazil, and others to intensify this sort of challenge to the Council’s legitimacy—with support not just from Iran but from a broad range of “non-aligned” countries. 

The Obama Administration has only itself to blame for this situation, because it has approached—and is still approaching—the Iranian nuclear issue with unilateral hubris worthy of George W. Bush.  The Administration has continued to insist that Iran cannot indigenously enrich uranium, even as part of a broader nuclear deal.  It took what should have been a straightforward technical discussion on refueling the TRR—a thoroughly safeguarded facility in the middle of Tehran that produces medical isotopes—and turned it into a highly politicized effort to exchange most of Iran’s low-enriched uranium for promises of new fuel at some unspecified point in the future.  Washington then demanded that other countries unquestioningly support these positions.   

When rising powers like Brazil, Turkey, and China were reluctant to go along, the Administration thought it could browbeat them into submission.  Speaking “privately”, Administration officials questioned whether the presumed ambitions of Brazilian President Lula—who leaves office in December—to become the first non-American World Bank president or the next UN secretary general could be realized if he antagonizes Washington over Iran.  Last week, Secretary of State Clinton publicly ridiculed Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s efforts to mediate a nuclear compromise.  And U.S. officials told Chinese counterparts that, if Beijing does not support tough new sanctions against Iran, Washington would not be able to restrain Israeli military action, putting China’s energy supplies at risk. 

But these rising powers were not prepared to be browbeaten.  For Brazil—which gave up its own nuclear weapons program but insists on continuing uranium enrichment—the idea that Washington could unilaterally redefine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regarding enrichment was especially odious.  For Turkey, under a popular, democratically elected Islamist government, the idea that Iran’s nuclear program would be treated differently because Iran is governed by Islamists was equally unacceptable.  China has longstanding objections to international sanctions, and has consistently advocated diplomacy as the best way to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue.     

The Obama Administration insisted that the proposal to refuel the TRR advanced in October by the IAEA’s former Director General, Mohamed ElBaradei, be treated as a non-negotiable, “take it or leave it” proposition.  Last month, though, Baradei himself said the proposal should not be treated this way.  Since last October, Iran has consistently said that it accepted in principle the idea of a “swap” to refuel the TRR, but wanted to negotiate the specific terms of a deal.  So, as the Administration made itself diplomatically irrelevant, Brazil and Turkey set out on their own to broker a compromise. 

The Brazilian-Turkish deal makes explicit what the October proposal obfuscated:  Iran has the right to enrich uranium on its territory.  Realistically, the chances that Iran would ever surrender its enrichment program are now virtually nil.  But the Obama Administration—like its predecessor—refuses to make the shift from working quixotically to stop the unstoppable to negotiating rigorous verification measures for Iran’s enrichment facilities to ensure they are not producing weapons-grade fissile material.  Now, others have stepped into the breach and redefined the Iranian nuclear issue for the Administration.    

The new nuclear deal also undermines claims of the Obama Administration—which, like its predecessors, maintains no diplomatic presence in Iran and has had extremely limited contact with Iranian officials—to a monopoly on sound judgments about Iranian decision-making and policy.  For months, Administration officials—and most U.S.-based Iran analysts—have asserted that the Islamic Republic is too internally conflicted to have a coherent international strategy or make important decisions.  Senior Brazilian, Chinese, and Turkish officials who have invested significant amounts of time in substantive discussions with Iranian counterparts argued to Washington for months that a nuclear deal was possible.  But Secretary Clinton and others in the Obama Administration thought they knew better—and said so publicly.   

In fact, Iran has worked purposefully—dare we say strategically—to cultivate relations with important rising powers, like Brazil and Turkey, as well as China.  And, this week, Tehran showed that it can take major decisions.  Can the same things be said of the Obama Administration?      

President Obama, who came to office professing a new U.S. approach to international engagement, allowed himself to be upstaged by new powers because he has been unwilling to match his rhetoric with truly innovative diplomacy that takes real notice of other countries’ interests.  If he does not close this gap, America’s global leadership will continue to decline.  And, the institutional architecture for global governance in the 21st century–to which Obama has professed rhetorical support–will be put at risk.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Two documents are driving the Iran-related news these days:  the agreement announced Monday on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) brokered by Brazil and Turkey and the draft “Elements” of a potential new Iran sanctions resolution agreed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and circulated yesterday to the Council’s 10 non-permanent members.  Unfortunately, much of the media has misunderstood the relationship between these two documents.      

Clearly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rushed to announce the text of the draft “elements” for a new sanctions resolution to push back against the Brazil-Turkey nuclear deal and show the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—before which she was committed to appear to discuss the new U.S.-Russia “START” agreement—that Washington was still “in control” of the Iranian nuclear issue.  Her actions reflected considerable disregard, to say the least, for Brazilian and Turkish diplomatic efforts.  As Tehran University professor Seyed Mohammad Marandi said, “The United States just slapped Turkey and Brazil in the face and spit on them afterwards”.  (Mohammad went on to describe the United States as “throwing a tantrum”.) 

Her actions may also have reflected a certain amount of dishonesty—we do not know what other word to use—on the Obama Administration’s part.  In the wake of the Brazil-Turkey deal, the Administration is once again requiring Iran’s suspension of all activities related to uranium enrichment to avoid the imposition of new sanctions.  As of Monday, the Administration’s position is that, even if Tehran carried out the steps specified in its agreement with Brazil and Turkey, new sanctions should be adopted unless Iran suspends enrichment activities. 

But that had not been the Administration’s position since the Baradei proposal for refueling the TRR was first tabled in October.  From that point until this Monday, the Administration repeatedly indicated that Iranian acceptance of the Baradei proposal would preclude the imposition of further sanctions, at least until there had been further negotiations about the broader range of issues associated with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.  At least in the near term, the avoidance of new sanctions was no longer linked to suspension.  (Senior British officials told us last fall that this was why, as a matter of policy, Her Majesty’s Government did not want to see the TRR deal go through—because it would then be practically impossible to sanction Iran over its continued refusal to abide by Security Council resolutions calling for suspension.) 

Now that Tehran has accepted the main elements of the Baradei proposal—the transfer of 1,200 kilos of low-enriched uranium out of Iran in exchange for new fuel for the TRR—the United States has unilaterally changed the game.   

Most of the Western media bought into Secretary Clinton’s narrative before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday—that Washington has regained the diplomatic upper hand, and the P-5 are ready to go forward with new sanctions.  We believe that the situation is much more complicated—and much riskier for the United States—than conventional wisdom currently allows.  Getting P-5 agreement on a substantially watered-down and incomplete draft sanctions resolution (more on that below) is one thing.  Getting P-5 agreement on scheduling that draft resolution for formal discussion and, ultimately, a vote in the Security Council is something else.  Ensuring nine affirmative votes for the resolution—and avoiding deep divisions in the Council—is something else again. 

Brazil and Turkey—both non-permanent members of the Security Council—are already indicating that they are not about to roll over in the face of Secretary Clinton’s bluster.  Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu says that Prime Minister Erdoğan will personally lobby his P-5 counterparts not to torpedo the Brazil-Turkey deal by prematurely passing a new sanctions resolution; Davutoğlu himself will work with the 10 non-permanent members.  We expect that Brazil will also be intensively involved in efforts to slow the sanctions train.  And, behind China’s statement of ongoing support for the two-track approach, Chinese sources are indicating that, while it may not be harmful to have the language of a new sanctions resolution ready to go in case the Brazil-Turkey deal falls apart, successful implementation of that deal could obviate the need for new sanctions.              

With regard to a potential new sanctions resolution, the draft “elements” circulated to the full membership of the Security Council yesterday reflect—as we have been predicting for some time—major substantive concessions/surrenders by the Obama Administration. 

–To win Russian and Chinese support, Washington had to give up on any idea of a ban on new investment or other measures that might have impeded Iran’s ability to produce and export hydrocarbons. 

–The Administration had wanted a comprehensive embargo on arms sales to Iran, but had to settle for restrictions on transfers of a few specific categories of weapons systems. 

–The Administration had wanted a comprehensive ban on financial dealings with the Revolutionary Guards and Revolutionary Guards-affiliated entities, but had to settle for the application of previously authorized asset freezes and travel restrictions to specified Revolutionary Guards elements, to be identified in one of the annexes to a new resolution.  Tellingly, there is, at this point, no agreement among the Security Council’s permanent members regarding which Revolutionary Guards elements are to be included in the annex. 

–Contrary to some media reports, the draft language would not authorize forcible boarding of Iranian vessels on the high seas. 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett