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The Race for Iran


President Obama’s dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal as the senior U.S. and coalition military commander in Afghanistan—prompted by critical remarks about senior civilian officials and the Obama Administration’s decision-making process from General McChrystal and members of his staff, as reported in Rolling Stone magazine—should focus attention on the incoherence of the Obama Administration’s strategy for prosecuting what is now the longest war in American history (yes, longer than Vietnam). 

The Rolling Stone article is not the first time that McChrystal’s critical views of his civilian superiors have made their way into the public eye.  Last fall, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, McChrystal described the “counterterrorism” strategy for Afghanistan being advocated by Vice President Biden as a superior alternative to the general’s preferred “counter-insurgency” strategy as a “shortsighted” approach that would lead Afghanistan into a state of “Chaos-istan”.    

One of the more striking aspects of the current episode is that no one is vigorously disputing the essence of the assessments advanced by McChrystal and his associates; most commentary argues only that sharing the assessments with a journalist was inappropriate.  Among other items in the Rolling Stone account, America’s senior military leadership in Afghanistan

–Characterized national security adviser James Jones as a “clown” and an “inept bureaucratic infighter” who is “stuck in 1985”.  (It is hard to find many people in Washington who think that Jones is not ineffective as Obama’s national security adviser.)     

–Depicted special envoy Richard Holbrooke as a “wounded animal” obsessed with “rumors that he’s going to be fired, so that makes him dangerous.  He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto.  But this is [counter-insurgency], and you can’t just have someone yanking on shit.”  (Holbrooke seems to have been determined to make an American counter-insurgency campaign since his service as a young Foreign Service Officer in Vietnam in the 1960s.)        

–Described Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s cable leaked to The New York Times in January that sharply questioned McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy as “one that covers his flank for the history books—now, if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so’”.    

–Criticized high profile politicians like Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Senator John McCain (R-Arizona and the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee), who “turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows.  Frankly, it’s not very helpful”. 

Furthermore, while we are not fans of counter-insurgency, it seems that McChrystal agrees with one of our long-standing critiques of Obama’s policies:  the people he has appointed to key national security and foreign policy positions are incapable of or unwilling to put together an effective strategy to broker a political settlement for Afghanistan—a settlement that would include the key internal Afghan players, such as President Hamid Karzai and leaders of the Taliban, as well as the dominant external powers, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia.

But the problems with Obama’s advisors do not stop with their ineffectiveness.  While refusing (or simply being unable) to work together to develop and implement a strategy to stabilize Afghanistan, many of these same advisors are working overtime to stoke conflict between the United States and one of Afghanistan principal external players—Iran.  They are also working to exacerbate tensions between two of Afghanistan’s most important external players—Iran and Saudi Arabia—which, in years to come, could add an Iranian-Saudi proxy war in Afghanistan on top of the country’s already chaotic landscape.  Likewise, they are trying to prevent Iran and Pakistan—which have had an historically antagonistic relationship—from cooperating on an important gas pipeline.

It remains to be seen whether McChrystal’s designated replacement, General David Petraeus, will be able to inject a more genuinely strategic approach into the Obama Administration’s Afghan policy.  In his assignments in Iraq, General Petraeus exhibited occasional understanding of what needed to be done politically with key internal and external actors.  During his first assignment in Iraq, as commander of the 101st Airborne Division with responsibility for the area around Mosul, Petraeus broke with the preferences of neoconservative civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Donald Rumsfeld, at the time) to engage with Syrian officials in order to get an electrical power supply established for his area of responsibility.  During his later assignment as senior commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq, Petraeus had the foresight to engage Sunni groups which the United States had previously written off as irredeemable supporters of Al-Qa’ida in Iraq.  If—and this is a big if—these relatively small points about his service in Iraq indicate how Petraeus will approach his new assignment in Afghanistan, then the new commander might be able to see the importance of engaging with all of the critical players inside Afghanistan (including senior members of the Taliban), as well as with key external players like Iran and Saudi Arabia.     

But even more important than McChrystal’s highlighting of the weaknesses of Obama’s national security and foreign policy team is his powerful implication that the President himself is not capable of articulating a clear strategy, sticking with it, and putting together a team capable of implementing it.  Whether he meant to or not, General McChrystal has unveiled a stark failure of presidential leadership that puts U.S. interests in an important part of the world in serious jeopardy.  And that’s something that not even a new general can fix.    

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


LIVE STREAM at 12:15pm EST: Shireen Hunter on Iran’s Post-Cold War Foreign Policy

The New America Foundation/Iran Initiative will host Shireen Hunter today at 12:15pm EST. Hunter will discuss her new book, Iran’s Foreign Policy in the post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order.

— Ben Katcher



Western analysts and policymakers need to rethink their basic calculations about the Islamic Republic’s domestic politics.  This rethinking should start with a recognition that the Green movement is not the future of Iranian politics; in fact, it’s not even the future of what at least used to be called the “reform movement”.  By sticking with the “conventional wisdom” about Iranian politics in the West—which has been proved wrong at virtually every turn in recent years—Western analysts and policymakers are missing two critically important trends: 

–First, the Green movement still cannot make up its mind about what it wants

–Second, Iranian “principalists” have cultivated a younger generation of political leaders to take them through coming parliamentary and presidential election cycles; “reformists” have not done this.      

On the Green movement’s intellectual coherence:  Karroubi’s most recent statement, published on his website on June 20, extends his previous criticism of what he describes as the “vote scandal” and illegitimate outcome in last year’s presidential election, as well as abuses by the security forces and judiciary; the statement goes on to denounce what Karroubi characterizes as an extraordinary arrogation of power under the rubric of velayat-e-faqih (jurisprudential leadership).  But there is very little that is “actionable” in his statement. 

Mousavi’s statement, published by his website on June 15 and available in English translation here, has been depicted more positively in some Western media reports as a “political charter” that “attempts, for the first time, to unite the opposition movement behind a clear set of goals”.  This is inaccurate. 

Mousavi himself published a statement on January 1, 2010, ostensibly commenting on the Ashura protests that had occurred five days previously (for the original Farsi text and an English translation, see here).  This statement included a five-point “solution to the current problems and present crisis” that was widely hailed at the time by Western journalists and commentators as a “manifesto” for the Green movement.  A few days later, five expatriate Iranian intellectuals (Abdolali Bazargan, Akbar Ganji, Mohsen Kadivar, Ataollah Mohajerani, and Abdolkarim Soroush) published a ten-point program—it even included the word “manifesto” in its title—which was also widely acclaimed in the West (for an English translation of this document, see here.  Then, Robin Wright somehow managed to amalgamate these two documents with a third—an open letter from 88 professors—to adduce a kind of composite “opposition manifesto”, presenting “sweeping demands” that “would change the face of Iran”. 

But, in fact, these “manifestos” are irreconcilable in important respects.  Mousavi’s January 2010 statement posits what has been described as a “civil rights movement” agenda for the Greens—an agenda emphasizing the release of “political prisoners”, greater press and media freedom, a new election law/process, and allowing public demonstrations and the formation of political parties.        

By contrast, the manifesto from the five expatriates is a much more radical document.  It was, in fact, issued after Mousavi’s January 1 statement, amid widespread perceptions in Iran and among Iranian expatriates that Mousavi was “backing off”.  One of the five signatories (Soroush) gave an interview in which he explained that “the five of us thought that because we are close enough to the leaders of the movement—Mir-Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Mohammad Khatami—and know their demands, we should start drafting a manifesto or statement about the Green Movement.  So we started drafting, and then Mousavi’s statement was issued.  Since we are living outside the country, don’t have to fear [the government] and know what is in the mind of the people, we decided to publish our own statement to make clear what Mousavi’s intentions and goals of the Green Movement are”. 

In their manifesto, though, the five expatriates articulate a set of “optimal demands” for the Green movement that go well beyond anything that Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami have actually proposed.  These “optimal demands” include:  Ahmadinejad’s resignation as President of the Islamic Republic and the holding of new presidential elections, abolition of the Guardian Council’s power to vet candidates for elective office, establishment of a new election commission including “representatives of the opposition and protestors”, barring the use of Friday prayers for the issuance of statements and “orders” by the government, and making all high offices elective and subject to term limits. 

In this regard, it is worth noting that at least one of the signatories of the expatriates’ manifesto (Ganji) is a long-time advocate of secular democracy in Iran; another (Kadivar) is a staunch critic of the idea and practice of velayat-e-faqih; yet another (Soroush) advocates a model of “religious democracy” which would effectively dismantle the Islamic Republic.  While, in their statement, the five signatories stop short of an explicit call to replace the Islamic Republic with a secularized alternative, Soroush described the manifesto as a first stage; in the “next stage”, the Movement “may demand a redrafting of the constitution”.     

Here, in a nutshell, is the Green movement’s essential intellectual problem, as we described it in a January 5, 2010 article in The New York Times:  “Beyond expressing inchoate discontent, what does the current ‘opposition’ want?  It is no longer championing Mr. Mousavi’s presidential candidacy; Mr. Mousavi himself has now redefined his agenda as ‘national reconciliation’.  Some protestors seem to want expanded personal freedoms and interaction with the rest of the world, but have not comprehensive agenda.  Others—who have received considerable Western press coverage—have taken to calling for the Islamic Republic’s replacement with an (ostensibly secular) ‘Iranian Republic’.”                 

Mr. Mousavi’s latest utterance certainly does not resolve this fundamental tension between the Green movement’s “reformist” and “counter-revolutionary” currents.  Mousavi’s June 15 statement is both longer and sharper in tone than his January 1 statement.  In his most recent message, Mousavi goes beyond criticizing the current Iranian government and the conduct of the judiciary and security forces to highlight what he describes as the “corruption” of a “totalitarian” system—e.g., by asking “who dares to open investigations into the centers of power regarding the great ‘privatizations’ based on Article 44 of the Constitution to expose this great monopolization of our economy”. 

But Mousavi also spends far more words in the June 15 statement than in his January 1 statement defending his loyalty (and the loyalty of those in the Green movement) to the legacy of Imam Khomeini, the Iranian revolution, and the Islamic Republic.  Just as the reform movement of earlier days tried to do, Mousavi seeks to depict the Green movement as the true heirs of Khomeini’s legacy—it is, in Mousavi’s presentation, those who oppose the Green movement who are departing from Khomeini’s principles.  Furthermore, in his June 15 statement, Mousavi underscores to a much greater extent than his January 1 statement his commitment and that of the Green movement to Iran’s independence and the full exercise of its national sovereignty, without being subject to foreign influence.  (It is a sign of how badly Mousavi is losing the “PR war” inside Iran that he now feels obliged to emphasize these things so strongly.) 

Neither in June 2010 nor in January 2010 does Mousavi make any statement that remotely suggests he wants to do away with the Islamic Republic—he remains a “reformist”, not a “counter-revolutionary”.  Indeed, Mousavi argues that the Green movement is “an extension of the Iranian people’s quest for freedom, social justice and national sovereignty, which had been previously manifested in the Constitutional Revolution, the Oil Nationalization Movement and the Islamic Revolution”.  Alongside a lot of rhetoric about the Green movement’s “identity”, “roots”, “values”, and “goals” (to be “a purifier and reformer of the course taken in the Islamic Republic after the Revolution” and to ensure “respect for the people’s votes and opinions”), the actual plan of action put forward in the June 15 statement is remarkably mild: 

“[T]he goals of the Green Movement can only be realized by: strengthening civil society, expanding the space available for social dialogue, increasing awareness, [facilitating] the free of circulation of information, [encouraging] the active participation of [various] parties and associations, and generating a [liberal environment] for intellectuals as well as social and political activists who are loyal to national interests. The achievement of these goals requires an emphasis on common demands, which will facilitate collaboration and coordination among various members of the Green Movement who, despite their own unique identities, have accepted the inherent pluralism of the movement and have gathered side by side under its umbrella.”

But the reformist, “civil rights movement” agenda no longer defines the Green movement—if it ever really did.  The movement’s “counter-revolutionary” current—which is the current that is so enthusiastically supported in the West—has trumped the “reformist” current, at least in popular perceptions inside Iran.  That is one reason why the Green movement’s base of popular support has declined so sharply over the past year—because, as we wrote in our New York Times article, “polling after the [June 12, 2009 presidential] election and popular reaction to the Ashura protests [on December 27, 2009] suggest that most Iranians are unmoved, if not repelled, by calls for the Islamic Republic’s abolition”.  Even Kadivar, in an interview after the five expatriates’ manifesto was published, acknowledged that “the majority of Iranians has no desire for a second revolution, thirty years after the last one”.    

Confusion about the Green movement’s objectives—along with a series of strategic and tactical mistakes—has marginalized both Mousavi and Karroubi.  In Iran today, it is not hard to find reformists/Mousavi supporters who complain that the Green movement was “hijacked” by elements with a more radical—and seemingly foreign-supported—agenda.  As a result, reformist politicians who want a future in Iranian politics are distancing themselves from the movement. 

Confusion about the Green movement’s objectives is abundantly reflected in analyses by pro-Green Western commentators.  Robin Wright noted in January that, while the movement is not yet a full-fledged “counter-revolution”, it is “headed in that direction”—an assessment we contested at the time and which is now increasingly acknowledged as an unrealistic description of the movement’s actual political impact.  On the other hand, Austrian scholar Walter Posch goes out of his way to stress the movement’s “Khomeinist” character.  Green movement partisans do not like it when we point this out, but the movement’s intellectual incoherence is an important factor in its by-now undeniable decline. 

On generational politics:  Publication of the Mousavi and Karroubi statements inadvertently highlights another important long-term reality about contemporary Iranian politics.  Over the last decade, on the conservative side of the Islamic Republic’s political spectrum, there has been a deliberately engineered process of succession in the upper echelons of Iran’s principalist factions.  This process of succession has effectively transferred leadership of these factions from an older generation of clerics to a younger generation of laymen who “came of age” not during the Iranian revolution but fighting in the Iran-Iraq war.  The goal of this transition was to make conservative political forces more electorally competitive with reformists, who dominated the Islamic Republic’s presidential and parliamentary elections from the mid 1990s until the 2004 parliamentary election and the 2005 presidential election. 

A comparable process of generational succession has yet to take place in the upper echelons of the Islamic Republic’s reform movement.  Since President Khatami left office in 2005, reformists have been in disarray, and ambivalence about the legacy of Khatami’s presidency continues to undermine their political prospects.  Above all, the reformists’ political difficulties are reflected in the absence of an obvious successor to Khatami.  Clearly, neither Mousavi nor Karroubi can fulfill this role.   

Thus, the ongoing political competition in the Islamic Republic between reformists and conservatives is more complicated than most Western analysts and commentators recognize.  On the one hand, Iranian voters seem to like some parts of the reformist agenda.  But reformists, at this point, lack an effective standard-bearer for that agenda.  Reformists also suffer from perceptions that they are not deeply engaged with bread-and-butter issues of primary concern to many lower-class and even middle-class voters, and that they did not really “deliver” on their agenda when in charge of both the presidency and the parliament. 

On the other hand, important parts of the conservative “platform” also appeal to Iranian voters.  But, in contrast to their reformist opponents, the principalists have cultivated younger politicians who are effective representatives of their message.  As we think about the future of Iranian politics, these realities leave the reformist camp at a real disadvantage.  Western analysts and policy makers have yet to come to grips with this.       

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



As some of our readers have already noted, in comments to previous posts, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies has published an article, “Iran:  The Fragile Promise of the Fuel-Swap Plan”, in this month’s edition of the IISS journal Survival.  Given that Iran, Brazil, and Turkey all appear to be working to see if the particular fuel-swap plan put forward in the Joint Declaration of May 17, 2010 can still be elaborated and implemented following the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 last week, we thought that a more thorough examination of some of the issues at stake in fuel-swap plans for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor—and how such plans might be used to invigorate broader discussions on nuclear issues between Iran and other players in the international community—is in order.  To that end, we are pleased to publish a guest post by Mark Fitzpatrick

Mark is Director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at IISS.  Before coming to IISS, he had a distinguished career in government service at the U.S. Department of State, where he concentrated on non-proliferation and international security issues.  We are grateful to Mark not only for this guest post, but also for arranging with IISS for an exemption from the normal copyright restrictions on articles published in Survival to make the text of his new article freely available to readers of www.TheRaceForIran.com, via a link below.

Mark’s post and article should (and do) speak for themselves.  We think it is fair to say that Mark takes a different approach to some aspects of the Iranian nuclear issue than we do—for example, in his analysis of the implications of Iran’s domestic politics for the country’s nuclear posture and endorsement of “targeted sanctions” as a useful policy tool for the United States and its international partners.  But his post and article provide an excellent overview of the technical, political, and strategic factors that are necessarily bound up with any fuel-swap proposal, and offer real insights into official thinking in Washington, major European capitals, and Moscow about the parameters for an acceptable fuel-swap deal.  Moreover, we can’t resist noting that he makes at least three arguments that overlap with major themes in our writings about the nuclear problem:  any long-term, negotiated solution “surely will have to accept some degree of enrichment in Iran”, it would be a mistake to try to “affect Iran’s nuclear policies by actively siding with domestic opponents of the regime”, and “a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is a bad option for many reasons”.  Thanks again to Mark for his important contributions to public discussion of the Iranian nuclear issue.           

From Mark Fitzpatrick: 

In an article entitled “Iran: The Fragile Promise of the Fuel-Swap Plan” in this month’s edition of the IISS journal Survival, I discussed Iran’s failure last year to accept the US plan for French supply of replacement fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for what was then the bulk of Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU).  The working title was “The Tragedy of the Failed Fuel-Swap Plan,” but when Turkey, Brazil and Iran announced agreement on a revised form of the deal on 17 May, a few hours before the journal went to print, I had time to change the title and some of the text.  Because the article has already been the subject of comments on www.TheRaceForIran.com, I have arranged for an exemption from the copyright restriction to make the complete text freely available (in read-only format).

My article argued that: “This new version of the fuel-swap plan is less attractive on non-proliferation grounds, but on balance will be a plus if Iran is willing to export LEU and if it agrees to stop enriching to 20%.  Exporting the LEU is key to a longer-term solution that accepts enrichment only under terms that reduce the potential for weapons production.  Unfortunately, however, the deal is likely to fail over the same disparity in goals that has frustrated all negotiation efforts to date over Iran’s nuclear programme: Iran is determined to have a nuclear-weapons capability, something the West is just as determined to deny.”

Unfortunately, Iran’s insistence on continuing to enrich uranium to 20%, which it cannot today use to produce fuel but which is perilously close to the weapons-usable level, undermined any hopes for Western acceptance of the revised deal. 

In my Survival article I noted that From the start, the deal was tangential to the main issues at stake, and it offered only temporary respite from the growing threat posed by Iran’s fissile-material production programmes.”  I explained that the deal had value as a confidence building measure, by providing diplomatic breathing space for negotiation of a longer-term solution.  In establishing the principle that Iranian uranium could be enriched outside of Iran, it would have set an important precedent.  “Any long-term solution to the nuclear issue surely will have to accept some degree of enrichment in Iran, the proliferation danger of which can be reduced if the product is exported elsewhere for fuel fabrication, so that Iran does not have enough on hand to pose a nuclear threat.”

The deal as offered in October offered important benefits to both sides.  I wrote that “For Iran, in addition to keeping the research reactor operating, the plan was a way to show that its LEU really was being used for the civil nuclear purposes it proclaimed, even if what came back to Iran was not actually its own poor-quality uranium but cleaner uranium substituted by Russia or France along the way.  The deal thus offered Iran a way to legitimise its enrichment programme, a goal Tehran had long sought.”

In assessing future policy options for the West, I argued for not trying to affect Iran’s nuclear policies by actively siding with domestic opponents of the regime, as appealing as this might seem.  I wrote:  “If Iran were led by internationally oriented democrats, the nation’s dual-purpose nuclear technologies would be of lesser concern…because such leaders presumably would be more willing to accept limitations on the country’s nuclear programme that would lessen the chances of nuclear materials being used for weapons purposes”.  But I said that “Hopes that the Green Movement will prevail must not be allowed to distort analysis of what is actually happening in Iran” and that “Westerners should also be humble about their ability to positively influence political developments in Iran.”

I argued that with regard to both support for the Green Movement and the imposition of additional sanctions, Western policymakers should be cautious about actions that could harm the changes of democratic change in Iran.  But on balance I saw a positive value in targeted sanctions, and noted that the “efficacy of sanctions should not be judged solely on whether they bring about the desired behaviour change”.  Among other purposes, sanctions “can be an effective means of limiting Iran’s strategic programmes and deterring support from third parties.”  This is one way to keep Iran’s nuclear-weapons production capability latent.

As I also argued in a 2008 Adelphi Paper, The Iranian Nuclear Crisis: Avoiding Worst-case Outcomes, if a negotiated solution continues to prove impossible, as I believe will be the case, various means of containing the nuclear programme combined with a deterrence policy are the second-best way to avoid both war and the spread of nuclear weapons in the region. But these are not fail-safe policies. The final point of my Survival article was that “Iran’s lack of restraint risks triggering military action.”



U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington yesterday about what he described as Russia’s “schizophrenic” Iran policy, see here.  According to Gates—who started his career in government service during the 1960s as a Soviet analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency—then-Russian President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin told him three years ago, during a meeting in Moscow, that “he considered Iran Russia’s greatest national security threat”.  But yet, as Gates underscored for the senators, “they have these commercial interests in Iran that go back more than 20 years”.  Asked by a senator to explain what seemed to him an internally conflicted Russian policy toward the Islamic Republic, Gates responded that “you’ve just put your finger on a kind of schizophrenic Russian approach to this”:  on the one hand, “they recognize the security threat that Iran presents, but then there are these commercial opportunities, which frankly, are not unique to them in Europe”.  

Rather than describing Russia’s Iran policy as “schizophrenic”, we prefer to analyze Russia’s Iran policy as an ongoing attempt by decision-makers in Moscow to balance among multiple—and, in some cases, potentially competing—interests vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.  (To be fair, Gates also referred to the “balancing act” embodied in Russia’s Iran policy in his remarks to the Senate committee.)  But the way in which Russia strikes this balance has shifted in some significant ways over the last year or so.  We will write more about Russia’s Iran policy next week, in connection with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Washington to meet with President Obama.  

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett