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The Race for Iran



Today, in The Financial Times, Daniel Dombey reports, see here, that “President Obama has personally warned Turkey’s prime minister that unless Ankara shifts its position on Israel and Iran it stands little chance of obtaining the US weapons it wants to buy”.  A senior Obama Administration official told Dombey that “The president has said to [Turkey’s Prime Minister] Erdoğan that some of the actions that Turkey has taken have caused questions to be raised on the Hill…about whether we can have confidence in Turkey as an ally.  That means that some of the requests Turkey has made of us, for example in providing some of the weaponry that it would like to fight the PKK, will be harder for us to move through Congress”. 

According to Dombey, the Administration “was deeply frustrated when Turkey voted against United Nations sanctions on Iran in June”.  Obama reportedly told Erdoğan that Turkey “had failed to act as an ally” when it voted against the sanctions on Iran, rather than abstaining. 

This story is a remarkable statement about the Obama Administration’s willingness to damage important strategic relationships in order defend its dysfunctional Iran policy.  The claim, as the senior Administration official puts it, that the Turks “need to show that they take seriously American national security interests” is preposterous with regard to a NATO ally of long standing.     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Tony Karon published an outstanding piece in Time earlier this week, “Is the U.S. Pursuing the Wrong Mideast Peace Process?” .  He begins by pointing out that the arrival of President Obama’s Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, in the region has brought little reassurance about the risks of conflict.  The reason—“Obama’s peace process doesn’t involve those who could clash with the Israelis this summer.”  Tony elaborates: 

“The forces on the front lines of the gathering storm—Hamas in Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Syria—are allied with Iran, and the Obama Administration is maintaining its predecessor’s policy of trying to diplomatically isolate the self-styled ‘Axis of Resistance.’  Some limited overtures have been made to Damascus, largely in the hope of separating Syria from Iran.  But absent any move to end Israel’s occupation of Syrian territory on the Golan Heights, those will come to naught.  The Administration has also made limited overtures to engage Iran on the nuclear issue, using Iran’s defiance to strengthen the case Washington makes to less sanguine partners that Iran should be isolated.  But it has precious few channels to the relevant leadership should hostilities break out along Israel’s northern border or in Gaza.  On both of those fronts, an uneasy calm is maintained not by any agreements, but by each side’s awareness of the damage they could suffer, both physical and political, in a new confrontation.  Still in both cases, the antagonists operate on the assumption that a new shooting war is inevitable at some point.”

The Bush Administration’s diplomatic boycott of the ‘resistance’ camp failed to stem their rising influence, cemented the alliance of its component parts, and left Washington and its Western allies with precious little access to important decision makers.  That may not have bothered the Bush Administration much, because it imagined the region locked in a fight to the finish between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals’—a grand alliance of Arab moderates who would join with Israel and the U.S. to vanquish Iran and its allies.  Stability was not the Bush Administration’s priority.  When anxious Europeans pressed Washington to help end the disastrous 2006 Israeli war against Hizballah in Lebanon, then Secretary of State Condoleezza famously responded that she had ‘no interest in a return to the status quo ante.’  But, of course, that’s largely what resulted, because the projection of force by the U.S. and Israel in the region has failed to eliminate the ‘radicals.’

Turkey was the most important U.S. ally to break decisively with the Bush Administration’s approach to the region, building its own bridges to the ‘resistance’ camp in the belief that it can’t be wished or blown away, and that the region can’t be stabilized without accommodating its interests. Turkey’s approach was pilloried by some in the West and Israel as aligning with Iran…[But] Turkey’s good offices with the ‘radicals,’ combined with its longstanding, if somewhat frayed security alliance with Israel, may have become a vital channel of communication for avoiding new wars in the region…

The Bush Administration eventually renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as an element of its strategy to confront Iran, seeing a Mideast peace process as vital to provide political cover for Arab regimes to ally with Israel and the U.S. against Tehran.  That was the logic behind the Annapolis conference and subsequent discussions between Abbas and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.  The process went nowhere, of course.  But even if Olmert and Abbas had managed to agree on the contours of a Palestinian state (they didn’t), it was clear that any process that excluded Hamas—which had demonstrated in a democratic election that it spoke for as much as half the Palestinian population—was unlikely to gain much traction.  And a peace process conceived of as a means to weaken and isolate Hamas and its allies obviously gives them an overwhelming incentive to ensure its failure, which is well within their means.

Still, the Obama Administration maintains the Bush policies of confining its diplomatic engagement largely to friends rather than adversaries.  Once again, the argument is being made in Washington debates that pressing forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a key condition for a successful effort to isolate Iran.  But there’s no apparent reason to expect that Obama will succeed where Bush failed.”

We, of course, have stressed for some time the futility of trying to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace while excluding HAMAS from the process, see here, “lure” Syria away from its alliance with Iran with the promise of talks with the Netanyahu Government, see here and here, and use a hapless, “Cinderella shoe” peace process to forge an illusory coalition of “moderate” Arab states and Israel to contain and isolate the Islamic Republic, see here.  On this last point, Tony also draws on the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, about which we have recently written, see here, particularly with regard to Arab attitudes about Iran.  Looking at the results of this poll, he concludes: 

“Plainly there’s a disconnect between Arab public opinion and the Obama Administration’s approach to dealing with the region.  If the goal is stabilizing the region and preventing war, it may be time for President Obama to heed the advice of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  When challenged on why he was dealing with Israel’s mortal foe, Yasser Arafat, Rabin’s answer was: ‘We make peace with our enemies, not with our friends’.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



As we anticipated, Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic, “The Point of No Return”, laying out the neoconservative case for attacking Iran, is attracting a lot of attention and comment.  We are pleased that, as of this afternoon, our response to Goldberg, see here, is the top-ranked “Most Commented” piece on the Foreign Policy website and the second “Most Read” piece.  But we also noticed this morning, on The Atlantic’s website, the following announcement by the magazine’s deputy editor: 

“This coming Monday, we’ll kick off a debate series on the issues raised in Jeff’s article, with Elliott Abrams (Council on Foreign Relations); Nicholas Burns (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University); Patrick Clawson (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy); Reuel Marc Gerecht (Foundation for Defense of Democracies); Marc Lynch (The George Washington University); Gary Milhollin (Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control); Karim Sadjadpour (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace); Robin Wright (United States Institute of Peace); Jeff himself; others here at The Atlantic—and, we hope, you.”  

This is a remarkable list.  In order to “debate” the issues raised by Jeffrey Goldberg’s article—above all, whether Israel and/or the United States should bomb Iran—The Atlantic is assembling: 

 –a leading public proponent of an Israeli strike (Gerecht), who has also argued that the Green Movement could overturn the Islamic Republic;

 –a non-proliferation analyst who, before America’s invasion of Iraq, publicly ridiculed the International Atomic Energy Agency for failing to find the weapons of mass destruction he insisted were there and today regularly warns about “what we now know is Iran’s determination to build the bomb” (Milhollin);

–one of the most prominent Iranian-American cheerleaders for the Green movement, whose analysis of Iranian politics over the last year and a half has regularly been at odds with reality (Sadjadpour);

–a journalist whose expectations for the Green movement—she described it in late December 2009 as Iran’s “Berlin Wall” moment—also foundered on the shoals of reality (Wright);

–the senior Iran analyst at a Washington, DC think tank founded out of AIPAC Clawson), who is a public supporter of both regime change in and military action against Iran;

–the overseer of Middle East policy at the National Security Council during much of George W. Bush’s presidency, who holds, like Goldberg, that Arab leaders believe that “someone should bomb Iran and stop it from developing nuclear weapons” and that most Iranians would not “rally around the flag” if Iran were attacked (Abrams);    

–the point man for Iran policy at the State Department during most of President George W. Bush’s second term, who forthrightly acknowledges that, during the three years he held this position, he never met an Iranian official (Burns); and      

–a leading student of Arab politics, who argues against striking Iran, but on the grounds that, “for all of the flaws in President Obama’s strategy, Iran today is considerably weaker than it was when he took office” (Lynch). 

We are left wondering—what, exactly, is this group of people going to debate? 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



There is an old saying:  “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  Many of the same writers, thinkers, political actors, and organizations that persuaded the American people and others to support invading Iraq in 2003 are now working to build public support for the United States to initiate a war with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Will the American people allow themselves, to their shame, to be fooled once again on a foreign policy matter of life-and-death importance? 

The Atlantic has just published Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest piece, “The Point of No Return,” laying out the case attacking Iran.  Unfortunately, the case that Goldberg lays out for attacking Iran is even flimsier than the false and irresponsible case he helped make for the invasion of Iraq.  We published our own response to Goldberg’s article earlier today, in Foreign Policy.  We offer it for your consideration here

Apart from the arguments that we develop in our article, it should also be stressed that the Islamic Republic does not have nuclear weapons, and there is no evidence that it is seeking to manufacture such weapons.  We also think it is worthy of note that Iran’s highest-level political and religious authorities say that the possession of such weapons would violate Islamic principles and ethics—a consideration of some weight, we believe, in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Everyone should be clear on this point:  if Israel or the United States attacks Iran, it will be because Iran is enriching uranium, at levels much lower than that required for weapons-grade fissile material.  As we have written previously, see here, that is hardly a justification for starting a war.    

Let’s not be fooled twice.         

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



We have argued for some time that the policy debate about Iran here in the United States is distorted by a number of “myths”—myths about the Islamic Republic, its foreign policy, and its domestic politics.  We were reminded of this by Jim Hoagland’s column today, see here, in the Washington Post—particularly the passage in which he chastises President Obama for citing sanctions “as the cause of unrest” in Iran.  In Hoagland’s view, this reading “does a disservice to the humanity of Iran’s simmering revolt”, which is playing the “dominant role in the popular uprising” that is taking place in the Islamic Republic.  We certainly agree that the Obama Administration is exaggerating the impact of sanctions, but it surpasses understanding that Hoagland is citing the Green movement as the cause of “unrest” and a “popular uprising” that is supposedly going on in Iran right now.        

One of the more dangerous myths currently affecting America’s Iran debate is the proposition that, through concerted diplomatic action, the United States can isolate the Islamic Republic, both regionally and internationally. 

The proposition that the Islamic Republic can be isolated within its regional environment rests on an unchallenged but deeply flawed assumption that, given its “Persian” (or at least non-Arab) and Shi’a identities, Iran is bound to be viewed with suspicion, if not hostility, by the Middle East’s (largely Sunni) Arab population.  

This proposition also rests on an assumption that the United States can play on anti-Iranian suspicion and hostility to isolate the Islamic Republic from its regional neighbors

The idea that Washington has a serious and strategically productive option to isolate Iran in its region is, of course, not new—it is reflected in efforts by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations to forge a regional coalition to “contain” Iran, encompassing “moderate” Sunni Arab states along with Israel.  But this notion has gained greater traction recently, alongside claims of “rumblings”—to use President Obama’s word—that new sanctions are beginning to stimulate domestic political pressure on Iranian leaders.  Just last month, the usually quite sound Marc Lynch argued, see here, that

“overall Tehran has become considerably weaker in the Middle East under Obama’s watch.  Much of the air has gone out of Iran’s claim to head a broad ‘resistance’ camp, with Obama’s Cairo outreach temporarily shifting the regional debate and then with Turkey emerging as a much more attractive leader of that trend.  The botched Iranian election badly harmed Tehran’s image among those Arabs who prioritize democratic reforms, and has produced a flood of highly critical scrutiny of Iran across the Arab media.  Arab leaders continue to be suspicious and hostile towards Iran…Public opinion surveys and Arab media commentary alike now reveal little sympathy for the Iranian regime, compared to previous years…while Iran may continue to doggedly pursue its nuclear program (as far as we know), this has not translated into steadily increasing popular appeal or regional power.  Quite the contrary.”           

There is no specific sourcing for any of the claims made in this passage.  However, a number of commentators arguing that Iran is becoming increasingly unpopular in its regional environment drew support from this year’s iteration of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, see here, released in June and based on polls conducted in 22 countries around the world during April and May.  In the six Muslim-majority countries included in the Project (Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Turkey) a majority of the population in four (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey) reportedly had an “unfavorable” view of Iran; only in two of the Muslim-majority countries surveyed (Indonesia and Pakistan) did a majority of the population have a “favorable” view of Iran.  Likewise, majorities in five of the six Muslim-majority countries reportedly viewed Iran’s nuclear program as a potential threat; only in Pakistan was the Iranian nuclear program and the prospect of an “Iranian bomb” (which, of course, the Iranian government denies it is seeking) viewed favorably. 

We had doubts at the time about some of the results in the Pew survey.  For example, with regard to a majority of Lebanese reportedly having an “unfavorable” view of Iran—if one broke down the Lebanese numbers according to sectarian identity, a majority of Lebanese Muslims had a favorable view of Iran, while 83 percent of Lebanese Christians had an unfavorable view.  Demographics alone mean that the overwhelming majority of those Lebanese Christians holding an unfavorable view of Iran are Maronite.  It seems highly likely that the Pew pollsters over-weighted Maronite Christians in their Lebanese sample.  (Of course, “over-weighting” Maronites is something that the Lebanese political system has been doing for decades, with sustained support from the United States and Europe.)  Likewise, the data showed appreciable support for Iran’s nuclear program in some Arab populations where one might not have expected to see that —e.g., roughly 40 percent of Jordanians supported Iran’s nuclear program, even though Jordanians have been exposed to a steady stream of criticism of Iran’s nuclear efforts from the Jordanian government. 

But now an important poll has come out raising real questions about what the Pew survey was measuring—and, more importantly, raising profound questions about the argument that Iran is becoming isolated in its regional environment.  Last week, Shibley Telhami released the results of his 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, which he conducts annually with Zogby International.  Over the years, we have found Shibley’s polling studies on Arab public opinion to be carefully conducted, with scrupulously presented results and, often, important insights.  We would also note that Shibley—who holds the Anwar Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland and is a non-resident fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution—can hardly be dismissed as a “pro-Iranian” voice.

The results from this year’s Arab Public Opinion Poll can hardly be comforting for those who want to believe that the Islamic Republic is becoming estranged from its regional neighbors and that Arabs are ready to stand side-by-side with Israelis to support military action (by Israel and/or the United States) against Iranian nuclear targets.  The poll was conducted in late June and July in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon—these countries were also included in the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project—Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  With regard to the Iranian nuclear issue:    

–Among the respondents, a majority—57 percent—believes that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons (which, once again, the Iranian government denies it is seeking).  However, an even larger majority of these entirely Arab respondents—77 percent—believes that Iran has the right to pursue its nuclear program; only 20 percent agree that Iran should be pressured by the international community to stop the program.  (By way of comparison, the finding that 77 percent of Arabs believe that Iran has a right to pursue its nuclear program is up from 53 percent in 2009.)    

–In Egypt and Morocco, huge majorities among those who believe that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons—81 percent and 84 percent, respectively—believe that Iran has the right to pursue such a program.  In Saudi Arabia, the population that believes Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons is evenly divided, 50 percent to 50 percent, on this question.   

–These data set the stage for one of the most remarkable findings in this year’s Arab Public Opinion Poll:  57 percent of the respondents believe that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a positive outcome for the region; 20 percent believe this would not matter one way or the other, while only 21 percent believes this would be a negative outcome for the region.  By way of comparison, the finding that 57 percent of Arabs believe that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be a positive outcome for the region is up from 29 percent last year.)      

This is truly remarkable.  In six Arab countries where the ruling authorities have devoted a lot of effort in recent years telling their people that the Islamic Republic aspires to regional hegemony, is seeking nuclear weapons, and that this would be a bad outcome for Arab interests—local Arab populations are not buying the argument.  Even Marc Lynch had to acknowledge that “there is very little support here for the notion that Arabs are secretly yearning for the United States to attack Iran.  Really little.”  This bolsters our assessment that, however much some Sunni Arab elites—and we suspect it is not all that many—may want to see Iran “cut down to size”, there is little popular support for confrontation with the Islamic Republic on the Arab street.      

In fact, with regard to the Iranian nuclear issue and perceptions of the Islamic Republic as a “threat”, the trend in Arab public opinion over time is running in the opposite direction from that desired by most major Arab governments.  (We wonder what public opinion is like on these questions in Syria?  In Iraq?  In Qatar?  Or among Gazans and other Palestinians living under Israeli occupation?)  Asked to name the two countries in the world that pose the biggest threat, 88 percent of the Arab respondents in Shibley’s 2010 poll named Israel and 77 percent named the United States—the top two “winners” on this question, by orders of magnitude over any other country.  By way of comparison, only 10 percent of respondents cited Iran as one of the two countries in the world posing the biggest threat.  (That is down from 13 percent last year.  This year, incidentally, the same percentage of respondents that viewed Iran as a threat—10 percent—also cited Algeria as a threat.) 

And, for those who claim that, as Marc Lynch put it, there is now “little sympathy for the Iranian regime, compared to previous years”, we would challenge them to explain these findings: 

–Asked to name the world leader that they admire most, 12 percent of the Arab respondents in Shibley’s poll cited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  This is up from six percent last year. 

–That 12 percent result makes Ahmadinejad the third-most admired leader in the Arab world—after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (with 20 percent) and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (with 13 percent).  In 2009, according to the Arab Public Opinion Poll, Ahmadinejad was tied with Hizballah secretary-general Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and Al-Qa’ida leader Usama bin Laden as the fourth-most admired leader among Arabs, after Chavez, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and former French President Jacques Chirac.  In 2008, Ahmadinejad was the third-most admired leader in the Arab world, after Chavez and Assad. 

Where is the enormous decline in Ahmadinejad’s popular standing in the Arab world?  Where is the sharp deterioration in the Islamic Republic’s image in the Arab world? 

If Americans want to find a big “loser” in this year’s Arab Public Opinion Poll, the results identify him quite clearly—President Barack Obama.

–According to Shibley’s data, the percentage of Arabs with a positive view of the United States has plummeted since last year—from 45 percent to 20 percent—while the percentage with a negative view of the United States has soared from 23 percent to 67 percent. 

–Last year, 51 percent of Shibley’s respondents were “hopeful” about the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy; this year, only 16 percent are hopeful, while 63 percent describe themselves as “discouraged”.   Interestingly, in a separate question, 51 percent of respondents said that they had an unfavorable view of Obama and were pessimistic about his foreign policy; 38 percent said they had a favorable view of Obama personally but doubted that “the American system would allow him to have a successful foreign policy”.   

Perhaps most strikingly, only two percent of this year’s respondents described themselves as holding a “very favorable” attitude toward the United States; this is down from the four percent that had a “very favorable” attitude toward the United States in 2008—the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency

With those numbers, it is truly surreal for the Obama Administration and its supporters—or neoconservative commentators—to be extolling how badly isolated the Islamic Republic of Iran is becoming in the broader Middle East

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett