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The Race for Iran


We want to highlight an article, “Iran’s Limited Enrichment Plan Can Work: The West Should Take It Seriously”, published last week by our friend and colleague, Alastair Crooke.  Some critical passages are provided below:   

“With the recent activation of the Bushehr nuclear reactor—a fully International Atomic Energy Agency-safeguarded facility—Iran has crossed the line.  The Islamic Republic is no longer an aspirant member to the nuclear “club,” but a nuclear state.

It is therefore no longer realistic for the West to propose to negotiate with Iran while applying coercive sanctions as if it were a pre-nuclear state.  Bushehr’s fuel presently is supplied by the Russians, but this foreign fuel soon will be exchanged for Iranian fuel.  And Iran plans many more reactors.  No state in such a position—with its domestic industry becoming heavily dependent on nuclear-generated electricity—is likely to continue to allow a foreign state to be the sole supplier of its fuel.  That would effectively hold hostage the greater part of its domestic economy, with foreigners able, on a whim, to bring it all to a halt by pulling the plug on further supplies.

Since the context to the nuclear issue has changed, inevitably the substance of negotiation must change as well.

The US arrives at this Bushehr moment in the midst of a long debate about what to do if Iran were to reach nuclear “break-out capability.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued earlier this year that low-enriched uranium (LEU) might covertly be turned the into weapons grade material—thus attaining so-called “break-out capability.”  This, he suggested, could occur without US intelligence becoming aware of such a shift and therefore would risk the US being caught unawares.  Secretary Gates has argued that the only solution to this dilemma would be for the US to acquire sufficient leverage over Iran to force it to “give up” most of its LEU—thus eliminating the possibility of Iran having sufficient LEU to “break out.”

This argument harkens back to an old US doctrine that there is essentially no substantive difference between peaceful and weapons-oriented enrichment since, the argument goes, the two paths are technically identical.  Of course, if this holds true, Iran by definition is bound to reach “break-out”—just as any state such as Japan that is enriching quantities of LEU will have a technical “break-out” capacity.  It goes with the territory of nuclear energy.  But when Mr. Gates uses that other loaded word, “leverage,” we are talking something different.  “Leverage” over a state already possessing a reactor and a fuel cycle can only mean threatening Iran with war or robust military containment should its fuel stocks not be duly “relinquished”…

For its part, Iran insists that the long-standing US doctrine of indistinguishability in enrichment is a false one.  In the Iranian view, the peaceful use of enrichment can indeed be distinguished from a weapons-dedicated process:  One can be safeguarded, whereas the other cannot be.  As long ago as 2005, the then-Iranian negotiator on nuclear issues, Ali Larijani, proposed a three-track solution to the Europeans: 1) centrifuges that are incapable of enrichment beyond a low limit, 2) joint ownership with Europe of the enrichment facilities themselves, and 3) additional intrusive surveillance.  The European “Three” did not deign to give a response.  Under former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s influence they were dead-set on only a permanent end to enrichment.

In this new post-Bushehr reality, it is no longer realistic for the West to be stuck in a “no enrichment,” “no break-out” posture.  Now, Iran is signaling a readiness to negotiate its nuclear posture with a proposal for Russia or China, or even others, to jointly participate in an enrichment facility based in Iran.  This constitutes a clear pointer in the direction of a safeguarded solution.  But can the US and Europe take the hint this time?”

Of course, we agree very strongly with Alastair’s point that a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue will require U.S. and Western acceptance of both the principle and reality of uranium enrichment inside Iran.  It is a point that has been made to us in numerous conversations with Iranian officials over several years—and was reiterated by President Ahmadinejad in New York last week.  Alastair’s question is well put—can the United States and Europe take the hint this time?      

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



We have just returned from New York, where we spent the last few days observing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajed’s visit to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).  Hillary provided “color commentary” for Al Jazeera’s UNGA coverage, and both of us had a number of conversations and meetings with a range of interesting interlocutors.  We were able to meet with President Ahmadinejad twice, and are especially grateful that the President took the time yesterday, at the end of one of his typically very long days in New York (which included his address to the General Assembly), to meet with students from the seminar on U.S.-Iranian diplomacy that Hillary is teaching at Yale University this semester.  (Please pardon our backs to the camera in the photo above.  For a  report and some additional photographs from our meeting, as published by IRNA, see here.)   

We will be weighing in next week with our reflections about Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York, the state of U.S.-Iranian relations, and other issues.  In the meantime, we would encourage everyone to look at Ahmadinejad’s interview with Charlie Rose taped earlier this week, see here, and to read the transcript, see here.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



On Sunday—the same day the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was interviewed by Christiane Ammanpour on ABC.  After several minutes of predictable exchanges about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (the interview took place in Jerusalem), Ammanpour asked Secretary Clinton about Iran. 

Clinton had already expressed obligatory empathy with Israel, which, in her words, “today is under tremendous security pressure and they can look over the horizon and see even more when you’ve got a country like Iran standing by saying, ‘We want to wipe you from the face of the Earth and annihilate you.’  I mean that does concentrate your mind.”  (Never mind that no Iranian official has actually said that.)  In response to Ammanpour’s questions, Clinton then elaborated on a prominent theme in some of her recent statements about Iran—namely, that the Islamic Republic is becoming a “military dictatorship”:         

“[W]hat we also see happening is increasing power exercised by the military, by the revolutionary guard and by other militia and military entities.  And I know that that’s a concern of people inside Iran.  We read reports coming out of Iran.  And it is something that would be even more distressing for the Iranian people.

You know, I have grave disagreements with the Iranian Revolution, but the early advocates of it said this would be a republic.  It would be an Islamic republic, but it would be a republic.  Then we saw a very flawed election and we’ve seen the elected officials turn for the military to enforce their power.  And a lot of Iranians, even those who stayed, even those who were originally sympathetic are starting to say, ‘This is not what we signed up for.’  And I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders, to take hold of the apparatus of the state.” 

After what seems to us like an endorsement of regime change in Iran, Secretary Clinton then argued that the blame for diplomatic impasse lies entirely with the Islamic Republic: 

 “[R]emember, when President Obama came into office he extended his hand.  I mean very clearly and quite unprecedentedly to the Iranian leadership and said, ‘We would be willing to have a diplomatic engagement with you.’  I think the sanctions that have been endorsed and now are being implemented by the international community, you know, demonstrates our engagement because, you know, we’ve said to the Iranians all along, ‘We have two tracks. We have the pressure track and we have the engagement, diplomatic track.’  And we still remain open to that diplomacy.  But it’s been very clear that the Iranians don’t want to engage with us.” 

Secretary Clinton concluded by linking sanctions and the offer to “engage” with Tehran to the possibility of regime change in Iran: 

“[W]e would very much like to see Iran return to the P5 + 1 forum where they were last present a year ago October, to talk about their nuclear program. We would like to see them once again permit full IAEA inspections.  We would like to see them taking the offer that has been made by us and others to talk about a broad range of issues like their support for terrorism.  Hamas, Hezbollah, et cetera.  So we stand ready to engage with Iran.  And that’s really the message that I would like to send to the Iranians.  Is that you know, there’s a way out of the sanctions.  There’s a way out of increasing opprobrium from the international community.  And there should be a way out of this takeover of their political system and a threat to their dual system of elected and clerical leadership, because when you empower a military as much as they have to rely on them to put down legitimate protests and demonstrations, you create a momentum and unleash forces that you do not know where they will end up.  And so we think that now is the time for the Iranian leadership to engage seriously.”   

Yesterday, Clinton’s spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said that the Secretary of State’s remarks did not amount to a call for regime change in Iran: 

 “She was simply questioning the relationship between some elements of the regime and the growing importance of the IRGC and military elements within the Iranian hierarchy.  The military elements, security elements have taken a more prominent role in terms of the suppression of people’s ability to assemble, to demonstrate, to engage in political activity…To the extent that there are leaders in Iran who see themselves as being responsible for, responsive to all the people, they should step forward.” 

Notwithstanding Crowley’s comments, Secretary Clinton’s observations about Iran seem blinkered, ill-informed, and thoroughly un-strategic.  In contrast, we were positively impressed with an article published last week by Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister and recently retired head of the International Crisis Group.  Evans makes a point that cannot be stressed enough by those seeking a more sober and pragmatic discussion of the Iranian nuclear issue in the West—that there is a huge difference between an Iran that is “hell-bent on becoming a nuclear-armed state” and one that settles “for nuclear capability, able to make weapons but choosing not to”. 

As Evans points out, “too many policymakers and commentators have rushed to judgment, insisting that Iran is irrevocably determined to build nuclear weapons”.  But Evans reports five reasons, “stated with clarity and consistency” during his “many off-the-record discussions with senior officials in Iran and elsewhere over the last few years”, as to why Iran is likely to stop short of fabricating nuclear weapons, even if at some point it acquires the ability to do so: 

“The first reason is concern that Israel will perceive the existence of one or two Iranian bombs as an existential threat, demanding a pre-emptive military attack – with or without US support, but in either case with resources that Iran knows it cannot match. Iranians think such an attack unlikely if they do not cross the red line of actual weaponization.

Second, it is well understood that there is zero tolerance in Russia and China for an Iranian bomb, and all the rope that that these powers have so far given Iran in the Security Council will run out if Iran weaponizes. The writing on this wall became even clearer after the most recent round of sanctions negotiations.

Third, following from this, there is a clear perception in Iran that acquiring an actual bomb would lead to impossibly stringent economic sanctions. Financial sanctions, direct and indirect, already are biting – including on  the Revolutionary Guard and its significant economic interests – but have been tolerable in the context of asserting Iran’s “right to enrich” under the NPT. Once in obvious breach of the NPT, universal participation in a much tougher sanctions regime is seen in Iran as inevitable. 

Fourth, Iranians acknowledge that any regional hegemony bought with nuclear weapons is likely to be short-lived. There is skepticism about the capacity of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey to move quickly to build bombs of their own, and a belief that they would be under much international pressure, especially from the US, not to do so. But there is also a clear view that Arab-Persian, Sunni-Shia, or more straightforward regional power anxieties would make a nuclear-arms race inevitable.

Finally, there is a religious reason: weapons of mass destruction simply violate the precepts of Islam. Few in the West are likely to find this line very compelling, but it has echoed strongly in every conversation that I have ever had with Iranian officials, senior or minor. And it is not without plausibility: Iran did not, after all, respond in kind when it was bombarded with chemical weapons by Iraq.”

Taken together, these considerations lead Evans to conclude that, “while a negotiated settlement acceptable to both Iran and the rest of the international community would be a hugely difficult undertaking, it is achievable”.  We certainly agree that a negotiated settlement should be “achievable”.  But it will not be achieved in an atmosphere in which America’s chief diplomat speaks publicly about the desirability of regime change in Tehran and Washington sticks to an utterly unrealistic position requiring “zero enrichment” in Iran.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Flynt’s colleague at the New America Foundation, Steve Clemons, wrote an op-ed in today’s Financial Times arguing that the Obama Administration’s $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia—unprecedented in peacetime history—is a “savvy” move to balance the rise of Iran.  Among other things, this op-ed reflects important currents of thinking within the Obama Administration and provides important indications about where at least some significant players in the Administration want to take America’s Iran strategy. 

As we have written previously, see here and here, militarized containment seems to be emerging as the Obama Administration’s preferred “moderate” alternative to military confrontation with Iran.  While we agree that the rising power and influence of the Islamic Republic is important for the United States, we think the Obama Administration is making a dangerous gamble that raises tensions and is likely to lead to further deterioration in America’s standing and position in the Middle East and globally.  We present Steve’s piece in full and, as always, invite your comments. 

US Mideast arms deal aims to stop attack on Iran

By Steve Clemons in The Financial Times, September 20, 2010

The Obama administration’s $60bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia is already being touted a domestic “jobs generator” for Americans. Instead, it should be seen as a strategically savvy deal – and one at the heart of a changed US strategy in the Middle East that seeks to confront Iran through proxies and allies.

By pushing helicopters and fighters to the Saudis, the US is stealing the scene from Iran, and removing the perception that it is the only rising power in the region. Given global concerns about Iran’s nuclear course, along with doubts about US power in the Middle East and fear about Israel striking Iran on its own, President Barack Obama and King Abdullah have raised the ante in a high stakes effort to create a new, stable balance of power.

It might seem unlikely that a raft of sophisticated arms under Saudi control really can stabilise the neighbourhood and change both the calculations of Iran’s nuclear protagonists and Israel’s hawks. Critics will say the move will quickly backfire and ignite a new regional arms race. But, oddly, both of these scenarios can be simultaneously true.

What is important is that the US sale is an attempt by Mr Obama’s team to bolster the capacity of one of Iran’s natural regional rivals, without encouraging either a regional war or Israeli bomb-dropping.

Having capacity is not the same as using it. This move, while provocative in the eyes of some analysts, will actually help deflate calls for imminent attacks on Iran’s nuclear capacity.

The risks for the Saudis, the Middle East and Mr Obama, however, is actually that this 10-year arms-building programme begins to drive not only Iran’s strategic paranoia – which is already high given John Bolton and his fellow travellers’ incessant calls for regime change – but a greater appetite for arms acquisition across the entire region.

This could happen. But while new Saudi military capacity can help change the decisions of Iran’s mullahs today, this weaponry may also generate fear in Israel or other nations in the region tomorrow.

Don’t forget that Israel has not accepted King Abdullah’s much-offered Arab Peace Initiative normalising relations between Israel and most of the world’s Arab and Muslim-dominant nations in exchange for a Palestinian state along 1967 borders as well as other conditions. The Saudis and Israelis are still on opposite sides.

True, the chances of achieving equilibrium with one big favour to Saudi Arabia today is highly unlikely. But Mr Obama’s moves remains strategically astute in the near term. More importantly, it could begin to chart a new approach in which the US can work as an offshore balance in regions around the world, helping to nudge military and economic favours between competitors without a massive US invasion force.



As he has every year since becoming President of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to New York this week to attend the United Nations General Assembly.  Several important U.S. media outlets have either already conducted (MSNBC, ABC) or will conduct (PBS’ Charlie Rose and CNN’s Larry King) interviews with Ahmadinejad in connection with his visit to New York.  That is, all in all, a good thing.  Unfortunately, the various “scene-setter” pieces on Ahamdinejad’s visit published by mainstream U.S. media organizations—e.g., Ray Takeyh’s Op Ed in the Washington Post—have been analytically sloppy and, in some instances, seemingly detached from reality.    

In this context, we were favorably struck by an article that Juan Cole published today on his blog, Informed Comment.  We have disagreed with Juan at times, especially regarding the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election and the significance of the Green Movement.  Nonetheless, we think that Juan has been one of the most important voices arguing for more sensible U.S. policies in the Middle East in recent years, a contribution for which we have enormous respect.  We found his reflections on Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York to be, in many ways, a refreshing antidote to the conventional “wisdom” about Iran that dominates America’s Op Ed and editorial pages right now.    

Revisiting his earlier assessment of the political currents surrounding the June 2009 presidential election while also acknowledging current realities, Juan frames his article with an important observation:  “Although his fate seemed up in the air only a little over a year ago, Ahmadinejad comes to New York with a substantially strengthened position”.  Then, Juan describes with commendable clarity some key aspects of that “substantially strengthened position”, in terms that American political and foreign policy elites need to hear:     

“While Ahmadinejad’s enemies in the US Congress, especially those closest to the Israel lobbies, had hoped to pressure Iran by cutting off its gasoline imports, it turns out that the regime is not in fact vulnerable on that score.  The government imported no gasoline last month, having simply used its petrochemical facilities as refineries and imposed some rationing.  While some observers exulted that this move by Iran was a sign that sanctions were working, that sentiment seems ridiculous to me.  If gasoline sanctions were supposed to hurt Iran, and Tehran showed that they could not, how is that a victory?  It is like a boxer boasting he can knock out the heavy weight champion, and then when the champ just puts up his gloves and consistently blocks the feeble blows, boasts that he put the fighter on his guard.

In fact, Iran is building up refinery capacity over the next five years, with an expectation of doubling gasoline production.  It has a huge cushion domestically, since at the moment gasoline is heavily subsidized and just costs pennies up to a certain amount per month.  But prices are being raised on consumption beyond the ration, which limits growth in consumption.  It is not sure that raising prices further would even hurt the regime with the public, since it can so obviously be blamed on the United States and so borne as a price of national independence.” 

While he mistakenly describes Iran as the world’s second-largest oil exporter, Juan rightly notes that “one source of regime strength has been continued strong pricing for petroleum”: 

“As a result of the global economic near-depression, prices fell to as low as $33 a barrel at some points early in 2009, and as late as July 2009 they were $56/b.  But in late 2009 and through 2010, demand soared again, as China and India turned in impressive growth.  Asian demand has sent the price back up to around $70 a barrel.  The price of Iran’s heavy crude was $74 a barrel in the first two quarters of 2010, but had only been about $54 a barrel in the same period in 2009.   

At anything over $50 a barrel, the regime is sitting pretty.  $70 is a great cushion for the Islamic Republic, and if Germany’s recent growth spurt is a harbinger for Europe this coming year, prices could firm further.  Any US or Israeli military action toward Iran would only cause prices to skyrocket, ironically strengthening Iran further.

Hopes that global economic sanctions would harm Iranian banking and so make it harder for Iran to export petroleum seem to me completely forlorn…Iran’s exports to Japan jumped in August, and it has also increased exports to China.  So those two countries are finding ways of paying for the oil despite US pressure on banks.  Even supposed US allies such as Afghanistan and Iraq are doing a booming business with Iran (and ironically, the US sort of needs them to, if they are to be stabilized)…

Regionally, Iran is sitting pretty.  Iran benefits from the good will generated for it in the Muslim world by its strong support for the Palestinians (especially Hamas in Gaza).  Reckless Israeli moves, including the Gaza War, the attack on the Mavi Marmara civilian aid ship, and continued colonization of Palestinian land, have increased Iran’s stature in the region. 

Iran’s other client, Hizbullah of Lebanon, is part of that country’s national unity government.  The Sunni Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, moved closer to Syria in recent weeks after long years in which he blamed Damascus for the 2005 assassination of his father, a stance that split Lebanon into pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian factions.  Even if Hariri’s motives might be to facilitate a break between Syria and Iran, backed by Saudi Arabia, the step could backfire.  With Beirut making up with Damascus, Hizbullah may be strengthened, and a Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Ankara sphere of friendship and economic exchange emerge.” 

For our part, we believe this process is well under way.  Juan notes other important regional dynamics that strengthen Iran’s strategic position: 

“Iran has excellent relations with Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, in contrast to the security problems it had faced from the Taliban in the 1990s…The US has proved so far unable to unseat the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq in favor of ex-Baathist Iyad Allawi.  Pro-Iranian Shiites are likely to play an important role in any government that is formed.  Turkey has stood with Iran, declining to support increased sanctions and running interference for Tehran with regard to its civilian nuclear energy research program.  Iran is still close to Syria.  The Arab street has decided that it is not afraid of an Iranian nuclear warhead.”

All of that is right on the money.  With regard to Turkey, we would add that, last week, Prime Minister Erdoğan told a gathering of Turkish and Iranian businessmen and high-ranking officials that Turkey should triple its trade volume with the Islamic Republic over the next five years, from the current level of $10 billion to $30 billion.  Both Turkish and Iranian officials say their governments are committed to reducing barriers to expanded trade and investment.  The head of the Iranian delegation, Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi, said that the Islamic Republic had “no better friend than Turkey in today’s world”.       

Juan concludes with some trenchant observations about the U.S. position in the region: 

“The US has been reduced to arming Saudi Arabia to the teeth, with a $60 billion arms deal, as its main way of responding to the powerful Iranian diplomatic position in the region.  That is, after a period of direct US intervention in the Gulf region during the past 20 years, the US appears to be moving back to the proxy strategy of Nixon-Kissinger in the 1970s—a sign of relative weakness in the region.

Ahmadinejad comes to New York, not as a wounded leader under internal and external siege, but as the confident representative of a fiercely independent Iran, the hydrocarbon treasures of which allow it to withstand Washington’s mere sanctions and opprobrium…”

We close by highlighting one of the other, relatively few “bright spots” in the American media’s anticipatory coverage of President Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York.  Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has said a number of sensible things about America’s Iran policy in recent years, made the following observations on NBC’s Meet the Press this morning:

“I don’t think the stars are lining up for an attack on Iran either by Israel alone, or Israel in concert with the United States, or the United States alone.  I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I’ve heard nothing to suggest that we would be interested in doing that or think it would be useful even though the option is always on the table.  I think eventually we will have to deal with the reality that sanctions may not change the views of the Iranians on these issues, and therefore, let’s see if we can find a way to see if Iran can have a nuclear program that is fixed on power production, low-level enrichment of their material, so that it’s not a track to become a weapon.

Now, people will say that’s naïve.  Once you know how to do that you can then enrich up to weapons capability.  But I think if you take them at their word, ‘trust, but verify’, Reagan’s old line, if you take them at their word, and they say they are not interested in a weapon, just power, then put in place an IAEA inspection regime…that will keep them below that, and get Russia and China and everybody else to agree to it, then you might…be able to live with an Iran that has a nuclear power capability, but rigid enforcement constraints have been put in so they can’t move up to a weapons grade program and the production of a nuclear weapon.”   

Though we are more concerned about the risk of a bad U.S. decision in this regard than Secretary Powell appears to be, we certainly hope he is right about the chances of an Israeli or U.S. attack against Iran.  And, of course, we strongly agree that acceptance of Iran’s right to enrich uranium is an indispensable key to a serious and sustainable agreement on the nuclear issue.  We hope that the Obama Administration is listening. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett