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The Race for Iran


Karim Sadjapour recently published a piece in Foreign Policy that clearly aspired to be the “Mr. X” article for America’s current policy debate on how to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. We are pleased to publish this rejoinder to Sadjadpour’s piece, by Reza Esfandiari, an independent analyst of Iranian affairs.

The Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be compared to the Soviet Union.

Karim Sadjadpour’s recent piece in Foreign Policy, “The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct”, likens the Islamic Republic to the Soviet Union and political Islam to communism: in doing so, he reflects a very profound misjudgment. While it may be true that Iran needs America as an enemy as the Soviets did, in also much the same way that it can be argued the United States needs the scourge of terrorism as a nemesis, it is hardly the case that any perceived enmity is artificial and purely for the purpose of internal consumption.

Sadjadpour predictably and unfairly dismisses Iran’s legitimate security concerns. Since 1995, Iran has become increasingly enveloped by a “military belt” of American forces positioned to the west, south and east. Although the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have actually boosted Iran’s strategic importance in the region, the Iranians are acutely aware that the United States wants to coerce and pressure them by applying its considerable military presence. There are also Iranian fears, justified or not, about the possible role of the National Endowment of Democracy and others in promoting ‘velvet revolution’, and the CIA in fomenting unrest in the Sunni regions of the country.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, it is widely recognized within Iran’s political and security establishment that rapprochement with the United States, on favorable terms, is a fundamental foreign policy goal. While Sadjadpour dwells incessantly on Ayatollah Khamenei’s rhetoric, he ignores the fact that the Iranian leader approved of the overtures of the Khatami administration to the Bush administration in cooperating over Afghanistan in 2001 and offering to help stabilize Iraq in 2003 (even though it was designated an “evil” state a year previously). [editor’s note: Khamenei also approved ambassadorial talks with the United States in and over Iraq in 2007, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had succeeded Khatami as President of the Islamic Republic.]

It is common within neoconservative circles to compare the present-day Islamic Republic with the final years of the Soviet Union and to anticipate another “Berlin wall moment” leading to regime change. It was incorrectly believed that Iran’s political system was disintegrating in the aftermath of the presidential election last year, when in reality the various centers of power were carefully maneuvering to preserve their vested interests and influence.

The circumstances, moreover, are markedly different. The Soviet Union collapsed because it was a multinational empire whose member republics desired independence from Russian domination. It was also a failing economy that could not modernize and provide even basic goods for its people. Iran, although multiethnic in nature, is well-integrated as a nation. The exception to this are Kurdistan and Baluchistan provinces where there are indeed separatist movements, but which do not have majority support among the local population.

The Iranian economy, although plagued by structural problems and stressed by sanctions, is both stable and growing—Iran’s trade with international markets has picked up significantly in the last few years while inflation has fallen dramatically according to the IMF. The government feels confident enough to implement an ambitious economic reform program that would eliminate the subsidies which literally fuel the corruption, waste and inefficiency that Sadjadpour refers to.

The Iranian situation might be better compared to that of the French Revolution which took about 80 years to settle following the overthrow of the ancien régime. Iran, as a resurgent and proud nation, is going through the motions of finding its national identity in the modern world. There are indeed many competing factions within Iran but all envisage the country being the regional powerhouse in the Middle East, as it has been over the course of the last 2500 years, and a leader within the Islamic and Non-Aligned World. That means that there will be an inevitable conflict with the United States over the latter’s desire to preserve its global hegemony. The policy objective should be in finding the common ground and a broad framework for mutual interest and cooperation between both nations.

Reza Esfandiari



Today, Marc Lynch—a professor at George Washington University who blogs at Foreign Policy—published a timely piece entitled “Keep the Iran War Talk Quiet”, see here.  As Marc notes, “there’s some hope that Iran will return to nuclear talks with the P-5+1 in Geneva on Nov.15, even if they probably will have more questions about the agenda as the deadline approaches before they formally RSVP”.  Marc is perhaps more hopeful than we are that a new round of nuclear talks could “become the basis for an ongoing diplomatic process, where a range of issues can be explored, alternative arrangements proposed, and confidence built”.  (We will have more to say on that below.)  But he is absolutely right to point out that “it’s a very bad sign” that “the lack of progress in talks thus far has” (as The New York Times reports) “’prompted a discussion inside the White House about whether it would be helpful, or counterproductive, to have [President Barack Obama] talk more openly about military options’”. 

Marc appropriately links this discussion to Dennis Ross’s remarks to AIPAC a few days ago:

“But should Iran continue its defiance, despite its growing isolation and the damage to its economy, its leaders should listen carefully to President Obama who has said many times, ‘we are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons”. 

Marc rightly argues that having Obama talk more openly about the military option “would be highly counterproductive, and downright dangerous”.  As he elaborates,

“The idea of putting war talk on the table is presumably to increase the pressure on Iran to come to the table and make a deal.  It won’t likely accomplish that.  Iran will quite reasonably refuse to bargain under the threat of military force, and will view U.S. offers under such conditions as manifestly insincere.  It probably will not view the military threat as credible, given the realities of U.S. challenges and limitation.  The war talk would swamp all other issues, make confidence building virtually impossible, and even further harden the divisions.”   

We disagree with Marc’s description of new international sanctions on Iran as an “accomplishment” which could be undermined by stepped-up war talk.  (Our view of sanctions, of course, is that they, too, undercut the perceived sincerity of U.S. diplomatic representations in Tehran.)  But we agree strongly with Marc’s assessment that “few of the countries which came on board for sanctions in defense of nonproliferation would have any stomach for another U.S. preventive war in the Middle East”.  (And, yes, that would be another “preventive” war, not a preemptive one.) 

Then Marc comes to what may be his most strategically consequential point—one which he has made before and which warrants considerably more attention: 

“The greatest danger of introducing open war talk by the administration is that it would represent the next step in the ‘ratcheting’—which I’ve been warning of for months—and pave the way either to a 1990s Iraq scenario or to an actual war.  Once the military option is on the table, it never goes away.  The only way to signal ‘toughness’ in future encounters will be to somehow escalate beyond military threats—i.e., to commit action, such as airstrikes or cruise missiles.  And those would, by the consensus of virtually every serious analyst, be a catastrophe.  If the United States isn’t prepared to follow through on the threat—and it really, really shouldn’t be—then it shouldn’t make the threat.  That would just either undermine credibility, or else give a hook for hawks to demand that actions live up to rhetoric.  Dangerous either way…[Putting the military option more openly on the table] would represent the next step in the seemingly inexorable ratcheting process towards an unnecessary and counterproductive war.  This would be yet another of those painfully predictable victories of narrowly-conceived tactics over realistic strategy.  It may offer momentary satisfaction to U.S. domestic hawks and earn a few fleeting moments of praise, but at the expense of real U.S. strategic interests.” 

Speaking of “painfully predictable victories of narrowly-conceived tactics over realistic strategy”, the same story from the The New York Times cited by Marc Lynch reported that the Obama Administration is putting together a new proposal to present to Iran in the next round of nuclear talks—a proposal that will make the Administration’s chicanery over the initial “Baradei proposal” for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor seem relatively innocent by comparison.  According to the story, which was written by David Sanger,

“the conditions on Tehran would be even more onerous than a deal that the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected last year.  Iran’s reaction, officials say, will be the first test of whether a new and surprisingly broad set of economic sanctions is changing Iran’s nuclear calculus…The new offer would require Iran to send more than 4,400 pounds of low-enriched uranium out of the country, an increase of more than two-thirds from the amount required under a tentative deal struck in Vienna a year ago.  The increase reflects the fact that Iran has steadily produced more uranium over the past year, and the American goal it so make sure than Iran has less than one bomb’s worth of uranium on hand.  Iran would also have to halt production of nuclear fuel that it is currently enriching to 2- percent—an important step on the way to bomb-grade levels.  It would also have to make good on its agreement to negotiate on the future of its nuclear program.” 

As Sanger notes, “many officials suspect that this latest initiative is likely to fail.  But they say that it fulfills President Obama’s promise to keep negotiating even while the pressure of sanctions increases.”  And, as Sanger’s reporting suggests, the Obama Administration seems unwilling to consider any approach to nuclear diplomacy with Tehran that would accept the principle of internationally-safeguarded enrichment inside Iran.  This, as we have argued repeatedly for some time, is essential to any chance of seriously productive nuclear talks. 

So, Dennis Ross continues extending the extraordinary record of diplomatic malpractice that he build up during his stewardship of the Middle East peace process for President Clinton.  Ross is doing so by applying the same sort of “narrowly conceived tactics over realistic strategy” approach that brought strategic failure in the Arab-Israeli arena to the formulation of President Obama’s Iran policy.  Moreover, The Financial Times reported this week that Mr. Ross has now largely displaced President Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell to assume the leading role, at the sub-cabinet level, in masterminding the Administration’s policies regarding Arab-Israeli issues.  And then, yesterday, Laura Rosen reported in her foreign policy blog on POLITICO that the Administration is considering bringing Martin Indyk on board as a “channel to the Palestinians”—because of Indyk’s “good ties with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas” (sic).            

On these personnel moves, we agree strongly with the observations of Harvard University professor and Foreign Policy blogger Steve Walt, see here.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



As we look forward to the next round of discussions between Iran and the P5+1 regarding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities—discussions which some reports suggest might take place during November 13-15—it is worthwhile to step back and consider some of the fundamental questions at stake.  One of these questions, which receives little attention in the ongoing commentary about the Iranian nuclear issue, is the legal authority of the United Nations Security Council to “enforce” the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreements with individual countries.  We are pleased to publish a highly original and provocative (in the best sense of the word) analysis of this question by Eric A. Brill, a Harvard-trained lawyer.  This analysis can be accessed by clicking here; a synopsis of Eric’s analysis is appended below but we highly recommend reading the full article as well and, again, it can be accessed here

The Iran Nuclear Dispute–A New Approach, by Eric A. Brill

Iran rarely sees eye to eye with the United States, the UN Security Council or the International Atomic Energy Agency. But all agree on this: On certain conditions, the IAEA may “refer” Iran’s nuclear “file” to the Security Council for enforcement. They disagree strongly on whether the conditions have been satisfied. The IAEA referred Iran’s nuclear file to the Security Council in 2006, finding Iran in “non-compliance” based solely on disclosure violations prior to November 2003. The Security Council has responded enthusiastically, adopting five increasingly punitive resolutions (the Iran Resolutions).

One assumes that something is written, somewhere, authorizing the Security Council to enforce Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. In fact, nothing but baseless assumptions, wishes and imagination support this belief. There is no such thing as a “referral” process under which the Security Council has authority to enforce Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. Iran is just as mistaken as its adversaries to believe there is.

The IAEA is authorized – sometimes required – to report certain matters to the Security Council. But the purpose of those reports is not to enable the Security Council to enforce Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. It is to notify the Security Council that reasons exist (in the IAEA’s view) to consider whether Iran’s nuclear program is a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” under Article 39 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter (a Peace Threat). The Security Council may take many strong measures under Articles 40 and 41, even military action under Article 42 – but only if the Security Council first determines that Iran’s nuclear program is a Peace Threat.

Despite the US’ strong urging, Russia and China have refused to let the Security Council do this. They have been so cautious that neither “Article 39” nor any of its threshold phrases – “threat to the peace,” “breach of the peace” or “act of aggression” – appears anywhere in the Iran Resolutions. Even its key single words are conspicuously absent: One searches in vain through many thousands of words for a single appearance of “threat” or “breach” or “aggression.” The United States was denied the “green light” it had claimed in 2003, when it argued that the Peace Threat determination in Resolution 1441, adopted four months earlier, authorized the US to attack Iraq without explicit permission from the Security Council.

Russia and China probably believed they could accomplish two objectives by approving the Iran Resolutions: dole out tough remedies when pressed by the United States, yet prevent another US “end run” to war by refusing to agree that Iran’s nuclear program is a Peace Threat. In their effort to rein in the United States, however, they invalidated even the carefully limited resolutions they approved. Chapter VII authorizes the Security Council to intervene in a country’s affairs only when it determines that a Peace Threat exists, not otherwise.

Very few people would take Iran’s word for any of this. But most would accept an authoritative ruling issued by a distinguished international panel of jurists. Iran’s Safeguards Agreement authorizes it to request binding arbitration of disputes, even if the IAEA has “referred” Iran to the Security Council. The arbitrators are likely to rule in Iran’s favor on most or all questions Iran might present. Iran never has been charged with violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the IAEA never has charged that Iran’s nuclear program has been in “non-compliance” at any time since 2003. The IAEA simply misrepresents to the Security Council that Iran is “required” to take various “confidence building measures” that it nevertheless acknowledges are “voluntary,” and the Security Council purports to transform these voluntary measures into iron-fisted Security Council demands by exercising “referral” authority it does not possess.

Iran’s predictable arbitration victory would replace its ineffective protests with an authoritative confirmation that Iran is being asked to perform obligations that do not exist, to accept restrictions that no one has a right to impose. A favorable ruling would not be enough, however – it could even increase the risk of war by highlighting the apparent impotence of the IAEA and the Security Council. The United States might cast itself as the world’s last defense against a nuclear-armed Iran. Many observers would still wonder whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons because it refuses to observe the Additional Protocol and revised Code 3.1. Though Iran voluntarily did so for several years without receiving the anticipated benefits, it probably would achieve better results after its position has been bolstered by an independent validation of its nuclear rights.

Iran’s position is likely to deteriorate if it instead continues its stubborn passivity, enabling the United States to shape world-power public opinion. Seven in 10 Americans believe Iran already has nuclear weapons. Six in 10 agree that the US should bomb Iran if diplomacy and sanctions do not persuade it to give up its nuclear program – 25% would bomb today. Left unchallenged, the United States is unlikely to change direction. Pressure is building for military action, and may become irresistible once most Americans conclude – as inevitably they will – that “sanctions have not worked.” An arbitration ruling in Iran’s favor would create a promising opportunity to resolve this too-long-running dispute. To see this argument in its full form, please click here.



On Thursday of this week, Flynt took part in a panel on Iran at the annual National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Policymakers’ Conference.  We thought that the panel gave an interesting snapshot of the current state of the “Iran debate” in Washington, so we present it here; please click here to view the video.  The video file to which we have linked includes, in addition to the Iran panel, the Conference’s opening keynote address, by Chas Freeman (well worth listening to) and a panel on Iraq.  If you want to go directly to the Iran panel, please fast forward 2 hours, 13 minutes, and 45 seconds into the video.  Flynt is the first speaker on the panel; he is followed by Thomas Delare (of the State Department), Trita Parsi, Kenneth Katzman (of Congressional Research Service), and Thomas Mattair (of the Middle East Policy Council).  The question-and-answer/discussion period that follows the opening presentations by the various speakers is also worthwhile.  Our favorite moment comes when Flynt says, in response to questions from the audience about the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration, that President Obama lied to President Lula about the U.S. position on a deal to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor; listen to Mr. Delare’s response on that point. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Crowds for President Ahmadinejad in Ardabil

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Lebanon last week, attracting huge crowds and what seemed like an overwhelmingly positive public response, see here, many Western analysts dismissed the trip as a kind of cheap political trick, meant to distract attention from Ahmadinejad’s allegedly unpopular standing at home.  (See, for example, here and here .)  But, after returning from Lebanon, Ahmadinejad made a trip to Ardabil, one of Iran’s three Azeri-majority provinces.  In a comment to a previous post, one of our readers provided a link, see here, to photos of the crowds that greeted Ahmadinejad in the provincial capital (also called Ardabil) which we very much appreciated.   

That Ahmadinejad could attract this sort of popular response in Ardabil is particularly noteworthy.  According to the official results of the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election, Ahmadinejad won a majority of the votes cast in two of Iran’s Azeri-majority provinces, Ardabil and East Azerbaijan.  His chief opponent in the election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, won the majority of the votes cast in the third, West Azerbaijan.  Many Western critics of the election pointed to these outcomes as clear evidence of fraud.  How could Ahmadinejad have won two of the three Azeri-majority provinces against Mousavi, who is ethnically Azeri?  Among the more absurd observations that Karim Sadjadpour has made about Iranian politics during the past year and a half was his observation that this was about as plausible as John McCain winning the African-American vote in his 2008 presidential contest against Barack Obama.

But that kind of fact-free analysis ignores Ahmadinejad’s long, personal history in Iran’s Azeri-majority regions.  Ahmadinejad was as a provincial official in West Azerbaijan early in his career and served as governor of Ardabil during 1993-1997.  In the second round of the Islamic Republic’s 2005 presidential election, a run-off contest between Ahmadinejad and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad won substantial majorities of the votes cast in all three Azeri-majority provinces.  In 2009, Ahmadinejad’s margin of victory in Ardabil and East Azerbaijan was smaller than in 2005, and he narrowly lost the popular vote in West Azerbaijan (Ahmadinejad’s percentage of the vote there was roughly 47 percent). 

Thus, the official results indicate that Mousavi attracted a higher percentage of the vote in Azeri-majority areas (and also in Baluchistan) than he did across the country as a whole.  But the results also indicate that Ahmadinejad retained a significant level of popular support in Azeri-majority areas.  The reception he received in Ardabil a few days ago would seem to confirm that reading.  By arguing that Ahmadinejad has a substantial base of genuine popular support we do not mean to imply that he does not face opposition.  We judge Ahmadinejad to be, in his political context, a uniquely effective populist leader.  But he is also a deeply polarizing figure.  That part of the Iranian body politic which dislikes Ahmadinejad seems really to dislike him.  Nevertheless, the available evidence indicates that popular support for Ahmadinejad is greater than dedicated opposition to him.  And, of course, the vast majority of those who might be counted among Ahmadinejad’s political opponents have no interest in undermining the Islamic Republic’s fundamental integrity and stability.   

Unfortunately, Western media coverage of/commentary about Iranian politics seems unable, for the most part, to take account of inputs from sources outside of north Tehran and expatriate supporters of the Green Movement.  As part of our work on www.RaceForIran.com over the past year, we have tried to highlight instances where high-profile Western media outlets seemed to abandon normal standards of journalistic rigor and perhaps even integrity in their coverage of Iranian issues.  For example, earlier this year, we critiqued two stories by Nazila Fathi of The New York Times along these lines; see here and here.  In our critique, we identified specific instances in which Ms. Fathi sought to pass off un-sourced assertions as factual claims. In other instances, Ms. Fathi sourced apparent claims of fact only to opposition or other anti-Islamic Republic websites, but without identifying those sources as such.  In one instance, we even found that Ms. Fathi’s link to a particular website did not substantiate the claim for which she was using it as a source.  And, in an especially egregious lapse, Ms. Fathi neglected to inform her readers that the “Kurdish rebel group” to which five Kurdish activists executed in Iran had belonged—PJAK—had been formally designated by the Obama Administration as a terrorist organization.  (The five Kurdish activists were executed as a consequence of having been convicted of criminal charges stemming from their alleged participation in lethal terrorist attacks inside Iran.)  After we wrote about these agenda-driven lapses in journalistic professionalism, we noticed more of an effort to have Ms. Fathi’s stories source particular points in a more credible, or at least transparent, way.  Then, we noticed that The New York Times was no longer running her “reporting” on Iran from her outpost in Toronto and we thought that might represent a real step towards accountability.  But, instead, she has been rewarded for her past performance with the opportunity to spend the 2010-2011 academic year at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow.    

But the problem, of course, goes well beyond one journalist at one newspaper.  That was affirmed for us by a story this week by the Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson.  Scott Peterson’s coverage of Iranian politics over the last year and a half has regularly exhibited deficiencies in adherence to normal standards of journalistic professionalism similar to those observed in Ms. Fathi’s work, prompted by a similarly “pro-Green” outlook.  Just last week, Peterson offered his own take on Ahmadinejad’s Lebanese trip, entitled, “Ahmadinejad Visit to Lebanon Brings Little Rapture Back Home.”  In his article this week, about the visit of the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to Qom, Mr. Peterson ignores the crowds that turned out to support Khamenei (for video of the mass crowds in Qom for Khamenei, see here and here) and focuses instead on a sourcesless claim that, “Iran’s senior clerics were divided by the June 12, 2009, presidential vote, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was anointed president for a second term amid credible charges of fraud.” 

Perhaps we should count it as progress of a sort—and possibly even a marginal indicator of our impact—that Mr. Peterson now depicts assertions that the June 2009 election was fraudulent as “credible charges of fraud”.  But Mr. Peterson offers absolutely no substantiation for this depiction.  What are the charges of fraud?  Who made these “credible charges of fraud”?  And what, exactly, made their charges credible? 

For those who care about objective assessments of the available evidence, there is no better place to look than two papers written by regular readers of www.RaceForIran.com:  Eric Brill, see here, and Reza Esfandiari and Yousef Bozorgmehr, see here.  Unless one can refute the analyses presented in these two papers, then there are no “credible charges of fraud” regarding the June 2009 presidential election.  There is only agenda-driven assertion.  

Regrettably, agenda-driven “journalism” continues to distort discussions of Iran-related issues in the United States and other Western countries, helping perpetuate dysfunctional policies toward the Islamic Republic which should have been discredited and discarded long ago. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett