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The Race for Iran


We were struck by a piece published today by Reza Marashi—former State Department desk officer for Iran who now works as the National Iranian American Council’s research director.  For us, the most striking passage is the following: 

“It should now be clear that U.S. policy has never been a true engagement policy.  By definition, engagement entails a long-term approach that abandons ‘sticks’ and reassures both sides that their respective fears are unfounded.  We [U.S. officials working on Iran policy] realized early on that the [Obama] administration was unlikely to adopt this approach.  Instead, we pursued a ‘carrot and stick’ strategy similar to the Bush administration, utilizing positive and negative inducements to convince Iran that changing its behavior would be its most rewarding and least harmful decision.  The key difference between the Bush and Obama approach is an effort by the latter to fix tactical mistakes by the former.  By disavowing regime change, striking diplomatic quid pro quos with key allies, and dropping preconditions to diplomacy with Iran, Obama changed tactics, but maintained an objective similar to his predecessor—making Iran yield on the nuclear issue through pressure… 

Moreover, as the leaked cables show, the highest levels of the Obama administration never believed that diplomacy could succeed.  While this does not cheapen Obama’s Nowruz message and other groundbreaking facets of his initial outreach, it does raise three important questions:  How can U.S. policymakers give maximum effort to make diplomacy succeed if they admittedly never believed their efforts could work?  Why was Iran expected to accept negotiation terms that relinquished its greatest strategic asset (1200 kg of LEU) without receiving a strategic asset of equal value in return?  And what are the chances that Iran will take diplomacy seriously now that it knows the U.S. never really did?  The Obama administration presented a solid vision, but never truly pursued it.” 

This, of course, provides additional powerful and public confirmation—from inside the Obama Administration—for our argument, in a New York Times Op Ed published in May 2009, that the Obama Administration’s disingenuous approach to dealing with Iran had already betrayed the early promise of President Obama’s initial rhetoric about engagement.  In that article, we recounted how Dennis Ross had told us, before entering the Obama Administration, that he did not believe a U.S. strategy of “engagement with pressure” toward Iran would actually work to stimulate productive diplomacy, but would be necessary to lay the ground work for further sanctions and, eventually, military strikes against the Islamic Republic. 

After we published this article, Dennis communicated with us indirectly that he was unhappy about our recounting of his views on Iran policy.  Subsequently, he had his then-assistant at the State Department, Ray Takeyh offer the following on-the-record statement to Roger Cohen, who used it in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story published in July 2009

“”The idea that [Ross is] just looking for engagement with Iran to tick some box before moving to harsh measures is just wrong and fraudulent.” 

In light of the Wikileaks cables and Mr. Marashi’s public confirmation that the Obama Administration was, in fact, pursuing engagement to pave the way for more coercive options, including expanded sanctions, we ask Ray Takeyh: who was perpetrating a fraud with regard to the underlying intent of the Administration’s Iran policy?  The question is about far more than Dennis Ross’ displeasure that we “outed” him as to his real agenda for “engaging” the Islamic Republic.  The case for going to war with Iraq was built on lies—lies perpetrated by Iraqi expatriates with their own political agendas, and taken into the policymaking process by ideologically-driven U.S. officials who set aside concern for both the truth and U.S. interests.  President Obama is responsible for allowing a reprise of the same, despicable pattern, this time with regard to Iran.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



We will be writing about the Wikileaks documents and Iran throughout this week.  As we sort through the cables that are available so far, the first major point is that, as even The New York Times’ quasi-neoconservative David Sanger and his colleagues noted in their first story on the documents, the Obama Administration gave up on serious engagement with Tehran early on—if it ever was truly serious about engagement at all.  As Sanger and his colleagues write: 

“When Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians.  But the cables show how Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses.  In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.”   

To document this assessment, Sanger and his colleagues rely significantly on a “Secret” cable from the U.S. Embassy in Brussels in March 2009, describing a classified briefing that the Obama Administration provided for all European Union member states.  March 2009—that’s less than two full months after President Obama took office and three months before the Islamic Republic’s June 12, 2009 presidential election.  And, as this particular cable and others in the Wikileaks collection indicate, the Administration was at that point already tanking on serious engagement with Tehran.  Whatever engagement that the Administration undertook would be as Dennis Ross and some others wanted it to be—a ploy, going through the motions to lay the groundwork for more sanctions and, down the road, even military strikes

Of course, that is precisely what we wrote in our May 24, 2009 Op Ed in The New York Times, “Have We Already Lost Iran?”

“President Obama’s Iran policy has, in all likelihood, already failed…This judgment may seem both premature and overly severe.  We do not make it happily.  We voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and we still want him to succeed in reversing the deterioration in America’s strategic position.  But we also believe that successful diplomacy with Iran is essential to that end.  Unless President Obama and his national security team take a fundamentally different approach to Tehran, they will not achieve a breakthrough…      

President Obama has made several policy and personnel decisions that have undermined the promise of his encouraging rhetoric about Iran.  On the personnel front, the problem begins at the top, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  As a presidential candidate, then-Senator Clinton ran well to the right of Mr. Obama on Iran, even saying she would ‘totally obliterate’ Iran if it attacked Israel.  Since becoming secretary of state, Clinton has told a number of allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf that she is skeptical that diplomacy with Iran will prove fruitful and testified to Congress that negotiations are primarily useful to garner support for ‘crippling’ multilateral sanctions against Iran…

Even more disturbing is President Obama’s willingness to have Dennis Ross become the point person for Iran policy at the State Department.  Mr. Ross has long been an advocate of what he describes as an ‘engagement with pressure’ strategy toward Tehran, meaning that the United States should project a willingness to negotiate with Iran largely to elicit broader regional and international support for intensifying economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.

In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely.  Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail?  Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets.  Citing past ‘diplomacy’ would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.

Iranian officials are fully aware of Mr. Ross’s views—and are increasingly suspicious that he is determined that the Obama administration make, as one senior Iranian diplomat said to us, ‘an offer we can’t accept,’ simply to gain international support for coercive action.”

At the time we published this Op Ed, we were excoriated by many proponents of a diplomatic approach to Iran for writing such “premature” and unduly “harsh” criticism of a new administration headed by a President who was so obviously committed to engagement with the Islamic Republic.  The leaked documents confirm that our criticism of the Obama Administration was in no way premature and, if harsh, was deservedly so

President Obama has never been willing to back up his professed interest in diplomacy with expenditures of political capital, and his Administration has never been serious about engagement.  There is now a serious risk that Obama’s major policy achievement in this area will be to give engagement a bad name, discrediting the whole idea of using diplomacy to realign U.S.-Iranian relations in a strategically consequential way.  That’s something which even the George W. Bush Administration could not accomplish. 

Some of our Iranian colleagues are now telling us that more and more people in Iranian foreign policy circles are giving up on President Obama as a potential agent of change in U.S.-Iranian relations.  When we were at the University of Tehran earlier this year, we met bright students who had read and digested both of Obama’s autobiographical books.  For Iranian elites, now to be giving up on him and his foreign policy is another uniquely dubious achievement for Obama.    

Aside from the Wikileaks story, the other major Iran-related item in the news today was the bomb attacks in Tehran that killed an Iranian nuclear scientist and seriously wounded another (the wife of one of the scientists was also wounded).  When another Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in a bomb attack in Tehran in January of this year, many pro-Green Movement commentators advanced completely unsubstantiated assertions that the Iranian government had organized the attack because of what some claimed were the victim’s pro-Mousavi sympathies.  Now, the idea that the Iranian government is assassinating its own scientists seems increasingly preposterous.  As we noted in May 2009,

“the Obama administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program, begun in President George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.  Under these circumstances, the Iranian government—regardless of who wins the presidential elections on June 12—will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile…Ayatollah Khamenei’s charge that ‘money, arms and organizations are being used by the Americans directly across our western border to fight the Islamic Republic’s system’ reflects legitimate concern about American intentions.”      

It is increasingly well-documented that both the United States and Israel are trying to undermine Iran’s nuclear program through covert initiatives.  We hope, as Americans, that our own government’s involvement in such activities does not extend to organizing or supporting the assassination of Iranian scientists (though we would note that this is something that neoconservatives like Reuel Marc Gerecht, among others, has publicly recommended); as we understand it, this would be a violation of U.S. law.  Perhaps it is the handiwork of an American ally that is less constrained when it comes to “targeted killings”.  But as long as the United States continues to fund and administer covert operations intended to destabilize the Islamic Republic, the risks that U.S. government agencies will be complicit in actions that would never pass serious legal scrutiny (or make sense as effective policy) are dangerously high. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Thomas Erdbrink published an interview with President Ahmadinejad’s senior adviser, Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi.  The interview is wide-ranging and well worth reading in its entirety, one can link to it here.  However, we want to highlight the portion dealing with the nuclear issue and upcoming nuclear talks between the Islamic Republic and the P-5+1. 

Q:  How do you see the upcoming talks on Dec. 5 between Iran and the P5+1 [United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany]?  Do you feel they can have any results?

A:  In the name of God.  There is a mutual point, and that is the readiness on both sides for negotiations.  Of course, the Islamic Republic of Iran has always been ready for negotiations.

But the delay in the negotiations has been a good opportunity for the other side to realize the effects of its political decisions [made] through the Security Council and even the actions taken beyond the Security Council.

Q:  Which decisions are you referring to exactly?

A:  I mean the sanctions.  Even if these negotiations had been delayed even longer, the results of their actions would only have become clearer for them.  This does not mean that we prefer delay.  However, the delay has been good for them.

Q:  So you mean the sanctions have failed, and now the other parties are ready to talk?

A:  I think I have answered your questions.  I just hope that our counterparts in the negotiations, the Westerners, do not fool themselves.

Q:  What are they fooling themselves with?

A:  It is not a human value to continue to stress their mistakes.  It is fitting that when one makes mistakes, one bravely admits those mistakes.  Not paying attention to the rights of nations, to the rights of the Iranian nation, is a real mistake.

Q:  Recently you mentioned a set of conditions for talks set by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Please remind us of those—and in what manner does Iran expect Western nations to respond to those conditions?

A:  Three conditions were set by us.  These conditions will not prevent negotiations.  These conditions are really the answer to three questions.

The first is that they must state whether the negotiations are based on friendship or of enmity.

Second, what is their view on the atomic weapons of the Zionist regime?

Third, what is their position on the latest ratifications of the Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT]?

Naturally, if they decide to negotiate based on friendship, Iran will react in one way.  If they negotiate on the basis of enmity, we will react in another way.  If they are committed to the changes made in the NPT, Iran will negotiate in one way; if not, we will respond in another way.  The same goes for their stance on the Zionist regime atomic weapons.

And if they do not state any response on these questions, it means they have not chosen the path of friendship.  Not answering these questions means they have decided not to commit to nuclear disarmament and support the Zionist regime being armed with nuclear weapons.

Q:  But Iran will still talk with these countries in this case?

A:  Yes.

Q:  When you say Iran will not be speaking as a friend, what does that mean?

A:  Whether they want to negotiate within the structure aimed at safeguarding the rights of the Iranian nation, mutual respect and justice.

Q:  So what moves will Iran make if Western nations do not respond in such a manner?

A:  I can’t foresee for now.  We must see how negotiations will proceed.  We hope they will make the best use of this opportunity.

Q:  Is the nuclear swap as proposed a year ago in October still on the table for Iran?

A:  The Tehran declaration is still valid.  It defines the line of negotiations with the [International Atomic Energy] Agency.  The essential principles mentioned in the declaration will always remain valid.

Q:  What if the U.S. changes the conditions of the swap, for instance the amount of low-enriched fuel Iran needs to send out?  Or what if they want to add the new 20 percent uranium stockpile into the deal?

A:  If they have new ideas and proposals, Iran will also state its views.

Q:  You mean in response to such proposals?

A:  That depends on their ideas.

Q:  So you are willing to hear their new proposal?

A:  It is not like we don’t listen to new proposals.  We listen, and might agree or not, but first we must hear such proposals.

Q:  If they want Iran to send more uranium out, would you even listen to such a proposal?

A:  Since we have not officially been informed of such a proposal, there is no need for an official answer at this point.

Q:  Why is Iran still enriching uranium up to 19.75 percent?  Aren’t Russia and Turkey giving you the medical isotopes you need [for the Tehran research reactor]?

A:  Just because you can purchase something from abroad does not mean you should not produce it yourself?

It is a shame that the Obama Administration cannot or will not answer Iran’s questions about the upcoming talks.  Contrast Obama’s approach with the description of President Nixon’s approach to China, as recounted by Henry Kissinger in his 1994 book, Diplomacy (pp. 722-723):

“[Strategic] considerations led Nixon to make two extraordinary decisions in the summer of 1969.  The first was to put aside all the issues which constituted the existing Sino-American dialogue.  The Warsaw talks had established an agenda that was as complex as it was time-consuming.  Each side stressed its grievances.  China’s had to do with the future of Taiwan and Chinese assets sequestered in the United States; the United States sought the renunciation of force over Taiwan, China’s participation in arms-control negotiations, and the settlement of American economic claims against China. 

Instead, Nixon decided to concentrate on the broader issue of China’s attitude toward a dialogue with the United States.  Priority was given to determining the scope of the looming Sino-Soviet-American triangle.  If we could determine what we suspected—that the Soviet Union and China were more afraid of each other than they were of the United States—an unprecedented opportunity for American diplomacy would come into being.  If relations improved on that basis, the traditional agenda would take care of itself.  If relations did not improve, the traditional agenda would remain insoluble.  In other words, the practical issues would be resolved as a consequence of Sino-American rapprochement, not chart the path toward it. 

In implementing the strategy of transforming the two-power world into a strategic triangle, the United States announced in July 1969 a series of unilateral initiatives to indicate the change in attitude.  The prohibition against Americans’ traveling to the People’s Republic of China was eliminated; Americans were allowed to bring $100 of Chinese-made goods into the United States; and limited American grain shipments were permitted to China.  These measures, though insignificant in themselves, were designed to convey America’s new approach…

But if there was a real danger of a Soviet attack on China in the summer of 1969, there would not be enough time for these complex maneuvers to unfold gradually.  Therefore, Nixon took perhaps the most daring step of his presidency by warning the Soviet Union that the United States would not remain indifferent if it were to attack China.  Regardless of China’s immediate attitude toward the United States, Nixon and his advisers considered China’s independence indispensable to the global equilibrium, and deemed diplomatic contact with China essential to the flexibility of American diplomacy.  Nixon’s warning to the Soviets was also a tangible expression of his Administration’s new emphasis on basing American policy on the careful analysis of the national interest.”  

But, instead of such strategically-grounded diplomacy, the Obama Administration has, in effect, adopted the current policy recommendation of Barbara Slavin, Karim Sadjadpour, and some others, for “strategic patience” toward the Islamic Republic.  While that sounds benign, it is a really a thinly veiled policy of regime change—just one that, its advocates say, is pursued more intelligently than the course pursued by the George W. Bush Administration. 

Under the rubric of “strategic patience”, the United States would wait for a more amenable political leadership to emerge in Tehran as a negotiating partner, all the while gently and subtly nurturing secular, pro-American elites inside the Islamic Republic as the prospective base of such leadership.  But, while its advocates present this as a non-coercive strategy, “strategic patience”, at its core, rejects dealing genuinely and reconciling with the political order of the Islamic Republic—as that political order actually exists, and not as the advocates of “strategic patience” and others wish it to be.  And that, by any name, is a strategy of regime change. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



As we look toward a possible renewal of nuclear talks with Iran in early December, we thought it would be worthwhile to take stock of interesting Iranian perspectives on the matter.  In that regard, we were struck by an analytic piece published last week in Kayhan, the principlist newspaper, by Mehdi Mohammadi, with a title that translates as “Changing the Rules of the Game or Adjusting the Goal Posts?”  We thank Mohammad Sagha, an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy, for helping with the translation, though any errors are ours. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett   

Changing the Rules of the Game or Adjusting the Goal Posts?

By Mehdi Mohammadi

In the match that will soon take place, it is becoming clear that Westerners are in the process of adjusting the placement of the goal posts; representatives of Iran and the P5+1 group will probably meet somewhere in Switzerland or Turkey to negotiate on the 14th of Azar (December 5).  The determining factor of what will take place in these negotiations will directly be linked with the strategy the two sides will carry out.  One of the most important preoccupations of the two sides during these days will be accurate pursuit and analysis of the codes (and signals) that the two sides will transmit to each other.  The codes (signals) that the West has sent so far are deeply disappointing since they are still in the same line as previous strategies—a line which Iran considers to be a default setting for failure in any future negotiations.

This is the strategy that Westerners call the “dual track” of pressure and negotiation.  The fundamental basis of this strategy is that any dialogue must be accompanied by pressure, and any pressure with dialogue; likewise, from this perspective, pressure without dialogue or dialogue without pressure is useless.  There is no sign that America, as the principal driving engine of the P5+1 group, will change its mind regarding this approach.  Iranian leaders have repeatedly stated that, as long as the West thinks that it can move Iran toward negotiations that suit it, the only result will be that Iran will become more determined to move in the opposite direction.  But there is no sign that there is a change of strategy on the other side [the 5+1 side] of the table.  Now, there are approximately 20 days left until negotiations, and everything that can be analyzed from the signals Westerners are sending is that they are, at most, in the process of adjusting the goal posts and have no intention of accepting new rules for the game.

There are two issues, which if precisely analyzed, will shed more light on this topic.

First—does such a thing as the “dual track” strategy even exist?  The Western side alleges that they are in the process of assessing a strategy that tries to continually increase pressure on Iran and, after each stage of increased pressure, offer Iran a package of incentives.  Robert Gates, as one of the main architects of this strategy, believes that only this course will be able to force Iran, in the long run, to reach the conclusion that pursuing its nuclear program will decrease its security, rather than increase it.  When confronted with this, Iran will presumably revise its calculations regarding the costs and benefits of the nuclear program, reach the conclusion that, all things considered, the current course is costing Iran and therefore revise its course.  This strategy has two important problems that the Western side has never precisely explored.

The first problem we witness is that when we look at the real history of this topic, there is essentially no such thing as a “dual track” approach.  Whatever exists in this vein is America acting to exacerbate the pressure track without a genuine effort to bring about change on the negotiations track.  To make things simpler, the Americans during this time have seriously tried to bring pressure on Iran (although they themselves say: “we have suffered defeat”); however, they have never seriously conducted negotiations.  A clear testament to this is that whenever an opportunity for negotiations and resolving the conflict materializes and grows stronger, the Americans renege at the last second and with great fanfare pursue the “pressure track.”  This is precisely what happened with the Tehran Declaration.  For over three months, America encouraged Turkey and Brazil to initiate diplomatic initiatives with Iran and they accepted the risk of undergoing this, despite Obama’s skepticism.  But when, to Obama’s disbelief, the joint efforts of the three countries produced a completely logical solution, America suddenly snapped and pronounced that it would not accept any of these things and questioned why Turkey and Brazil even reached an agreement with Iran(!)  If America was truly after a negotiated solution, why did it not engage in a dialogue regarding the Tehran Declaration?  If the words of the American analyst (Hillary Mann Leverett, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council) are correct that Obama lied to Lula and Erdoğan from the beginning and had no intention of accepting any proposal, does any room for discussing negotiations even exist?

The second problem is also that the Americans are still unable to correctly analyze the issue that pressure, instead of augmenting the path to negotiation, damages it.  Let us assume—an impossible assumption, but let’s assume it in the realm of imagination—that Iran makes the decision to accept one of America’s proposals.  But when America, six months prior, delivers a resolution that, aside from bringing pressure on the people of Iran and disrupting the order of their lives, it had no other intention, is the implementation of such a decision (accepting an American proposal) possible (for Iran) in terms of national prestige and credibility?  It is clear that the response to this question is no.  When the pressure track is enacted, the Iranian spirit—which apparently Westerners have not been able to understand even superficially—naturally moves to the conclusion that “pressure must be answered with pressure”.  The first step will be the rejection of all of the proposals that the Westerners put on the table, because accepting any type of offer will be evaluated as surrender in the face of pressure and a result of increased pressure.  If the Western side can comprehend this dynamism, it will understand that the strategy of pressure by itself will absolutely not affect Iran in the sense of resolving the issue in this manner, and even worse than this, the negotiation track—which, if there is hope that this issue can be resolved it is through this path—will have been wrecked and eliminated.  It is with this logic that the conclusion can be reached that the dual track strategy of “pressure-negotiation”, in its essence, is contradictory and paradoxical and that the further it progresses, the more it will fail.

The second point is that when the West says it wants to change Iran’s calculations, the question that is posed is whether there is actually a fundamentally correct understanding of Iran’s calculus?  Occasionally, news and analysis published from official Western sources shows that Western understanding of the Iranian side’s pattern and calculations is, to a comical extent, imprecise and elementary.  An example of this which is extremely indicative—and has for sometime occupied the mind of this author—is that Westerners in very high levels say that their goal, with closing the accounts and forbidding the travel of key elites involved in the Iranian nuclear and missile programs, is to have them reach the conclusion that continuing the nuclear and missiles programs of Iran will place their “interests” in danger and will make their lives more difficult; this will supposedly bring about a context in which these elites will feel it is better to stop the pursuit of nuclear and missile programs so that they will not be further harmed!  You may not believe this but a sizeable number of Western elites tied to this issue, when asked to explain why they believe that putting a few names on a sanctions list will stop a program which has been tied in with the national identity of the Iranian nation, responded using the same exact logic (of applying pressure on individuals as proposed in the question)!  

This type of outlook comes from extreme and destructive ignorance.  Do people in Washington who have labeled themselves as “strategists” truly expect that prohibiting the travelling or transactions of the Isfahan UCF project director will make him halt the entire project?!  Or, for example, will characterizing six commanders as “human rights violators” on a sanctions list for their hard work in quelling the sedition in ‘88 [the 2009 post-election riots] decrease their motivations in inhibiting further sedition?!  When the condition of American strategic analysis and policy makers is in this state, there should be no surprise that they cannot understand Iran’s calculations regarding nuclear and regional plans.

The calculations of Iran, which is incomprehensible to the mentality of materialist or lazy Westerner observers, are extremely transparent as well as deep, and precise.  If the Western side cannot clarify its position regarding that, entering any kind of negotiation, it is clear even now, will bear no result.  If we want to just present a list of Iran’s [true] calculus, we can summarize the situation as such:  Iran, without nuclear arms, is the number one power in the Middle East; any degree of stability or instability from the contours of the Mediterranean region to the borders of India relates to [Iran’s] decisions or is directly determined by it.  Iran has no intention for any war and believes no one else dares to initiate war with it.  Iran will not, under any cost, relinquish its nuclear enrichment because any government that would do so in Iran will face eternal disgrace and accusations of selling off Iran’s future and will never be able to lift its head in the country’s domestic political environment ever again.

Can the Westerners clarify their positions in relation to these strategic propositions in 20 days?



Since returning to government service to take up his current position, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been a sober skeptic about the wisdom of military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets—under President Obama as well as under President George W. Bush, and regardless of whether such strikes would be carried out by the United States or by Israel.  To the extent that he has addressed the issue publicly, he has generally offered sound reasons for his skepticism—e.g., strikes would expose other U.S. positions in the region (such as military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq) to additional and undesirable stress and would not “solve” the nuclear problem.  As far as these arguments go, we agree with them.    

But now Secretary Gates is emphasizing an additional argument against the military option—namely, that an attack on Iran would undo all of the “good” being achieved by sanctions against the Islamic Republic.  Speaking in Washington earlier this week, Gates said

“[T]he information that we have is that [the Iranians] have been surprised by the impact of the sanctions, this latest round, not just the last U.N. Security Council resolution, but the actions taken by individual countries using the U.N. Security Council resolution as a platform or as a foundation.  And those measures have really bitten much harder than they anticipated.  And we even have some evidence that Khamenei now is beginning to wonder if Ahmadinejad is lying to him about the impact of the sanctions on the economy, and whether he’s getting the straight scoop in terms of how much trouble the economy really is in. 

So I think that the sanctions are having an impact…the only long-term solution in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest.  Everything else is a short-term solution, is a two- to three-year solution.  And if it’s a military solution, as far as I’m concerned…it will bring together a divided nation, it will make them absolutely committed to attaining nuclear weapons, and they will just go deeper and more covert.  So I think that the political economic strategy is the one that we have to continue to pursue and ratchet up, and create an exit for them…if you agree to do these things that give us confidence that you’re not building nuclear weapons, then there is a way out of the box you’ve gotten yourself into.” 

The proposition that the United States should not embrace the military option vis-à-vis Iran because that would undermine the Obama Administration’s unexpectedly effective sanctions policy is gaining traction in what, today, passes for “realism” in non-neoconservative foreign policy analysis outside the Administration.  But the proposition rests on a false premise—that the sanctions policy is actually accomplishing something positive.  And, as is usually the case with strategies built on false analytic premises, this proposition will end up having deeply negative—and, for most who embrace it, unintended—consequences.  Above all, it will raise the risks of an eventual U.S.-Iranian military confrontation—precisely the outcome that Secretary Gates and others want to avoid. 

The notion that sanctions are “working” is inevitably bound up with the idea that there are deep cleavages in the Islamic Republic’s political elite over matters of high politics, and that the United States and its partners can play on those cleavages to steer Iranian foreign policy in the direction they prefer.   Gates’ claim about Khamenei’s distrust of Ahmadinejad is nothing but hearsay (if that).  Others hypothesize that major conservative figures in Iranian politics—e.g., Larijani, Qalibaf, etc.,–will join forces to displace Ahmadinejad.  All of these fanciful scenarios reflect the same chronic delusion about the Islamic Republic in American foreign policy circles, as described above–that that there are deep cleavages in Tehran which the United States can exploit.  This delusion dates back at least to the Reagan Administration’s Iran-contra scandal. 

But, like all delusions, this one never pans out for those who hold it.  And, once this particular delusion is exposed, those who previously held it tend to embrace much harder-line positions toward the Islamic Republic.  To illustrate this point, consider the evolution of Michael Ledeen’s views on Iran.  For twenty years, we have known Mr. Ledeen as a staunch advocate of regime change as the goal of America’s Iran policy.  But, in the 1980s, Ledeen was one of the movers behind the Reagan Administration’s attempted outreach to Tehran, which imploded in the Iran-contra scandal.  And, note the following passages from an Op Ed that Ledeen published in The New York Times on July 19, 1988, just after the Islamic Republic agreed to a ceasefire to end the Iran-Iraq war:

“The United States, which should have been exploring improved relations with Iran before Iran’s acceptance of the United Nations-sponsored cease-fire, should now seize the opportunity to do so…The Iranian advocates of a war to the death against Iraq have been discredited by Iraqi battlefield victories, by the recent military successes of the Iraq-supported anti-Khomeini Iranian fighters and by the humiliation inflicted on Iran by the American military in the Persian Gulf.  

Those Iranians who have been calling for better relations with the West have clearly been gathering strength, demonstrated by the normalization of diplomatic and commercial relations with France in May and the subsequent opening of talks with Britain toward the same ends.  Among the advocates of such improved relations are the two leading candidates to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini:  Ayatollah Hojatolislam Rafsanjani and the Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri…

One of the more striking aspects of the Iranian announcement that it would abide unconditionally by the cease-fire is that it came from the general command of the armed forces—that is, from the commanders of the regular army.  The war with Iraq has been conducted primarily by the Revolutionary Guards, who have made sure that the traditional armed forces have been largely extraneous to military planning and to the balance of political power in Tehran.  Indeed, the regular armed forces—long pro-Western in their outlook—were kept out of the capital, lest they become a decisive political factor.  The general command’s announcement of the cease-fire thus indicates further strengthening of the pro-Western forces in Iran…

[T]here has been no sense of urgency among our top policymakers to design and conduct a policy toward Iran—in part because our top officials, traumatized by the Iran-contra scandal and the hearings and investigations that followed, were determined not to be caught dealing with the Iranians, and in part because President Reagan unfortunately chose to make the hostage question the prime issue between the two countries.  This meant that the more serious matter of United States-Iranian relations was finessed during the many months of the unfortunate Iran-contra initiative in 1985 and 1986. 

Yet past mistakes should not prevent the Administration from pursuing the clear chance for a potential breakthrough in one of the more strategically sensitive areas of the world.  If, indeed, there is a chance to explore the possibility of some sort of rapprochement in which Iran would abandon its use of terror, come to terms with its neighbors and re-enter the community of civilized nations, we should certainly be interested in exploring it—as we should have been in 1985 and 1986.  It would be a pity if our own domestic concerns and previous blunders combined to paralyze our diplomacy.”  

Now, apart from the basic ideas that past mistakes should not prevent the United States from pursuing clear opportunities for potential breakthroughs in relations with the Islamic Republic and that “it would be a pity if our own domestic concerns and previous blunders combined to paralyze our diplomacy”, most of Ledeen’s analysis is utter nonsense.  But our larger point in calling attention to this particular Op Ed is to highlight how, after the United States was unable to find just the right group of Iranians to deal with to negotiate the Islamic Republic’s surrender on virtually every regional issue of strategic consequence, Ledeen became the avatar of Washington-based advocates of regime change in Tehran. 

Those who currently champion sanctions as the moderate alternative to U.S. military confrontation with Iran should pay attention to this.  When sanctions do not magically produce just the right domestic constellation of political players to terminate the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program and sue for terms with Washington, the next steps in the evolution of U.S. strategy will be adoption of regime change as the formal goal of America’s Iran policy and/or military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. 

The real alternative to another U.S.-initiated war in the Persian Gulf is not more sanctions, any more than it is militarized containment; the real alternative remains something that President Obama has yet to try—serious, strategically grounded diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.  The United States needs to treat the Islamic Republic as a system, without trying to game it.  Yes, there is “factional struggle” in the Islamic Republic, with different groups competing for power and influence over policy.  In other countries, American analysts seem willing to recognize this as normal politics.  In the Islamic Republic, though, American analysts routinely make the mistake that manifestations of competitive politics—even intensely competitive politics—indicate that the political order is splintering and susceptible to manipulation from outside.  And, the United States needs to realize that, on matters of high politics and national security, there is a remarkable degree of consensus on fundamental issues in the Islamic Republic, which cuts across much of the political spectrum.          

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett