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The Race for Iran



Last month, we were pleased to publish Reza Esfandiari’s “A Response to Karim Sadjadpour’s ‘The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct’”, an outstanding rejoinder to Sadjadpour’s clever but fatuous effort to present himself as the George Kennan of America’s current Iran debate.  Reza’s piece inspired us to take our own turn at dismantling Sadjadpour; our piece, “The Fog of Containment”, was published this evening in Foreign Policy.  (For what it’s worth, we believe that, if Kennan and Nixon were here today, they both would be supporting strategically grounded rapprochement with Iran.)  If you are inclined to leave a comment, we would be grateful if you did so on both the Foreign Policy site and here on www.RaceForIran.com.  Thanks as always for your readership.     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett       



A couple of weeks ago, Flynt gave the inaugural presentation in Yale University’s Jackson Senior Fellows Lecuture Series, on “American Grand Strategy in the Middle East: On the Road to Failure.”  Afterwards, he sat down for an on-camera interview that provides a good summary of his arguments.  To see the interview, click here.



Tony Karon has another sharp piece this week, entitled “Israel Pressed for a Tougher U.S. Line on Iran”, see here.  For some time now, we have been forecasting an intensification of pressure on the Obama Administration, by Israel and pro-Israel constituencies in the United States, for U.S. military strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure

It appears that the Israeli government wasted no time, in the wake of the Democratic Party’s setbacks in last week’s midterm congressional elections in the United States, in taking that pressure up a notch; Tony’s piece duly notes media reports that, when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Vice President Biden in New Orleans over the weekend, the Israeli leader told Biden that the United States needed to “create a credible threat of military action against [Iran] if it doesn’t cease its race for a nuclear weapon”.  Netanyahu’s motives, in Tony’s view, seem evident:  “The Obama Administration and its allies are preparing to start a new round of negotiations with Iran, but the search for a diplomatic solution is bound to be protracted and its outcome is uncertain.  So, the Israelis are clearly looking to turn up the pressure on Obama to prepare for war with Iran.”    

In commenting on the latest Israeli initiative, Tony underscores that “the call for military action—because the ‘threat’ of force can only be ‘credible’ with a demonstrable readiness to follow through—continues to arouse skepticism in the U.S. military establishment, in which the consequences of starting a war with Iran are deemed potentially more dangerous than any threat currently posed by Iran’s nuclear program.”  He also points out that “the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment is that while Iran is using its nuclear-energy program to give itself the means to produce nuclear weapons, it has made no decision to actually build such weapons.”  Furthermore, he echoes our arguments that “the Obama Administration would have neither a legal basis nor much international support beyond Israel for initiating a new war in the Middle East that could have disastrous consequences for regional security and for the world economy”.   

These realities notwithstanding, Tony argues that the Israeli push for war is likely to be reinforced by the outcome of last week’s U.S. congressional elections, as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina) and other GOP senators and congressmen are pressing for a military confrontation with Iran.  Tony notes that “It’s already plain to see that being ‘soft on Tehran’ will be a key trope used by Republicans aiming to prevent President Obama’s re-election in 2012, and any attempt at engagement of any sort with Iran will likely bring relentless attacks on Capitol Hill.  That will certainly suit the Israeli leadership, who not only want to see a more confrontational U.S. position on Iran, but who also came into office insisting that Iran’s nuclear program, rather than peace with the Palestinians, should be Washington’s priority in the Middle East.” 

What might this mean for the Obama Administration’s approach to another round of nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic?  On this point, we were interested to see a Huffington Post Op Ed, “Nuclear Deal With Iran All for Show”, by Emma Belcher, a former Australian official and scholar who is currently a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  We append some highlights below: 

“The Obama administration is preparing the ground for tougher sanctions on Iran by pushing to revive last year’s ill-fated fuel swap deal.  The renewed proposal to swap Iran’s low enriched uranium for research reactor fuel is not a serious attempt at engagement, as the United States knows it will likely fail.  Instead, it is intended to depict the United States as a reasonable negotiating partner, and Iran as a duplicitous state bent on obtaining the bomb at all costs.  This could increase support for harsher international sanctions that are more strictly implemented…

If the new fuel swap deal is a serious attempt at engaging Iran, it is doomed to fail.  It will fall prey to the same dynamics that precluded a deal the first time around.  Iran has flatly rejected shipping significantly more than 1,200 kg of 3.5 percent enriched fuel abroad to account for its enrichment since the original proposal—a key element of the Administration’s new terms.  Moreover, Iranian leaders have turned Iran’s right to enrich uranium into a matter of national pride, and it is highly unlikely that they will agree to a deal that moves them closer to enrichment suspension negotiations.  Both Khamenei and the parliament have sent clear messages to this effect. 

The timing is not ripe for such a deal, and the Obama administration cannot be blind to this reality.  It is reviving the deal as part of a broader strategy to strengthen support for sanctions implementation, and to further isolate Iran.  For an administration that believes in the power of sanctions, they are not as harsh as they could be.  Russia and China watered them down in the Security Council, and the United States is disappointed by the less-than-rigorous application by some, most notably Turkey.  The more Iran is seen to reject a reasonable deal, the more its peaceful intentions appear questionable.  Then, the United States can push for more thorough and sustained sanctions, with the eventual goal of bringing Iran back to the table.” 

Given the Obama Administration’s handling of the original proposal for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor and its duplicitous manipulation of Brazil and Turkey over the diplomatic initiative that ultimately produced the Tehran Declaration, we would agree with Ms. Belcher that there is no reason to assume U.S. “good faith” in approaching the next round of nuclear discussions with Iran

But if Dennis Ross and other Administration officials have their way and U.S. negotiators try more such “too clever by half” tactics this time around, we are not so sure it will be the Islamic Republic which loses the resulting public relations battle.  Ms. Belcher, in the end, thinks that the Obama Administration’s anticipated gambit could be “a shrewd approach”.  We think that the lack of strategic seriousness—and, it increasingly seems, basic honesty—in the U.S. approach to nuclear diplomacy with Iran may be on the verge of eliciting serious international resistance.         

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Last month, the New America Foundation and the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) sponsored a conference in Washington, entitled “Cutting the Fuse, Moving Beyond the War on Terror”.  The conference was sparked by the publication of a new book by CPOST’s director, Robert Pape, and James Feldman, entitled Cutting the Fuse:  The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It (University of Chicago Press, 2010).  The book—as well as the conference it prompted—offers important if also politically inconvenient insights for U.S. policymakers seeking to revive America’s declining strategic position in the Middle East.     

Cutting the Fuse extends what is already a well-established body of work by Bob Pape assessing the root causes of suicide terrorism and drawing the implications of that analysis for U.S. policy in the Middle East.  In his 2005 book, Dying to Win:  The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, Bob analyzed a massive data base of suicide attacks perpetrated around the world between 1980 and 2003 to demonstrate that (in Pape’s words) “what nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal:  to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland”. 

This insight is particularly relevant to the terrorist campaign that Al-Qa’ida launched against American interests in the 1990s, a campaign which culminated in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the American homeland.  It is politically easy to argue that Al-Qa’ida struck the United States because they “hate” our “values”, embodied in practices like religious toleration and letting women drive.  But, in reality, Al-Qa’ida couldn’t care less about what Americans do in their own homeland.  Al-Qa’ida is, among other things, a virulently anti-Shia movement.  With regard to the United States, what Al-Qa’ida cares about is American occupation of Muslim lands.  And, in the 1990s, what Al-Qa’ida cared about was what it characterized as American occupation of the Arabian peninsula—the Muslim holy land, the birthplace of Islam and the site of the two holy cities, Mecca and Medina—as a consequence of Washington’s decision to retain substantial U.S. military forces on the ground in Saudi Arabia after the war to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.  Pape’s early work draws a discomfiting but clear line between that decision and the 9/11 attacks.             

To continue with this line of analysis, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Middle East—like pretty much the entire rest of the world—had no problem with a vigorous American response, including a robust military component, aimed at killing Al-Qa’ida and unseating the Taliban from power in Kabul.  As we and others have written and discussed, the Islamic Republic of Iran supported the United States in pursuing these objectives.  But the invasion of Iraq and prolonged occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have been deeply damaging to the perceived legitimacy of American purposes in the Middle East.  That America purports to carry out these occupations and the atrocities associated with them in the name of bringing democracy to populations that have long suffered under authoritarian rule is not a message that resonates with regional audiences. 

The invasion of Iraq and prolonged occupations of Afghanistan as well as Iraq have also been profoundly detrimental to America’s counter-terrorism goals in the broader Middle East.  In a 2003 memo, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously asked, “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training, and deploying against us?”  By this point, nine years into America’s self-described “global war on terror”, the accumulated hard evidence is overwhelming that the answer to Secretary Rumsfeld’s question is, “No”. 

In their new book, Cutting the Fuse, Pape and Feldman examine a comprehensive data set on suicide attacks perpetrated between 2004 and the present to show that (as they put it) “far from declining, anti-American-inspired terrorism—particularly suicide terrorism—is more frequent today than before 9/11 and even before the invasion of Iraq…The more we’ve gone over there, the more they’ve wanted to come over here—and the absence of another 9/11 is due more to extensive American domestic security measures, immigration controls, intelligence, and pure luck than to lack of intent or planning by our enemies.” 

Thus, the major military campaigns mounted by the United States under the rubric of the “global war on terror” have turned out to be grossly counter-productive for achieving the ostensible goals of those campaigns.  (One of the many interesting findings in the data assembled by Pape and Feldman is that there are no known cases of suicide terrorism perpetrated by anyone from Iran.  Another is that, since Israel withdrew its occupation force from its self-declared security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, the number of suicide attacks carried out by individuals affiliated with Hizballah is—zero.)       

Pape’s chief policy argument is that the United States needs to stop being an on-the-ground occupier in the Middle East and return to its previous “offshore balancer” role in the region, operating from an “over the horizon” military posture.  At the Washington, DC conference prompted by the publication of Cutting the Fuse, Flynt argued that such a shift in the U.S. military posture is essential, but is only one step in what needs to be a broader “reset” of American policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.  He appeared on a panel with Kori Schake (former member of the George W. Bush Administration’s NSC staff, adviser to John McCain’s presidential campaign, and a professor at the U.S. Military Academy) and Seth Jones (a Chicago-trained Ph.D. who is an adviser to the U.S. military’s Special Operations Command). 

Video of the panel can be viewed clicking here.  Flynt’s presentation starts at 19:35 into the video, and runs for just over 16 minutes.  

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett       



As the world looks toward a possible resumption of talks with Iran regarding its nuclear activities, we are pleased to bring to our readers’ attention this interview with Kayhan Barzegar, an outstanding Iranian scholar and analyst of strategic affairs.  We have previously featured Kayhan’s work on www.RaceForIran.com; now this interview, given originally with Mosallas Weekly and published in English in Iran Review, offers provocative insights about the nuclear issue and the overall state of U.S.-Iranian relations. 

Among many other interesting points, Kayhan offers important insights into the broader strategic context between the United States and the Islamic Republic in which a prospective new round of nuclear talks would unfold.  According to Kayhan, that context is defined by “the simultaneous existence of ideological and strategic discrepancies”.  As he elaborates: 

“The 1979 Islamic Republic was an ideological phenomenon seeking to make Iran politically independent of the greatest hegemonic power of the time, the United States.  Before that, Washington had a long history of interference in Iran’s internal affairs, including in the August 19, 1953, coup d’état which in many ways provoked the later capture of the American embassy in Tehran.  These discrepancies, combined with U.S. support for the Ba’athist regime in the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war and its unilateral sanctions against Iran, subsequently further deepened the sense of enmity between the two sides. 

“The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have also added a new kind of strategic discrepancy to the previous ideological ones.  Although Iran helped the United States in Afghanistan, President Bush labeled Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and pursued a ‘regime change’ policy against Iran.  That policy was the worst policy a U.S administration could have taken, and it indeed severely damaged the U.S’s image in Iran.  The underlying reason behind the adoption of that policy was the U.S. presence in the Middle East and regime change in certain countries in a bid to further entrench Washington’s regional clout and ideological dominance.  These developments have been basically at odds with Iran’s national interests and security.  Political and security developments which ensued from the occupation of Iraq in 2003 bolstered Iran’s regional influence, turning it into a major regional player. 

“Now, the two sides have gone beyond ideological and strategic conflicts in their attempt to further institutionalize their regional roles.  Although, ideological and strategic discrepancies coexist, strategic conflicts are now more pronounced and in the two sides’ relations.  Coincidently, the same strategic conflicts also possess potential for engendering greater proximity between Tehran and Washington.  For example, the very nature of Iran’s nuclear program faces both sides with a ‘mutual strategic need.’  This is why for the first time, more practical emphasis has been put on the necessity of direct talks.”    

Kayhan suggests that, in this context, it is readily explicable why the United States is focusing on diplomacy with Iran regarding the nuclear issue.  As he argues,

“Iran and the United States need each other for two sets of issues:  First, to tackle regional problems—i.e., in Iraq and Afghanistan—and second, to settle Iran’s nuclear crisis.  Although Iran holds the upper hand in both fields, practical policies followed by the two countries produce different results. 

“The two countries can only engage in talks over regional issues if their definition of national and security interests were closely related.  At the moment, the two sides have opposing strategies with respect to the various regional crises.  For example, their definition of the source of security threats and presence of foreign forces in the region is different.  Iran’s strategy in Lebanon and Palestine has been to support the resistance forces like Hezbollah and Hamas.  Such a strategy is in conflict with the U.S. strategy which totally refuses to accept these forces’ legitimacy in the region.  Therefore, the two sides should not be expected to take similar stances on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. 

“On the other side, U.S. efforts to secure a foothold in Iraq by signing political and security contracts with the Iraqi government are considered by Iran a source of insecurity.  The same is true about Afghanistan where the United States seeks to guarantee its interests by sending more troops thereby fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while Iran considers the U.S’s heavy military presence as a direct threat to its national security and a cause for continued crisis.  Therefore, the two countries hold different views on regional issues. 

“However, when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, the Americans consider it an issue of national and international security, which forces Washington to engage in direct talks with Tehran.  The nature of Iran’s nuclear policy and its emphasis on ‘preserving an independent fuel cycle’ is such that Washington has either to interact with Tehran or go to war.  The U.S. is not currently in a position to wage another war in the region, which could provoke unpredictable repercussions.  So time is not on the West’s side with respect to Iran’s nuclear program.  Therefore, the West has to interact with Iran…” 

Against this backdrop, though, Kayhan notes that the Obama Administration’s emphasis on sanctions is misplaced, “because sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear policy”, which is “a point of consensus among all political trends inside Iran” and “has reached the point of no return in a way that no political group can oppose with it for the sake of removing sanctions.”  He also suggests that “the American side is still confused and not ready to start talks.”  [Editors’ note:  Given the Obama Administration’s refusal to develop a realistic policy on the enrichment issue and its reported inability to secure British and French backing for a revised proposal on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor, “confused” seems an apt description.]

Given these realities, Kayhan concludes that,

“We should not be too optimistic to think that smiles and exchanged letters are all it takes to make negotiations a success.  The United States enjoys profound strategic interests in the Middle East region and is reluctant to recognize Iran’s role and power.  I mean, the power structure in the United States does not allow the White House to do so.  However, we must not be too skeptical and believe that the United States will never change its Iran policy in important ways…Iran and the United States have claims to leadership of regional political-security and ideological blocs and will remain two ideological and strategic rivals.  Yet, Iran’s nuclear program is the point where the two countries’ strategic needs converge. 

“Some analysts maintain that negotiations should start with less sensitive issues like cooperating in Afghanistan on the war against Al-Qaeda or in Iraq where both countries’ interests meet and which can serve as a prelude to negotiations regarding more sensitive and comprehensive issues like the nuclear issue.  However, as a result of their conflicting views and as the past experience with three rounds of direct talks in Iraq has proven, the two sides tend to reproach each other on many regional issues. In addition, cooperation in this regard only benefits the United States.  We should note that Iran’s aim to engage on regional issues is an effort to pave the way for comprehensive talks with the West.  This has not happened yet. 

“Therefore, I think that any direct talks should basically revolve around a more important national issue of strategic significance at least to Iran’s side.  I think it is Iran’s nuclear program which possesses the necessary potential in this regard, because the elites of both countries are in agreement about the necessity of sitting at the negotiating table.”

Kayhan offers a genuinely insightful analysis of why the United States seems more willing to engage the Islamic Republic on the nuclear issue than on other issues on the U.S.-Iranian strategic agenda.  Kayhan’s analysis also suggests why an initial focus on the nuclear issue might “work” for the Iranian side, which, as he rightly notes, ultimately wants “comprehensive talks with the West”.  But, for diplomacy on the nuclear issue to work, the Obama Administration will need to be both more strategically serious and more honest in its diplomatic representations than it has been so far. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett