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The Race for Iran


We are enormously grateful that two supporters of www.RaceForIran.com have come forward with a generous and challenging offer to help sustain www.RaceForIran.com: if contributions amounting to $500 are made to www.RaceForIran.com by midnight, Eastern Standard Time, on January 6, 2011, these two supporters will contribute a matching amount.  This is an all-or-nothing proposal—if the $500 target is not met by midnight on January 6, the match is forfeited; if, however, www.RaceForIran.com has received $500 in total contributions by then (remember, small contributions add up), then another $500 gets put in the pot.  Please note that there is a $20 paypal button option on the sidebar of this page and that a check for any amount can be sent to the New America Foundation at the address listed in the sidebar.

The pair of prospective donors who have issued this challenge wish to remain anonymous, and we will honor their request.  But we are deeply grateful for their support, and hope it will prompt others to meet their challenge. 

We promise to be back with more posts right after New Year’s.  In the meantime, best wishes to all for a wonderful 2011!  

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Dear Friends,

It is increasingly clear that there is a campaign already ongoing in the United States to lay the ground for an eventual U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.  This campaign is broadly similar to the multi-year effort that paved the way for America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Strikingly, the current campaign regarding Iran involves many of the same individuals, institutions, and rhetorical formulas as the pre-war build-up for Iraq. 

In the years and months before the United States attacked Iraq, the response of most think tanks and “public intellectuals” to the false and fraudulent case for war was supine, to say the least .  Standing up against what became the conventional wisdom about the Iraqi “threat” required a willingness, early in the process, to question the fundamental assumptions that were driving policy debates and actual policy making in Washington.  But the vast majority of those who should have challenged the conventional wisdom about Iraq—in Congress, the media, policy research centers, etc—failed to do so.  Instead, they largely bought into the conventional wisdom and, in some cases, even helped to manufacture it. 

We saw this play out while we were still in government.  After leaving government, and watching America’s Iran debate get steered on to the same bellicose trajectory, we determined that, this time around, there would be credible voices prepared to ask hard questions and challenge conventional wisdom.  That is what www.RaceForIran.com is all about. 

Among the things we’ve learned since we launched www.RaceForIran.com is that it is not easy to raise money for a project like this.  If we only questioned conventional wisdom about the prospective need for U.S. military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, there would be more funders out there willing to help us.  But because we challenge the assumptions about the Islamic Republic that even many Americans opposed to U.S. military action Iran uncritically accept—e.g., the 2009 presidential election was stolen, the Iranian government is a deeply unpopular dictatorship at serious risk of collapse, the Islamic Republic is too ideologically warped and/or internally divided to take strategic decisions on grounds of national interest—superficially sympathetic funders decline to support us because, they say, they must be sensitive to the “political climate.” 

Under these circumstances, we encourage our readers to make even a token donation to support www.RaceForIran.com to keep our work going.  (A relatively large number of relatively small donations can actually help bolster our case for funding from some institutional donors. PLEASE NOTE THAT WE HAVE ADDED A $20 PAYPAL OPTION ON THE SIDEBAR OF WWW.RACEFORIRAN.COM FOR THOSE WHO CAN GIVE THAT AMOUNT.  PLEASE ALSO NOTE THAT WE UNDERSTAND THAT $20 IS NOT A SMALL AMOUNT FOR MANY BUT IT IS WHAT WE CAN DO NOW WITH PAYPAL. WE ENCOURAGE AS MANY WHO CAN TO CONTRIBUTE SMALLER AMOUNTS BY CHECK. WE ARE GRATEFUL FOR ALL OF YOUR SUPPORT.  At this time, we can only activate the $20 paypal button on the sidebar of www.RaceForIran.com ‘s main page, so please use that and not the ‘please donate’ link. Thank you, again, for your support.) 

If you choose to donate, your tax-deductible contribution would go to the New America Foundation, not directly to the authors of the blog.  Click the buttons on the sidebar of the main www.RaceForIran.com page to make a secure donation. Or, please send a check for any amount to: New America Foundation, Attention: Simone Frank (for RaceForIran), 1899 L Street, NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036 (please write for RaceForIran.com on the memo line of your check).

As always, we are very grateful for our readers’ continuing attention and engagement with www.RaceForIran.com.  We add our best wishes for a Happy New Year and a wonderful 2011. 


Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Earlier this month, Hillary Mann Leverett was interviewed on Antiwar Radio (can be heard here) to discuss the course of U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.  The interview serves as a very good year-end review of U.S.-Iranian interactions during 2010, with a focus on the nuclear issue.  So, as 2010 draws to a close, we thought our readers might appreciate the opportunity to access it here. 

Hillary opens by laying out our argument that President Obama’s legacy on Iran policy is shaping up to be “change you can’t rely on”.  She reviews how what many perceived as Obama’s early promise on Iran was undermined by the President’s advisers and squandered as a consequence of Obama’s own reluctance to follow up his nice rhetoric with a substantively different approach.    She explicates Obama’s “double game” with Iran, in the form of the “dual track” (what used to be called “carrots and sticks”) approach to nuclear talks, and contrasts that with President Nixon’s very different approach to China.  On this basis, she draws the critical policy point—that Washington needs to put sticks aside to show the Iranians that the United States is serious about realigning relations with them. 

Hillary then tells the disappointingly revealing story of how the Obama Administration handled the issue of refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and the Iran-Turkey-Brazil Joint Declaration.  She points out that this episode raises serious questions as to how much of Obama’s “failed promise” on Iran is due to the President’s advisers and how much should of the blame should actually be ascribed to the President himself. 

Hillary extrapolates from these particular accounts to draw an important and disturbing “big picture” analysis of Obama’s handling of foreign policy and the enormous “structural problems” facing a President who wants to reorient U.S. policy away from a trajectory leading to another damaging and counter-productive war in the Middle East.  She recalls that candidate Obama ran for the presidency promising not just to end America’s military involvement in Iraq, but to end the “mindset” that got America into that war in the first place.  But now, having won the presidency, Obama is no longer trying to change that mindset; rather, he is “appeasing” it. 

In a similar spirit, she reviews Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarkable rhetorical zig-zags regarding the Russian-built Bushehr reactor to highlight the bigger point that the Obama Administration is completely failing to understand and deal with “the rise of Iran”, just like it is failing to understand and deal with the rise of Turkey.  She characterizes the idea that the United States can somehow keep Iran from obtaining major regional power status as a “fantasy”.  But it is a fantasy which greatly distorted the approach of both the George W. Bush Administration and the Obama Administration to the Iranian nuclear issue and the broader question of U.S.-Iranian relations.

Hillary also offers a multi-faceted assessment of how America’s Iraq war has (probably irrevocably) changed the balance of power in the Middle East.  She concludes by addressing questions about U.S.-sponsored covert programs in and against the Islamic Republic and what their continuation signals about Obama’s failed promise to change America’s approach to Iran.   

As always, we appreciate any and all comments that readers wish to offer about this post.  But, we are also thinking about how to best to respond to readers’ requests for enhanced possibilities for interactive discussions on topics not necessarily related to those on which we post.  We hope to have something concrete in this regard to put forward early in 2011.  One of the things that is truly unique about www.RaceForIran.com is the enormously high-quality of the commentors and discussants who write in.  We think that creating more and better space for that discussion is a great idea.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Sarah Palin—former governor of Alaska and Senator John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 U.S. presidential election—published an Op Ed in USA Today, see here, that takes the most fanciful neoconservative myths about the Islamic Republic and turns them into a tortured argument for “truly ‘crippling’ sanctions”, U.S. support for regime change in Tehran, and military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. 

Given the disastrous consequences of neoconservative foreign policy ideas regarding Iraq and other Middle Eastern issues in recent years, those ideas and the people who framed them should have been discredited and should now be marginalized—meaning, not taken seriously—in future policy debates.  But that is clearly not the case.  The neoconservatives and their particular approach to American foreign policy in the Middle East are back in force, and the current focus of their advocacy and activism is pushing the United States into a military confrontation with Iran. 

It is even more striking that many “progressives”, “liberal internationalists” (we like John Mearshimer’s description, “liberal imperialist”, better), and “human rights advocates”—who would recoil at the suggestion they were conservatives of any sort, neo- or otherwise—are buying into and helping to legitimate bad neoconservative ideas about the Islamic Republic.  By doing so, these left-of-center forces are bolstering the neoconservatives’ drive to war, whether they intend this or not.  We saw this happen in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, too. 

Interestingly, one of the few pockets of politically engaged people in the United States who are prepared to raise serious questions about the wisdom of another ill-conceived U.S. military adventure in the Middle East is found within the “Tea Party” movement, of which Sarah Palin is a leading light.  Notwithstanding Palin’s acceptance of the neoconservative narratives that have come to dominate foreign policy discussions within the Republican Party in recent years, the Tea Party is, in fact, deeply divided on foreign policy.  Some of the movement’s other leading lights—including at least a couple who will be sworn in as United States Senators in a few days, like Rand Paul (R-KY)—are stalwart in their criticism of the Iraq war and their determination that the United States not launch another “war of choice” in the Middle East that will end up doing even greater damage to America’s interests and international standing. 

It seems a daunting challenge for truly principled conservatives to take on what has become the entrenched consensus on foreign policy in GOP circles.  But to the extent some of the Tea Partiers are inclined to try, we wish them well.  It would be one of the great ironies of recent American history if the most outspoken congressional opponents of potential moves by the Obama Administration toward military confrontation with Iran turned out to be serious conservatives who actually care about the U.S. Constitution.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett




John Mearsheimer—University of Chicago political scientist, America’s pre-eminent “realist” scholar of international relations, and (among his many other distinguished and high-impact publications) co-author, with Harvard’s Stephen Walt, of The Israel Lobby—has given his countrymen a Christmas present they can really use.  More specifically, John has just published an important and bracingly brilliant article, “Imperial by Design”, in The National Interest.  It should be required reading for anyone who cares about the direction of American foreign policy, in the Middle East or more generally.  We are pleased to highlight it here for our readers, though, of course, we recommend reading the piece in its entirety. 

John states his main argument up front, in crystal clear fashion.  He argues that, for the past twenty years, America has let itself be seduced by a dangerous formula—that “the United States should take the lead in bringing democracy to less developed countries the world over”.  He archly notes that “liberal imperialists” on the left, as well as neoconservatives on the right, have endorsed this formula:

“After all, that shouldn’t be an especially difficult task given that America had awesome power and the cunning of history on its side…

The results, however, have been disastrous.  The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight.  As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world events knows, countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national-security bureaucracies that undermine civil liberties and make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior, and they invariably end up adopting ruthless policies normally associated with brutal dictators.  The Founding Fathers understood this problem, as it clear from James Madison’s observation that ‘no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.’  Washington’s pursuit of policies like assassination, rendition and torture over the past decade, not to mention the weakening of the rule of law at home, shows that their fears were justified. 

To make matters worse, the United States is now engaged in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have so far cost well over a trillion dollars and resulted in around forty-seven thousand American casualties.  The pain and suffering inflicted on Iraq has been enormous.  Since the war began in March 2003, more than one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, roughly 2 million Iraqis have left the country and 1.7 million more have been internally displaced.  Moreover, the American military is not going to win either one of these conflicts, despite all the phony talk about how the “surge” has worked in Iraq and how a similar strategy can produce another miracle in Afghanistan.  We may well be stuck in both quagmires for years to come, in fruitless pursuit of victory.

The United States has also been unable to solve three other major foreign-policy problems.  Washington has worked overtime—with no success—to shut down Iran’s uranium-enrichment capability for fear that it might lead to Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons.  And the United States, unable to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place, now seems incapable of compelling Pyongyang to give them up.  Finally, every post–Cold War administration has tried and failed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; all indicators are that this problem will deteriorate further as the West Bank and Gaza are incorporated into a Greater Israel.

The unpleasant truth is that the United States is in a world of trouble today on the foreign-policy front, and this state of affairs is only likely to get worse in the next few years, as Afghanistan and Iraq unravel and the blame game escalates to poisonous levels.”   

John is equally clear when it comes to diagnosing the source of America’s “world of trouble” on the foreign-policy front: 

“The root cause of America’s troubles is that it adopted a flawed grand strategy after the Cold War.  From the Clinton administration on, the United States rejected [various strategic alternatives], instead pursuing global dominance, or what might alternatively be called global hegemony, which was not just doomed to fail, but likely to backfire in dangerous ways if it relied too heavily on military force to achieve its ambitious agenda.  

Global dominance has two broad objectives: maintaining American primacy, which means making sure that the United States remains the most powerful state in the international system; and spreading democracy across the globe, in effect, making the world over in America’s image.  The underlying belief is that new liberal democracies will be peacefully inclined and pro-American, so the more the better.  Of course, this means that Washington must care a lot about every country’s politics.  With global dominance, no serious attempt is made to prioritize U.S. interests, because they are virtually limitless.

This grand strategy is ‘imperial’ at its core; its proponents believe that the United States has the right as well as the responsibility to interfere in the politics of other countries.  One would think that such arrogance might alienate other states, but most American policy makers of the early nineties and beyond were confident that would not happen, instead believing that other countries—save for so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea—would see the United States as a benign hegemon serving their own interests.”   

John reminds those of us who voted for George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 that, on foreign policy issues, Bush largely ran against the kind of liberal imperialism that Gore advocated and that the administration he served as Vice-President had practiced.  But, of course, after 9/11, Bush took the quest for global dominance to new heights, especially in the Middle East: 

“By pursuing this extraordinary scheme to transform an entire region at the point of a gun, President Bush adopted a radical grand strategy that has no parallel in American history.  It was also a dismal failure.

The Bush administration’s quest for global dominance was based on a profound misunderstanding of the threat environment facing the United States after 9/11.  And the president and his advisers overestimated what military force could achieve in the modern world, in turn greatly underestimating how difficult it would be to spread democracy in the Middle East.  This triumvirate of errors doomed Washington’s effort to dominate the globe, undermined American values and institutions on the home front, and threatened its position in the world.”

In this vein, John points out that “the Bush administration’s fondness for threatening to attack adversaries (oftentimes with the additional agenda of forced democratization) encouraged nuclear proliferation.  The best way for the United States to maximize the prospects of halting or at least slowing down the spread of nuclear weapons would be to stop threatening other countries because that gives them a compelling reason to acquire the ultimate deterrent.  But as long as America’s leaders remain committed to global dominance, they are likely to resist this advice and keep threatening states that will not follow Washington’s orders.” 

John warns that the Obama Administration, for all its talk of “change”, has largely embraced the same delusions of global dominance that got the United States into such trouble on the foreign-policy front under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.  The alternative, as John points out, is not “Fortress America” isolationism.  It is a posture he describes as “offshore balancing”—which is actually the United States’ traditional approach to grand strategy, before it developed hegemonic hubris.  America still has not faced up to its most fundamental strategic choices in a post-Cold War world.  John Mearsheimer has given it an indispensable guide for thinking through those choices.   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett