We're posting new material at GoingToTehran.com. Please join us there.

The Race for Iran


One of the great benefits of blogging is the opportunity to learn from those who comment on our posts.  We thought that Pirouz’s contributions regarding this post, “Parroting the Obama Administration’s Line on Iran and Syria,” added substantially to our arguments in the original version.  Therefore, we have revised the piece to take account of Pirouz’s contributions.  Please see the new version below.

Last year, we took The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick to task for stories he published that relied “almost entirely on unnamed U.S. officials and a known terrorist organization” to advance “Iraq-redux” claims that the Islamic Republic is seeking to build nuclear weapons, see here and here.  Now, Warrick published a front-page story in The Washington Post—a story which relied entirely (no “almost”) on unnamed “U.S. officials and a diplomat from an allied nation” to report that

“Iran is dispatching increasing numbers of trainers and advisers—including members of its elite Quds Force—into Syria to help crush anti-government demonstrations that are threatening to topple Iran’s most important ally in the region.  The influx of Iranian manpower is adding to a steady stream of aid from Tehran that includes not only weapons and riot gear but also sophisticated surveillance equipment that is helping Syrian authorities track down opponents through their Facebook and Twitter accounts.”

We would directly challenge Warrick’s assertion that “anti-government demonstrations” in Syria “are threatening to topple Iran’s most important ally in the region”.  Another story, see here, in the same edition of The Washington Post as Warrick’s offers a far more accurate characterization of the Syrian protests as having “failed to muster the numbers that brought down the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia earlier this year”, and further notes that “despite [protestors’] efforts, there has been no indication that the army would be willing to break ranks with the regime.”  We would add that the demonstrations in Syria, while persistent, have been concentrated in essentially peripheral areas of the country.

But to explore such issues would constitute serious journalism, and that is not what Warrick is doing here.  What he is doing is helping to disseminate what amounts to the Obama Administration’s chosen propaganda line:  popular unrest is making President Assad as “illegitimate” as Qaddafi in Libya, and the Islamic Republic of Iran—unlike the United States, which is valiantly standing by the “people” of Libya in their efforts to overthrow a dictator—is propping up a dictator in Syria. 

We would argue that reality is quite different from this propaganda line:  the United States, without having done its homework, intervened on behalf of one side in a civil war in Libya, and still has not managed to oust Qaddafi.  Conversely, the unrest in Syria does not come anywhere close to a “civil war” threshold.  In our view, President Assad continues to command the support of at least half of Syria’s population.  But the Administration is worried about Iran’s rising standing and influence across the region—and is turning to every propaganda tool it can think of to “push back” against the Islamic Republic’s popularity in the Middle East—something attested to over several years by multiple public opinion polls.         

In his story, apart from the very obvious limitations on his sourcing, Warrick makes no effort to offer an alternative perspective on the line he was fed by the Obama Administration.  Warrick cites one outside commentator—Michael Singh, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  We know, like, and respect Michael Singh.  But, before Warrick’s story was published by The Washington Post, Michael had already published his own Op Ed, see here, in The Wall Street Journal subscribing to the Obama Administration’s narrative about Iranian involvement in Syria.  Moreover, the Washington Institute is an AIPAC-created entity with its own agenda regarding both the Islamic Republic and Syria.  By going to Michael Singh as his sole outside commentator, Warrick assured that the Obama Administration’s preferred propaganda line would not be challenged in his “news story”. 

Warrick’s story notes that

“many previous reports, mostly provided by Western officials, have described Iranian technical help in supplying Syria with riot helmets, batons and other implements of crowd control during 10 weeks of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad”. 

Even if this is true, would Warrick or his unnamed sources prefer that the Iranians send tanks and armored personnel carriers to Syria, to support a more militarized response?  We will have more on this point below.  Now,

“in the account provided by the diplomat and the U.S. officials, the Iranian military trainers were being brought to Damascus to instruct Syrians in techniques Iran used against the nation’s Green Movement in 2009.” 

What “techniques” does Warrick mean?  Effective crowd control and letting the opposition show it had no credible evidence of electoral fraud in the Islamic Republic’s June 2009 presidential election, thereby losing most of its social base—which was never close to a majority anyway?  

Perhaps if Warrick had been more assiduous in his reporting he would have identified some of the flaws in the story he was handed by the Obama Administration.  As one of our regular contributors on www.RaceForIran.com points out, the Administration’s narrative about Iranian support to Syria’s security apparatus—support allegedly coming from either the NAJA (Iranian national police) or the Revolutionary Guard, depending on the (unsubstantiated) source—is fundamentally at variance with what the Syrians are actually doing.  The Syrian response to popular unrest has become heavily militarized, with extensive deployments of army units—in particular, armored and mechanized units—to deal with demonstrations.  This is something the Islamic Republic never did.    

The Iranian response to urban disturbances following the June 2009 presidential election was carried out by NAJA with basij volunteers.  Neither the regular military nor the Revolutionary Guard was deployed for this purpose.  Moreover, it is outside of the training and experience of either the NAJA or the Revolutionary Guard to use armored and mechanized units for “crowd control” purposes.  So, our contributor asks—how, exactly, is it that the NAJA and/or the Revolutionary Guard are supposedly contributing advice in support of the response that the Syrians are actually carrying out?  Warrick does not even begin to explore these discrepancies.   He uncritically parrots a narrative which accuses Iran of supporting Syria in carrying out a response to popular demonstrations which the Syrians are not actually implementing.    

This is all strongly reminiscent of the sorts of journalistic malpractice committed by The Washington Post, The New York Times, and other august media organizations in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  As the Iraq precedent demonstrates, sanctioning “rogue regimes” (and the Obama Administration has now sanctioned Iranian officials and agencies for their alleged involvement in human rights abuses in Syria) on the basis of demonizing narratives that are uncritically parroted by the mainstream media can put the United States on a slippery slope to war.  Given America’s experience in Iraq, it would be truly criminal for the United States to go to war again in the Middle East under false pretenses.   

Warrick adds—in a completely un-sourced editorial statement—that “the Iranians were brutally effective in crushing those protests.”  By buying into the Washington political establishment’s contrived line about Iranian political life—again, without any effort at critically evaluating that line—Warrick does a disservice to his readers.  The competitive nature of Iranian politics—which assures that groups or factions which lose a political battle today will have other bites at the apple in the future—distinguishes the Islamic Republic from Bahrain or other places in the Middle East where huge chunks of the society (in Bahrain’s case, a clear majority) have no bite at the apple at all.  This might help to explain why protests in Iran after the June 2009 presidential election died out very quickly, leaving only a small contingent of oppositionists who put themselves outside the established political order—a trajectory very different from what happened in Egypt or Tunisia, or from what is happening now in Syria.  That kind of comparative analysis would be potentially enlightening, but Warrick makes no attempt at it.         

Likewise, it would be good journalistic practice, in exploring how the Syrian government is responding to popular unrest, whether with foreign support or not, to compare the Syrian response to that of other regional regimes currently facing similar challenges (which Iran is not).  If The Washington Post or any other media outlet were to compare the Syrian response to that of the Bahraini regime, its reporters would not have to resort to exclusive reliance on unnamed official sources in Washington making unsubstantiated statements about foreign involvement.  For there is actual film footage, from Al Jazeera and other professional media organizations, of Saudi soldiers pouring en masse across the causeway from the Kingdom into Bahrain, to suppress a mass movement for political change that clearly did represent a majority of Bahrainis. 

Surely, The Washington Post can do better than simply parrot Obama Administration propaganda.     

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



President Obama’s speech to the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference on Sunday, see here, predictably offered lots of “red meat” for pro-Israel constituencies.  But, in heavily veiled language, the President also made an enormously important point about the evolving character of international relations in the 21st century and what that means for the United States and Israel.  He also offered his listeners a more candid depiction than might have been expected of the tactical calculations guiding his approach to Arab-Israeli issues over the next several months. 

The most important strategic argument contained in President Obama’s AIPAC address was embedded in the following passages:   

“[T]he current situation in the Middle East does not allow for procrastination…Here are the facts we all must confront.  First, the number of Palestinians living west of the Jordan River is growing rapidly and fundamentally reshaping the demographic realities of both Israel and the Palestinian territories.  This will make it harder and harder—without a peace deal—to maintain Israel as both a Jewish state and a democratic state.

Second, technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself in the absence of a genuine peace. 

And third, a new generation of Arabs is reshaping the region.  A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders.  Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.  

Just as the context has changed in the Middle East, so too has it been changing in the international community over the last several years.  There is a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations.  They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process—or the absence of one.  Not just in the Arab world, but in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia.  That impatience is growing and is already manifesting itself in capitols around the world…

[T]he march to isolate Israel internationally—and the impulses of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations—will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.  For us to have leverage with the Palestinians, with the Arab states, and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.” 

The first two points—about Israel’s demographic “time bomb” and the ways in which technology have undermined the utility of occupied territory as a security buffer—are not new, not even in American presidential rhetoric.  Obama’s third point—about the need for peace with Israel to be legitimated not just by Arab autocrats but by Arab populations—is new and significant.  Among other things, Obama’s words (almost certainly inadvertently) bring the American position regarding the basis for resolving the Middle East’s core conflict closer to that of the Islamic Republic of Iran, HAMAS, and Hizballah. 

The President’s fourth point—about the changing international context for Middle East peace efforts—is new in presidential rhetoric and absolutely critical.  The language used by the President describes this changing context in terms of an “impatience” with continued irresolution that “is already manifesting itself in capitals around the world” and “is growing”.  At the same time, there is a subtly conveyed assessment that this impatience is growing not just in predictable places, like the Arab world and Europe, but also in Latin America (with Brazil in the lead) and Asia (where the world’s greatest concentration of rising powers is found).  In other words, impatience is growing in precisely the non-OECD parts of the world that will gain relative power and influence at the expense of the United States in coming years.    

That is why, in the President’s words, “we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.”  Obama justifies his position on the grounds that “the world is moving too fast” and that “the extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow”.  But what this really means is that, in coming years, America’s ability to continuing shielding Israel from the consequences of its own benighted choices will shrink.  America’s commitment to Israel’s security may be, as Obama described it, “unwavering”.  But the extent to which that unwavering commitment actually translates into incremental security for Israel will almost certainly decline in the future. 

From Obama’s perspective, the inference Israelis should draw from his words is:  strike a deal now, before the ability of the United States to protect you in the rather comprehensive way it does now erodes in strategically consequential ways.  We have no confidence that Israel, even under whatever ruling coalition follows the current Netanyahu government, will take Obama’s words to heart and act on them.  But we are struck that Obama has implicitly acknowledged a reality we have been highlighting for some time—that, in terms of its ability to affect on-the-ground outcomes and achieve its own stated policy goals in the Middle East, the United States is a declining power.   

On a more tactical level, the President’s AIPAC speech confirmed that, for the next few months, the Obama Administration’s focus in the Arab-Israeli arena will be forestalling what it anticipates could be a political train wreck for Israel (and, by extension, Obama’s own re-election bid) in New York this fall, where Palestinians may well ask the United Nations General Assembly to recognize a Palestinian state within the June 1967 lines.  In an interview with ABC aired on the same day that the President spoke to AIPAC, Obama’s outgoing Middle East peace envoy, George Mitchell, said, see here, that “a major objective of this [endorsement of the 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiating final borders between Israel and Palestine] is to prevent a disaster for Israel from occurring at the United Nations General Assembly in September, when the Palestinians have said they will see a unilateral declaration of statehood.” 

Clearly, the endorsement is part of Obama’s efforts “to have leverage with the Palestinians, with the Arab states, and with the international community”—in part, to slow down the drive to Palestinian statehood.  Obama explicitly acknowledged this at AIPAC when he noted that his decision “to speak about what peace will require” was taken “in advance of a five-day trip to Europe in which the Middle East will be a topic of acute interest.”  

In this context, we also see the tragedy of Barack Obama—a President capable of understanding better than most high-level American politicians the ways in which the world is changing and what that means for the U.S. position, but unwilling to take meaningful risks or spend the political capital it might cost to pursue policies which would actually serve U.S. interests under these conditions.

To assuage the “blow” of his endorsement of 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiating final borders between Israel and Palestine—which, as the President accurately pointed out to AIPAC, is “nothing particularly original”—Obama tanked on the equally important and politically more controversial final states issues of Jerusalem and refugees.  At AIPAC, he also made clear that border negotiations would allow “the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground.”  This signifies Obama’s acceptance of his predecessor’s position, conveyed in a letter to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that major West Bank settlement blocs should be contained within Israel’s final borders with a Palestinian state—meaning that those borders would extend well beyond the 1967 lines. 

All of that is deeply disappointing for anyone with a serious understanding of “what peace will require”.  But even more disappointing—and damaging to U.S. interests—is Obama’s surrender to Israeli dictates regarding HAMAS.  As we wrote recently, see here, “It is now absolutely imperative for the United States to revamp its posture toward Islamist movements in the Middle East, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, as well as HAMAS.  By continuing the same dysfunctional approach as his predecessors—demanding, up front, that these groups recognize Israel’s right to exist and disarm before negotiations and surrender everything else that makes them distinctive as political actors—Obama is not isolating the Islamists.  He is only deepening America’s isolation from some of the most vital political forces in the Middle East today, whose leaders have precisely the kind of democratic legitimacy the President claims to want to encourage.”     

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


“The Middle East Doesn’t Want the Leadership Obama Offered Them,” Leveretts in Foreign Policy

ForeignPolicy.com published our analysis below of President Obama’s speech yesterday.  The link to our piece at ForeignPolicy is here: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/05/20/the_dispensable_nation, and we encourage readers to comment on the piece directly on the ForeignPolicy.com site.  Below is our analysis:

President Barack Obama’s State Department address on the Middle East was a desperate attempt to define a new narrative about the Arab awakening and America’s role in this critical region. But the speech only confirmed that Obama has no alternative strategic vision to replace the neoconservative fantasies of his predecessor. In the process, the president demonstrated that the United States has little to offer the region and its people.

Obama spoke at what is, in fact, a moment of crisis for America’s position in the Middle East. In her introductory remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “America’s leadership is more essential than ever” in the Middle East. The president himself claimed that America’s pursuit of its interests was not at odds with the aspirations of the region’s people, but rather essential to the fulfillment of those aspirations.

Sorry, but the people of the region disagree. Earlier this week, Pew Research released a poll of key Middle Eastern populations conducted in late March and early April — a period that includes many of the major elements of the Arab Awakening to date (the changes of regime in Tunisia and Egypt, the U.S./NATO military intervention in Libya, Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and the outbreak of unrest in Syria). The poll shows continued anger and resentment over U.S. policy and toward Obama, himself. The results are in keeping with the most recent running of the annual Arab Public Opinion Survey, which showed that Obama is now even less popular than President George W. Bush at the end of his tenure. Today, it is not even clear that Obama would be able to give a speech about America’s approach to the Middle East in a major regional capital, as he did with his 2009 speeches in Istanbul and Cairo.

Beyond public opinion, the region’s major strategic actors — the Islamic Republic of Iran, of course, but also post-Saddam Iraq, Turkey, post-Mubarak Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel — are increasingly charting their own strategic courses. More and more, they see the United States as poorly intentioned, incompetent, and less relevant to their interests; as a result, they are ever more prepared to take major decisions and initiatives without deference to American preferences.

This was manifested recently in Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Bahrain — Manama’s “invitation” notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia’s military intervention was clearly against the preferences of a majority of Bahrainis — and Egypt’s decisions to upgrade relations with Iran and cease its cooperation with Israel in keeping Gaza under siege. Immediately after Obama spoke, the trend was extended when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected as “indefensible” the president’s proposal that Israeli-Palestinian borders be negotiated on the basis of the 1967 map.    

Obama’s wan rhetoric about the Palestinian issue — recycling a formula on final borders that was first introduced into presidential rhetoric 10 years ago by Bill Clinton, while ostentatiously punting on Jerusalem and refugees — highlights the utter lack of strategic vision and creativity in the administration’s approach. The same can be said of his rhetoric about Hamas and other Islamist groups. It is now absolutely imperative for the United States to revamp its posture toward Islamist movements in the Middle East, including Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah, as well as Hamas. By continuing the same dysfunctional approach as his predecessors — demanding, up front, that these groups recognize Israel’s right to exist and disarm before negotiations and surrender everything else that makes them distinctive as political actors — Obama is not isolating the Islamists. He is only deepening America’s isolation from some of the most vital political forces in the Middle East today, whose leaders have precisely the kind of democratic legitimacy the president claims to want to encourage.

The president’s rejection of serious engagement was even more stark with regard to the Islamic Republic. We have argued, from early in Obama’s presidential tenure, that he was never serious about productive engagement, much less “Nixon to China” rapprochement, with Tehran. But in his speech, Obama dropped even a façade of interest in negotiations with Iran.

Obama depicts the Islamic Republic as the antithesis of the Arab Awakening. It is certainly the case that there is no significant constituency outside the Islamic Republic for replicating precisely its form of government. But, however much the U.S. president and his administration try to deny it, the Islamic Republic is, in broad terms, a prototype of the sort of political order that other Middle Eastern populations want to create for themselves — orders that may be imperfect, but which will be indigenously authentic, highly competitive, and not subordinated to an overbearing American hegemon (as with Mubarak’s Egypt) or any other external power.

The fact is that any political order in the Middle East which becomes at all more representative of its people’s values, beliefs, and positions will, by definition, become less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with America. (That’s why Tehran thinks it is “winning” relative to the United States as the Arab Awakening unfolds.) But, rather than face this reality and take on the real challenge of thinking through how the United States pursues its interests in the Middle East in ways that don’t offend most of the people who live there, Obama resorts to rhetoric and policies that have already manifestly failed.

In this context, few in the region are likely to be fooled by Obama’s promotion of U.S.-sponsored economic development as the solution to many of the Middle East’s most pressing problems. This tactic has been deployed, futilely, for years to assuage Palestinian despair over life under open-ended, U.S.-facilitated occupation and “explain away” the fundamentally political roots of anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. violence in the region. To add to the disingenuousness of this part of the president’s speech, most of the money ostensibly allocated as economic support to fledgling democracies in the Middle East is not new funding. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has become the single largest source of economic assistance and investment for Egypt — but the kingdom warranted hardly a mention in the president’s speech.

The Middle East is changing, and American policy toward the region needs to change, too. Unfortunately, Obama hasn’t fulfilled his repeated promises to improve on George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy. Instead, he may end up presiding over an even more precipitous decline in America’s regional standing and influence than his predecessor. 

**Hillary also appeared on al Jazeera’s Inside Story yesterday. The panel discussion can be viewed here: http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/insidestory/2011/05/201152075358752691.html

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



In an effort to define the dominant narrative about the on-going Arab awakening and America’s role in the Middle East, President Obama will give tomorrow what the White House is billing as a major address on Middle East policy.  However eloquently delivered, the address will not be able to overcome or compensate for Obama’s profound lack of a strategic vision that could actually shape a more effective U.S. posture toward this critical region.

Obama will speak at a time when U.S. influence in the Middle East continues to decline and American policy is seen as less and less effective.  Pew Research Poll released this week a poll of key Middle East populations conducted in late March and early April—in other words, after all of the major elements of the Arab awakening to date (e.g., changes of regime in Tunisia and Egypt, U.S./NATO military intervention in Libya, Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and the outbreak of unrest in Syria) were in play.  Contrary to conventional wisdom in the Obama Administration and their echo chambers around Washington that the Arab Awakening will surely work to U.S. advantage, the poll shows continued anger and resentment over U.S. policy and toward President Obama.    

The President and his senior advisers are determined to depict what is happening in the Middle East today as a popular repudiation of both Usama Bin Ladin and the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Besides overlooking the profound antagonism between Al-Qa’ida and the Islamic Republic, this approach is fundamentally at odds with on-the-ground reality in the region, and is, therefore, likely to fall flat as a rhetorical strategy. 

We have pointed out before, and it remains true, that those Middle Eastern regimes that have been overthrown or are at serious risk of being overthrown (at least without Saudi military intervention) have been challenged not because they were sympathetic to either bin Ladin (none were) or Iran.  They have been challenged because their own people saw them as not only corrupt and unresponsive, but as bought-and-paid-for vessels for U.S. policies requiring them to compromise their nations’ sovereignty and independence and to act against the interests and preferences of their peoples.

Furthermore, Obama and his administration are heading down the same dead-end road as their recent predecessors in focusing on U.S.-sponsored economic development as the solution to many of the region’s most pressing problems.  This tactic has been deployed for years to assuage Palestinian despair over life under open-ended, U.S.-facilitated occupation and “explain away” the fundamentally political roots of anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. violence in the region.  It has not worked in the past; it will not work now.

At a time when the United States desperately needs to be rethinking its posture toward Islamist movements in the Middle East—starting with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and moving on to Hamas and Hezbollah—Obama will instead double down on the failed approaches of the past.  Obama will say he is happy for the United States to engage with Islamist movements—so long as those movements surrender in advance on all of their major points of difference with the United States and Israel, abandon even the idea that armed resistance to occupation might be legitimate, and forsake everything that makes them distinctive as political actors. 

If these groups were to do as Obama “asks”, what future relevance could they possibly have?   All Obama will accomplish with this point is to perpetuate and deepen America’s self-imposed isolation from some of the most vital political forces shaping real-life outcomes across the Middle East.

These elements of Obama’s Middle East “strategy” are all set against a backdrop of intensifying American concern about rising Iranian influence.  Obama will, no doubt, try to tell the world that this is not so—that it is the Islamic Republic, not the United States, whose interests and strategic position are threatened by unfolding events in the region.  On this point, it is worth examining part of a speech that President Obama’s national security advisor, Tom Donilon, gave at a Washington Institute for Near East policy even last week.  We append below the portion of Donilon’s remarks dealing with Iran:

“President Obama has long understood the regional and international consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state.  That is why we are committed to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.  From his first days in office, he has made clear to Iran that it has a choice:  it can act to restore the confidence of the international community in the purposes of its nuclear program by fully complying with the IAEA and UN Security Council resolutions, or it can continue to shirk its international obligations, which will only increase its isolation and the consequences for the regime.  There is no escaping or evading that choice.  Already, Iran is facing sanctions that are far more comprehensive than ever before.  As a result, it finds it hard to do business with any reputable bank internationally; to conduct transactions in Euros or dollars; to acquire insurance for its shipping; or to gain new capital investment or technology infusions in its antiquated oil and natural gas infrastructure.  And it has found in that critical sector alone, close to $60 billion in projects have been put on hold or discontinued.  Other sectors are clearly being affected as well.  Leading multinational corporations understand the risk of doing business with Iran—and are choosing to no longer do so.  These are companies you’ve heard of: Shell, Toyota, Kia, Repsol, Deutsche Bank, UBS, and Credit Suisse, to name just a few.

The impact is real.

Unless and until Iran complies with its obligations under the NPT and all relevant UN Security Council resolutions, we will continue to ratchet up the pressure.  As the President has said:  ‘Iran can prove that its intentions are peaceful. It can meet its obligations under the NPT and achieve the security and prosperity worthy of a great nation.  It can have confidence in the Iranian people and allow their rights to flourish.  For Iranians are heirs to a remarkable history.’

Like all NPT Parties, Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear energy.  But it also has a responsibility to fulfill its obligations.  There is no alternative to doing so.  That is why—even with all the events unfolding in the Middle East—we remain focused on ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

But as you all well know, the Iranian regime’s nuclear program is part of a larger pattern of destabilizing activities throughout the region:  In Iraq—where, as our former commander General Odierno said last summer, ‘They continue to be involved in violence specifically directed at U.S. forces’; in Syria, where it has helped the Asad regime suppress pro-democracy demonstrations; and in Lebanon, where it continues to arm Hizballah.

So make no mistake, we have no illusions about the Iranian regime’s regional ambitions.  We know that they will try to exploit this period of tumult and will remain vigilant.  But we must also remember that Iran has many weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Iran’s model, like al-Qaeda’s, lacks a vision relevant to our times.  It is a model that could not be more out of step with the sentiments of the Arab Spring.  This model has the following characteristics:

First:  A corrupt, mismanaged and isolated economy that offers the younger generation little hope for a better future.  It is an economy increasingly working for the security services like the IRGC and elites, and not for the people of Iran.

Second:  The denial of the basic human rights of freedom of expression—the very liberties people across the Middle East are prepared to risk their lives to claim.

Third:  a political leadership focused on preserving its reign at all costs, including by unleashing violence against its own citizens, rather than enabling its citizens to flourish.

Fourth:  The pursuit of policies that have worked to make a great civilization and people an isolated state, increasingly unable to carry on basic interactions with the rest of the world.

So it’s no surprise, then, that Iran’s world view bears little or no resemblance to the movements afoot in the streets of Tunis and Cairo, Benghazi, Deraa.

Iranian leaders’ attempts to declare themselves the inspiration for these demonstrators are belied by their clear hypocrisy:  demanding justice for others while crushing their own people’s demands.

Our observation is that since the elections in 2009, the regime has been heavily focused internally—on silencing dissent and preserving itself.  And as you might expect, we now see fissures developing among the ruling class—a dispute that has nothing to do with meeting the needs and aspirations of the Iranian people.  It also reflects a fundamental question: whether Iran has the confidence to engage with the outside world—a prospect that has been offered and that is in the overwhelming interest of its people.  As the President has said to Iran’s leaders:  ‘We know what you’re against, now tell us what you’re for.’

Externally, Iran’s destabilizing activities are backfiring by uniting its neighbors in the Gulf against their activities—this was something I heard often when I visited the Gulf last month.

This is something Arab leaders are saying not just in private but in public as well. The Gulf Cooperation Council recently said it was ‘deeply worried about continuing Iranian meddling’ and accused Tehran of fueling sectarianism.

I want to be clear:  The door to diplomacy remains open to Iran.  But that diplomacy must be meaningful and not a tactical attempt to ward off further sanctions.  These choices remain available to the Iranian government.  In the meantime, America and our partners will keep the pressure on by continuing our current sanctions efforts and seeking new lines of activity to target…”

This is, in our view, the most dangerously misguided aspect of Obama’s approach to the Middle East.  Increasingly, the region’s major powers—not just Iran, but also Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—are charting their own courses, and viewing the United States as poorly intentioned, incompetent, and/or progressively less relevant to their interests.   President Obama will try to cast this as a moment of redemption for U.S. strategy, but, in fact, this is a moment of crisis for an America that remains intent on denying regional reality.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Photo from AP

Last month, we were among the first to analyze critically Saudi Arabia’s emerging strategy for “counter-revolution” in the Middle East and that strategy’s anti-Iranian focus.  Today, in the Washington Post, we received powerful confirmation for our analysis, in the form of an op-ed Nawaf Obaid, a well-connected Saudi national security analyst and adviser. 

As we wrote last month (full text, here):

“We return from a recent trip to the region persuaded that the main question engaging people with respect to the “Arab spring” is no longer, “who’s next”, but rather “how far will Saudi Arabia go in pushing a counter-revolutionary agenda” across the Middle East?…

[Saudi Arabia’s national security strategy] is in crisis, first of all, because of Riyadh’s plummeting confidence in the reliability and competence of the United States as a security partner.  This dynamic is not, per se, new.  The Kingdom grew increasingly disenchanted with various aspects of America’s Middle East policy during the 1990s—disenchantment intensified by the various traumas that fallout from the 9/11 attacks inflicted on U.S.-Saudi relations.  (The militancy associated with the religious ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia over decades has generated a number of significant security problems for the United States.)  

But the Saudi leadership—including, it would seem, King Abdullah himself—is both enormously angry and deeply unsettled by what it sees as Washington’s abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.  Egypt is a critically important state for the Saudi—and it has not always been a friendly one.  Mubarak’s predecessors, Nasr and Sadat, both challenged Saudi Arabia, in diametrically different but powerful ways.  And now that Egyptian political order, the orientation of which is so strategically consequential for Saudi Arabia, is again up for grabs.  So, while Western assessments have tended to criticize President Obama and his Administration for being too slow in supporting “forces of change” in Egypt, from a Saudi perspective the Obama Administration dropped Mubarak much too quickly, squandering opportunities to support him in pushing back against those demanding his removal. 

On the regional front, the Saudis are discombobulated by what they see as a rising tide of Iranian influence across the Middle East.  The Islamic Republic’s allies have been winning, politically, in key venues—Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine.  Historically, the Saudis have never been big fans of pan-Arabism.  But, in recent years, senior Saudi princes have, with increasing frequency, denounced what they have come portentously to call Iranian “interference” in “Arab affairs”.  Now, with the Arab spring, the Saudis are alarmed that the influence of the Islamic Republic and political forces friendly to it will rise even more dramatically.  The Saudis are even more alarmed about the potential geopolitical consequences of these developments—e.g., the high likelihood that post-Mubarak Egypt will enjoy improved relations with the Islamic Republic.

So, as the Saudi state sees itself increasingly “encircled” by multiple and expanding threats, Saudi leaders are doubling down on the fundamentals of their traditional national security strategy—military force to ensure its dominance on the Arabian peninsula, the use of religious ideology to raise sectarian concern about rising Shi’a influence, and putting enormous financial resources on the table (e.g., $30 billion for Bahrain) to further its goals…”

Nawaf’s piece in the Washington Post effectively and authoritatively confirms every sentence in our analysis.  As a window into current Saudi thinking, every word of Nawaf’s article from the Washington Post, see full text here and highlighted below, is worth reading:

“A tectonic shift has occurred in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Despite significant pressure from the Obama administration to remain on the sidelines, Saudi leaders sent troops into Manama in March to defend Bahrain’s monarchy and quell the unrest that has shaken that country since February. For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies. But American missteps in the region since Sept. 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end. As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.

The backdrop for this change are the rise of Iranian meddling in the region and the counterproductive policies that the United States has pursued here since Sept. 11. The most significant blunder may have been the invasion of Iraq, which resulted in enormous loss of life and provided Iran an opening to expand its sphere of influence. For years, Iran’s leadership has aimed to foment discord while furthering its geopolitical ambitions. Tehran has long funded Hamas and Hezbollah; recently, its scope of attempted interference has broadened to include the affairs of Arab states from Yemen to Morocco. This month the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, harshly criticized Riyadh over its intervention in Bahrain, claiming this act would spark massive domestic uprisings.

Such remarks are based more on wishful thinking than fact, but Iran’s efforts to destabilize its neighbors are tireless. As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat. The emerging political reality is a Saudi-led Arab world facing off against the aggression of Iran and its non-state proxies.

Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilize the Arab monarchies — the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco. In Yemen, the Saudis are insisting on an orderly transition of power and a dignified exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh (a courtesy that was not extended to Hosni Mubarak, despite the former Egyptian president’s many years as a strong U.S. ally). To facilitate this handover, Riyadh is leading a diplomatic effort under the auspices of the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council. In Iraq, the Saudi government will continue to pursue a hard-line stance against the Maliki government, which it regards as little more than an Iranian puppet. In Lebanon, Saudi Arabia will act to check the growth of Hezbollah and to ensure that this Iranian proxy does not dominate the country’s political life. Regarding the widespread upheaval in Syria, the Saudis will work to ensure that any potential transition to a post-Assad era is as peaceful and as free of Iranian meddling as possible.

Regarding Israel, Riyadh is adamant that a just settlement, based on King Abdullah’s proposed peace plan, be implemented. This includes a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. The United States has lost all credibility on this issue; after casting the sole vote in the U.N. Security Council against censuring Israel for its illegal settlement building, it can no longer act as an objective mediator. This act was a watershed in U.S.-Saudi relations, guaranteeing that Saudi leaders will not push for further compromise from the Palestinians, despite American pressure.

Saudi Arabia remains strong and stable, lending muscle to its invigorated foreign policy. Spiritually, the kingdom plays a unique role for the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims — more than 1 billion of whom are Sunni — as the birthplace of Islam and home of the two holiest cities. Politically, its leaders enjoy broad domestic support, and a growing nationalism has knitted the historically tribal country more closely together. This is largely why widespread protests, much anticipated by Western media in March, never materialized. As the world’s sole energy superpower and the de facto central banker of the global energy markets, Riyadh is the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, representing 25 percent of the combined gross domestic product of the Arab world. The kingdom has amassed more than $550 billion in foreign reserves and is spending more than $150 billion to improve infrastructure, public education, social services and health care.

To counter the threats posed by Iran and transnational terrorist networks, the Saudi leadership is authorizing more than $100 billion of additional military spending to modernize ground forces, upgrade naval capabilities and more. The kingdom is doubling its number of high-quality combat aircraft and adding 60,000 security personnel to the Interior Ministry forces. Plans are underway to create a “Special Forces Command,” based on the U.S. model, to unify the kingdom’s various special forces if needed for rapid deployment abroad.

Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities. In some issues, such as counterterrorism and efforts to fight money laundering, the Saudis will continue to be a strong U.S. partner. In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda. With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability. The special relationship may never be the same, but from this transformation a more stable and secure Middle East can be born.”

We will leave it to others to comment on the wisdom of Saudi Arabia’s strategy, as Nawaf has outlined it.  As Americans, we want to underscore how the deterioration of the U.S.-Saudi relationship over the last few years is one of the most dangerous consequences of the strategic malpractice committed by the George W. Bush administration and then—against many people’s expectations and hopes—perpetuated and made even worse by the Obama Administration.  President Obama personally returned several individuals who contributed enormously to the egregious mishandling of Middle East policy, including the U.S.-Saudi relationship, during the Clinton Administration to positions of even greater influence on these issues in his Administration.  The results have been devastating for strategic stability in the Middle East and for U.S. interests in the region. 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett