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The Race for Iran


The Financial Times reports, see here, that Iran and China are “in talks about using a barter system to exchange Iranian oil for Chinese goods and services, as U.S. financial sanctions have blocked China from paying at least $20 billion for oil imports”.  According to the story, Tehran and Beijing are now discussing how to “offset” the debt, presumably by letting China pay it down with merchandise exports and infrastructure projects.  (As the FT piece mentions, India—another major consumer of Iranian oil imports—is also having sanctions-related difficulties making payments to Iran.)

Having returned recently from China, we are struck by how foolhardy it is for the United States to press, ever more insistently, for China—or any other country—to act against its own long-term interests with respect to Iran.  On the whole, Chinese elites seem to believe that Beijing has gone to considerable lengths to cooperate with Washington over the Iranian nuclear issue.  While China has striven to protect its most important interests in Iran, particularly with respect to oil imports, it has also held back from pursuing potentially significant economic opportunities in the Islamic Republic and from moving ahead on implementing already concluded deals. 

In previous trips to China—in 2006, 2007, and 2008—our impression was that Beijing’s biggest concern about American policy toward the Islamic Republic was that the United States would end up bombing Iranian nuclear targets.  Now we sense that Chinese elites are taking more seriously the proposition that the real problem between America and Iran is not the nuclear issue—and that the real problem may be a more fundamental U.S. unwillingness to accept and live with the Islamic Republic, in contrast to the way that the United States learned to accept and live with the People’s Republic four decades ago. 

America’s posture toward Iran is creating more and more problems for China—such as those reported in the FT story.  Beijing continues to have a clear (and strong) interest in avoiding serious disagreements with Washington, over Iran or most anything else.  But we suspect that the two sides are running out of relatively easy compromises where the Islamic Republic is concerned—meaning compromises whereby China agrees to additional multilateral sanctions and puts limits on its own bilateral ties to Iran while America agrees to tailor international sanctions so that they do not fundamentally impede Iranian oil shipments to China and refrains from applying its unilateral sanctions against major Chinese corporations.  The “asks” from the United States can only get harder for China from here on. 

The United States cannot forever ask other countries to act in ways that are harmful to their interests.  No country of any consequence can sustain such a course indefinitely.  Either their domestic political dynamics will force a change in course or the exigencies of their strategic situation will.  America pressured Egypt into acting against some of its most basic interests for decades—and former President Hosni Mubarak went over the cliff, politically speaking, at least partly because of it. 

China does not strike us as a country that is going to go over a cliff.  By asking China to act against its own interests, the United States may gain some apparent, short-term “victories” with respect to Iran.  But, in the long run, Washington is setting up some potentially serious disagreements with Beijing.         

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Over the weekend, the Washington Post “reported”, see here, that the Obama Administration remains incapable of coherent strategy regarding Syria and the broader balance of power in the Middle East.  Senior Administration officials want to treat Syria, like Iran, as the object of an ongoing competition to shape the regional balance of power.  They are oblivious to the reality that both Iran and Syria are critical subjects of that competition, with legitimate interests of their own and considerable reservoirs of domestic and regional legitimacy from which to draw.

Ongoing turmoil in Syria is increasingly engaging the Western commentariat in a not terribly nuanced discussion, focused around a series of predictable questions:  Will the Assad government fall?  If so, what will follow it?  What would the Assad government’s implosion mean for the regional balance of power—and, especially, for the Islamic Republic of Iran?  Against this backdrop, we commend the deeply informed and sophisticated analysis offered by the Conflict Forum’s Alastair Crooke in a recent Op Ed, “Unfolding the Syrian Paradox”, see here, published in the Asia Times

Alastair stipulates that there is a genuine constituency for reform in Syria.  But, as he points out, much of this constituency continues to see President Bashar al-Assad as an ally to that end, not as an implacable adversary.   (In this camp, Alastair specifically and correctly identifies “the populations of Damascus, Aleppo, the middle class, the merchant class, and non-Sunni minorities”, who believe “there is no credible ‘other’ who could bring reform” to Syria).  Given this reality, the narrative of the Syrian unrest as “an uprising of non-violent, liberal protest against tyranny that has been met only by repression” is, in Alastair’s view, “a complete misreading, deliberately contrived to serve quite separate ambitions.”     

Alastair argues, arrestingly, that the roots of the current turmoil in Syria actually lie in Iraq, in two distinct ways:  “Firstly, they extend back into the thinking of the Sunni jihadi trend, as advanced by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, which evolved in Iraq, surfaced violently in Lebanon”—Alastair offers an illuminating account of the 2007 battle between Sunni militants and the Lebanese army for control over the Naher al-Barad refugee camp in northern Lebanon—“and was transposed into Syria with the return of many Syrian Salafist veterans at the ‘end’ of the Iraq conflict.”  He elaborates: 

“Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda affiliation is not of particular significance to Syria today, but the Zarqawi ‘Syria’ doctrine that evolved in Iraq, is crucial.  Zarqawi, like other Salafists, rejected the artificial frontiers and national divisions inherited from colonialism.  Instead, he insisted on calling the aggregate of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan, and parts of Turkey and Iraq by its old name:  ‘Bilad a-Sham’.  Zarqawi and his followers were virulently anti-Shi’ite—much more so than early al-Qaeda—and asserted that a-Sham was a core Sunni patrimony that had been overtaken by the Shi’ites. 

According to this narrative, the Sunni heartland, Syria, had been usurped for the last 40 years by the Shi’ite al-Assads (Alawites are an orientation within Shi’ism).  The rise of Hezbollah, facilitated in part by Assad, further eroded Lebanon’s Sunni character, too.  Likewise, they point to Assad’s alleged undercutting of former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi as an act which had delivered Iraq to the Shi’ites, namely to Malaki.  From this deep grievance at Sunni disempowerment, Zarqawi allies developed a doctrine in which Syria and Lebanon were no longer platforms from which to launch jihad, but the sites for jihad (against the Shi’ites as much as others).

The Syrian Salafists eventually were to return home, nursing this grievance. Many of them—Syrians and non-Syrians—settled in the rural villages lying adjacent to Lebanon, and similarly to their confreres in Naher al-Barad, they married locally.  It is these elements—as in Lebanon in 2007—who are the mainspring of armed violence against the Syrian security services.  Unlike Egypt or Tunisia, Syria has experienced hundreds of dead and many hundreds of wounded members of the security forces and police. (Daraa is different: the armed element consists of Bedouin who migrate between Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria). 

It is difficult to establish numbers, but perhaps 40,000-50,000 Syrians fought in Iraq. With their marriage into local communities, their support base is more extensive than actual numbers that travelled to Iraq. Their objective in Syria is similar to that in Iraq: to establish the conditions for jihad in Syria through exacerbating sectarian animosities—just as Zarqawi did in Iraq through his attacks on the Shi’ites and their shrines.  Likewise, they seek a foothold in north-eastern Syria for a Salafist Islamic emirate, which would operate autonomously from the state’s authority.  This segment to the opposition is not interested in ‘reform’ or democracy:  They state clearly and publicly that if it costs two million lives to overthrow the ‘Shi’ite’ Alawites the sacrifice will have been worth the loss.  Drafting of legislation permitting new political parties or expanding press freedom are matters of complete indifference for them.” 

Secondly, Alastair argues, “bitterness in Syria is also linked to a profound sense of Sunni grievance felt by certain Arab states at Sunni political disempowerment following Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s rise to power in Iraq, for which they hold Assad responsible”.  Alastair rightly describes this perception as “inaccurate”.  When we saw President Assad shortly before Iraq’s last election, he noted that Syria had its own disagreements with Maliki.  Furthermore, he stressed how difficult the situation in Iraq had made his own efforts to ensure that sectarian tensions did not undermine Syria’s basic stability.   Alastair elaborates: 

“The marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and more recently in Lebanon has aggrieved the Saudis and some Gulf states as much as it did the Salafists…Saudi Arabia and Gulf states explicitly trade on fears of Shi’ite ‘expansionism’ to justify Gulf Cooperation Council repression in Bahrain and intervention in Yemen, and the ‘voice’ of assertive sectarianism is being megaphoned into Syria too.  Sunni clerical voices are touting the Arab ‘awakening’ as the ‘Sunni revolution’ in riposte to the Shi’ite revolution of Iran.  In March, al-Jazeera broadcast a sermon by Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, which raised the banner of the restoration of Sunni ascendency in Syria.  Qaradawi…was joined by Saudi cleric Saleh Al-Luhaidan who urged, ‘Kill a third of Syrians so the other two-thirds may live.’   

Clearly, many of the protesters are in traditional centers of Sunni irredentism, such as Homs and Hama in Syria, comprised of aggrieved Sunnis seeking the Alawites ouster, and a return to Sunni ascendency.  These are not Salafists, but mainstream Syrians for whom the elements of Sunni ascendency, irredentism and reformism have conflated into a sole demand.  This is a very frightening prospect for the quarter of the Syrians that form the non-Sunni minorities.”

Just as importantly, Alastair notes that “all of this underlines the other dimension to events in Syria:  its strategic position as the keystone of the arch spanning from southern Lebanon to Iran.  It is this role that those in the US and Europe that concern themselves primarily with Israel’s security have sought to displace” since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Alastair seriously doubts that they will succeed; on this point, he offers some trenchant observations about the Syrian military and security apparatus: 

“The Syrian army lacks experience in counter-insurgency…Tanks and armored brigades are wholly unsuited for crowd control operations, especially in narrow, congested areas.  It’s no surprise that such military movements killed unarmed protesters that were caught in the middle, inflaming tensions with genuine reformists and disconcerting the public. 

Initially, army esteem was affected by the criticism.  Though the stories of army mass desertion are disinformation, there was some erosion of military self-confidence at lower levels of command.  And public confidence in the military wobbled, too, as casualties mounted.  But it was a “wobble” that ended with the dramatic conflict around Jisr al-Shagour in mid-June, near the Turkish border.  Just as the Lebanese nation rallied behind its army in the conflict of Naher al-Bared, so too the Syrians rallied behind their army in the face of the Salafist attack firstly on the police, and subsequently on the army and on state institutions in Jisr.  And, as the details of the Jisr al-Shagour conflict unrolled before the public, sentiment turned bitter towards the insurrectionists, possibly decisively…Army self-confidence and honor is on the rise, and a majority of the public now see in a way that was less evident earlier that Syria faces a serious threat unrelated to any reform agenda. 

Alastair then explains how these developments reinforce the Assad government’s traditional sources of durability: 

“Sentiment has tipped away from thinking in terms of immediate reform.  Public opinion is polarized and embittered towards the Salafists and their allies. Leftist, secular opposition circles are distancing themselves from the Salafist violence—the inherent contradiction of the divergent aspirations of the ‘exiles’ and the Salafists, from the Syrian majority consensus, is now starkly manifest…In this atmosphere, dramatic reform might well be viewed by the president’s supporters as signaling weakness, even appeasement to those responsible for killing so many police and army officers at Jisr.  Not surprisingly, Assad chose to use [his speech earlier this month] to speak to his constituency:  to state the difficulties and threats facing Syria, but also to lay out the road map towards an exit from danger and towards substantive reform.

Western comment overwhelmingly has described the speech as ‘disappointing’ or ‘short on specifics’, but this misses the point.  Whereas earlier, a dramatic reform shock, such as advocated by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu might, at a certain point, have had a transformatory “shock” effect; it is doubtful that it would achieve that now.  On the contrary, any hint of concessions having being wrested from the government by the type of violence seen at Jisr would likely anger Assad’s own constituency; and yet improbably would never transcend the categorical rejection of the militant opposition seeking to exacerbate tensions to the point of making the West determined to intervene.

By carefully setting out of some very deliberate steps and processes ahead, Assad has correctly read the mood of the majority in Syria.  Time will be the judge, but Assad seems set to emerge from a complicated parallel series of challenges directed towards him from movements and states which reflect a range of grievances, special interests, and motivations…If, as seems likely, Assad does emerge from all the challenges, the tenor of his recent response to Arab and European envoys suggests that reform will be pursued, in part, to protect Syria’s resistance ethos from such challenges in the future…Now ‘reform’ is the existential external front. 

[I]f the intent of all this was intended to shift the strategic balance in the Middle East, it has not worked.  It is unlikely that Assad will emerge more pliable to Western challenges—any more than he has in the past.” 

Alastair’s analysis is worth reading in its entirety—it offers many more rich insights on Syrian politics, U.S. policy, the role of Syrian exiles, Gulf Arab machinations, and other important subjects. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



The latest methodologically serious poll of Arab public opinion—the “Arab Attitudes, 2011” survey, see here, conducted by IBOPE Zogby International for the Arab American Institute Foundation—should (but probably won’t) be read in the White House as a wake-up call about how badly the United States, under President Obama’s leadership, is doing in the Middle East.  More particularly, the poll—conducted in six Arab countries (Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates)—reveals at least three important things about current perspectives on the “Arab street”: 

–First, the poll makes clear that, after briefly improving following Barack Obama’s election to the presidency in 2008, America’s favorability ratings “across the Arab world have plummeted”.  One striking example:  America’s favorability rating in Egypt is now five percent, down from 30 percent in 2009 and nine percent in 2008, as George W. Bush’s presidency was drawing to a close.  Indeed, in most of the countries surveyed (Saudi Arabia was an exception), U.S. favorability ratings today are lower than they were at the end of the George W. Bush Administration’s tenure.  That’s not a new finding; the 2010 running of the University of Maryland’s Arab Public Opinion survey, see here, produced a similar result.  But the new Zogby poll confirms the trend.    

–Second, whatever “hope” Arabs may have felt that Obama’s election would produce better U.S. policy in the Middle East “has evaporated”.  In current Arab perceptions, “U.S. interference in the Arab world” runs neck and neck with “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands” as the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.  In most Arab countries, Obama’s own favorability ratings are now lower than George W. Bush’s at the end of his presidency.         

–Third, Arab publics (as opposed to elites) are still not buying the argument pushed by the United States and by many of their own governments that the Islamic Republic of Iran is a major threat to Arab interests.  Among the items suggested by the pollsters, “Iran’s interference in Arab affairs” came in last, by significant margins, as problems which respondents identified as significant obstacles to peace and stability in the Middle East; only in Saudi Arabia did a high percentage of respondents identify Iranian “interference” as a major security concern.  This, too, is consistent with the findings of the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Survey. 

Furthermore, except in Saudi Arabia, more respondents in the 2011 Zogby poll agreed with the statement “Iran contributes to peace and stability in the Arab world” than with the statement “The United States contributes to peace and stability in the Arab world”.  In several countries, the difference in perceptions of Iran and the United States as positive forces was sizable (e.g., in Lebanon, where 57 percent see Iran as a positive influence, compared to 16 percent who see America that way, or in Egypt, where 32 percent see Iran as a positive influence, compared to 10 percent who view America in those terms).  The Press TV report on the new Zogby poll, see here, also mentions that, according to a poll conducted in June, 45 percent of Germans believe that the United States is a more serious threat to world peace than the Islamic Republic, while only 25 percent of Germans believe that Iran is a bigger threat to peace.   

We can imagine the response to all of this in the White House:  “But President Obama has reached out to the Muslim world.  He gave the Cairo speech.  He held an iftar at the White House.  He went to war in Libya to show that he really had been rooting for the crowds in Tahrir Square in Cairo all along.  What are we supposed to do?”  

But the new Zogby clearly indicates what other polls and ongoing contact with people who live in the Middle East reveal:  “public diplomacy”—or however else one wants to describe U.S. efforts to persuade Middle Eastern publics to support initiatives and positions that hurt their interests and offend their values—does not work.  The key to strategic success in the Middle East, for the United States or any other country, is good policy, grounded in a sober appreciation of regional realities. 

On this point, the Zogby poll suggests that the most popular country in the Middle East, right now, is Turkey, under Prime Minister Erdoğan’s AKP government.  Turkey—a country that, while maintaining its NATO membership, calls Israel to account for its continuing occupation of Palestinian lands, declines to side with the United States when it judges that U.S. policy on particular issues is going in counter-productive directions, and has forged an important strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Might there be some lessons for the United States in that?     

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  



One might have anticipated that the dismal results of neoconservative foreign policy during the George W. Bush Administration would have discredited neoconservative ideas and their proponents.  This has not been the case.  Notwithstanding the forthright efforts of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and his son, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), neoconservative narratives (and their authors) continue to dominate foreign policy deliberations in the Republican Party.  And there continues to be no shortage of neoconservative “fellow travelers” in the Democratic Party—and even in the Obama Administration

In the intensifying political climate, Charles Hill, a leading neoconservative intellectual, has issued a vigorous restatement of neoconservative analyses and policy prescriptions regarding the Middle East, in the form of a new monograph entitled Trial of a Thousand Years:  World Order and Islamism (see here for a video interview with Hill on his new work, conducted by David Ignatius of the Washington Post).  Hill is, we think it fair to say, one of the most prominent neoconservative thinkers about foreign policy presently before the public.  For this reason, it is important to understand, in some detail, his current ideas about Islamism, the Islamic Republic, and America’s place in the world. 

By way of background:  Hill spent the first part of his career as a U.S. diplomat.  He served in a number of senior positions in the State Department, but reached a point in his trajectory as a Foreign Service Officer at which he apparently realized he would have great difficulty winning Senate confirmation for even more senior positions.  This was because the independent counsel who investigated the Iran-contra affair concluded that Hill—who, in the early 1980s, was the executive assistant to then-Secretary of State George Shultz—had willfully prepared misleading testimony which Shultz delivered to Congress about the scandal.  (Shultz apparently gave real-time read-outs to Hill of all the meetings he attended at the White House about the arms transfers and subsequent diversion of the proceeds therefrom to the Nicaraguan contras—readouts which Hill meticulously recorded.  Shultz’s later congressional testimony reportedly differs, on a number of important points, from Hill’s notes, which suggest that Shultz knew far more about the affair before it was leaked than he admitted to Congress.) 

Unable to obtain an ambassadorship (or virtually any position that would require Senate confirmation), Hill left the Foreign Service and became a special advisor to United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali during 1992-1996.  He then became a public intellectual.  He signed several of the letters circulated by the Project for a New American Century advocating regime change in Iraq and, for many years, has helped to teach Yale University’s renowned “grand strategy” seminar, along with John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy.  (We also taught international relations at Yale, during 2010-2011, but in a different program from the one with which Hill is affiliated.)  In 2008, Hill headed up the team that advised Rudolph Giuliani on foreign policy during Giuliani’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. 

Hill’s new monograph is, as its subtitle conveys, a study of world order and Islamism—two things which, in the neoconservative mind, are inherently incompatible.  Hill’s work lays out, in a commendably clear style, the historical origins and intellectual underpinnings of the dominant Western approach to world order embodied in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which ended the religious (Catholic vs. Protestant) wars sparked by the Protestant Reformation.  The treaties that formalized the Westphalian settlement ratified the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (literally, “whose region, his religion”)—meaning that the religions of individual sovereigns would determine the Catholic or Protestant identities of European states—and prescribed toleration of sectarian minorities within those states.  (Not coincidentally, this also marked the modern nation-state’s emergence as the main organizing unit for international relations.) 

Since then, Western politics has evolved to a point where religion is treated largely as a personal matter, confined to individual citizens and their private associations.  The modern Western state is constrained from interfering in the operation of religious communities, and religiously-motivated citizens may bring their beliefs into the public square through their electoral choices and policy views.  But the state, as an institution, is not defined on the basis of religious principles.  As Hill puts it, the Western state stopped being “substantive”, and became, instead, “procedural”; religion was “put on the shelf, diplomatically” speaking.    

Through this experience, Westerners came to see secularism and liberal democracy as interrelated requirements for a fully legitimate political order—not just for themselves, but for everyone else, too.  This is, of course, part of a broader narrative about the West as the pioneer of progressive modernity, which it has bequeathed, Prometheus-like, to the rest of mankind.  As Hill notes, the emergence of procedural states in Europe coincided roughly with what he calls Europeans’ “reconnaissance of the world”, when Westerners realized that there were a lot of different kinds of societies around the globe.  But the process of reconnaissance did not prompt Western interest in accommodating the views of non-Western societies.  Quite the contrary:  Westerners became deeply committed to the universalization of their views about statehood and world order.    

For Hill as for other neoconservatives, this is all as it should have been—and should still be.  Hill extols, as an “important intellectual point”, what he describes as an ever wider understanding in the international community that real stability can only be achieved through democratization—through the diffusion of “good governance”, which requires governments that are, in some way, “responsive to their people”.  In the Cold War, Hill argues, the great powers, as represented in the United Nations Security Council, could not agree on this point; the international civil servants who run the UN system thought that the very idea of democratization was “substantive”, not “procedural”.  But, in Hill’s account of the post-Cold War period, the international community has come to see democratization as “procedural” in character—and as a necessary element in dealing with contemporary threats to international peace and security.  (Having just come back from China—a country that seems strongly to favor the promotion of stability around the world—we are not sure that foreign policy elites in Beijing would agree with Hill’s assessment.)    

This view of world order strongly influences Hill’s approach to the Middle East.  Over the last several centuries, he says, the West has had to put down a series of challenges to its concept of world order; today, he says the most serious challenge is posed by Islam—or, as Hill distinguishes, “Islamism”.  Indeed, Hill argues that the late Samuel Huntington’s analysis of “the clash of civilizations” only really applies to Islamic culture and its confrontation with the West.     

Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the Middle East and the broader Muslim world have become, in Hill’s words, “increasingly dysfunctional, increasingly poisonous”—a reality that came crashing in on Americans and their Western allies on September 11, 2001.  From these premises, Hill remains steadfast in his defense of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.  (Even Ignatius, an inveterate cheerleader for Saddam’s overthrow, is politely incredulous at the degree of Hill’s ongoing “enthusiasm” for the war.)  Taking on the claim—advanced by no less than General David Petraeus, among many others—that there is no military solution in Afghanistan, Hill argues that military victory is key to America’s success there and in the broader struggle against Islamism. 

Likewise, Hill lauds President George W. Bush’s January 2005 second inaugural address—“an amazing speech”, in Hill’s estimation—as “almost an Emancipation Proclamation for the world”.  The only problem with Bush’s vision, according to Hill, is that it was laid out at a time when America’s political class and public were too stressed by the difficulties the United States was facing at the time in Iraq to embrace and fully implement Bush’s “freedom agenda” for the greater Middle East.  But, in Hill’s mind, there is no doubt that this was—and is—the right agenda for America’s Middle East policy.  The dictators, he argues, need to go.  Remarkably, though, Hill denies—in response to a direct question from Ignatius—that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a dictator.  If Mubarak were a dictator, Hill says, “he would still be in power”.  (We suppose this statement is marginally more defensible, analytically speaking, than Vice President Biden’s claim that Mubarak was not a dictator because he was a friend of Israel.)           

This brings us to Hill’s views on the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Hill acknowledges that the Iranian revolution, “in terms of its consequences and the scale of it, or the intellectual power behind it, is in the category of the great modern revolutions.”  But, he says, it is a revolution that is “going in the wrong direction.”  In Hill’s account, the Iranian revolution—which amounted to an Islamist “takeover of a state that was already in the international state system”—was a deeply negative watershed event.  Among other things, it had the effect of “inspiriting” Islamists across the Middle East and the Muslim world—a development which has, according to Hill, bolstered the Islamist challenge to the reigning Western conception of world order.    

Hill seems to believe that only states which have “put religion on the shelf” and become entirely “procedural” in character can be integrated into the Western model of world order.  (Doesn’t that make “proceduralism”, in itself, a kind of “substance”, with respect to which the contemporary West remains rather intolerant toward other “substances”?)  Hill does not shy away from the politically incorrect question, “Can Islamic societies come to terms with the (Western defined) modern world”?  His quintessentially neoconservative answer is, “No, not in their present form.” 

On this issue, Hill cites, with approval, the Iraqi writer ‘Ali Allawi, who argues that Muslim societies today face a choice between two very different paths:  either shrink Islam to a point where it resembles, in functional terms, the non-established Christian churches of the modern West, or create “an alternative modernity”.  Hill clearly favors the first path.  We would argue that the Islamic Republic of Iran is the outstanding example of a Muslim society striving to navigate the second path.    

This means, for Hill as for virtually every other neoconservative whose ideas are known to us, that the Islamic Republic, as it is presently constituted, should not—indeed, cannot—be integrated into the prevailing international order.  There can be no “Nixon-to-China” rapprochement, in which the United States would recognize the Islamic Republic as Iran’s legitimate political order, with legitimate national security and foreign policy interests that need to be accommodated. 

What, we wonder, does Hill make of the Nixon-Kissinger opening to the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s?  Surely the People’s Republic was not, by Hill’s criteria, a “procedural” state in 1972.  Would he argue that it is one today?  If not, what does that say about Nixon and Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts?  It seems to us that the U.S. opening to China is the paradigmatic example of how to integrate a non-procedural state into the post-Westphalian international order, in a way that allows the state in question to preserve, by its own standards, the full measure of its national independence and effective sovereignty. 

Of course, we believe this is precisely what the United States should be trying to do today with respect to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  But Hill is having none of that.  From a neoconservative perspective, regime change is the only Iran policy that makes sense for the United States and other Western countries.  In Hill’s view, only a “post-revolutionary” (read “post-Islamic Republic”) Iran can be integrated into a procedurally-grounded (read “U.S.-dominated”) international order. 

In this regard, Hill extols the Green movement—which he calls the “Green revolution”—as an “early indicator” of the possibilities for bringing Iran to heel.  But, here, he makes two inter-related arguments about Iranian politics—which other neoconservatives make as well—that, in our judgment, run obliviously against reality. 

First, picking up on his continuing “enthusiasm” for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Hill argues that Iranians look at post-Saddam Iraq and wonder why they can’t have a political order like that for themselves in place of the current “theocratic” system (sic; look at the video if you do not believe that Hill or any other knowledgeable and obviously well-read person could possibly say such a thing).  There is not a shred of evidence supporting this claim, and a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary.  But Hill and other neoconservatives remain stalwart in their attachment to it. 

Second, Hill argues that the Islamic Republic is theologically vulnerable to being undermined by the tradition of “quietism” in Shi’a Islam—a tradition that is allegedly more reflective of “real” Shi’ism than what Hill describes as Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s “reworking” of Shi’a political thought to come up with velayat-e faqih.   This, too, is an assertion advanced by a number of other neoconservative analysts of the modern Middle East, such as Rueul Gerecht and Michael Rubin.

On this point, it is worth recalling that officials in the George W. Bush Administration argued, as one of their justifications for the invasion of Iraq, that overthrowing Saddam would empower allegedly quietist Iraqi clerics, such as (the Iranian-born) Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani, to assert the primacy of Najaf over Qom as Shi’a Islam’s intellectual center and, more broadly, to challenge the religious standing of the Islamic Republic.  Hill himself describes Sistani as “a steady rebuke to the Iranian establishment”.  

But this is a polemical misreading of the history of Shi’a thought, aimed at delegitimizing Khomeini’s theory of Islamic government and, by extension, the Islamic Republic itself.  In reality, the so-called “quietist” strain in Shi’a Islam is almost entirely a creation of latter-day commentators opposed to the Iranian revolution and Iran’s post-revolutionary political order.  These commentators have pulled together a disconnected set of arguments, advanced at widely separate points in Shi’a history as to the posture that Ali’s partisans should assume toward repressively hostile governments, and packaged them as “mainstream” Shi’a political theory. 

Against this largely manufactured notion of Shi’a quietism, the earliest authoritative statements of Shi’a doctrine, elaborated over the course of the 10th and 11th centuries by Shi’a Islam’s “church fathers” (we have borrowed the metaphor from a German scholar), held that a government which recognized the true Imam and ruled in his name would be entitled to obedience by the Shi’a community.  Such a government, however, would require authorization by the Imam’s representatives.  And, in this regard, those statements highlighted the role of the ‘ulama (or, as later transliterated from Farsi, ‘olema), meaning learned clergy and scholars, as de facto stand-ins for the Imams. 

Among the ‘ulama, the fuqaha (plural of faqih, meaning a cleric well-schooled in fiqh, or religious jurisprudence) are accorded special esteem in the Shi’a world.  And, among the Shi’a fuqaha, mujtāhids (clerical scholars trained in ijtihād) are held in especially high regard.  Since the 10th century, by our reading, important Shi’a thinkers have systematically assigned to the fuqaha all of the prerogatives of the imams.  These prerogatives include powers that, in modern Western political parlance, clearly belong to the state.   In the 16th century, when the Safavid dynasty made Shi’a Islam the official religion of a re-unified Iranian state, eminent scholars even began to describe the faqih’s standing in terms of wilayat al-amma (“universal guardianship”), meaning that all powers of the state were, ultimately, in clerical hands. 

Thus, Khomeini did not concoct the idea that the fuqaha were the divinely designated custodians of political authority; he took it straight from longstanding Shi’a doctrine.  It is certainly the case that, at various points in Shi’a history, individual thinkers have contested the devolution of specific imami prerogatives to the fuqaha.  But to take these individual thinkers as emblematic of “true” Shi’ism—as Hill and other contemporary critics of Khomeini and the Islamic Republic are wont to do—is a politically motivated exercise in historical cherry-picking.

In this context, it is striking that, since the overthrow of Saddam Husayn in 2003, neither Sistani nor any other Iraqi cleric of prominence has challenged the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy.  Sistani, in fact, has opened a large office in Qom; furthermore, Iranians who have met with Sistani on pilgrimages to Najaf report that he expresses great satisfaction with the way in which Iran has developed as a genuinely independent state since the 1979 revolution.  If Sistani has been a “steady rebuke” to anything, it has been the U.S. occupation of Iraq.   

A further weakness of Hill’s arguments about the Islamic Republic and its regional position, in our view, is its utter disregard for popular attitudes in the Arab and Islamic world—a common characteristic of neoconservatives analysis, in our experience, but one which seems strange, given neoconservatives’ emphasis on democracy promotion as the key to “fixing” the Middle East.  In his discussion with Hill, Ignatius notes that the Islamic Republic and Hizballah have both been “pretty popular among ordinary Arabs”, but Hill is not at all inclined to engage on the point.  Rather, he clings to the proposition that (at least before the Arab spring broke out), Arab elites were realizing that the Islamic Republic, especially with an active nuclear program, was a bigger threat to them than Israel.  But, as we have previously written, see here, opinion polls indicate that Arab publics, in contrast to Arab elites, have a very different and strongly positive view of the Islamic Republic.   

Hill’s monograph underscores just how far the United States is from adjusting its Middle East policy to reality—and how many well-entrenched intellectual actors and powerful social forces still stand in the way of that adjustment.      

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 



One of last month’s most interesting developments in Persian Gulf power politics played out not in the Middle East, but in Vienna, Paris, and Washington.  For these Western cities were the venues for an important series of exchanges that revealed much about the changing balance of power among the Middle East’s major oil producers, including the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  In particular, these exchanges underscored how Saudi Arabia’s current regional strategy—which we have previously described as “counter-revolutionary”, see here—is weakening the Kingdom’s position. 

Saudi Arabia came to last month’s OPEC ministerial meeting in Vienna determined to get the oil producers’ group to raise production quotas for member states, in order to lower oil prices around the world.  The Saudis have long had a more conservative view of the price elasticity of demand for crude oil than their OPEC brethren.  Under current circumstances, however, the Kingdom had a number of other reasons for wanting to engineer a reduction in oil prices—something that the United States and other Western countries were eager to see. 

Among other considerations, lowering oil prices is seen in Riyadh as a way of increasing economic pressure on the Islamic Republic.  In this regard, it is useful to review the speech given last month by Prince Turki al-Faisal (Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief and Ambassador to the United States, whom we know and regard as a highly capable diplomat, strategist, and defender of the Kingdom’s interests and regional position) to a closed-door gathering of U.S. and British military officers at a NATO air base in the United Kingdom.  According to The Wall Street Journal, which obtained a copy of Turki’s remarks, see here, the Prince told his audience that “Iran is very vulnerable in the oil sector, and it is there that more could be done to squeeze the current government”.  More pointedly, Turki said that “Saudi Arabia has so much [spare] production capacity—nearly 4 million barrels per day—that we could almost instantly replace all of Iran’s oil production”.      

Additionally, Saudi officials apparently hoped that, by getting OPEC to raise production quotas, it might be possible to “de-throne” Tehran as the long-time holder of the group’s second-highest production quota (after Saudi Arabia).  Iran currently has little surplus productive capacity which it could quickly bring on line to take advantage of an increase in its own quota.  Thus, if OPEC agreed to raise members’ quotas, Saudi Arabia and its allies could argue that the increment by which the Iranian quota would prospectively be increased should be distributed among other members—members which could actually fill it.  This would be an important symbolic defeat for the Islamic Republic—and, just as importantly, a defeat inflicted on Tehran by Saudi Arabia. 

Understandably, the Islamic Republic came to the OPEC ministerial meeting determined to keep these things from happening.  Given the Kingdom’s long acknowledged leadership role in OPEC, most Western oil market analysts assumed that Saudi Arabia would be able to deliver an increase in production quotas.  Many traders acted accordingly; the price of oil traded through so-called “futures” contracts went down in the days leading up to the meeting, reflecting the market’s sense that OPEC would agree to increase production quotas, thereby setting the stage for higher production by Saudi Arabia and other member states.   

But, once the OPEC ministers got down to business in Vienna, things turned out differently from what many analysts and traders had anticipated.  Other Gulf Arab producers, like Kuwait, supported the Saudi position.  But, to put it simply, the Islamic Republic won the battle.  With strong support from Algeria, Angola, Iraq, and Venezuela, Iran turned back the Saudi initiative for OPEC to raise production quotas.  Iran’s OPEC governor, Mohammad Ali Khatibi, reported that the Saudis “were very angry” at the outcome.  This seems highly plausible, as the Kingdom’s long-serving Oil Minister, ‘Ali Na’imi, said publicly that the June meeting was “one of the worst meetings we have ever had”. 

In the wake of the Vienna meeting, Saudi Arabia announced that it would break its own OPEC quota, so that it could unilaterally increase production, from roughly 9 million barrels per day (bpd) to about 10 million bpd, to make up for some of the volumes of Libyan oil that have come off the market since March.  But, then, the Obama Administration effectively declared that it had no confidence Saudi Arabia would be able to manage the market unilaterally.  More specifically, the Administration worked with several of America’s European partners and the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA, the OECD-affiliated association of major oil-importing countries) to engineer the release of 60 million barrels of oil, over a 30-day period, from the strategic petroleum reserves of the United States and other Agency members.   

For the IEA to release stockpiled oil—particularly when it is done so manifestly in an effort to lower prices, not as a response to a profound disruption in global oil supplies—is something that no OPEC member, including Saudi Arabia, can like.  The Obama Administration sought to coordinate the release with Saudi Arabia in advance of the IEA’s announcement of the decision, see here.  But it was an undeniably embarrassing outcome for the Kingdom.   

There are a number of important points to be drawn from this episode.  We highlight three of them here. 

First, Saudi Arabia does not have as much “market power” in the oil market today as it used to.  Without doubt, the Kingdom retains the ability to defend a floor price for crude oil.  But its ability to drive down prices—which is what the United States and other major oil consumers really care about—is significantly diminished. 

With regard to the immediate challenge—replacing production lost as a result of the Obama Administration’s ill-considered, European- and Saudi-backed military misadventure in Libya—the IEA’s executive director remains publicly confident that the Kingdom will increase its production, even after the Agency’s decision to release stockpiled oil, see here.  But, following the IEA announcement, a survey of oil market analysts by Bloomberg, see here, found that most think Saudi Arabia will only increase its oil production to around 9.5 million bpd, not 10 million.  Notwithstanding Turki’s comments about Saudi Arabia’s ability to replace all of Iran’s current oil production—and his description of the Kingdom’s current surplus capacity is consistent with estimates by industry experts—it would seem, in the end, that Riyadh is not really prepared to use that capacity to replace all of the lost Libyan production. 

This brings us to our second point:  It is not clear why any rational market actor would choose, voluntarily, to rely on Saudi Arabia to make up for the volumes that Iran currently puts onto the international oil market.  But this is precisely what Dennis Ross and Obama Administration colleagues who seem just as clueless as he about oil market realities want China and other important oil importers to do.  We cannot imagine that China will willingly go along with such a scheme. 

Third, Iran’s ability to cooperate with Iraq on issues pertaining to OPEC production quotas suggests that scenarios positing increasingly intense disagreements between Tehran and Baghdad over oil production are not grounded in reality.  Looking ahead, we expect that post-Saddam Iraq will continue to have much more in common with the Islamic Republic—on oil issues as on other matters—than with Saudi Arabia. 

This brings us back to our initial observation that Saudi Arabia’s current regional strategy is actually weakening the Kingdom’s position.  Throughout our careers in government service, and subsequently, we have never been proponents of “Saudi bashing”; quite to the contrary.  As we have pointed out before, see here, Saudi Arabia is not a “natural” state, like Iran or Turkey—or Egypt, among Arab states.  But, in contrast to other Arab states, Saudi Arabia was not created by outside actors.  Rather, it was created by indigenous forces—indigenous dynasty (the Al-Saud), with an indigenously generated ideology (the particular form of Islam flowing from the religious revivalism of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in the 18th century). 

These characteristics make Saudi Arabia a formidable, “home grown” political entity.  For that and other reasons, we do not expect the Kingdom to be caught up in “Arab spring” demands for fundamental political change.  But we think that Iran is winning the battle for the support of regional publics—and, increasingly, governments—for its positions.  Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is now pursuing a strategy which is increasingly out of touch with regional sentiment.  That strategy may still produce some tactical victories for the Kingdom.  But, if continued over time, a strategy at odds with regional opinion will slowly but surely diminish the Kingdom’s ability to win others to its side.  This could turn out to be the most important lesson of last month’s OPEC meeting.    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett