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The Race for Iran


Next month will mark a decade since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and major media outlets have already started their coverage.  Much of that coverage will tell the American people that al-Qa’ida has been significantly degraded—especially through this year’s killing of its leader, Usama bin Ladin by U.S. forces in Pakistan—and that the United States needs to look for the next threat.  To our minds, the most important thing that Americans could do would be to reflect, seriously and honestly, about the war on terror unleashed in response to the 9/11 attacks—to reflect on what actually prompted the attacks, and whether the ways in which the United States responded have actually made it more secure.  To stimulate this kind of reflection, we recommend reading and pondering an article, see here, published by Michael Scheuer—former head of the CIA’s bin Ladin “unit” turned trenchant critic of America’s counter-terrorism strategy and Middle East policy—earlier this week in The National Interest

The article, entitled “The Zawahiri Era”, is, first of all, an analytic tour de force, offering an unflinching look at the motives and strategy behind the 9/11 attacks, al-Qa’ida’s rather successful adaptation to the post-9/11 environment, and the movement’s future prospects under Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership.  But the article is also much more than that; its second half is an equally unflinching look at the political circumstances that keep al-Qa’ida going, with a focus on the United States:  

“BEYOND LEADERSHIP crises, changing tactics and mounting operations is one steadfast reality:  al-Qaeda’s indispensable, long-term and utterly reliable ally—Washington’s interventionist foreign policy—remains the group’s true center of gravity.  It is a galvanizing force which cannot be harmed, let alone destroyed, until U.S. leaders in politics, the media, religion (especially evangelical Protestants), the military and the academy begin to accept the truth; that is, the United States government is hated by most Muslims for what it does in the Islamic world, and not for how Americans think and behave at home…

“As al-Zawahiri takes charge, the U.S. government continues to:  arm and defend the Saudi police state; depend on oil and debt purchases from Riyadh and other oil-rich Gulf tyrannies; keep military forces in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; fund and defend Israel; fund and direct a new U.S.-NATO war on Libya; and assist the UN, EU and George Clooney in tearing out the oil-rich southern region of Muslim Sudan and giving it to a new Christian state.  In other words, the powerful religious motivation for al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups to fight the United States and the West remains exactly what it was when bin Laden declared war in 1996—Israel, oil, intervention, occupation and support for tyranny.

“And one other key thing remains the same. President Obama continues to glibly lie to U.S. citizens, claiming—as did Presidents Bush and Clinton—that al-Qaeda, its allies and those they inspire are attacking us because they hate freedom, liberty, democracy, gender equality, elections and virtually every other thing Americans hold dear.  The script of these presidents deftly scares U.S. citizens and ably prevents substantive foreign-policy debate.  It is useless, however, for educating Americans about the deadly and growing enemy they face, one that hates their government, not them.  There is no better recruiting strategy for the mujahideen in all parts of the globe than to pray for the maintenance of the status quo in U.S. and Western foreign policy in the Muslim world.  With Obama et al at the helm, they have little to worry about…

“Then there is the Hillary Clinton–devised cultural war on Islam, now championed by Obama and Cameron as the proper response to the so-called Arab Spring.  After the fall of the tyrannical Arab regimes in Tunis and Cairo, and the now ongoing slipping-away of those in Yemen, Libya and Syria, Secretary of State Clinton decided the time had come not only to out-Bush George but to by far out-Wilson the lamentable, bloody-handed Woodrow.  Not only would she and her State Department bring freedom and democracy to the Arabs, but she would through decree—and with force if necessary—install Western-style women’s rights, freedom of religion, and the separation of church and state (which in Democratic doctrine means driving religion from both governance and the public square).  In other words, Professor Huntington’s clash of civilizations is ready to be started and then driven not by caliphate-obsessed Islamist fanatics—as promised by the (usually) neocon reactionaries Walid Phares, Bernard Lewis, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, and the Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard and National Review—but by naive, well-meaning, ahistorical, antireligious, arrogant and largely Ivy League–trained ne’er-do-wells like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, George W. Bush, and the editors and reporters of the New York Times and Washington Post.

“By declaring this cultural war on Islam, Barack Obama effectively applied a tourniquet to the wound inflicted on al-Qaeda and the Islamist movement by the SEALs’ killing of bin Laden. In the midst of uncertainties about the impact of that death, Obama told young Muslims worldwide that he was George W. Bush vis-à-vis U.S. policy in the Islamic world, even paraphrasing his predecessor’s zany ideas with such words as “we know that our own future [America’s] is bound to this region [the Arab world] by the forces of economics and security, by history and by faith.”  The young-Muslim translation:  U.S. and Western military, economic and political interventionism is here to stay, words that merely back up the signal sent by the U.S.-NATO war of whim on Libya, continuing drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, and Mrs. Clinton’s thinly veiled military threats against Syria.

“But they also heard much more. They heard Obama pledge the U.S. government to the task of making Muslims into good, secular Westerners. In the speech, Obama left no room to doubt that he foolishly believes democracy is on the march in the Arab world and that he will use U.S. power to intervene and transform Islamic culture. This latest war on Islam was a gift to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies, second in magnitude only to Bush’s jihad-justifying invasion and occupation of Iraq…

“[W]ars are never won by dead martyrs, rather by living and intelligent fighters who demonstrate courage, piety, prudence, patience, a reliable eye for the main chance, and—if God smiles on the warriors—an enemy who plays the part of a willing and effective foil, at times even that of a patsy.  Al-Zawahiri takes charge in difficult and dangerous circumstances, but he faces a situation more promising than any al-Qaeda has encountered since its founding.  All Americans should pray al-Zawahiri squanders his opportunity, as that may be the only way to avoid the military defeat and economic ruin the U.S. political elite seem eager to impose on their countrymen by refusing to face and combat the true sources of the Islamists’ motivation.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



We have long argued that there will not be a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue without explicit recognition—from the United States and other Western countries, first of all—of the Islamic Republic’s right to the full range of civil nuclear technologies and activities, including uranium enrichment.  Two recent developments affirm this view. 

First, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has been in Moscow this week to talk about the latest Russian proposal on the nuclear issue, see here. The proposal, which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed during his visit to Washington last month, envisions a “step by step” process, in which steps by Tehran to resolve outstanding questions regarding Iranian nuclear activities with the International Atomic Energy Agency would be met with specific actions to reduce sanctions and normalize the Islamic Republic’s international status. 

In Moscow, Salehi described the proposal as “positive”, and said that “we agreed that we will study all the details of this project and will continue to perfect it through expert work”.  One senses, though, that while Tehran will not say definitively “no” to the Russian proposal, Iranian officials are wary of being maneuvered into a process which would not, upfront, provide clear international (really, Western) recognition of Iran’s right to enrich. 

That this still remains the key to diplomatic progress was also affirmed in a recent interview by Seyed Hossein Moussavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator currently in residence at Princeton University.  Moussavian outlines the fundamental drivers and multiple nuances of Iran’s nuclear policy, see here.   According to Moussavian, “On the nuclear issue, the end state for the Iranians is full rights under the NPT, without discrimination over enrichment.” 

The requirements for progress on the issue are clear.  What is not clear is how much longer the Obama Administration will persist in refusing to meet them. The Islamic Republic, for its part, continues to profess its interest in negotiations, but not under conditions of “pressure” and “discrimination”, see here. It also continues to pursue greater degrees of nuclear independence.  The Director of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Fereydoun Abbasi, said earlier this week that domestically produced fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor will be ready by the end of the Iranian calendar year (March 21, 2012 on the Western calendar).  

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



The following link, see here, connects to a video clip from the Republican presidential debate in Ames, Iowa last night.  In it, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas—regularly one of the very few members of Congress to vote consistently against Iran sanctions legislation—explains very succinctly what is wrong with America’s Iran policy.  He addresses sanctions squarely, describing them as the product of “pretend free traders” and noting that, among other things, when America sanctions countries it is “more likely to fight them” down the road.  He goes on to note that there is no evidence Tehran is working on fabricating nuclear weapons and that, even if there were, it faces real and legitimate security threats in its immediate environment (including from the United States).  And if that were not enough for a startling dose of realism and good sense in a forum where little of that is expected, Dr. Paul suggests that, even if the Islamic Republic got a nuclear weapon, it would not be that big a problem.  He concludes by observing that, if Americans want “a policy of peace”, that means “free trade, stay out of their internal business, don’t get involved in these wars and just bring our troops home.”   

That was all way too much for former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who, as you will see, interrupts the proceedings after Dr. Paul has finished to demand an opportunity to respond.  Santorum—who, at this point, is much more reflective of elite Republican opinion on the issue than Paul—declares that “Iran is a country that has been at war with us since 1979”, and accuses the Islamic Republic of “killing more American men and women in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan than the Iraqis and Afghanistans have…than the Afghanistanis [sic] have”. 

Dr. Paul does not miss a beat, pointing out that “the Senator is wrong on his history.  We’ve been at war in Iran for a lot longer than ’79.  We started it in 1953 when we sent in a coup, installed the Shah, and the reaction—the blowback—came in 1979.  It’s been going on and on because we just don’t mind our own business. That’s our problem”. 

Unfortunately, the video clip does not include Senator Santorum’s rejoinder, several minutes later in the debate.  We provide it here: 

“[Dr. Paul] sees it exactly as Barack Obama sees it.  That we have to go around and apologize for the fact that we’ve gone out and exerted our influence to create freedom around the world.  I don’t apologize for that.  I don’t apologize for the Iranian people being free for a long time, and now they’re under a malocracy [sic]…”

This strikes us as a new low in America’s Iran debate:  to describe the period between 1953 and 1979 as a period of “the Iranian people being free for a long time”, because America went out “and exerted our influence”.  But, we may go lower still. Texas Governor Rick Perry is set to declare his candidacy for the Republican nomination tomorrow.  ForeignPolicy.com reports, see here, say that Perry’s foreign policy and national security briefings are being organized by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and feature such Iraq war masterminds as Doug Feith and Bill Luti.  Dr. Paul has his work cut out for him.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Four months ago, we returned from a trip to the Middle East and wrote 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” region, see here. Since then, something of a discussion, if not a debate, has arisen among Middle East analysts as to whether Saudi Arabia is, in fact, pursing a counter-revolutionary strategy and what it is really up to in the region.

In this regard, Gregory Gause published an interesting article, “Is Saudi Arabia Really Counter-revolutionary” on ForeignPolicy.com earlier this week, see hereGreg’s bottom line answer is that Saudi Arabia is not really counter-revolutionary; it is, rather, out to best Iran in an ongoing battle to shape the regional balance of power.  Sometimes, this means that the Kingdom looks like it is acting in a counter-revolutionary way, as when it “sent troops to Bahrain to put down popular protests.”  But sometimes, in Greg’s view, “counter-revolutionary” is not the right adjective to describe Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy initiatives—as with the Kingdom’s recent recall of its ambassador in Syria and King Abdullah’s public demand that Syrian President Bashar al Assad “stop the killing machine,” thereby appearing to put Saudi Arabia on the side of Syrian protesters. 

“Syria is Iran’s most important and longest-standing Arab ally. Under Bashar’s father, Hafiz al-Assad, Damascus was able to sustain good relations with Riyadh while also cultivating the Persian connection. But the son has proven less nimble in balancing his regional relations. Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon (and assumed Syrian involvement, if not directly then indirectly, in the assassination of Saudi ally Rafiq al-Hariri) alienated Riyadh. Bashar even publicly insulted the Saudi king and other Arab leaders over their stance during the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006. King Abdullah was hesitant to break fully with Damascus, as demonstrations against the regime accelerated over the past five months, given the importance of Syria in regional politics. But the escalating violence of the past week, coming at the beginning of Ramadan, seemed to seal the issue. Dealing Iran a blow in regional politics trumps the risks of greater instability.

While public opinion is hardly a major factor in Saudi foreign policy decisions, on the break with Syria the King was following, not leading, his people. The Saudi media and Saudi-owned pan-Arab media has been vehemently opposed to Assad’s crackdown and sympathetic to the protestors. This is where the Ramadan timing comes into the picture. During the holy month religious feelings are heightened. The sectarian element of the Syrian confrontation, with an ostensibly secular and Alawite Shiite dominated regime brutally suppressing the Sunni Muslim majority, becomes a more prominent element in how the overwhelmingly Sunni Saudis, population and leadership, view events…

Saudi Arabia is against regime change in allied states. It supports its fellow monarchs both out of concern for its own domestic regime security, ideological solidarity, and balance of power politics. It might not like democracy much, and certainly not at home, but that does not mean it will oppose all democratic movements. Its support for the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition in Lebanon in the last two Lebanese elections was crucial. When leaders, even leaders with whom it has had decent relations in the past, no longer can get the job done, the Saudis will help usher them out the door. They will deal with their successors in a pragmatic way (as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt, the deposers of Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak, quickly realized). They will oppose leaders and groups that they think are allied with Iran, whether it is Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, or Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. Their focus is on checking and rolling back Iranian influence in the Arab world. That is what drives their policy, not some imagined notion of anti-revolutionary dictatorial solidarity.”

We might still argue that “counter-revolutionary” is an appropriate description for Saudi foreign policy in a number of contested regional venues, including not just Bahrain but also Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.  But, leaving that quibble aside, we think that Greg makes some important points about the drivers of current Saudi diplomacy.  What does this mean for U.S. policy toward the region?  We were struck that our former colleague John Hannah, now at the neo-conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, recently argued, see here, that,

“King Abdullah’s dramatic intervention has created a potential turning point in the unfolding Syrian tragedy, but one that can only be fully taken advantage of by authoritative U.S. leadership that infuses our allies with confidence and a clear sense of direction, and our adversaries with the inevitability of their own eventual demise. The Obama administration has been handed an important opportunity to secure U.S. interests. The president should act quickly to seize it.”

Against this, Greg Gause offers what we think are some compelling cautionary observations.

“The sectarian factor, never absent, is now becoming a more open element in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The Saudi and Gulf commentary on events in Bahrain was openly sectarian. While the Saudi leaders do not explain their policies in sectarian terms and tend to view the region more in balance of power terms, they have always thought that sectarianism was their hole card in the confrontation with Iran. There are more Sunnis in the region than Shiites. They know it and the Iranians know it. But playing up the sectarian element of regional conflict will blow back on the Saudis sooner rather than later. Heightened sectarian tension provides fertile ground for extremist salafi jihadist movements like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to sell their anti-Shiite ideas and recruit new members. The Saudi leadership believes it has the AQAP threat under control, but their current actions could be providing a safety net for an organization that, like its parent, has suffered serious reverses in recent years.

The ‘sectarianization’ of regional balance of power conflicts should concern the United States as well. The United States has an interest in a stable Iraq, a stable Lebanon, a Syria that does not implode into all-out civil war, and a Bahrain that overcomes the bitterness of its government’s recent brutal crackdown on its citizens. Heightened sectarian feelings work against all those interests. While the Saudis are correct that there are more Sunnis than Shiites in the Muslim world, privileging sectarian identity gives the Iranian regime an entry into the politics of many Arab states.”

On this basis, Greg argues that “Riyadh would be better served by encouraging a common Arab identity that overcomes sectarian differences and emphasizes the foreignness of Iran in the Arab world while marginalizing sectarian extremists like al Qaeda and its sympathizers.”  But this is part of the Saudis’ problem, which leads them to take, what we describe as a counter-revolutionary approach: when regional publics look at their situations in terms of a common identity, this does not re-enforce an Arab-Persian divide.  Rather, it directs attention to the ways in which the United States, Israel, and others trample on regional interests and sensibilities—something that plays powerfully to the Islamic Republic’s advantage.  The Saudis really have no other option but to play the sectarian card.  We remain intensely skeptical that this will be a winning play, in the long run, for Saudi Arabia or for the United States.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



As part of the current and ongoing effort to demonize further the Islamic Republic, there has been an uptick in media stories, drawing on conveniently leaked Western intelligence assessments, highlighting Tehran’s allegedly looming acquisition of nuclear weapons.  One of these stories, from The Associated Press, see here, seems particularly emblematic, so we want to look at it more closely. 

The story opens by citing an “intelligence assessment shared with The Associated Press” from “a nation with traditionally reliable intelligence from the region”, which depicts Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as wanting “to shed the nation’s secrecy and forge ahead openly with developing nuclear weapons” but also as “opposed by the clerical leadership, which is worried about international reaction to such a move.”  The story notes that this particular assessment “cannot be confirmed and contrasts with assessments by other countries that view Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as relatively moderate on the nuclear issue compared to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei”. 

Now, obviously, the first and second assessments cannot both be true, which should prompt some very hard questions about how good any of these services’ sources are.  (Does any nation, in fact, have “traditionally reliable intelligence from the region”, particularly with regard to high-level decision-making?  We would not apply that description to the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom, France, or Germany.  Who else is out there?)  But that does not seem to matter. 

The main point, according to The Associated Press, is that “as Iran’s capacity to build nuclear weapons grows, intelligence assessments from nations that follow Tehran’s atomic progress discern increasing indecision and squabbling by its leadership on whether to make such arms—and, if so, how overtly.”  OK, but even if this is true, does it not mean that senior officials in Tehran, including Ayatollah Khamenei, have not actually taken a decision to proceed with weaponization? 

But whether authoritative decision-makers in Tehran have in fact opted to build nuclear weapons does not seem to factor into current discussions in Washington and other Western capitals, either.  Ray Takeyh recently published an Op Ed, see here, in the Washington Post arguing that the Islamic Republic is moving inexorably toward fabricating weapons and it is just a matter of time before it gets there.  At that point, Takeyh opines, neither the Middle East’s balance of power nor Washington’s partisan political struggle will be able to tolerate the new reality.  He foresees fallout in Washington comparable to the “Who Lost China?” debate of the early 1950s.  (As we have sometimes been compared to the “China hands” of that period, we must admit that we were momentarily taken aback by that prediction.)  But all of this skips over the prior question—what is the evidence that the Islamic Republic wants to build nuclear weapons? 

Against this, we want to juxtapose a portion of an interview that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave to Euronews this week, where he discusses the nuclear issue.   To see the interview or read a full transcript, click here; in the interview, Ahmadinejad also offers interesting observations about the Arab spring, the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election, and Iran’s relations with the West.  Ahmadinejad’s points on the nuclear issue are not new; he is not making them in response to some specific new set of international pressures.  Ahmadinejad, the current Foreign Minister, Dr. Salehi, and his predecessor, and other senior Iranian officials have been saying these things literally for years. But, in the current climate, they warrant careful attention.

Euronews:  With respect, Mr President, with regard to the nuclear issue, which worries not only the United States, when you say one thing and appear to do something different it doesn’t engender the conditions for anybody to become more friendly and extend that hand of peace.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:  Why? What have we done wrong?

Euronews:  Well specifically in terms of the nuclear program, you say—and I have no reason to disbelieve you….

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:  Is nuclear activity forbidden?

Euronews:  I’m not even saying they’re prohibited.  Let me explain.  Your stated aim is that your nuclear program is for peaceful means, to produce electricity and energy, and I challenge anybody to argue with that as a peaceful goal.  However, there is the belief among scientists in the West, outside Iran, that you are in fact enriching uranium to such a level—20 percent specifically—that there’s no connection at all with peaceful production of energy for the use of a peaceful people.  So what we have is that, on one hand, you are saying something in public, that you want to use it for peaceful means.  On the other hand, you appear to be doing something that only has one objective, and that is to work towards a bomb.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:  You ask a very good question.  I just felt you were very sincere in your question.  Allow me to explain.  Firstly, those who claim that we are moving towards military activities are not Western scientists, they are Western politicians.  So if you put this into the context of the western hostility towards Iran…

Euronews:  Is Iran enriching uranium to 20 percent?

President Ahmadinejad:  Yes.

Euronews:  And do you have plans to triple that production of uranium at 20 percent?

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:  The production of uranium at 20 per cent is just for peaceful purposes.  This is for a reactor that produces active radio drops.  It just produces drops.  The 20 percent is not good for anything else, it’s only good for drugs and agricultural purposes.  The countries that are capable of enriching uranium can produce uranium at any percentage.  This is the capability that we have.  At the same time, we’re among the limited number of countries whose activities are under the control of the IAEA cameras.  When we say we don’t have any intention to build a bomb, we’re honest and sincere.  We believe that today if someone wants to build a bomb he’s crazy and insane.  This is for two reasons. 

One is that those who have bombs are in graver danger than those who don’t.  The bombs that exist in Germany, in Belgium and other European countries cause a great threat to all European countries.  An atomic bomb is against all humans. 

Second, the nuclear bomb is useless and ineffective.  The Zionist regime has nuclear bombs.  At the same time, did it succeed in its war against the Gazans?  Did its nuclear bomb give it victory in the 33 Day War against Lebanon?  Allow me to ask another question—were the former Soviet Union’s nuclear bombs able to save the Soviet Union from collapse?  Nuclear bombs were used 60 years ago in order to provide an upper hand in political equations, but today they have no value.  Thought has value, public opinion has value, human beings have value.  We believe that in the future no one will ever be able to use nuclear bombs.  We believe that’s the end of the story.”

This is getting ever more reminiscent of the fraudulent case for war that was laid in the run-up to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.  And, as in that episode, the mainstream media are, to a great extent, failing to do minimal due diligence on the intelligence assessments and other official views that are so conveniently made available for them.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett