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The Race for Iran

America’s Defeat in Iraq…and Iran’s Gain

President Barack Obama announced earlier today that the United States will be withdrawing all of its military forces, now in Iraq under the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, by the end of 2011.  He, of course, sought to present this outcome as a great success, both for his policies and the larger war effort.  But have no illusions:  the United States lost its war in Iraq

The decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was America’s biggest strategic blunder since the end of the Cold War.  It has done massive damage to America’s strategic position, in the Middle East and globally

If you are unsure about this claim, please go through the following exercise:  First, compare America’s position in the Middle East 10 years ago to its position there today.  Then, compare the Islamic Republic of Iran’s position in the region 10 years ago—not 10 days, or 10 weeks, or 10 months, but 10 years ago—with its position today.  It is hard to see how any sentient person could go through this exercise and not conclude that, relatively speaking, the United States is in a profoundly weaker position today than 10 years ago.  Conversely, it is hard to see how someone could work through this and not conclude that, relatively speaking, the Islamic Republic is not in a significantly stronger position than 10 years ago. 

There are many reasons for these shifts in the Middle East’s balance of power, but America’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 looms large on both fronts.  This was grand strategy, as practiced by the United States, at its worst.    

Although the decision to invade Iraq was, ultimately George W. Bush’s, it was “legitimated” by robust Democratic support, including from Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, John Kerry, and Ken Pollack (along with many others).  It was truly a bipartisan act of strategic malfeasance. 

In a society that really believed in accountability, none of these Democrats, none of the Republicans who supported President Bush on this matter, and none of the neoconservative pundits and their left-of-center fellow travelers who cheer-led for the war would be accorded serious attention on national security and foreign policy issues, much less be considered for high-level government positions dealing with them.  But that is not how America works these days. 

As an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama gave a speech opposing America’s invasion of Iraq.  But, by the time he arrived at the White House, he had essentially accepted its underlying strategic “logic”.

Today, Obama tried to claim that he is keeping his campaign commitment to pull all U.S. soldiers out of Iraq.  The claim is disingenuous, to say the least.  If Obama had had his way, the United States would be keeping perhaps as many as 20,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq on an open-ended basis.  He is keeping his commitment to withdraw only because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki obliged him to do so. 

We have long advocated a thoroughgoing revision of America’s approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  But the United States needs to rethink its grand strategy in the Middle East more comprehensively.  Obama has clearly demonstrated that he is not prepared to do this. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Earlier this week, The New Republic published its list of America’s Most Overrated Thinkers”, see here.  Among the luminaries included in this eclectic collection are:  Harvard’s Steve Walt, Newt Gingrich, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, columnist Frank Rich of The New York Times, GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, Parag Khanna, Ayn Rand (who has been dead for 30 years), and…Flynt and Hillary Leverett.  For those of our readers who have not seen it, we provide below the citation explaining our inclusion in such an august gathering: 

“When this husband-and-wife foreign policy team left George W. Bush’s National Security Council in 2003, ostensibly over differences regarding the war on terrorism, it was predictable that liberals would leap at any expression of their discontent.  When, in 2006, they sought to publish a New York Times op-ed on Bush’s supposed unwillingness to meet and negotiate with Iranian officials, and the White House insisted on censoring it, the Times published the heavily edited version anyway.  An Esquire profile subsequently cast them as rebellious heroes.  But, in the aftermath of the troubling Iranian elections in 2009, the Leveretts practically turned into champions for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, becoming prominent voices arguing for his legitimacy.  “I think he’s actually a quite intelligent man,” Flynt told TNR in 2010.  “I think he also has really extraordinary political skills.” Apologetics is not analysis. They should be ashamed.”

Instead, we take The New Republic’s citation as a badge of honor:     

–We are proud of having stood up to a White House and politically appointed National Security Council officials who—in violation of their own oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States—sought to abuse the prepublication review process, on crass political grounds, after the relevant executive branch agencies had already determined there was no “classified” information in the aforementioned Op Ed draft. 

–We are proud of having been virtually the only Western-based Iran analysts who were right about the 2009 Iranian presidential election and how Mousavi’s fact-free challenge to the outcome and the Green movement that rose out of it would both fizzle out. 

–We are proud of our commentary on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a politician and President.  We fully agree that “apologetics is not analysis”; we have not been and never will be apologists for anyone.  Our analysis led us to the conclusion that Ahmadinejad is a talented but polarizing political figure who built up significant reservoirs of popular support in Iran.  (We think that analysis, too, is spot on.)  We would be apologists only if we refrained from publishing our conclusions when they might violate the parameters for “acceptable” discourse about the Middle East established by the likes of The New Republic’s publisher and editors.  (We really liked the first comment to the online version of the “Most Overrated Thinkers” list, in which the commenter noted that it would be better titled “a list of people who irritate the editors of TNR”.)        

The New Republic has had us in its sights for some time.  In January 2010, one of its regular contributors, Abbas Milani—an Iranian expatriate who has not been in Iran for decades but presents himself as having an acute grasp of political reality in the Islamic Republic today—devoted an entire column to denouncing an article we published in The New York Times as “the most infuriating Op Ed of the New Year”.  The Op Ed which so infuriated Professor Milani was the first high-profile piece to chart objectively the Green movement’s decline and to predict—accurately and in contradiction to the hyped expectations of Milani and many others—that it would not be able to generate significant protests on February 11, 2010, the anniversary of the Islamic Republic’s founding.  We stand by that piece, and remain proud of it; after the Greens’ dismal showing on February 11, 2010, even a few of our more intellectually honest critics began to acknowledge that we were right all along. 

In February 2010, The New Republic assigned one of its writers, Michael Crowley, to do the intellectual equivalent of a drive-by shooting on us.  His article ended up containing our personal favorite sentence ever written about our work:  after reviewing our assessments of Iranian political developments since the 2009 election, Crowley wrote, “It’s not obvious this analysis is wrong.”  That this sentence survived editing in such a tortured form says virtually everything one needs to know about The New Republic

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Losing Another Opportunity for Nuclear Diplomacy with the Islamic Republic of Iran

Yesterday, Flynt did an interview with the nationally-syndicated Antiwar Radio on the diplomacy surrounding the possibility of some sort of fuel “swap” arrangement for refueling the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR).  You can listen to the interview here. Before the Obama Administration uncorked its accusations of Iranian government complicity in a purported plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington, both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi had said that Tehran remained interested in exploring whether such a deal could be negotiated, and even indicated that the Islamic Republic might be willing to stop enriching uranium to the near-20 percent level required to fabricate fuel for the TRR if it could obtain new fuel from international providers (as it originally requested more than 2 years ago).  Of course, all of that has gotten swept aside in the frenzied attention to the Obama Administration’s charges.  Nevertheless, the interview covers a lot of ground, and digs into the fundamental deficiencies in the Administration’s approach to nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Leveretts on CNN.com: “Iranian ‘Plots’ and American Hubris”

Yesterday, we published a piece “Iranian ‘Plots’ and American Hubris,” on CNN.com, see here; it is also pasted below.  Also, Flynt was interviewed on Ian Masters’ Background Briefing, listen here.  Besides our work, we want to highlight two additional pieces that we think represent important contributions to public discussion of the Obama Administration’s accusations of Iranian government involvement in a plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington.  One, see here, is by Jeffrey Toobin, a Harvard trained lawyer (like our own Hillary and Eric Brill) who is CNN’s legal correspondent; it provides an astute analysis of legal issues (under U.S. law) raised by the Justice Department’s complaint against Mansoor Ababsiar.  The other, by Glenn Greenwald, see here, looks at the utter implausibility of the Obama Administration’s claims; even more importantly, it looks at the supine (one is tempted to say craven) eagerness of Iraq-war champion Ken Pollack and his recent co-author Ray Takeyh to echo the Administration’s line.

Iranian “Plots” and American Hubris

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Calls by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary Hillary Clinton to “unite the world in the isolation of and dealing with the Iranians,” in response to an alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador in Washington, reflect a hubristic misapprehension of reality.

The Obama Administration mistakenly believes it can exploit the accusations for strategic advantage. In fact, they are likely to play to Iran’s advantage, not America’s.

The U.S. foreign policy community profoundly misunderstands the Islamic Republic’s national security strategy. The Islamic Republic seeks to defend itself not primarily by conventional military power, in which it is deficient, but by forging ties to proxy allies around the region-actors with the ability to affect on-the-ground outcomes in key regional settings who are inclined to cooperate with Tehran.

In some cases, these actors are discrete political movements, often with paramilitary capabilities, for example, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shia political parties-cum-militias in Iraq.

In other situations, Tehran sees public opinion as its chief ally. By contrasting some regimes’ cooperation with the United States and Israel with its own posture of “resistance” to American and Israeli ambitions to regional hegemony, Tehran cultivates “soft power” across the Middle East.

Iran conceives its strategy, especially in a period of relative decline in America’s standing, as one that constrains unfriendly regimes in the short term and undermines them in the longer term. Over the last decade, it has helped the Islamic Republic reap significant political and strategic gains in important theaters across the Middle East-Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories.

With the advent of the Arab awakening at the end of last year, Iranian decision-makers are confident that some Arab states’ shift toward governments more reflective of their peoples’ attitudes and concerns-and, hence, more inclined to pursue more independent foreign policies vis-à-vis the United States and Israel-will work to Iran’s advantage.

Iranian policymakers correctly calculated that virtually any successor to Saddam Hussein ‘s regime in Iraq would be a net positive for Iranian interests. Now, they calculate that a successor to the Mubarak regime in Egypt is bound to be less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States and Israel and more receptive to Iran’s message of resistance.

Iran’s strategy toward Saudi Arabia runs very much along these lines. Tehran’s approach is to highlight Saudi collusion with Washington and (at least indirectly) with Israel on important regional issues, thereby attracting support from ordinary Saudis-not just Saudi Shia but also Sunnis who dislike their government’s pro-American stance.

In the short term, Iran seeks to constrain the Saudi government from cooperating in military strikes or other coercive actions against it by making this an unpopular prospect for much of the Saudi population.

In the longer term, Iran is working to transform the regional balance of power from one in which the United States, the Saudis, and other American allies dominate to one in which American, Israeli, and Saudi influence is marginalized by the diplomatic realignment of Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Turkey, post-Saddam Iraq, and now Egypt.

The Saudi leadership tries to push back by portraying Iran as an “alien”, Shia/Persian element in its environment. At times, this helps the Kingdom hold the line against the Islamic Republic’s soft power offensive. But the long-term trend is toward rising Iranian influence. In this context, the notion of an Iranian government plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the United States simply has no logic.

History also suggests we treat the Obama Administration’s claims of Iranian government complicity with deep skepticism.

For eight years, during 1980-1988, the fledgling Islamic Republic had to defend itself against a war of aggression launched by Saddam Hussein — a war of aggression financed primarily by Saudi Arabia. Nearly 300,000 Iranians were killed in that war. But, during the entire conflict, the Iranian government never targeted a single Saudi anywhere in the world.

This is not because the Islamic Republic loves the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is because Iran’s national security strategy ultimately depends on appealing to the Saudi public not to support attacks against Iran, by harnessing popular anger over Israeli actions and U.S. overreach in the war on terror.

Killing a Saudi Ambassador would have exactly the opposite effect. Whatever Mansour Ababsiar and his cousin may have talked about, it is wholly implausible that the Iranian leadership decided that this was a smart thing to do.

The Obama Administration’s calls for more concerted action against Iran will ultimately backfire-because they will be seen in most of the Muslim world (outside Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab monarchies closely linked to Saudi Arabia) as the United States yet again leveling dubious life-and-death charges as the pretext to contain or even eliminate another Muslim power.

President Obama, his advisers, and all Americans need to ask themselves if this is really the time to bring the United States even closer to another Middle East war fought in blind defiance of the region’s strategic realities.


Shaping the Narrative about U.S. Allegations of an Iranian Assassination Plot


Hillary appeared yesterday on CNN International to discuss the allegations of Iranian government involvement in a bizarre plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador in Washington (please click on the video above).   Since her appearance, Obama Administration officials have been scrambling around, back-grounding reporters in an effort to boost the perceived plausibility of the U.S. government’s extremely serious accusations; for example, Reuters and the Los Angeles Times both  report this morning that  Administration officials say that it is very likely the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, approved the alleged plot, though the journalists writing these stories at least pointed out that U.S. officials have no evidence of this but are relying on “analysis.”

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett