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The Race for Iran

TOM DONILON AND THE MYTH OF IRAN’S “ISOLATION”

photo from Foreign Policy

President Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, spoke last week at the Brookings Institution on “Iran and International Pressure:  An Assessment of International Efforts to Impede Iran’s Nuclear Program”, see here.  His remarks provide as comprehensive and authoritative testimony as it is possible to find as to the strategic vacuity—and duplicity—of the Obama Administration’s Iran policy.  This is, of course, a subject we have explored regularly on Race for Iran.   

Donilon’s remarks also reveal the profoundly ill-informed and deeply delusional assessments of Iran’s policies, strategic position, etc., that undergird U.S. policy.  In this regard, we want to focus on one of the more prominent themes in Donilon’s address:  the Administration’s claim as to “how profoundly the Iranian regime has been weakened and isolated, at home, in the region, and globally.”  This trope is becoming part of the evolving-yet-fundamentally-unchanging conventional wisdom about the Islamic Republic in Washington policy circles and among American political and media elites.  A couple of recent pieces offer badly needed doses of reality on the matter. 

With regard to Iran’s purported international isolation, we want to highlight M.K. Bhadrakumar’s “BRICs Block the US on Middle East”, posted on Indian Punchline:  Reflections on Foreign Affairs, see here.  Bhadrakumar, a richly experienced retired senior Indian diplomat, provides a useful assessment of the deputy foreign ministers of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) in Moscow last week.  Here is his summary of the final communique, in five points (please take particular note of the fourth item): 

–“BRICS has taken a common position with regard to what has come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’.  The basic principles have been identified:  focus should be on peaceful national dialogue; no excuse for foreign intervention; central role of the UN Security Council.

–BRICS took a common stance on Syria.  The key sentence is, ‘Any external interference in Syria’s affairs, not in accordance with the UN Charter, should be excluded.’

–BRICS calls for a ‘thorough review’ of the appropriateness of the NATO intervention in Libya and suggests a UN mission in Tripoli to handle the current transition process, flagging specifically a role for African Union.

–BRICS rejected the threat of force against Iran and called for continued dialogue and negotiations.  Most significantly, it criticised the US-EU moves on additional sanctions, calling them ‘counterproductive’ measures that would ‘only exacerbate’ the situation.

–BRICS lauded the GCC initiative on Yemen as an example.”

Bhadrakumar notes that this “will be received well in Damascus and Tehran.  On the contrary, it is a setback for the US and its allies who are ratcheting up the tensions over Syria and Iran.  No doubt, India’s participation in the Moscow meeting is a matter of particular interest.  Washington will take note.  Russia virtually got the BRICs to censure US’s interventionist policies in the Middle East.” 

We think the point that rising powers are becoming decidedly less tolerant of Washington’s hegemonic unilateralism is important, and will become an ever more significant aspect of international politics in coming months and years.  It is, of course, a trend from which the Islamic Republic can only benefit.     

With regard to accounts of Iran’s international economic isolation, we want to highlight a piece published in The Guardian by Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a young academic at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.  (Adib-Moghaddam is the author of—among other things—Iran and World Politics:  The Question of the Islamic Republic, which has definitely been a stimulus to our own analysis of Western stereotypes about modern Iranian politics.) 

In his Op Ed, see here, Adib-Moghaddam Adib-Moghaddam explains simply and clearly that

“the argument that Iran is economically isolated does not hold…According to the most recent UNCTAD report, foreign direct investment to the country has increased exponentially from $1.6 bn in 2008 to $3.6 bn in 2010.  This does not mean that there are no serious economic problems in the country…It means that there is another side to the Iran story that is subdued for ideological reasons.  Ultimately, the US and to a lesser extent the European Union are disqualifying themselves from the Iranian market during a period of intense economic calamity.  China and Russia say ‘thank you’.” 

We agree that America and Europe’s ongoing determination to keep trying to isolate Iran—first and foremost, by isolating themselves from Iran—is economically as well as strategically ill-considered.  But Bhadrakumar and Adib-Moghaddam’s analyses also put the lie to another point that Donilon made, not in his Brookings speech but a few days earlier, see here, while talking to reporters in Indonesia during President Obama’s recent Asia tour:  “The isolation that Iran is undergoing right now…really is unprecedented.  They see themselves wholly isolated.” (emphasis added)  We are left, once again, wondering which is worse:  that the national security adviser to the President of the United States is prepared to say something so manifestly untrue with regard to Iran, or that the national security adviser to the President of the United States may actually believe his own statement.      

In addition to the points about international investment flows to the Islamic Republic, Adib-Moghaddam’s Op Ed takes on the narrative (also emphasized at some length by Donilon), that “the Iranian state is likely to collapse under the pressure of sanctions”.  As Adib-Moghaddam elaborates, this narrative “maintains that Iran is running out of money and that its economy is teetering on the brink.  This has been repeatedly presented as an argument in support of sanctions or as an example of the incompetence of the Iranian state”. 

But, Adib-Moghaddam points out, this narrative “does not correspond to the facts”, as reported by the World Bank as well as the International Monetary Fund.  He notes the Islamic Republic’s “early successes with the subsidy reform programme” and “advances in the financial sector, which is boosted by a buoyant stock market”.  He has other interesting things to say about various “soft factors that feed into the relative stability of the Iranian economy”, including its accomplishments in technological innovation and scientific research. 

This helps undergird Adib-Moghaddam’s dismantling of conventional arguments in the West that “the Iranian state is collapsing”.  Beyond his economic analysis, he offers a succinct summary of “several interdependent reasons” why the Iranian state is likely to remain stable.  The manner in which Adib-Moghaddam formulates these reasons suggests a clearly pro-reformist predilection on his part, but the basic factors he identifies—“popular accountability”, a “committed base” supporting the state, and “no real penchant within the country for revolution”—are on point.  This, in particular, really caught our eye:

“there is no over-dependency on the west that would yield a legitimacy crisis (as in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali’s Tunisia and under the shah) and there is no subservience to Israeli demands. The Iranian government’s strident emphasis on “national independence” continues to garner support within Iranian society.”

Adib-Moghaddam concludes with the important observation, with which we entirely agree, that nuanced and informed assessments of economic, social, and political realities in the Islamic Republic

“are largely subdued in many analyses about Iran.  Instead, there exists an entire literature of instant expertise that is tied to the politics of the moment.  If the analysis of a country is wrong the policy prescriptions are bound to be wrong too.  Afghanistan and Iraq are very good examples of that relationship between the absence of sound knowledge on a country and strategic failure.” 

It will be very difficult to repeat that admonition too frequently in the coming months. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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THE “IRAQIZATION” OF AMERICA’S IRAN DEBATE: MOHAMMAD JAVAD LARIJANI AND THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA

Mohammad Javad Larijani’s visit to New York earlier this week for meetings at the United Nations coincides with a striking upturn in anti-Iranian media coverage and commentary in the West.  To address some of the issues raised in the media, Larijani met with several media personalities and a range of Iran “observers” at policy organizations in New York.  His media appearances this past week not only provide a window into how the Islamic Republic sees its present situation and future prospects; they also provide a window into current trends in American elite thinking and discourse about Iran.  And those trends are, to put it gently, disturbing. 

Before we unpack that, it is interesting to note some points about Larijani’s background, for those who might not be familiar with him.  From a Western frame of reference, one might describe him as a “Renaissance man”, but that strikes us as too limited a label for him.  He is, of course, one of the Larijani brothers (who also include the current parliament speaker, the head of the judiciary, and the chancellor of Iran’s most prestigious medical school).  Son of one of the most honored grand ayatollahs of the 20th century, Mohammad Javad Larijani studied both in the Qom hawza (seminary) and in the electrical engineering faculty at Sharif University of Technology (Iran’s MIT).  He then pursued doctoral studies in mathematics at Berkeley, before returning to Iran at the time of the revolution. 

Since the Islamic Republic’s founding, Larijani has had a distinguished political career, as a member of parliament and deputy Foreign Minister; he currently serves as secretary general of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, as an adviser to the head of the judiciary, and as an adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.  He also directs the Islamic Republic’s leading research institute for mathematics and theoretical physics. 

As one might surmise from this background, Larijani is thoroughly grounded in modern science as well as Islamic theology and law.  He is also well-schooled in Western philosophy and political theory; while talking about the Islamic Republic’s ongoing project to construct a democratic system grounded not in Western liberalism but in “Islamic rationality”, he can make very astute references to David Hume, John Stuart Mill, and other prominent Western liberal thinkers.  And, of course, he can offer uniquely informed observations about Iranian politics and foreign policy.  In short, it is a bracing intellectual experience (and a lot of fun) to talk with him. 

These qualities come across in an hour-long interview that Larijani gave to Charlie Rose, see here.  We ourselves have appeared on Charlie Rose, and admire his program.  While we would not agree with all of Charlie’s interpretations of events in the contemporary Middle East, he strikes us as genuinely interested in using the interview to present Larijani’s ideas to his viewers, not to push his own political or policy agenda.  Consequently, the interview offers a rich bounty of insights into high-level Iranian thinking about the nuclear issue, the Arab spring, and Iranian domestic politics. 

If, however, one wants to learn more about the cultural and intellectual pathologies currently afflicting America’s Iran debate, it is hard to do better than the interview Larijani gave on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, see here.  The chief interviewer is Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski (daughter of Zbigniew); she is aided by regular MSNBC commentator Mike Barnicle, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, and author-journalist Jon Meacham. 

The interview is itself troubling—Larijani holds up fine, and is worth watching, but Brzezinski, Barnicle, Haass, and Meacham are clearly not out to offer viewers the chance to understand a well-informed Iranian perspective on important issues of the day.  Their agenda is embarrassingly evident:  to ratify the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report as “proof” that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons, to portray the Islamic Republic as ideologically hell-bent on Israel’s destruction, and to underscore how “isolated” Iran is becoming, regionally and internationally.  The interviewers are out to affirm all of these claims as social “facts”—in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the affirmation of various social “facts” about Saddam Husayn’s WMD programs, ties to Al-Qa’ida, and other issues in the run-up to America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. 

As bad as all this is, the segment immediately following the interview, after Larijani had left the set (which starts at 16:28 in the previous link) is even more troubling.  Brzezinski—who said she was “disturbed” by the interview—opens by comparing it with a breakfast meeting she attended with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where he “sat around making a mockery of the entire situation”; she “just saw that all over again” during the conversation with Larijani.  Then, in a remarkable display of intellectual fatuousness, Brzezinksi, Barnicle, Haass, and Meacham collectively determine that Larijiani’s “confident” demeanor (their description, during the interview itself) is evidence that the Islamic Republic is the antithesis of a “rational actor” (sic; one really has to see it to believe it). 

Haass, though, delivers the real punch line; in his view, the interview suggests that, for

“whoever is the next occupant of the White House, be it Barack Obama or one of the Republicans, this could well be National Security Issue #1.  If we can’t, through some combination of sanctions, covert action, what have you, either change the government of Iran or so slow their nuclear program, the next President is going to be faced with a binary choice.  Either we’re going to have to learn to live with an Iranian nuclear program, with all that would potentially mean for Middle Eastern instability (imagine what a crisis would look like between Israel and Iran, over Lebanon, with both countries with nuclear weapons, or what it would mean potentially for an Iranian hand-off of nuclear stuff to a group like HAMAS or Hizballah).  Or, Israel and the United States will have to seriously consider using military force against the Iranian nuclear program, which could buy you a couple of years…You’ve got to hope for regime change in Iran, which unfortunately doesn’t look like it’s happening.  Can you ratchet up sanctions?  Can you go after the Iranian export of oil?  Now, that’s really going to the edge of economic warfare.  But might that not be preferable to going to the edge of warfare warfare.”

Richard’s point about the United States coordinating with Israel over the use of military force against Iran resurfaced on Morning Joe the next day, see here, when Mika Brzezinski and company had on Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman—whom Richard is advising—to discuss his campaign.  Although current polls suggest that Huntsman’s chances of winning the Republic nomination are not high, he would be an attractive candidate for Secretary of States in any incoming Republican administration.  When the discussion turned to Iran, Huntsman had this to say:

“Iran will be the transcendent issue of the decade…They’re moving inexorably towards weaponization, and we’ll, at some point over the next couple of years, have a serious conversation with Israel about what to do.  And then it will be, can you live with a nuclear Iran?  And, if the answer is yes, you’re going to have proliferation problems in the region…and that would be disastrous…Internally, within the mullah leadership in Tehran, they’ve decided to go nuclear.  I think they want the prestige that carries…The United States should sit down with Israel and have a conversation about what we’re willing to do in a region that, with Iran occupying a nuclear weapon could so change the dynamic that it would provide long-term instability.  And, then say, in that case, all options are on the table.”    

Haass’s role in this is especially galling.  Although, after the fact, Richard wants everyone to believe that he was all along opposed to the Iraq invasion, as Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff he helped oversee the preparation of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, see here, which was critical to “selling” the idea of a U.S.-led invasion.  Now, from his platform as President of the Council on Foreign Relations, he is doing exactly the same thing with respect to Iran—adducing false “facts” and bad analysis to lay the ground, intellectually and politically speaking, for another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East.  And the mainstream media are falling in line to help him do it—just as, a decade ago, they helped Ken Pollack and many others disseminate utterly bogus claims and arguments to justify the invasion of Iraq. 

Make no mistake:  American elites are gearing up for military confrontation with the Islamic Republic—and, in the process, displaying all of the cultural, intellectual, and political pathologies that produced the 2003 Iraq war.  We do not believe that the United States is likely to initiate such a confrontation before the next presidential election in November 2012.  But Richard’s timetable—that is, during either an Obama second term or the first term of his Republican successor—seems on point.  It will take a lot to head this one off.  For those who, like us, believe that another U.S.-initiated war would be a strategic disaster—first of all, for the United States—the next 18 months will likely be the period in which either there is enough of an intellectual pushback to stop the folly, or the United States puts itself on an inexorable path toward attacking Iran. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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IRAN, THE UNITED STATES, AND THE GEOPOLITICS OF ENERGY

 

Flynt appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, in a segment called “A Gas OPEC in the Making?”, click on the picture above or the link here, to discuss the Gas Exporting Countries’ Forum in Doha.  Although the conversation was not focused on Iran per se, Flynt made some points that are relevant to thinking about the Islamic Republic’s strategic position and America’s Iran policy. 

One of the many manifestations of internal incoherence in U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic concerns energy:  At a time of mounting concern about the adequacy of global oil and gas supplies in coming years (with all that portends for energy prices), Washington continues to insist that the world’s second-largest proven reserves of conventional crude oil (in Iran) and the world’s second-largest proven reserves of natural gas (also in Iran) should stay in the ground, for reasons that have nothing to do with the global energy balance. 

–To reinforce the point, the United States forbids American energy companies from doing business in Iran.  It also threatens third-country energy companies doing or contemplating doing business in Iran with so-called “secondary sanctions”—almost certainly illegal under the World Trade Organization, though no one has litigated the question yet—and various types of political pressure. 

–Furthermore, American policymakers continue to insist that Iran’s massive hydrocarbon reserves should stay in the ground until they decide it is “OK” to monetize them—again, for reasons that have nothing to do with the global energy balance. 

As the United States pursues this incoherent—or, as Flynt says on Inside Story, “schizophrenic”—approach, it also continues to insist that it is providing the world with the vital public good of energy security.  More specifically, U.S. officials in multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic (including the Obama Administration), have claimed that America’s commitment to ensuring the physical security of hydrocarbon exports from the Persian Gulf—a commitment enshrined in the 1980s Carter Doctrine—is something from which everyone benefits.  This includes not just traditional U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, but also major energy-exporting countries and rising powers like China. 

However, if one considers some of America’s more provocative strategic initiatives in recent years, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, notwithstanding these declaratory commitments, Washington often acts in ways that, in fact, limit the flow of Persian Gulf hydrocarbons to international oil and gas markets.  (Behind closed doors, this assessment seems to be shared by critical clusters of people in the Middle East and China.)  American sanctions policy toward Iran very much follows this pattern.  If the United States moved to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, as part of an effort to impose an effective embargo on Iranian oil exports, the genuineness of Washington’s commitment to the free flow of Persian Gulf hydrocarbons as a global public good would be called into even more serious question, see here

As a senior Japanese diplomat put it to us recently, the United States is really only committed to ensuring the free flow of Saudi oil to international markets.  This suggests that America is only interested in providing the “public good” of energy security in ways that fit with its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.  In the end, just how much of a public good is that? 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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PULLING THE IAEA INTO THE “ATTACK IRAN” DEBATE WILL BACKFIRE

U.S. Representative to IAEA, Glyn Davies

Ever since Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei stepped down as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late 2009, the United States and some of its allies have pushed Baradei’s successor, Yukiya Amano, to ratify Western arguments that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons.  Today, Amano authorized the release of an IAEA report, see here, purporting to do just that. 

Predictably, the report is being treated in some quarters as an effective casus belli.  As the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy commented after the document’s release, see here, the report “should serve to shift the public debate from whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, to how to stop it”.  It is not difficult to imagine how Republican presidential candidates will strive to “out-hawk” one another—and, especially, President Obama—during their next debate this coming Saturday as to their willingness to go to war to stop the Islamic Republic from building a nuclear bomb.    

But the report—arguably the most anticipated document of its kind since the NPT was first advanced in 1968—does not in any way demonstrate that Iran is “developing a nuclear weapon”.  Rather, it once again affirms, as the IAEA has for decades, Iran’s “non-diversion” of nuclear material.  In other words, even if the Islamic Republic wanted to build nuclear weapons (and Tehran continues to deny, at the highest levels of authority, that it wishes to do so) it does not have the weapons-grade material essential to the task.    

Nevertheless, Amano chose to focus the report on unsubstantiated intelligence reports, provided almost entirely by the United States, Israel, and other Western governments, alleging that the Islamic Republic is working on a nuclear weapons program.  Most of this information has been available to the IAEA for years.  But Baradei refused to publicize it during his tenure as the Agency’s chief—because he could neither corroborate it nor be confident about its provenance and quality.  Remember, Baradei had been right about the state of Iraq’s nuclear program in 2002, when all of the intelligence services and national governments that would later try getting him spun up about Iran had been spectacularly wrong.  And he was not going to let the United States or anyone else steamroller him on Iran.      

Amano, unfortunately, does not bring the same kind of intellectual and political integrity to his job as his predecessor.  The United States, Israel, and other Western governments had to work hard to get the IAEA’s Board of Governors to elect Amano in 2009, by the narrowest possible margin, barely overcoming a challenge from South Africa’s distinguished ambassador to the Agency, Abdul Minty.  But Washington and its allies got what they wanted.  An October 2009 cable from the U.S. mission to the IAEA, published last year by Wikileaks, see here, reported that Amano had “reminded [the U.S. Ambassador to the IAEA] on several occasions that he would need to make concessions” at times to developing countries, “but that he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision”, including “the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.”    

And so the latest IAEA report treats its readers to sensational stories of Iranian nuclear weapons designs and experiments on things that can supposedly only be applied to the fabrication of nuclear weapons.  None of these stories is corroborated by hard evidence, but the Amano-led IAEA passes them on anyway, with its effective imprimatur. 

There are many reasons to question virtually every detail in the IAEA’s accounting of the “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program.  But, more importantly, the stories do not indicate that Tehran is currently trying to produce nuclear weapons.  (And, remember, Iran does not have the weapons-grade fissile material needed to build a nuclear bomb.)  In fact, no one has ever produced a shred of evidence that Iran has ever actually tried to build a nuclear weapon or taken a decision to do so.  And that is why—notwithstanding the efforts of the Obama Administration, some allied governments, neoconservative and pro-Israel constituencies in Washington, and others to hype IAEA report to the maximum extent possible—the new IAEA report is, substantively, a colossal non-event.      

The NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon state signatories from receiving “the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly”.  Non-nuclear-weapon states also undertake “not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” and “not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices”. 

The emphasis is on “manufacture” and “acquisition”.  The Treaty prohibits the building of actual weapons.  It does not prohibit signatories from studying nuclear weapons designs, or researching neutron initiators, or even conducting experiments on high-explosives of the sort that could be used in a bomb. 

Even if every single point in the IAEA’s report were absolutely, 100 percent true, it would mean that Iran is working systematically to master the skills it would need to fabricate nuclear weapons at some hypothetical point down the road, should it ever decide to do so.  This is how we ourselves have long interpreted the strategic purposes of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program—to create perceptions on the part of potential adversaries that Tehran is capable of building nuclear weapons in a finite period of time, without actually building them.  As Baradei himself has pointed out, see here, having a “nuclear weapons capability” is not the same as having nuclear weapons.

Iranian efforts to develop a “nuclear weapons capability”, as described by Baradei, may make American and Israeli elites uncomfortable.  But it is not a violation of the NPT or any other legal obligation that the Islamic Republic has undertaken.  While the NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states from building atomic bombs, developing a nuclear weapons capability is, in Baradei’s words, “kosher” under the NPT, see here.  It is certainly not a justification—strategically, legally, or morally—for armed aggression against Iran.     

In the end, the United States and its allies have a choice to make.  They can continue down a path that will ultimately prompt them to launch yet another illegal and ill-considered war for hegemonic domination in the Middle East.  But the consequences of attacking Iran are likely to be far more damaging for America’s strategic position in the Middle East than the reverses it suffered as a result of its 2003 invasion of Iraq.  (We would ask anyone who questions whether the Iraq war was profoundly counter-productive for the United States simply to compare Washington’s standing and influence in the Middle East 10 years ago to its standing and influence there today; viewed through this prism, the measure of self-inflicted damage to America’s strategic position in this critical region is truly extraordinary.) 

Alternatively, the United States and its allies can accept the Islamic Republic as an enduring political order with legitimate interests and sovereign rights, and come to terms with it—much as the United States came to terms with the People’s Republic of China in the  1970s.  In the nuclear arena, specifically, this means accepting, in principle and in reality, the continued development of Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, while working with Tehran to put in place multilateral arrangements to ensure that the proliferation risks associated with uranium enrichment in Iran (as in any other country) are controlled. 

Based on our conversations with senior Iranian officials, we are convinced that this is precisely the sort of conversation Tehran wants to have with Western and other international interlocutors about their nuclear program.  But the United States—under the Obama Administration every bit as much as under the George W. Bush Administration—refuses to pursue this sort of dialogue. 

Until that changes, the United States is headed toward another strategic disaster in the Middle East.  And, by succumbing to American pressure, the IAEA has raised the odds that this is precisely what will occur. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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OBAMA FAILS TO WIN SUPPORT OUTSIDE WASHINGTON FOR SANCTIONING IRAN’S CENTRAL BANK

Flynt appeared on Al Jazeera Friday, see video above, to discuss press reports, see here, that the Obama Administration has at least temporarily backed off its plans to impose sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran (CBI).  As Flynt points out, the idea of sanctioning the CBI is nothing new.  Neoconservatives and their fellow travelers in the Obama Administration have wanted to it for some time—above all, because it is a “back door” way of imposing an international embargo on Iranian oil exports. 

But there have always been powerful arguments against sanctioning the CBI (which may have something to do with neither the Bush Administration of the Obama Administration actually moving ahead with the idea).  The notion of sanctioning the CBI would be truly bad policy.  So why, over the past few weeks, did the Obama Administration start what looked like it might be a serious effort (at least by the Obama Administration’s standards) to drum up international support for doing it?  As Flynt notes, the answer—which often seems to be a major part of the explanation for bad foreign policy decisions by Obama—is domestic politics. 

The Obama Administration is under mounting pressure from pro-Israel constituencies and the Congress to sanction the CBI.  This pressure helps to explain not only the Administration’s decision to start an international drive for tougher sanctions against Iran (including, potentially, sanctions on the CBI), but also the otherwise bizarre timing of its high-profile accusations—advanced by no less than the Attorney General and President Obama himself—of Iranian government complicity in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, see here.     

In essence, the Team Obama hoped that its sensational charges against Tehran would persuade otherwise resistant third countries to reconsider imposing sanctions on the CBI—thereby allowing it to look “tough” and hold Congress’s latest proposals for truly idiotic Iran sanctions laws at bay.  (Both houses of Congress are considering bills that, if enacted, would not only push the executive branch toward sanctioning the CBI but would also prohibit any U.S. diplomat from talking to an Iranian official unless Congress were notified at least 15 days in advance, and the President claimed that contact was necessary to avoid severe harm to U.S. national security.)  But the master plan did not work.  As senior U.S. officials have traveled to Europe and Asia during the past couple of weeks to shop around the idea of sanctioning the CBI, the response has not been encouraging, to say the least.   

Frankly, no one other than Gulf Arab elites and a few pliable Europeans (mostly British, as far as we can tell) believes the Obama Administration’s story about Iranian government sponsorship of a plot to kill Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.  Furthermore, whatever the merits of the Administration’s claims, buying Iranian crude and avoiding a major, price-raising disruption of international oil markets is simply more important for many substantial international players than accommodating the latest in Washington’s never-ending stream of petty gripes against the Islamic Republic. 

And, so, once again, the Obama Administration must try to make the best of a bad situation of its own devising.  Thus, Administration officials, speaking on background, tell reporters that they have decided to back off sanctioning the CBI because they do not want oil prices to go higher.  But the claim is dishonest on its face.  If that were the Administration’s priority, why shop around the idea of sanctioning the CBI in the first place?  What is disheartening is that the Administration was prepared to go through with this; it just could not find enough willing partners to do so. 

Moreover, the issue of sanctioning the CBI is not going away.  Motivated by pro-Israel constituencies and election-year politics, Congress will continue pressing for sanctions legislation that, if enacted, would be profoundly damaging to American interests.  If the Administration really wants to head this off, at some point, President Obama will have to find his own political backbone.  Given his Administration’s record on Iran policy, we are not optimistic about this prospect.       

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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