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The Race for Iran


**UPDATED, see below**

We have long supported a comprehensive approach to U.S.-Iranian realignment as the only way to put U.S.-Iranian relations on a more productive trajectory.  But we do not understand how anyone can think that the Islamic Republic of Iran—any more than the People’s Republic of China—would negotiate its internal political transformation with the United States. 

Yet this is precisely what Trita Parsi argues in his new book, A Single Roll of the Dice:  Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran, blending distorted treatments of both Iranian politics and Obama’s Iran policy into a deeply misleading and agenda-driven account.  In the aftermath of the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election (which Parsi assured us, and continues to assure his readers, was “fraudulent”), Parsi was one of the most publicly prominent voices calling on the Obama Administration to take a “tactical pause” from diplomacy (which had not yet commenced).  He advocated for such a pause because, he told large numbers of television viewers and Op Ed readers, the Islamic Republic was on the verge of collapse. 

Well, here we are, almost three years later.  The Islamic Republic is still here.  Parsi, for his part, has returned to advocating U.S. engagement with Iran—but only if the Islamic Republic’s internal politics and “human rights situation” are a central part of the agenda.  And the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the advocacy group headed by Parsi, tells us on its website that the goal of U.S. engagement should be “a world in which the United States and a democratic Iran”—no mention of the Islamic Republic—“enjoy peaceful, cooperative relations.” 

Make no mistake:  this is neoconservatism without guns, effectively indistinguishable from the position of Michael Ledeen, who parts from other neoconservatives to side with Parsi and NIAC in opposing military action against Iran, but is ideologically committed to regime change there. 

In a war-fevered environment, a book like Parsi’s can make a difference.  Recall, in this regard, the impact just a decade ago of Ken Pollack’s The Threatening Storm:  The Case for Invading Iraq, which helped to legitimate Democratic support for George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq—and which was dead wrong, analytically and empirically, in all of its major arguments.  To be sure, Parsi’s book is not written as a case for war against Iran, something that Parsi says he does not want.  But, like Pollack, Parsi advances baseless evidence and agenda-driven analysis.  And, in the same way that Pollack’s work helped pave the way for invading Iraq, Parsi’s book—by reinforcing conventional wisdom about Iranian politics and Obama’s Iran policy and counseling bad policy, raises the risk of another disastrous war in the Middle East. 

Because Pollack, like Parsi, is not considered a neoconservative hawk, his book did not get the critical scrutiny it should have before the U.S. went to war.  Although we like Trita Parsi personally, we are compelled to say what we think is so fundamentally wrong and dangerous about his book.  Therefore, we have just published an extended review of A Single Roll of the Dice in Boston Review.  Our essay, entitled “The Soft Side of Regime Change:  Trita Parsi’s A Single Roll of the Dice”, is available online, by clicking here.  We would encourage those interested in posting comments to also do so directly on the Boston Review site; there is a place to do so at the bottom of our article. 


UPDATE:  We have put up with an increasing amount of abuse of this site by Scott Lucas, which a number of people have already complained about in their comments to recent posts.  First of all, we ask Scott Lucas to stop posting “comments” that are devoid of commentary but merely repeat his streaming of select “news” items from Iran.  It is disrupting the ability of others to engage in genuine exchange, debate, and discussion.  If Lucas would like to comment on our site, he knows that he has always been welcome.  Curiously, Lucas has chosen, instead, to comment on our Boston Review article on Trita Parsi’s book, not on Race For Iran, but elsewhere.  We will respond here to his criticisms of our article, which he has posted on the Boston Review site and in other venues. 

Lucas says we have “no support for [our] polemical claims here…apart from the now thread-bare reliance on aging polls conducted with suspect methodology and in the political and ‘security’ environment after the election.”  Three points on this. 

–First, that the 14 polls we cite are “aging” is irrelevant to what they have to say about the dynamics of Iranian public opinion surrounding an election that itself took place almost three years ago. 

–Second, if Lucas wants to claim that these polls’ methodology was “suspect”, he should be obliged to explain what he means by that.  When we describe the polls as “methodologically sound”, we mean the following:  they had sufficiently large and scientifically selected samples to represent accurately the population as a whole and used neutral, clearly worded questions.  Is there anything concrete about these polls that Lucas can identify which would contradict our characterization of them in these terms?  We doubt it.  As to the polls being done in a repressive environment, if Lucas would read the polls in detail he would understand that the pollsters went to considerable lengths to verify that respondents were expressing their true views.  Respondents were hardly averse to voicing criticisms of various aspects of Iranian political life.  The polls done after the election showed no bandwagoning effect, with people trying to present themselves as having been with the re-elected President all along.  And there is a remarkable degree of consistency across the polls, which is a powerful indicator that people were not lying to the pollsters.  If Lucas has something to say on these points that actually deals with polling methodology, he should say it.  Otherwise, he is the one being polemical, not us. 

–Third, it is simply not accurate that, since June 2009, we have “largely relied on a single source, who is supportive of the regime,” for our information, which has made us “near blind” to current conditions in Iran.  This is a cheaply ad hominem statement about us; it also slanders one of our colleagues at the University of Tehran.  We have spent the last 12 years listening to and taking seriously the views of a wide range of Iranian officials, who worked for the Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad administrations, as well as the views of Iranians in a range of professions who, while they may not support every decision or policy of the Iranian government, nonetheless believe in the Islamic Republic.  This is what differentiates our work from that of any other Western analyst we know.  It is also what has enabled us to be consistently right in our assessments of Iranian foreign policy and domestic politics, including in episodes such as the 2009 election and its aftermath, when most other analysts were categorically wrong—from their baseless assertions of massive fraud to their obviously incorrect predictions of the Islamic Republic’s implosion. 

Finally, we want to underscore that challenging the “social fact” of the fraudulent 2009 election, created so cavalierly by Parsi, Lucas, and others, is at least as vital, if not more so, than challenging the “social fact” of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.  Confronting unsubstantiated claims about a “fraudulent” election gets to the foundations of the case for regime change—which, whether represented by hard militarists like John Bolton or soft regime change advocates like Trita Parsi and Scott Lucas, is ultimately what gets the United States into Middle Eastern wars.  This is the same dangerous convergence of the neoconservative right with liberal human rights advocates that enabled the Iraq war.  If the argument had only been over Saddam’s WMD, it is not at all clear the United States would have gone to war.  The United States does not really care all that categorically about nuclear proliferation; it has certainly been prepared to tolerate that where Israel is concerned.  What matters is the kind of regime the United States believes it is dealing with.  That is why pushing back about the social fact of a fraudulent election—brought up again now by Trita Parsi as the basis for his whole argument about the Obama Administration’s diplomatic failures—still matters. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



It is possible that there will another round of nuclear discussions between the P5+1 and Iran in the near future.  Given the extent to which Israel, the United States, and America’s European partners are ratcheting up tensions over the nuclear issue, one hopes that additional talks would help the parties find a peaceful and productive way forward.  But that is unlikely unless the Western powers are prepared to accept the reality that Iran is enriching uranium, that it will continue enriching uranium, and that it has every right to do so under international law.  We want to highlight a few pieces that have come out recently and make this point.

One is from Peter Jenkins, Britain’s former representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  Peter has published several pieces on Race for Iran, and we have always benefited from his analysis and insights.  Peter’s most recent article, “The Deal the West Could Strike With Iran”, was published in The Telegraph earlier this month, see here.  He rightly attributes what he sees as “a big rise in the twin risks of military action and grave damage to the world economy” to “a great diplomatic over bid:  the West’s demand that Iran surrender its capacity to enrich uranium.” 

Peter charts his personal experience with the Iranian nuclear issue, noting how his own views on the matter have evolved.  He states forthrightly that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) “prohibits the manufacture or acquisition of nuclear weapons.  But it permits the uranium enrichment that has been at the heart of the West’s quarrel with Iran.”  He also notes that, today, “the West is all but isolated in insisting that Iran must not enrich.”  The way out, he writes, is

a deal along the following lines:  Iran would accept top-notch IAEA safeguards in return for being allowed to continue enriching uranium.  In addition, Iran would volunteer some confidence-building measures to show that it has no intention of making nuclear weapons.

This, essentially, is the deal that Iran offered the UK, France and Germany in 2005With hindsight, that offer should have been snapped up.  It wasn’t because our objective was to put a stop to all enrichment in Iran.  That has remained the West’s aim ever since, despite countless Iranian reminders that they are unwilling to be treated as a second-class party to the NPT—with fewer rights than other signatories—and despite all the evidence that the Iranian character is more inclined to defiance than buckling under pressure.” 

One of the main reasons this sort of deal was not “snapped up” by the Europeans in 2005 is that the United States, in the form of the George W. Bush Administration, was not on board.  Since the Obama Administration came to office in 2009, there have been periodic flurries of reports in the media and the work of some commentators on the Obama team’s purported willingness to accept safeguarded enrichment in Iran as a negotiated outcome.  The reports are false.  While there are some Obama Administration officials who would be prepared to accept safeguarded enrichment inside Iran as part of a solution to the nuclear issue, there has never been a consensus within the Administration or a presidential decision to this effect.  U.S. policy, unfortunately, is still “zero enrichment” where Iran is concerned. 

But there is another reason the Europeans did not snap up the deal advanced by Iran in 2005.  One of the more striking dynamics inside the P5+1, since the United States finally joined in multilateral nuclear diplomacy with Tehran in 2006, is that Britain and France have both been very hardline on the enrichment issue, discouraging any flexibility by the United States on the matter.  It seems like London and Paris are both chronically concerned about what the development of potential “threshold” capabilities by important regional powers like Iran would mean for the strategic value of Britain and France’s small nuclear arsenals—and what Iran’s rise portends for the West’s ability to continue dominating the Middle East as it has in the past

All of this makes us very skeptical that the United States and its European partners will be prepared to take a fundamentally different approach to nuclear talks with Tehran.  If they are, Peter’s piece shows what such an approach might look like. 

An important element in the current tensions between Iran and the West over the nuclear issue is an extraordinary hyping of the Iranian nuclear “threat” by Western powers and Israel.  In this regard, the most recent IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear activities looms very large.  Peter offers cogent observations about the report in his article, noting that

“the IAEA has not reported evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so.  This is hardly surprising, since the key bits of November’s IAEA report were based on material supplied by Western intelligence.  For years, the Western assessment has been that Iran seeks the capability to build nuclear weapons, but has not taken a decision to produce them.” 

Another richly insightful deconstruction of the IAEA’s recent engagement with Iran’s nuclear program was provided earlier this month by Robert Kelley, see here.  Kelley is an American nuclear engineer who worked for 30 years in the University of California’s nuclear weapons laboratories before serving for nine years at the IAEA.  In his article, “Nuclear Arms Charge Against Iran Is No Slam Dunk”, published by Bloomberg, he notes that the “evidence” of an Iranian nuclear weapons program

“is sketchy.  And the way the data have been presented produces a sickly sense of déjà vu.  I am speaking up about this now because, as a member of the IAEA’s Iraq Action Team in 2003, I learned firsthand how withholding the facts can lead to bloodshed.  Having known the details then, though I was not allowed to speak, I feel a certain shared responsibility for the war that killed more than 4,000 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis.  A private citizen today, I hope to help ensure the facts are clear before the U.S. takes further steps that could lead, intentionally or otherwise, to a new conflagration, this time in Iran.” 

Turning a critical eye to the 24-page IAEA report, Kelly points out that “all but three of the items that were offered as proof of a possible nuclear-arms program are either undated or refer to events before 2004.  The agency spends about 96 percent of a 14-page annex reprising what was already known.”   Of the three relatively “new” indications of “possible military dimensions” to the Iranian program, Kelley points out that

“two of the three are attributed only to two member states, so the sourcing is impossible to evaluate.  In addition, their validity is called into question by the agency’s handling of the third piece of evidence.  That evidence, according to the IAEA, tells u Iran embarked on a four-year program, starting around 2006, to validate the design of a device to produce a burst of neutrons that could initiate a fission chain reaction.  Though I cannot say for sure what source the agency is relying on, I can say for certain that this project was earlier at the center of what appeared to be a misinformation campaign. 

In 2009, the IAEA received a two-page document, purporting to come from Iran, describing this same alleged work.  Mohamed ElBaradei, who was then the agency’s director general, rejected the information because there was no chain of custody for the paper, no clear source, document markings, date of issue or anything else that could establish its authenticity.  What’s more, the document contained style errors, suggesting the author was not a native Farsi speaker. It appeared to have been typed using an Arabic, rather than a Farsi, word-processing program.  When ElBaradei put the document in the trash heap, the U.K.’s Times newspaper published it.

This episode had suspicious similarities to a previous case that proved definitively to be a hoax.  In 1995, the IAEA received several documents from the Sunday Times, a sister paper to the Times, purporting to show that Iraq had resumed its nuclear-weapons program in spite of all evidence to the contrary.  The IAEA quickly determined that the documents were elaborate forgeries.  There were mistakes in formatting the documents’ markings, classification and dates, and many errors in language and style indicated the author’s first language was something other than Arabic or Farsi.  Inspections in Iraq later in 1995 confirmed incontrovertibly that there had been no reconstitution of the Iraqi nuclear program.

I regret now that ElBaradei did not speak out more vehemently, before the U.S. went to war, about the 1995 faked documents, additional forgeries provided to the agency in 2003 and other falsifications.  A good man, he had been an international lawyer with years of experience dealing with half-truths and prevarications.  But he was trapped between telling the whole story and overtly insulting the U.S., which supplied 25 percent of the IAEA’s funding.

For example, ElBaradei labeled documents provided to the IAEA about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from Africa “not authentic.”  A better description would have been “blatant and amateurish forgeries.”  He provided evidence that aluminum tubes the U.S. said were for nuclear centrifuges were actually for rockets.  But he did not supply the supporting engineering details publicly.  The truth was lost in the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s scandalous detailing of Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, which was wrong in almost every respect.

ElBaradei’s successor also has fallen short by failing to note in his report the earlier doubts that Iran was continuing to develop a neutron-producing device.  If Amano has found new reasons to overlook the many questionable aspects of this story, he should present them.  Given past doubts about the episode, the agency’s reporting on it should be above reproach. When it comes to accurately accounting for potential diversions of nuclear materials, the IAEA’s main mission, the agency has gone about its work with precision.  It needs to be just as exacting when it delves into allegations about Iran’s weapons intentions.”   

The third and fourth pieces we want to highlight here are by Iranians, and were written as critical responses to Matthew Kroenig’s recent Foreign Affairs article, “Time to Attack Iran:  Why a Strike is the Least Bad Option”, which we, see here, as well as Stephen Walt, see here, and Paul Pillar, see here, have also critiqued.  Kayhan Barzegar, who teaches at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran and whose work has been featured previously on Race For Iran, published “Military Option Is the Worst Possible Scenario” in Iran Review  earlier this month, see here, (it was originally published in Farsi in Tabnak; later Sanaz Tabeafshar, a Ph.D. candidate at the Islamic Azad University, published “Attacking Iran is the Least Good Option, Dr. Kroenig!” in Iran Review , see here

Kayhan zeroes in on the same passage in Kroenig’s article that we did—his warning that “a nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East.”  Kayhan rightly links Kroenig’s “hyperbolic stance regarding the peril of Iran’s nuclear program and portrayal of it as an ‘urgent’ danger” to “neo-conservative ideas previously circulating in the U.S. political establishment as well as uncritical conformity with the Israeli perspective on the issue.” 

–This perspective undergirds Kroenig’s unsubstantiated insistence that Iran’s nuclear activities are inevitably aimed at weaponization. 

–Kayhan notes in response that

Tehran’s recent measures to move its sophisticated centrifuges to the Fordo site in Qom, announced the opening of a new nuclear site, and recently making nuclear fuel rods and plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and so on have been taken with the aim of creating ‘political equality’ in the nuclear negotiations with the West.” 

Of course, that is precisely what London, Paris, and Washington do not want—for Iran to achieve something approaching “political equality” in its dealings with the West.  Kayhan points out that, if one were really serious about dealing with nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, one would embrace the idea of nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ) in the region, noting that, according to a recent World Public Opinion poll, “64 percent of the Israeli public favors a NWFZ in the Middle East, mostly [as a way] of checking Iran’s nuclear program.”  But that idea is not going to get serious consideration by Western governments anytime soon. 

As to a possible attack against Iran, by either the United States or Israel, Kayhan graciously recalls that,

“as the Leveretts precisely argue, the military attack is only justified on the basis of the peaceful enrichment activities of Iran, to which it is entitled according to the [NPT].  One should perceive that such a perspective aims mostly to preserve the nuclear monopoly of the Israeli regime in the Middle East.” 

More broadly, Kayhan underscores how Kroenig

“once again falls into the trap of traditional and simplistic self-contradiction typical of the neo-conservative way of thinking which holds that the United States enjoys indefinite military power and can advance its objectives by means or war, a conception which has helped to prolong the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…the author conceives that Washington can launch a military offense against Iran successfully and pull out of the conflict easily without having to suffer any dire consequences.” 

Kayhan lays out multiple reasons why such a conception is highly fanciful. 

Sanaz Tabeafshar, in her critique of Kroenig’s article, picks up on some of Kayhan’s broader strategic themes, noting that

after the withdrawal of the American troops from Iraq, a strategic deal between the U.S. and Afghan government, the Arab spring and isolation of Turkey from the Middle East, the territorial swath controlled by Iran has extended from western Afghanistan up to the Mediterranean Sea…With or without any so-called nuclear bomb, Iran’s direct or indirect way of pursuing its foreign policy has, according to Greg Bruno of the Council on Foreign Relations, made ‘a veto holding power on Middle Eastern peace’.” 

We, of course, have argued for some time that Iran’s rising regional influence bolsters the imperatives for U.S. rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.  As Tabeafshar underscores, this also reinforces the sheer foolhardiness of a unilateral strike against Iranian nuclear targets.  She points out that, if Iran were attacked, beyond closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles, Tehran could confront the United States and its partners with “the uprising of Shias through the religious decree of jihad which would be extended out of the region and will come off with proxy attacks against U.S. military installations.”  Moreover, “even in the best case scenario of a strike that, say, set back the Iranian peaceful nuclear program by 2 or 3 years, the Iranians would reseed it with much legitimacy and urgency that only come from having been attacked by an outside power.” 

The case for serious U.S. diplomacy with Iran could not be clearer.  But seriousness, in this context, will require very significant changes in U.S. policy and Washington’s overarching attitude about the Islamic Republic.  We hope that we are wrong, but we do not think it likely that the Obama Administration will be up for this, especially not at the President continues his re-election bid

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Hillary appeared on Konflikt (Conflict), Swedish Radio’s in-depth foreign affairs program, to talk about her experience as an American diplomat negotiating with Iranian counterparts over Afghanistan and how that experience informs her current views about U.S. and Iranian strategies in the Middle East today.   You can listen to the interview, which is in English after a very brief introduction in Swedish, by clicking: here.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Law professor and former Justice Department official, John Yoo (right), with former Vice President Cheney's legal advisor, David Addington

Our colleague Eric Brill has produced a detailed analysis of John Yoo’s recent article, “An Unavoidable Challenge—Now is the Time to Make the Case for Military Action Against Iran,” which we are pleased to publish below.  Last month, we noted and discussed Yoo’s piece, which purported to develop a legal case for a U.S.-initiated war against Iran, but which struck us as largely an argument that the United States should and could disregard international law.  In the course of Eric’s deconstruction of Yoo’s reasoning, Eric notes that

“Whatever his views on Iran may be…any president or candidate may safely overlook John Yoo.  He advocates nothing profound or complicated—merely that the US ignore its most important commitments under the UN Charter whenever they are inconvenient, while continuing to claim all benefits of UN membership.  If this inconsistency does not bother the leader in question, he will feel no need for any thinker to provide a legal justification.  If he does feel such a need, John Yoo will be of no use to him.”   

On this point, we were struck recently by a Rick Santorum campaign event broadcast on C-Span.  After Santorum had finished speaking, he milled informally with the crowd.  Before C-Span cut away for its next program, viewers could see and hear a man come up to Santorum and ask, in an utterly non-hostile, non-challenging way, that since Congress had not declared war on Iran and the United Nations has not authorized the use of force, “are we [the United States] allowed” to go ahead and attack Iran anyway.  Santorum confidently assured the man, “Yes, we are.”  The camera cut away then, so we could not hear Santorum’s further explanation.  But we strongly suspect that Santorum, like all of the Republican candidates save Ron Paul, has already found his inner John Yoo. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


A Review of

“An Unavoidable Challenge –
Now is the Time to Make the Case
for Military Action Against Iran”

by John Yoo, National Review, December 31, 2011

Reviewed by Eric A. Brill

John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is best known for his brief stint at the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration (2001-2003), where he authored a controversial memorandum approving the use of torture in prisoner interrogations at Guantanamo Bay. In the reviewed article, Yoo argues that the US should attack Iran to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons because this “would cause a radical reversal of the balance of power” in that part of the world, a prospect that “justifies action in itself.” The US need not and should not seek authorization from the UN Security Council, Yoo argues, because the UN “has no armed forces of its own, has a crippled decision-making system, and lacks political legitimacy.”

John Yoo’s article becomes most interesting when one reaches this passage:

Obama has [failed] to build the legal case for attacking Iran. Instead, the administration has tethered American national security to the dictates of the United Nations.

The reader naturally anticipates that Yoo will “build the legal case” that Obama has neglected, but he does not. He simply asserts that the US has a right to ignore its commitments under the UN Charter (while remaining a UN member) whenever it perceives a “grave threat to American interests.” Yoo believes Iran fits that description and so he recommends that the US attack Iran without asking the Security Council whether it approves, just as the US did when it invaded Iraq nine years ago.

Yoo sets the bar high for himself:

… the U.N. Charter guarantees the “territorial integrity” and “political independence” of each member nation, and prohibits the use of force except in self defense [or] war to prevent threats to international peace and security, but only if approved by the Security Council. … Just as national governments claim a monopoly on the use of force within their borders and in exchange offer police protection, the U.N. asks nations to give up their right to go to war and in exchange offers to police the world.

But Yoo insists that the UN is incapable of upholding its “policing” side of the bargain: “[The] U.N. has no armed forces of its own, has a crippled decision-making system, and lacks political legitimacy.” The conclusion Yoo draws from these three UN shortcomings is not explicitly stated but nonetheless clear: they invalidate the Security Council’s exclusive peace-keeping authority under the UN Charter.

Does Yoo’s first observation – that “the U.N. has no armed forces of its own” – entitle the US to engage in world-policing on its own initiative? There are several reasons why the UN has never had armed forces, but they do not matter here. What does matter is that all UN members, including the US, have always understood that the Security Council would carry out approved military interventions by calling upon member countries for ad hoc contributions of armed forces, and that is what has happened. The US has never recommended that a standing UN military force be created, and probably never will.

Yoo complains also about the UN’s “crippled decision-making system.” He has in mind the veto rights of the Security Council’s five permanent members – the US, Great Britain, France, China and Russia – which enable especially the last two to block military interventions proposed by the US. It is unlikely, however, that Yoo would describe the Security Council’s decision-making system as “crippled” when the US vetoes a proposed Security Council action, as it has done many times. That system is no more “crippled” when China or Russia blocks a US-proposed military intervention. The Security Council’s decision-making system works well enough – just not always to Yoo’s liking.

Yoo’s third assertion – that the UN “lacks political legitimacy” – is the most puzzling of all. The UN achieved political legitimacy when its members (nearly every country in the world) adopted the UN Charter and agreed to be bound by it. No country has ever been forced to join the UN, and every UN member is free to withdraw at any time. The UN’s political legitimacy is not diminished merely because a member nation disagrees with a particular Security Council action. Yet the following sentence warns the reader that Yoo will soon be arguing just that:

[The Security Council’s exclusive authority to approve military interventions] is contrary to both American national interests and global welfare because it subjects any intervention, no matter how justified or beneficial, to the approval of authoritarian nations.

“Authoritarian nations” – not a flattering description – refers to the 15 members of the Security Council, exercising their clear authority under the UN Charter. “Authorized” would be correct.

Yoo points out that a Security Council decision may conflict with the US’ national interest, an obvious possibility that the US undoubtedly considered before joining the UN. As a veto-wielding permanent member, the US can prevent the Security Council from taking any action, and it has done so many times. It is Security Council inaction that bothers Yoo, however, since the US has no power to prevent that. Inaction highlights the veto power of China and Russia, who “generally oppose intervention in what they consider ‘internal’ affairs…[and] can usually be counted on to protect other oppressive regimes by blocking U.N. approval for war….”

Yoo adds that the Security Council may not always decide correctly what is best for “global welfare.” In his view, there are military interventions that are “justified or beneficial” even if the Security Council does not think so. That may be, but the key question remains: Other than the Security Council, who should be authorized to approve a military intervention to protect international security? By agreeing to abide by the UN Charter, every UN member has given the same answer: no one. If asked again, very few would add the US to the list.

In short, the proper response to each of Yoo’s two points is the same: The US clearly understood these risks and accepted them by approving a UN Charter that grants the Security Council exclusive authority to approve military action other than in self-defense. If Yoo believes the US should withdraw from the UN, he should say so, which he does not. Unless and until the US withdraws, it should honor its commitments, just as it often demands of other UN members.

Given these feeble challenges to the Security Council’s authority over military interventions, it is not surprising that Yoo turns to the single recognized exception: the sovereign right of each UN member to defend itself. He introduces this “self-defense” exception in a hypothetical argument that the US might present to the Security Council if it does seek approval to attack Iran:

But if the president seeks U.N. authorization for a military action against Iran, his administration will have to make a case much like the one that the Bush administration made regarding Iraq. It can argue that destroying Iran’s nuclear weapons is a combination of self defense and protecting international security.

As Yoo recalls well, however, the “international security” prong of this argument failed to impress the Security Council in the lead-up to the Iraq war. Several members, including usually reliable US allies, openly disagreed that attacking Iraq was necessary to protect international security. This left the US with only its “self-defense” argument, which fared much better because the US felt obliged to persuade only itself and other members of its small “coalition of the willing.” That proved not to be difficult, and the US soon attacked Iraq without even asking for Security Council approval. Though the US nevertheless claimed broad support, the Security Council’s skepticism appears to have reflected world opinion: only three other countries contributed troops to the invasion force – the United Kingdom, Poland and Australia, homes to about 2% of the world’s population.

Hindsight has enabled most observers to conclude that the US’ self-defense argument was flimsy regarding Iraq; foresight was sufficient for many who actually evaluated the US’ proffered evidence. Yoo nevertheless believes a similar self-defense argument justifies an attack on Iran. Although he offers an unpersuasive analogy to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis – in which the US blocked Soviet ships from delivering ready-to-fire nuclear missiles to Cuba, where they were to have been placed on already-built launching pads and aimed at Florida targets 90 miles away – Yoo makes clear that “self-defense” has the same broad scope and vague limits it had before the Iraq war. It does not require that Iran have nuclear weapons or be likely to obtain them in the near future, nor that Iran actually could attack the United States if it ever does. It is sufficient for Yoo that, in his opinion, the balance of power in that part of the world would change:

A president need not wait until an attack is imminent before taking action. Iranian nuclear capabilities would cause a radical reversal of the balance of power, and that fact justifies action in itself.

Yoo does not explain why this “justifies action in itself.” As with most elements of his “legal case,” he merely declares it and moves on, as if his point were self-evident. What “justifies action” under the UN Charter, however, is either (1) self-defense; or (2) Security Council approval. There is no third choice – unless a country withdraws from the UN, which Yoo does not recommend.

Yoo makes a fair point that “self-defense” should not require a country to wait until enemy troops are massed at its border, much less streaming across. One can easily understand why he nonetheless prefers not to dwell on whether an unprovoked US attack on Iran, for the purpose of maintaining the strategic “balance of power” in a region halfway around the world, can fairly be characterized as US “self-defense.” Unless that label fits, however, the best that can be said about such an attack is that its aim would be to protect international security – in which case it would require Security Council approval. If a UN member’s right of self-defense were deemed to have no limit short of what the country itself might declare, the Security Council’s exclusive authority to determine threats to international security would be meaningless. Any UN member could attack whomever and whenever it sees fit, simply claiming “self-defense” to insulate itself from any claim that Security Council approval is required or that its war-making threatens international security.

Yoo probably would acknowledge that the Security Council may set limits on a UN member’s right of self-defense. For example, it is unlikely that he questioned the Security Council’s authority to reject Saddam Hussein’s “self-defense” objection when it ordered the return of nuclear inspectors to Iraq in 2002, or to reject Moammar Qaddafi’s insistence that his army was defending Libya against lawless rebels in 2011. If Iran should ever reverse course and insist it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself, the Security Council undoubtedly would reject that claim as well, and Yoo would not challenge its authority to do so.

Nonetheless, Yoo’s broad self-defense justification – based here on nothing more than his predicted shift in the “balance of power” in Iran’s part of the world – would leave the US free of any practical restraint. Instead of requiring Security Council approval for military intervention, it would permit the US to attack any country whenever it likes – unless and until the Security Council affirmatively rejects the US’ claimed justification. That, of course, will never happen. Unlike Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi, the US can veto any action by the Security Council. In effect, Yoo’s practically limitless definition of “self-defense” would transform the veto power of the Security Council’s permanent members from an annoying obstacle, as the US considers it when Russia or China (or France) opposes a military intervention proposed by the US, into a useful tool with which the US can prevent the Security Council from ever challenging its characterization of aggressive military action as self-defense.

Though Yoo’s prose sounds tough at times, his arguments lack the boldness necessary to give them any claim to validity. Most important, he does not recommend that the US withdraw from the UN, which would terminate its commitment to abide by the UN Charter. Yoo apparently prefers that the US remain a UN member but pick and choose among the burdens and benefits of membership. For example, he does not question the Security Council’s authority to adopt resolutions of which the US approves. Nor does he object when the US insists that other countries comply fully with those resolutions, or demands that even harsher resolutions be adopted. He does not complain that the UN Charter permits the US to veto any Security Council proposal it does not like – only that Russia and China are permitted to do the same thing. Yoo’s complaints about the UN are reserved for situations where the US desires military intervention but the Security Council declines to authorize it. Only then does he insist that the Security Council lacks “political legitimacy,” that its decision-making system is “crippled,” and that the US is being short-changed in its UN bargain because “the U.N. has no armed forces of its own.” That is when an unapproved US attack on another country, based on Yoo’s broad “balance of power” view of self-defense, strikes him as justified by the Security Council’s failure to recognize what is plain to Yoo: “global welfare” requires such an attack.

Yoo believes the US wasted precious time before the 2003 Iraq war. Initially it tried to fit its attack decision within a UN Charter framework, insisting that the Security Council’s 2002 resolution ordering the return of nuclear inspectors to Iraq (1441) was sufficient authorization for an attack, or that resolutions left over from the 1991 Gulf War (678 and 687) could be dusted off and used again. It even considered requesting explicit attack authority until its closest ally (Great Britain) advised that this would be futile. In the end, however, the US despaired of these efforts and fell back on its “self-defense” argument, appointed itself as the sole judge of that argument, and, not surprisingly, concluded that the argument was compelling.

Yoo worries that Barrack Obama might dawdle with Iran as his predecessor dawdled with Iraq, and he sees danger signs in Obama’s handling of the 2011 Libya uprising:

In Libya, Obama delayed launching the air war until the Security Council approved the intervention, allowing a popular revolution to metastasize into a prolonged, destructive civil war. The same craving for international approval may lead the administration to put off military action against Iran until it is too late.

If Obama will not act without seeking UN approval, Yoo thinks he should be replaced by someone who has laid the groundwork for Yoo’s plan to be carried out:

The United States has assumed the role, once held by Great Britain, of guaranteeing free trade and economic development, spreading liberal values, and maintaining international security. … The Republican presidential candidates should begin preparing the case now for this difficult but unavoidable challenge.

Whatever his views on Iran may be, however, any president or candidate may safely overlook John Yoo. He advocates nothing profound or complicated – merely that the US ignore its most important commitments under the UN Charter whenever they are inconvenient, while continuing to claim all benefits of UN membership. If this inconsistency does not bother the leader in question, he will feel no need for any thinker to provide a legal justification. If he does feel such a need, John Yoo will be of no use to him.



Iranian Scientist Killed January 11, Fars News Agency Photo

A rising tide of commentary attributes the most recent assassination of a scientist connected with Iran’s nuclear or missile programs—and perhaps previous killings of Iranian scientists—to Israel.  The Obama Administration has publicly disavowed any involvement in the killings.  Today, Mark Perry published an important article, see here, citing multiple current and retired U.S. intelligence officials as saying that what the Iranian government, several other foreign governments, and any number of Western journalists have perceived as clandestine U.S. support for the Balochi separatist group, Jundallah, is, in fact, a “false flag” operation conducted by Israel’s Mossad without Washington’s approval. 

We know and respect Mark Perry, and we do not question his reporting on his contacts and conversations with current and former U.S. intelligence officials.  However, in order to assess U.S. involvement in the ongoing covert war against the Islamic Republic, it is important to put Mark’s story in a wider context. We have written, on multiple occasions, see here, here and here, about America’s dangerous dance with Jundallah and, more broadly, anti-Iranian covert action.  That the Obama Administration is now trying to distance itself from some aspects of this dance, by fobbing it off on Israel (to be sure, anything but an innocent party), does not extricate it from its past decisions or current actions.

First, that Israel was (and still may be) conducting a false flag operation using Jundallah to carry out lethal attacks inside Iran does not say anything, in itself, about possible U.S. support for the group.  Prior Western media reporting on the issue indicates that U.S. support for Jundallah was “indirect”—meaning that, as with Nicaraguan contras in the 1980s, Washington relied on third parties to deliver funding to Jundallah.  Moreover, Perry’s sources say that, since the United States learned about this Israeli false flag operation, neither the Bush Administration nor the Obama Administration has done anything to convey its displeasure to Israel.  So, one must ask, just how displeased is official Washington?

Second, Washington’s handling of Jundallah’s designation as a foreign terrorist organization remains highly suspicious.  Mark’s sources, as well as our own contacts, in the U.S. government, indicate that U.S. intelligence has had sufficient information on Jundallah to warrant its designation as a foreign terrorist organization for years. Yet, both the George W. Bush Administration and the Obama Administration refrained from doing so.  In fact, the Obama Administration reviewed the question in detail in February 2009 and again later that year.  But, while the Administration designated the Kurdish separatist group PJAK (primarily as a gesture to Turkey, although PJAK has also acted against Iran), it refused to designated Jundallah.  U.S. officials have told us that the reason was ongoing interest in maintaining Jundallah as an anti-Iranian card.  Washington only designated Jundallah in November 2010, months after Iran had captured and executed its leader. 

Third, Mark’s sources say that within weeks of taking office, the Obama Administration “drastically scaled back joint U.S.-Israel intelligence programs targeting Iran.”  We are skeptical that this claim is correct; if the Obama Administration had taken such a decision, the Netanyahu government (which took office in 2009), would almost certainly have leaked it as a way of pressuring Washington.  But, even if the claim is correct, as the Administration was supposedly ratcheting down its anti-Iranian intelligence activities with Israel, it was ratcheting up its unilateral intelligence activities against the Islamic Republic, primarily through the U.S. military.  In May 2010, the New York Times reported on a “Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order”, signed by then CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus in September 2009 authorizing the sending of U.S. Special Operations personnel to Iran “to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program” and “identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive.”

Since early in Obama’s presidency, we have criticized, see here, his initial decision to continue the anti-Iranian covert programs he inherited from President Bush, comparing his lack of strategic vision to the statesmanship of President Richard Nixon—who, on coming to the White House in 1969, ordered the CIA to stand down from a longstanding covert action program in Tibet, to show Beijing that he was serious about rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China.  For all that parts of the Obama Administration are trying to distance themselves from particularly outrageous Israeli operations, Obama’s overall policy on anti-Iranian covert action continues to head in the wrong direction. 

And, in terms of distancing itself from outrageous actions, we think that the Obama Administration could very easily show its seriousness on the point.  As Paul Pillar points out, see here, “the killing of an individual foreigner overseas, if carried out for a political or policy purpose by either a non-state actor or clandestine agents of a state is an act of international terrorism”, according to U.S. law.  So, Secretary of State Clinton should announce that, if the United States identifies any group involved in caring out politically-motivated murders inside Iran, it will designate that group as a foreign terrorist organization.  Furthermore, if the United States identifies any foreign government carrying out, instigating, or facilitating politically-motivated murders inside Iran, it will designate that government as a state sponsor of terrorism. 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett