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The Race for Iran


Earlier this month, Flynt gave a public lecture at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs and Dickinson School of Law, where he teaches.  His presentation was entitled “Energy, Economics, and the Lost Art of Grand Strategy:  American Policy Toward the Persian Gulf and Rising Asia in the 21st Century,” and can be seen here

In this lecture, Flynt makes a number of points that should be of interest to those who care about Iran and its geopolitics, including its vexed relationship with the United States.  He argues (and is hardly alone in making the point) that “if one considers where America was 20 years ago and compares that to where the United States is today, in terms of its ability to achieve its own stated, high-priority objectives in the world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the United States is a declining power.”  It is declining “because, since the end of the Cold War, American political and policy elites have failed to do their job as strategists.  They have failed to define clear, ‘reality-based’ strategic goals and to relate the diplomatic, economic, and military tools at Washington’s disposal to realizing these goals in a sober and efficacious manner.”  (This is “the lost art of grand strategy” referred to in the lecture’s title.) 

Flynt holds that “over the past several decades, American policy has been pulled in opposite directions by two competing models of what is the optimal grand strategy for the United States.”  On one side, there is a “global leadership model, whereby the United States seeks to maximize its international standing and influence through adroit management of regional and global power balances and through the creation of what economists would call public goods for its allies and for others that it wants to draw into more cooperative relationships.”  (The definitive modern example of adroitly managing the balance of power through diplomacy, in keeping with this model, is the U.S. opening to the People’s Republic of China in the early 1970s.) 

On the other side, there is a “global transformation model, whereby the United States seeks not to manage the balance of power but to transcend it, by becoming a hegemon, in key regions of the world and globally…In the post-Cold War period, this model has helped to drive a plethora of bad policy choices by the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations.” 

To return to the earlier point about American decline, the chief reason why American policy is failing “is because, since the end of the Cold War, the global transformation model has gained almost complete ascendancy over the global leadership model in American policy circles.”  This is seriously problematic because champions of the transformation model—whether neoconservatives on the right or liberal internationalists on the left, refuse to accept, as Flynt says in the lecture,  

“a lesson that balance of power theorists and foreign policy realists, even those of, as John Mearsheimer refers to himself, the offensive realist variety, all know:  that, while hegemony might seem nice to have in theory, in the real world it is unattainableEven a state as powerful as the United States coming out of the Cold War can’t do it.  And, even more importantly, the pursuit of hegemony, in the face of objective, material reality, is not just quixotic—it is deeply counter-productive for a great power’s strategic positionIt inevitably overstretches a great power’s resources…and inevitably sparks resistance and counter-balancing behavior from others.  Pursuing hegemony actually ends up making you weakerAnd that is the story of American foreign policy over the last 20 years or so.” 

Flynt then looks at American policy toward the Persian Gulf (and the Middle East more broadly) and rising Asia (with an emphasis on China) to see how the failure to internalize this timeless lesson is propelling the United States to the brink of strategic failure.  Flynt’s colleague, Amy Gaudion, gives him a beautiful introduction but for viewers who want to cut straight to his presentation, go to 9:45 into the video.  And, for those who want to cut to the substance of his presentation, go to 12:15 into the video. 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 



In the run-up to this weekend’s P5+1 “negotiations” with the Islamic Republic, two of America’s leading newspapers published stories reflecting deep-seated myths about the Islamic Republic rather than reporting on real facts. 

First, Farnaz Fassihi of The Wall Street Journal “reported”, see here, on the perennial myth that internal divisions had “seeped” into the nuclear file and could derail any talks with Iran.  She then asserts that “Iran suspended the talks in 2009 after massive demonstrations against the government for alleged voter fraud in the presidential elections.”  This is blatantly misleading

–Fassihi was in Iran in 2009; she must know that there were no talks going on at the time of the Islamic Republic’s presidential contest in June of that year, so there was nothing to suspend.  The United States had deliberately delayed going into negotiations so as not to give incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a “boost” before the election. 

–She must also know that, after talks finally got going after the election, it was the P5+1 that suspended them in January 2010 because Tehran would not accede to its demands

But Fassihi does not let her disregard for simple facts stop there.  According to her, “many ordinary Iranians” say “that ‘Mr. Khamenei should drink the jar of poison and compromise with the West.’”  This is also highly misleading: at best, Fassihi is taking what a few people might have told her over the phone and presenting it as if it were the result of a scientific poll. 

Since Fassihi does not report from the Islamic Republic, there is no way that she could know whether “many ordinary Iranians” liken the situation today with the West over their nuclear program to the time when Khomenei decided to accept a cease-fire ending the Iran-Iraq War—after 300,000 Iranians had been killed, the United States had shot down an Iranian civilian airliner, and the Islamic Republic had won back all its territory.   

–As we have discussed here in many posts, polls and other indicators show that most Iranians strongly oppose what they would consider surrendering their nuclear program–something that Fassihi completely neglects to tell her readers

Second, we were struck by the crude attempt to analyze Ayatollah Khamenei’s statements about nuclear weapons and the Iranian nuclear program by James Risen of The New York Times, see here.  Risen starts off well enough, noting that “C.I.A. analysts studying the geopolitical gamesmanship now at play over Iran’s nuclear program have expensive and highly classified tools at their disposal, but one of their best sources is free and readily available:  the public utterances of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”  We ourselves have frequently commented on how rich and important Ayatollah Khamenei’s statements on these subjects are. 

But then, Risen indulges the unsubstantiated boilerplate that constitutes so much of America’s conventional wisdom about the Islamic Republic:  “Like much of the information about Iran’s secretive and enigmatic government, Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks are sometimes contradictory, and always subject to widely different interpretations.” 

Risen notes that, in February, Khamenei said, “Iran is not seeking to have the atomic bomb, possession of which is pointless, dangerous and is a great sin from an intellectual and a religious point of view.”  He duly reports that, in March, Khamenei said, “We do not possess a nuclear weapon, and we will not build one.”  He further recounts that “Ayatollah Khamenei has also issued a fatwa, an Islamic edict, against the acquisition of a nuclear bomb by Iran.” 

OK, so what’s the problem?  According to Risen, “those comments are…at odds with some of Iran’s behavior.”  Although Risen never tells us what that behavior might be, the context would lead an educated reader to conclude that this behavior must be an actual Iranian effort to build nuclear weapons. That is flat out unsubstantiated innuendo.  There is no evidence—from the IAEA, from U.S. intelligence agencies, or from anywhere else—that the Islamic Republic is trying to or has even taken a decision to try to build nuclear weapons. 

In addition, Risen asserts that Ayatollah Khamenei’s condemnation of nuclear weapons as a violation of Islam are “at odds” with what he “has said in the past.”  Risen’s one example of such a contradictory statement?  Remarks that

Khamenei made last year that it was a mistake for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya to give up his nuclear weapons program.  Referring to Col. Qaddafi, Ayatollah Khamenei said that “this gentleman wrapped up all his nuclear facilities, packed them on a ship and delivered them to the West and said, ‘Take them!’…Look where we are and in what position they are now,” he added. 

At no point in the passage quoted by Risen, or anywhere else in the address from which it is extracted, does Ayatollah Khamenei say, as Risen characterizes it, that “it was a mistake for [Qaddafi] to give up his nuclear weapons program.”  Rather, Khamenei points out what happened after Qaddafi surrendered “all his nuclear facilities” and trusted his government’s security to the United States

–As far as we can tell, Khamenei’s point is entirely accurateIt helps explain why he and other Iranian leaders are determined not to surrender the Islamic Republic’s civil nuclear program—because, if they did, it would mean the end of the Islamic Republic’s strategic independence

–This in no way contradicts Khamenei’s multiple statements that the Islamic Republic does not want nuclear weapons, not least because they are haraam—forbidden by God. 

But the worst part of Risen’s article comes when he resorts to blatantly false stereotypes about Shi’a Islam:  “Complicating matters further, some analysts”—he names not a single one—“say that Ayatollah Khamenei’s denial of Iranian nuclear ambitions has to be seen as part of a Shiite historical concept called taqiyya, or religious dissembling.”  While Risen does not embrace this utter misreading of taqiyya as his own, his uncritical presentation of it circulates, in The New York Times, a bigoted misreading of Shi’a doctrine as justifying lying

Taqiyya is a religious teaching, rooted in the Qur’an, which instructs Muslims (under specific conditions) that they may disguise their religious identity to save themselves and other believers.  It has parallels in other Abrahamic traditions.  Consider, for example, the following passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional…Charity and respect for the truth should dictate the response to every request for information or communication…No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it. 

 Taqiyya is not a license for hypocrisy; it neither condones lying nor relieves Muslims of the obligation to live up to their commitments, in contracts, treaties, or otherwise.  It certainly does not justify a religious leader lying to his fellow Muslims about matters on which he is offering moral guidance and instruction—which is what one has to think in order to argue that Ayatollah Khamenei’s multiple statements over several years about the immorality of nuclear weapons are an exercise in taqiyyaIt is truly bizarre that Risen and The New York Times cited “analysts” anonymously in order to make such a loaded and factually inaccurate point

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Earlier this week, Hillary went on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story to talk about the United States’ “strategic pivot” (as the Obama Administration describes it) toward Asia, from the Middle East, see here or click on video above.  The other panelists are Barry Pavel, a former National Security Council defense policy staffer for both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, and Gordon Chang, a political analyst who focuses on China. 

The program is revealing about the cultural drivers that, ultimately, contribute so heavily to the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy.  It also provides a prism for considering some interesting developments in Chinese thinking about the United States that have potentially significant implications for Beijing’s policy on the Iranian nuclear issue and other Iran-related controversies involving the United States

Barry Pavel begins the discussion by explaining some of the historical context for the current effort to “rebalance” American forces in the Middle East and Asia.  He claims that the United States was headed in this direction more than a decade ago, before 9/11, but was compelled by the 9/11 attacks to devote more military resources and strategic energy to the Middle East than would otherwise have been the case.  While holding that the logic for a pivot toward Asia is sound, after “the long 10 years of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Pavel predicts that it is likely to turn out to be largely “rhetorical”—it is “not going to happen,” he says, because developments in the Middle East will continue to draw substantial commitments of American military power. 

Hillary responds by noting that many strategic elites in Beijing would agree with Pavel that the United States was beginning to concentrate its strategic attention and military resources on Asia in the late 1990s and beginning of the 2000s, for the purpose of preventing China’s rise as a regional and even prospectively global power.  After 9/11, Chinese elites calculated that they might have as much as 20 years to focus on their country’s domestic growth and political development, while the United States was preoccupied in the Middle East.  Now they see this window being cut short by Washington’s pivot away from a failed effort to consolidate its hegemony over the Middle East to trying instead to reinstate a more clearly hegemonic posture for the United States in Asia

Furthermore, Hillary notes, China sees the Obama Administration retreating from important parts of the “core bargain” that Beijing and Washington struck in the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, worked with the first-generation leadership of the People’s Republic to realign Sino-American relations.  Among other things, this bargain posited that the United States was no longer going to pursue outright hegemony in Asia (an approach that had ensnared it in the tragedy/strategic stupidity of the Vietnam War).  Instead, it would, in effect, share strategic leadership with China, recognizing the People’s Republic as a legitimate political entity with legitimate national interests.  Now, from a Chinese vantage, the United States looks to be getting back into the hegemony business in Asia.  (On this point, consider Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s article in Foreign Policy in November 2011, see here.) 

Gordon Chang, who has long been a sharp critic of the People’s Republic of China on multiple fronts (he published a book in 2001 anticipating its collapse), argues that the pivot is a perfectly reasonable reaction to “conduct that is unacceptable” by the Chinese.  Aside from being the People’s Republic, this conduct, according to Chang, consists of asserting territorial claims in the South China Seas with which other regional states disagree and continuing to insist that Taiwan is part of China.  In light of this behavior, other Asian countries have been compelled to ask the United States to build up its military presence in the region. 

Hillary observes that this is the same sort of explanation offered by Washington to justify expanded U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf:  American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia feel threatened by the growing influence of a rising regional power—the Islamic Republic of Iran—committed to protecting and enhancing its strategic independence. 

–From this perspective, Washington never takes into consideration how these allies’ policies have themselves contributed to regional insecurity. 

–It also never takes into consideration how rising regional powers committed to defending their strategic independence—whether the People’s Republic of China in Asia or the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Middle East—interpret the historical record of America’s involvement in their regional neighborhoods and how that affects their perception of current U.S. policy. 

Additionally, Hillary notes that there is a difference between aspiring regional powers, like China and the Islamic Republic, that act in ways they judge necessary to protect their core interests and enhance their regional and international standing, and an expansionist power like the United States which believes that its own security ultimately requires it to transform as much of the rest of the world as possible to look like itself.  In this regard, it appears that China is reaching a turning point in its perception of America’s strategic intentions, not just in Asia but also in the Middle East, which is increasingly important to the People’s Republic in a number of the same ways it has long been important to the United States

A powerful account of this shift is provided by a new monograph published earlier this week, Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust, see here, co-authored by Wang Jisi, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and one of China’s most eminent strategic thinkers and academic specialists on the United States.  Prof. Wang’s portion of the monograph has already drawn considerable attention, including an article in The New York Times.  We highlight some of its many important points below:

Prof. Wang notes that, in the post-Cold War world. China’s approach to the United States “was premised on the fact—and the assessment—that China’s power and international status were far weaker than those of America, and that the global balance at that moment tiled toward Western political systems, values, and capitalism.”  Since 2008, however, “several developments have reshaped China’s views of the international structure and global trends, and therefore of its attitude toward the United States.”  Prof. Wang than elucidates several of these developments: 

“First, many Chinese officials believe that their nation has ascended to be a first-class power in the world and should be treated as such.  China has successfully weathered not only the 1997-98 global financial crisis; the latter, in Chinese eyes, was caused by deep deficiencies in the U.S. economy and politics.  China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy and seems to be the number two in world politics, as well…Chinese leaders do not credit these successes to the United States or to the U.S.-led world order. 

Second, the United States is seen in China generally as a declining power over the long run.  America’s financial disorder, alarming deficit and unemployment rate, slow economic recovery, and domestic political polarization are viewed as but a few indications that the United States is headed for decline…It is now a question of how many years, rather than how many decades, before China replaces the United States as the largest economy in the world. 

Third, from the perspective of China’s leaders, the shifting power balance between China and the United States is part of an emerging new structure in today’s world.  While the Western world at large is faced with economic setbacks, emerging powers like India, Brazil, Russia, and South Africa join China in challenging Western dominance…

Fourth, it is a popular notion among Chinese political elites, including some national leaders, that China’s development model provides an alternative to Western democracy and experiences for other developing countries to learn from, while many developing countries that have introduced Western values and political systems are experiencing disorder and chaos.” 

These shifting views of the international structure overlap with longstanding Chinese concerns about the American posture toward the People’s Republic: 

“It is strongly believed in China that the ultimate goal of the United States in world affairs is to maintain its hegemony and dominance and, as a result, Washington will attempt to prevent the emerging powers, in particular China, from achieving their goals and enhancing their stature.”

All of this, in Prof. Wang’s reading, affects Chinese views of American positions on a host of security and economic issues.  On top of that, “the perceived changing power balance between China and the United States has prompted many Chinese to expect, and aspire to, a more ‘can-do’ PRC foreign policy, and the Chinese leadership clearly recognizes these sentiments.”  Focusing on the Middle East more particularly, Prof. Wang notes that Beijing’s policy toward Iran is

“facing a dilemma.  On the one hand, China supports the principle of nonproliferation together with the United States and its European allies.  On the other hand, the Chinese are concerned that Washington’s high-handed position toward Tehran is driven more by an American desire to change the political structure of Iran and the geopolitical picture in the Middle East than by its declared goal of keeping the Iranians from obtaining nuclear weapons…

Although the turbulence in the Arab world since early 2011 is not viewed in Beijing as necessarily stirred up by, and beneficial to, the U.S., the Chinese government was perturbed by the forceful intervention of the Western world in Libya in 2011.  Further advance of U.S. schemes in the region, now being unfolded in Syria, would be seen as detrimental to regional stability at the expense of China.” 

We have already witnessed Beijing taking a more “can-do” approach to the region, coordinating with Russia to veto a U.S.-backed Security Council resolution on Syria and making clear it will not facilitate Libya-style intervention in Syria or endorse any political process there stipulating upfront that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must leave officeNow, according to Prof. Wang, “China is not ready to support more U.S. sanctions against Iran by cutting off its own trade relations with Tehran.” 

For its part, of course, the Obama Administration has committed itself to a policy under which it will be under enormous pressure to sanction important Chinese companies and financial institutions of the People’s Republic does not cut off—or at least radically reduce—its trade relations with the Islamic Republic.  Does the administration really believe that, by threatening such sanctions, it can compel Beijing to do serious damage to Chinese interests—and surrender its strategic independence, to boot—by cooperating with unilaterally asserted U.S. and European sanctions, which are already driving up the price of oil?  The Iranian nuclear issue is likely to turn out to be, on many levels, a major turning point for America’s relative standing as a great power, in the Middle East and globally

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett