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The Race for Iran


Last week, Flynt appeared on Antiwar Radio to talk about the P5+1 nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic; it can be heard here.  As in previous interviews, see here [link to previous post], Flynt emphasized that President Obama and his foreign policy team seem no more prepared to deal with the major issues that must be addressed to enable a meaningful agreement—accepting internationally safeguarded enrichment in Iran and recognizing that a negotiated solution will necessarily entail significant sanctions relief—than it was during its previous attempt at nuclear diplomacy during 2009-2010.  And as long as this is the case, there is little chance of “success” in the negotiations.      

In response to a constructively provocative question about why the Obama Administration persists in an approach that is doomed to fail, Flynt argued that the Administration felt compelled—by rising oil prices, Israeli threats to attack Iran, and the perceived need to demonstrate America’s ongoing leadership role in international affairs—to come back to the negotiating table.  But this was a purely tactical decision; it did not prompt any reconsideration of the Administration’s larger Iran strategy (such as it is). 

Flynt pointed out that, while domestic politics is obviously part of the Administration’s reluctance to pursue a policy grounded in reality, a more fundamental element is the Obama team’s ongoing commitment to American hegemony in the Middle East.  A determination to dominate the region badly warps the Obama Administration’s diplomatic approach, for it treats nuclear negotiations with Tehran as a venue for making the Islamic Republic surrender to American demands, not as an important element in realigning the U.S.-Iranian relationship. 

As Flynt explained, there is “no serious argument” for not recognizing Iran’s right to enrich.  But President Obama and his team “don’t want the deal that would actually work,” which would entail recognizing Iran’s right while Tehran accepted more robust safeguards and verification measures.  And they don’t want this deal because it would require treating the Islamic Republic as an important country with legitimate national interests—including protecting its right to enrich—that the United States needs to accommodate

Of course, a willingness to accommodate the legitimate interests of a rising revolutionary power is precisely what enabled the realignment of Sino-American relations in the early 1970s.  When Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969, twenty years of unremitting hostility toward the People’s Republic of China as part of a quixotic pursuit of hegemony in Asia “ended up getting us into the Vietnam war” and had damaged the United States’ broader strategic position, in Asia and globally.  Nixon and Henry Kissinger believed deeply that “the United States has interests in Asia; we’re not going to withdraw” from the region.  But they also recognized that “trying to be the hegemon, trying to be the guy who runs everything” had not simply failed—it had left the United States weaker.  Moreover, they were courageous enough to draw the right conclusion from their analysis for American policy—that the United States had to “come to terms” with the People’s Republic.   

There is “a very analogous logic at play in the Middle East.”  The United States “tried being the hegemon” in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places in the regionThe results are clear:  America’s pursuit of hegemony in the Middle East “doesn’t work”; in fact, “it actually makes us weaker.”  Just as the United States had (and has) interests in Asia, it has “critical interests” in the Middle East.  And it can only protect and promote those interests by “having positive relations with all of the important players in the region—and especially with Iran.”  This, however, is “a strategic logic” that the Obama Administration “seems no more capable of embracing than its predecessors in the Bush 43 Administration.”  (Or, one might add, the Clinton and Bush 41 administrations.)  It is a profound “strategic failure.”            

In the interview, Flynt also critiqued myths of Iranian “irrationality” and of the Islamic Republic as too unreasoningly hostile toward the United States for real improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations to be possible.        

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 



Flynt appeared yesterday on Ian Masters’ Background Briefing, a nationally syndicated public affairs program, to discuss the nuclear talks between the P5+1 and the Islamic Republic; you can hear him here.  One of Flynt’s basic points is that the Obama Administration seems no more prepared to deal with the big issues that will determine diplomatic success or failure—namely, accepting the principle and the reality of internationally safeguarded enrichment in Iran and recognizing that a negotiated solution will necessarily entail significant sanctions relief—than it was during its initial experience in multilateral negotiations with the Islamic Republic during 2009-2010.  Until that changes, the chance for anything other than failure or, at best, an extremely narrow deal of little strategic significance—is negligible.   

Before the nuclear talks started again last month in Istanbul, Tehran calculated that American and European Union sanctions policies created at least as many problems for the United States and Europe as for Iran.  Oil prices have been going up even before the new sanctions go into effect (indeed, the Europeans have set a new standard for witlessly self-damaging policy choices by boosting prices while they are still buying Iranian crude).  An Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear targets would raise prices even more dramatically.  And, as Flynt notes, all of this is going on while President Obama is running for re-election.   

Against this backdrop, the Iranians assess that the Obama Administration has an interest in keeping the negotiations going at least through the U.S. presidential election in November.  As Flynt points out, they have been using the talks as a way of probing Western seriousness about a potential deal

We anticipate that Tehran will continue using the talks for this purpose for some time; at this point, neither side is taking an approach that, in the near term, is likely to prompt a complete breakdown.  There will be another round of discussions in Moscow next month, and it is easy to imagine further meetings through the summer and into the early fall.  But the talks are not going to produce anything of strategic significance unless the United States substantially alters its approach.      

Flynt goes on to explore the reasons for the Obama Administration’s reluctance to do this.  Of course, domestic politics is part of the story (as noted, the President is running for re-election).  But Flynt argues that an even more fundamental element is the Obama team’s ongoing commitment to American hegemony in the Middle East.  The conversation rounds out with a discussion of whether Saudi Arabia or Iran—that is, the Islamic Republic of Iran—is a more natural ally for the United States, and of the risks of a unilateral Israeli strike.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 



Dear Readers,

One of the things which we have enjoyed most about www.RaceForIran.com are the very lively, insightful, and intellectually stimulating exchanges that go on I the Comments.  We have been deeply resistant to intervening in any way in this process.  However, the misappropriation of the Comments Sections by an abusive individual means that there will be a delay in everyone’s Comments being posted.  We would appreciate your continuing contributions and your understanding that, for now, your comments will not appear immediately.  We will do our best to have them up as fast as possible.

Thank you for your engagement and support.

Best regards, Flynt and Hillary



U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, whose relationship with President Obama dates back to Obama’s days in the Senate, made headlines this week with his statement, in an address to Israel’s bar association, that America’s military option against Iran is “not just available,” but “ready.  The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready,” see here.  Commenting on these remarks, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said today, see here,

“Let me just make clear that Ambassador Shapiro’s comments were designed to reflect completely what the President has said all along, which is that even as we move forward with the P5+1 discussions with Iran and hope that we can settle these issues through diplomacy, that we nonetheless take no option off the table.”     

Against these remarks by Ambassador Shapiro and Ms. Nuland, we juxtapose one of the more striking pieces of commentary we have read since last month’s nuclear talks in Istanbul between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 countries—an article from Mehdi Mohammadi, published in Kayhan.  Mohammadi has written important and insightful pieces in the past.  We provide below an English translation, titled “What Did Not Take Place,” below.  For the original text, see here.

Mohammadi’s analysis is especially interesting with regard to the U.S. military option against Iran.  In the middle of his analysis, he also makes an arresting factual claim:  that President Obama, “in a letter written to Iran this past winter, announced openly that the military option from his country’s perspective is not on the table.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

What Did Not Take Place

By Mehdi Mohammadi,  domestic political analyst and contributor to Kayhan

A useful way of truly understanding what took place in the Istanbul talks [in April] is to analyze these talks through the lens of “what did not take place.”

From about six months before these negotiations and with the memories of the Istanbul I talks still on the Westerner’s minds, the primary concern of the P5+1 was that of how to force Iran to end its perseverance and to adjust its strategic calculus.

First of all, the most immediate issue for the United States and Israel was to halt Iranian uranium enrichment from progressing any further than where it currently stood. Therefore, a wave of “semi-hard power” operations in the form of cyber attacks, assassinating nuclear scientists, restricting the imports of certain materials and components to Iran, and most important of all, the cutting off what the Americans call the “source of funding” for the nuclear program has been undertaken. However, if we use the criterion of the expansion of installations and the amount of nuclear materials produced by Iran as a measure for the acceleration or deceleration of Iran’s nuclear program, these operations have achieved none of their goals. Scientists have been assassinated, but this affair has only convinced other scientists that they must work harder and take revenge for their martyrs. Cyber attacks were carried out against nuclear facilities but the only result was that not only did Iranian specialists learn defensive technological skills, but they quickly became capable of carrying out widespread cyber attacks in enemy territory. The sanctions prompted Iranian producers to search for new methods and in a short time this lead to self-reliance in certain areas which prior to the sanctions were dependent on imports. The financial resource for Iran’s nuclear program has not been cut off, since the increased oil revenue due to the psychological effect of the sanctions – keep in mind that the oil sanctions neither from Europe nor America have been enacted so far and it is all talk until now — has been much greater than the effect of the tiny amount of reduction Iranian oil exports have experienced.

Therefore, Iran was supposed to enter the Istanbul 2 negotiations with its nuclear program on the verge of bankruptcy. However, Iran entered the negotiations with the Fordo [plant] on the verge of operations, it had produced more than 100 kilos of 20% enriched nuclear materials and a few thousand reserve kilos of 5% enriched uranium, it had loaded the domestically produced fuel into the Tehran reactor and tested it successfully, and the determination of new nuclear sites had been completed and programs for the increase in nuclear production had been announced.

Western “semi-soft power” operations neither stopped nor slowed Iran’s nuclear progress, instead they had only resulted in the deepening, quickening, and immunization of the program and this was the first pillar upon which Iran’s negotiation strategy in Istanbul was founded upon. 

Secondly, before the Istanbul talks, all of the West’s efforts went into convincing Iran that if negotiations did not go forward as some of the P5+1 members wished, the military option was firmly on the table. Based on a division of labor between America and Israel, Israel was supposed to threaten Iran with military attacks if it did not relinquish its nuclear program, and America was supposed to back up these threats. The Israeli theory was that if America did not approve of the threats, Iran would not take them as being credible, and the threats would not be taken seriously. However, was it really intended for someone to attack Iran? It has in fact been revealed that such a plan was not in the works from the very beginning.

The objectives of the American and Israeli military threat project were twofold:

First, the analytical consensus for the Israelis and Americans was that Iran would only cease its nuclear program when it felt that the pressure on its program was morphing into a threat to the existence of the Islamic Republic. The result of this Israeli presumption was that in order for Iran to cease its nuclear program, Iran must foresee the threat to its own existence, which is not possible unless Iran feels that the West is willing to even go as far as militarily attacking Iran in order to prevent its nuclearization. The reason that Barack Obama stated in his speech at the last AIPAC conference that his government’s policies in regards to Iran was not one of containment or prevention but rather intended to stopping Iran’s nuclear program, was precisely to send the message to Iran that America saw the risks associated with military confrontation with Iran as being less than that of the risks associated with Iran’s nuclearization. In sum, Israel wanted America to explicitly announce that all options, especially the military one, were on the table and to make the criterion for the use of such options very clear to Iran.

Second, the Israelis believe that the world would not accept the tightening of sanctions against Iran unless it felt that resisting against these sanctions may lead to the ignition of a new war in the region. The threat of attack, in essence, is a tool to force countries such as members of the European Union to tighten sanctions, and thus the analysis of some Western strategists is completely accurate that the most extreme option America and Israel can take against Iran is sanctions. The evaluation is that an attack is basically not one of the possible options, it is strictly a tool through which to make effective the sanctions option, a tool which they imagine furthers the effects of sanctions on Iran and also forces various countries to take the enforcement of sanctions more seriously.

Very well, so what has become the fate of this grand project of psychological warfare, and have the Westerners been able to bake any bread out of this oven they have built for the Istanbul talks? The fate of this project to create a credible military threat is truly quite full of lessons. At the beginning the Americans accepted the argument that if Iran sees a credible military threat on the table — and from America, not Israel — it will have a reason to back down. Therefore, American officials began threatening Iran by stating that their military capability for confronting Iran’s nuclear facilities is sufficient, that their plans for attack were almost complete and that no option has been excluded. However, astonishingly, the effects of this rhetoric were not at all what America had envisioned nor what Israel had predicted.

First of all, Iran quickly responded and conducted special military operations which demonstrated that not only could it defend itself against any attack, but if necessary, that it could carry out preventive operations before the enemy takes action and at a stage when threats are still being made. Subsequently, the Americans saw that their activities which were intended to keep tensions with Iran at a controlled level, could quickly slip out of hand and at any moment there was a possibility that a self-confident Iran could move America towards a deadly, albeit unwanted, conflict. The reason why Barack Obama, in a letter written to Iran this past winter, announced openly that the military option from his country’s perspective is not on the table, was exactly because the Americans saw that Iran was not afraid but in fact was preparing for war!

Secondly, the repeated threats against Iran drove up the price of oil (and as a result Iran’s revenues) sharply, doubling the stagnation of the the half-alive world economy, and with the unprecedented rise in gasoline prices, brought about serious domestic political problems for America and European countries. Indeed, the Americans felt that this ridiculous rhetoric is producing an opposite effect, it has not actually harmed Iran but instead it might at any moment bring about their own downfall and it was for this reason that Barack Obama stated visibly this past Isfand month (March) that whomever talks of attacking Iran are nonsensical fools who are lying to the American people about the potential cost of such an act.

The delectable result is this: while the project for creating a “credible military threat” was meant to make Iran scared and passive, it has unexpectedly and in a short time revealed the secret that the biggest opponent of this option is the American government itself, meaning the same government which was supposed to make the threats seem credible by putting on a show! Not only was the military threat without credit, but it was taken off the table not by the Iranians but by the Americans with unprecedented clearness, and the American representatives came to Istanbul knowing that the threats of attacking Iran were regarded by Iran as nothing but a bad joke and it was for this reason that neither the Americans nor the other members of the P5+1 even came close to expressing such threats [during negotiations].

Up until this point I have only discussed two of the factors which were supposed to occur at Istanbul but did not. There are at least three other factors which can be discussed but there is not enough opportunity to do so at this point. When these three factors are discussed properly and the arguments as to why these factors that the Americans wanted did not come into being are reviewed, then can it be clearly understood why the P5+1 participated in the Istanbul II talks from a weak position.

We are grateful to Mohammad Sagha, a senior in political science and economics at DePaul University for this translation.



We note that, even though he is leaving the U.S. Congress in just a few months, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) continues to fight the good fight on Iran-related issues.  Last week, Paul was one of the few to speak out, clearly and forthrightly, against the latest congressional resolution “expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding the importance of preventing the Government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”  Dr. Paul’s statement bears reading, see here.  We want to highlight some of its passages: 

“Once again we see on the “suspension” calendar, which is customarily reserved for non-controversial legislation, a resolution designed to move the US toward a military conflict with Iran.  Sadly, it has become non-controversial for Congress to call for US attacks on foreign countries that have neither attacked nor threatened the United States. 

We should not fool ourselves about the timing of this legislation.  Next week, high-level talks between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany (P5+1) will resume.  Those who seek US military action against Iran must fear that successful diplomacy will undermine their calls for war.”

Dr. Paul then turns to the heart of the matter, which is an ongoing effort, in effect, to criminalize—or at least make militarily actionable—the pursuit of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities by calling it the pursuit of a “a ‘capability’ to develop nuclear weapons.”  On this point, we were gratified that he cited Flynt:  

“Iranian efforts to develop a ‘nuclear weapons capability’…may make American and Israeli elites uncomfortable.  But it is not a violation of the NPT…While the NPT prohibits non-nuclear-weapon states from building atomic bombs, developing a nuclear weapons capability is [allowed] under the NPT…It is certainly not a justification—strategically, legally, or morally—for armed aggression against Iran.”   

Noting that the resolution leaves the concept of “nuclear weapons capability” undefined—thus “leaving it open to very broad interpretations by this and future administrations”—he concludes:  “Mr. Speaker, this is incredibly dangerous legislation.  I urge my colleagues in the strongest manner to reject this stealth authorization for war on Iran.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett