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The Race for Iran

U.S. Sanctions Policy on a Collision Course against Iran; Increasing Tensions with China

America’s policy on Iran-related secondary sanctions is on a collision course with itself as well as China.  Secondary sanctions violate the United States’ obligations under the World Trade Organization and are, thus, illegal.  (While a WTO signatory may decide, on national security grounds, to restrict its trade with another country, there is no legal basis for one state to impose sanctions against another over business that the second state conducts with a third country.)  If Washington actually imposed secondary sanctions on another state for, say, buying Iranian oil and the sanctioned country took the United States to the WTO’s Dispute Resolution Mechanism, the United States would almost certainly lose the case. 

Given this reality, the whole edifice of Iran-related secondary sanctions is in reality a house of cards.  It rests on an assumption that no state will ever really challenge the legitimacy of America’s Iran-related extraterritorial sanctions—and this means that the United States cannot ever really impose them.  Instead, successive U.S. administrations have used the threat of such sanctions to elicit modifications of other countries’ commercial relations with the Islamic Republic; when these administrations finally reach the limit of their capacity to leverage other countries’ decision-making regarding Iran, the United States backs off.    

The Obama Administration is bringing this glaring contradiction increasingly to the fore, by supinely collaborating with the Congress to enact secondary sanctions into laws that give the executive branch less and less discretion over their actual application.  This dynamic is now coming to a head in the Administration’s dealings with China.    

We are currently in China, as Visiting Scholars at Peking University’s School of International Studies.  And that means we are here during the run-up to formal implementation of the United States’ newest round of Iran-related secondary sanctions, due to go into effect on June 28. 

These new sanctions, at least as legislated, threaten to punish financial and corporate entities in countries that continue to purchase Iranian oil at their historic levels of consumption.  So far, the Obama Administration has issued sanctions waivers to all of the major buyers of Iranian oil, see here and here—all the major buyers, that is, except the People’s Republic of China.

Trade data indicate that China’s imports of Iranian oil declined significantly in the first quarter of this year.  It is unclear to what extent this reduction was intended as an accommodation to the United States and to what extent it was the product of a payment dispute with Tehran.  But, whatever the reason, the reduction prompted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to note last week that “we’ve seen China slowly but surely take actions,” see here.  Clinton even seemed to hint that the Administration might be looking for an opening to waive the imposition of sanctions against China:  “I have to certify under American laws whether or not countries are reducing their purchases of crude oil from Iran and I was able to certify that India was, Japan was, South Korea was…And we think, based on the latest data, that China is also moving in that direction.” 

Since the resolution of the payments dispute between China and Iran, however, China’s imports of Iranian oil have picked up once again, see here and here.  And the Chinese government continues to insist that the country’s purchases of oil from the Islamic Republic are “fully reasonable and legitimate,” see here.      

Once June 28 comes the White House and State Department will be under enormous pressure from the Congress (Hill Democrats will provide the President no cover on the issue), the Romney campaign, and various domestic interest groups to sanction China over its continued oil buys from Iran.  The Administration’s alliance with Congress and the pro-Israel lobby on Iran sanctions, combined with its misguided assessment that the United States can somehow compel Iran’s “surrender” on the nuclear issue, have put the President and his team in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position.  This is very much a problem of the Administration’s own making.                

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

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Playing for Time on the Iranian Nuclear Issue

The following piece was originally published on www.TomDispatch.com.  We append below Tom Englehardt’s introduction and our article.

Tomgram: Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, Playing for Time on Iran

Recently, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta finally said it. The U.S. is “fighting a war” in the Pakistani tribal belt. Similarly, observers are starting to suggest that “war” is the right word for the American air and special operations campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen. (There have already been 23 U.S. air strikes there this year.) Call that a war and you’re already up to three, including the Afghan one.

But consider the possibility that a fourth (partial) American war is underway in the shadows, and that it’s in Iran. This seems more evident today because of a recent New York Times report on the release of Stuxnet, the advanced cyberworm President Obama ordered sent to destroy Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Since the Pentagon has defined such a release as an “act of war,” it’s reasonable to suggest that the U.S. is now “at war” with Iran, too.

In fact, you could say that, since at least 2008, when Congress granted the Bush administration up to $400 million “to fund a major escalation of covert operations against Iran,” including “cross-border” operations from Iraq, war has been the name of the game. Meanwhile, U.S. special operations forces were secretly training members of M.E.K., an Iranian opposition-group-cum-cult that’s still on the State Department’s terror list, at a Department of Energy site in the Nevada desert; the CIA was running a large-scale drone surveillance operation against the country — and that just touches on the shadowy American (as well as Israeli) state of war vis-à-vis Iran.

Having relabeled those conflicts, it might also be worth considering the way we describe our ongoing nuclear mania about Iran. After all, the world is already chock-a-block full of nuclear weapons, including the thousands the U.S. and Russia still possess, as well as those of Pakistan, a country we seem intent on destabilizing. And yet, the only nuclear weapon that ever seems to make the news, obsessively, repetitively, is the one that doesn’t exist — the Iranian bomb.

In times long gone, when a Chinese dynasty took over the “mandate of heaven,” one of the early ceremonies carried out by the new emperor was called “the rectification of names.” The thought was that the previous dynasty had fallen into ruin in part because the gap between reality and the names for it had grown so wide. We are, it seems, now in such a world. Some renaming is surely in order.

This, in a sense, is the task Iran experts Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, who run the Race for Iran blog, take on in their first appearance at TomDispatch. They remind us, among other things, that an American president did once decide to bring names and reality back together when it came to another rising regional power (which actually had nuclear weapons) — and he traveled to China to do it, startling the world. Unfortunately, though our planet has its surprises, it’s hard to imagine that a second-term Obama or a first-term Romney would be among them when it comes to our country’s Iran policy, which, in terms of reality, is the saddest story of all. Tom

Deep-Sixing the China Option
How the Obama Administration Is Stalling Its Way to War with Iran
By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Since talks with Iran over its nuclear development started up again in April, U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that Tehran will not be allowed to “play for time” in the negotiations. In fact, it is the Obama administration that is playing for time.

Some suggest that President Obama is trying to use diplomacy to manage the nuclear issue and forestall an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets through the U.S. presidential election. In reality, his administration is “buying time” for a more pernicious agenda: time for covert action to sabotage Tehran’s nuclear program; time for sanctions to set the stage for regime change in Iran; and time for the United States, its European and Sunni Arab partners, and Turkey to weaken the Islamic Republic by overthrowing the Assad government in Syria.

Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, Antony J. Blinken, hinted at this in February, explaining that the administration’s Iran policy is aimed at “buying time and continuing to move this problem into the future, and if you can do that — strange things can happen in the interim.” Former Pentagon official Michèle Flournoy — now out of government and advising Obama’s reelection campaign — told an Israeli audience this month that, in the administration’s view, it is also important to go through the diplomatic motions before attacking Iran so as not to “undermine the legitimacy of the action.”

New York Times’ journalist David Sanger recently reported that, “from his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons” — even though he knew this “could enable other countries, terrorists, or hackers to justify” cyberattacks against the United States. Israel — which U.S. intelligence officials say is sponsoring assassinations of Iranian scientists and other terrorist attacks in Iran — has been intimately involved in the program.

Classified State Department cables published by WikiLeaks show that, from the beginning of the Obama presidency, he and his team saw diplomacy primarily as a tool to build international support for tougher sanctions, including severe restrictions on Iranian oil exports. And what is the aim of such sanctions? Earlier this year, administration officials told the Washington Post that their purpose was to turn the Iranian people against their government. If this persuades Tehran to accept U.S. demands to curtail its nuclear activities, fine; if the anger were to result in the Islamic Republic’s overthrow, many in the administration would welcome that.

Since shortly after unrest broke out in Syria, the Obama team has been calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, expressing outrage over what they routinely describe as the deaths of thousands of innocent people at the hands of Syrian security forces. But, for more than a year, they have been focused on another aspect of the Syrian situation, calculating that Assad’s fall or removal would be a sharp blow to Tehran’s regional position — and might even spark the Islamic Republic’s demise. That’s the real impetus behind Washington’s decision to provide “non-lethal” support to Syrian rebels attacking government forces, while refusing to back proposals for mediating the country’s internal conflicts which might save lives, but do not stipulate Assad’s departure upfront.

Meeting with Iranian oppositionists last month, State Department officials aptly summarized Obama’s Iran policy priorities this way: the “nuclear program, its impact on the security of Israel, and avenues for regime change.” With such goals, how could his team do anything but play for time in the nuclear talks? Two former State Department officials who worked on Iran in the early months of Obama’s presidency are on record confirming that the administration “never believed that diplomacy could succeed” — and was “never serious” about it either.

How Not to Talk to Iran

Simply demanding that Iran halt its nuclear activities and ratcheting up pressure when it does not comply will not, however, achieve anything for America’s position in the Middle East. Western powers have been trying to talk Iran out of its civil nuclear program for nearly 10 years. At no point has Tehran been willing to surrender its sovereign right to indigenous fuel cycle capabilities, including uranium enrichment.

Sanctions and military threats have only reinforced its determination. Despite all the pressure exerted by Washington and Tel Aviv, the number of centrifuges operating in Iran has risen over the past five years from less than 1,000 to more than 9,000. Yet Tehran has repeatedly offered, in return for recognition of its right to enrich, to accept more intrusive monitoring of — and, perhaps, negotiated limits on — its nuclear activities.

Greater transparency for recognition of rights: this is the only possible basis for a deal between Washington and Tehran. It is precisely the approach that Iran has advanced in the current series of talks. Rejecting it only guarantees diplomatic failure — and the further erosion of America’s standing, regionally and globally.

George W. Bush’s administration refused to accept safeguarded enrichment in Iran. Indeed, it refused to talk at all until Tehran stopped its enrichment program altogether. This only encouraged Iran’s nuclear development, while polls show that, by defying American diktats, Tehran has actually won support among regional publics for its nuclear stance.

Some highly partisan analysts claim that, in contrast to Bush, Obama was indeed ready from early in his presidency to accept the principle and reality of safeguarded enrichment in Iran. And when his administration failed at every turn to act in a manner consistent with a willingness to accept safeguarded enrichment, the same analysts attributed this to congressional and Israeli pressure.

In truth, Obama and his team have never seriously considered enrichment acceptable. Instead, the president himself decided, early in his tenure, to launch unprecedented cyberattacks against Iran’s main, internationally monitored enrichment facility. His team has resisted a more realistic approach not because a deal incorporating safeguarded enrichment would be bad for American security (it wouldn’t), but because accepting it would compel a more thoroughgoing reappraisal of the U.S. posture toward the Islamic Republic and, more broadly, of America’s faltering strategy of dominating the Middle East.

The China Option

Acknowledging Iran’s right to enrich would require acknowledging the Islamic Republic as a legitimate entity with legitimate national interests, a rising regional power not likely to subordinate its foreign policy to Washington (as, for example, U.S. administrations regularly expected of Egypt under Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak). It would mean coming to terms with the Islamic Republic in much the same way that the United States came to terms with the People’s Republic of China — another rising, independent power — in the early 1970s.

America’s Iran policy remains stuck in a delusion similar to the one that warped its China policy for two decades after China’s revolutionaries took power in 1949 — that Washington could somehow isolate, strangle, and ultimately bring down a political order created through mass mobilization and dedicated to restoring national independence after a long period of Western domination. It didn’t work in the Chinese case and it’s not likely to in Iran either.

In one of the most consequential initiatives in American diplomatic history, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger finally accepted this reality and aligned Washington’s China policy with reality. Unfortunately, Washington’s Iran policy has not had its Nixonian moment yet, and so successive U.S. administrations — including Obama’s — persist in folly.

The fact is: Obama could have had a nuclear deal in May 2010, when Brazil and Turkey brokered an agreement for Iran to send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad in return for new fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. The accord met all the conditions spelled out in letters from Obama to then-Brazilian President Lula and Turkish Prime Minister ErdoÄŸan — but Obama rejected it, because it recognized Iran’s right to enrich. (That this was the main reason was affirmed by Dennis Ross, the architect of Obama’s Iran policy, earlier this year.) The Obama team has declined to reconsider its position since 2010 and, as a result, it is on its way to another diplomatic failure.

As Middle Eastern governments become somewhat more representative of their peoples’ concerns and preferences, they are also — as in Egypt and Iraq — becoming less inclined toward strategic deference to the United States. This challenges Washington to do something at which it is badly out of practice: pursue genuine diplomacy with important regional states, based on real give and take and mutual accommodation of core interests. Above all, reversing America’s decline requires rapprochement with the Islamic Republic (just as reviving its position in the early 1970s required rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China).

Instead, three and a half years after George W. Bush left office, his successor continues to insist that Iran surrender to Washington’s diktats or face attack. By doing so, Obama is locking America into a path that is increasingly likely to result in yet another U.S.-initiated war in the Middle East during the first years of the next presidential term. And the damage that war against Iran will inflict on America’s strategic position could make the Iraq debacle look trivial by comparison.

Direct link: http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175559/tomgram%3A_flynt_and_hillary_mann_leverett%2C_playing_for_time_on_iran/#more.

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Pushing China to Act Against its Interests in Iran…And For What?

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Beijing for a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit and looming implementation of the latest round of U.S. secondary sanctions against countries that continue buying oil from and doing other business with the Islamic Republic have once again focused the spotlight on Sino-Iranian relations.  On that front, Americans, in particular, should read an Op Ed, “Sino-Iranian Ties Important,” published today in China Daily by Hua Liming, see here

Hua is described in the bio line to his Op Ed as “a former ambassador to China and now a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies.”  We had the good fortune to meet Ambassador Hua last year in Beijing, and found him to be one of the most experienced, most richly informed, and wisest people on Iranian affairs one could hope to know. 

In his Op Ed, Ambassador Hua states his bottom line up front, with commendable clarity:  “It is unrealistic for the US to expect China to act in a way that is harmful to its interests and against its diplomatic principles.”  After succinctly reviewing why, contrary to Western stereotypes, “Iran is neither rogue nor fundamentalist,” he gets to the core of Sino-American disagreements over dealing with the Islamic Republic: 

“The US is not willing to let its dominance in the Middle East be challenged by a regional power like Iran; so the hostility and antagonism between the two countries has grown.  In contrast, Sino-Iranian relations are one of the oldest bilateral relations in the world and valued by both sides…The foundations for their friendship are that China has never intervened in Iran’s domestic affairs and their economies are complementary, offering huge potential for cooperation. 

The US hopes to enlist China’s help in dealing with Iran.  But that’s impossible because China will never join the zero-sum game between the US and Iran…The disagreement between the US and China has become especially serious with the US imposing sanctions to restrict Iran’s oil exports as China is a big importer of Iranian oil.  But maintaining relations with Iran is a matter concerning China’s vital interests and China’s fundamental diplomatic principles.  The US should respect China’s friendly relations with Iran, as well as its interests.” 

Ambassador Hua is kind enough to cite one of our posts on the triangular dynamics between Iran, China, and the United States, see here [link to July 27, 2011 post, “U.S. Sanctions and China’s Iran Policy”], including our observation that “the United States cannot forever ask other countries to act in ways that are harmful to their interests.”  He expands on this point, noting that “the US may gain some short-term victories by asking China to act against its own interests but this will only sour the Sino-US relationship in the long run.  To prevent disagreements over Iran from harming bilateral relations, it is necessary for the two sides to respect each other’s interests and bottom line.  That requires the US change its hostility toward Iran.” 

We could not agree more.  In the near term, the United States faces a fateful choice whether to impose extraterritorial (and, hence, blatantly illegal) secondary sanctions against China for its ongoing purchases of Iranian oil.  We believe that, if Washington chooses this path, it will prove deeply counter-productive for American interests—with respect to Iran, vis-à-vis China, and in terms of its impact on the United States’ broader economic and strategic position in the world. 

In the longer term, American political and policy elites have yet to face up to the challenge that Ambassador Hua defines for them.  To restate this challenge from an American perspective, adept management of the Sino-American relationship—which will be critical to America’s standing as a great power in the 21st century—requires that the United States pursue a fundamentally different policy toward Iran.  In essence, the United States needs to re-orient its policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran in the same way that it reoriented its policy toward the People’s Republic China in the early 1970s.  At present, though, American policy remains oblivious to this imperative.         

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

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Obama’s Secret War Against Iran Dooms Diplomacy and Imperils American Interests

In May 2009, we published an op-ed in The New York Times, see here, in which we argued that “President Obama’s Iran policy has, in all likelihood already failed”—largely because “Obama is backing away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China type rapprochement with Tehran.”  Indeed,

“The Obama Administration has done nothing to cancel or repudiate an ostensibly covert but well-publicized program begun in George W. Bush’s second term, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to destabilize the Islamic Republic.  Under these circumstances, the Iranian government—regardless of who wins the presidential elections on June12—will continue to suspect that American intentions toward the Islamic Republic remain, ultimately, hostile.” 

Now, in an article by David Sanger, “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran,” see here, The New York Times informs that

“From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons, according to participants in the program.

Mr. Obama decided to accelerate the attacks—begun in the Bush administration and code-named Olympic Games—even after an element of the program accidentally became public in the summer of 2010 because of a programming error that allowed it to escape Iran’s Natanz plant and sent it around the world on the Internet.  Computer security experts who began studying the worm, which had been developed by the United States and Israel, gave it a name:  Stuxnet.”

The article goes on to describe multiple details about Stuxnet and the President’s decision-making as to its use.  We, however, are most interested in the report for what it confirms about Obama’s approach to Iran—in particular, that Obama’s aggressiveness toward the Islamic Republic extended to a significant expansion of “America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons.  Consider what Sanger writes about the motives for Obama’s decision-making in this regard:    

“Mr. Obama, according to participants in the many Situation Room meetings on Olympic Games, was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade.  He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons—even under the most careful and limited circumstances—could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.

‘We discussed the irony, more than once,’ one of his aides said.  Another said that the administration was resistant to developing a ‘grand theory for a weapon whose possibilities they were still discovering.’  Yet Mr. Obama concluded that when it came to stopping Iran, the United States had no other choice.

If Olympic Games failed, he told aides, there would be no time for sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to work.  Israel could carry out a conventional military attack, prompting a conflict that could spread throughout the region.”

The perceived imperative “to dissuade the Israelis from carrying out their own preemptive strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities” also reportedly motivated the Administration to have Israel “deeply involved in every aspect” of Olympic Games. 

Two things strike us as significant here.  First, our May 2009 analysis was right on the money.  If anything, we may have underestimated the degree to which Obama was prepared to let half-baked schemes undermine any chance he might have had, at least in theory, to pursue serious diplomacy with Iran.  Obama apologists, see for example here, want us to believe that the President meant well on engaging Tehran, but that what they describe (with no evidence whatsoever) as the Islamic Republic’s “fraudulent” 2009 presidential election and the resulting “disarray” within the Iranian leadership stymied Obama’s benevolent efforts.  This is utterly false. 

Second, the Sanger article makes undeniably clear—if it were not sufficiently evident already—that the reason for the President’s hostility toward Iran has nothing to do with American security.  Rather, Obama’s aggressiveness—which carries with it a willingness to put significant long-term American interests at risk—is motivated by a perceived imperative to prevent the Israelis from doing something that they cannot credibly do in the first place:  namely, strike and destroy Iran’s nuclear program. 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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