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The Race for Iran

IRAN, THE NEW STRUGGLE FOR SYRIA, AND THE EMERGENCE OF AN INCREASINGLY INDEPENDENT EGYPT

Flynt appeared on Scott Horton’s radio program last week.  The interview focused on the ways in which American animus toward the Islamic Republic is driving, to a large extent, the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria; to access the audio, click here.  The discussion ranges beyond Syria to consider how Washington’s ongoing attachment to the goal of hegemony in the Middle East warps American policymakers’ understanding of regional realities and, by extension, their strategic and tactical calculations.  It also takes up the dangerous consequences of Washington’s repeated cooperation with Saudi Arabia to support salafi—or, more precisely, takfeeri—militias, as is currently transpiring in Syria, along with the rising risk of more fulsome (and ultimately ill-fated) U.S. intervention in Syria after the U.S. presidential election in November, whether under a reelected President Obama or a new Romney administration.        

As the conflict in Syria continues, we were struck by two recent actions undertaken by Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi.  First, at the emergency summit meeting on Syria convened by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Mecca last week, Morsi gave what we believe could turn out to be a very important statement about the direction of post-Mubarak Egyptian foreign policy

Just prior to the start of the OIC summit, the Emir of Qatar had traveled to Cairo to meet with Morsi and, according to various media reports, put $2 billion in economic assistance on the table, presumably to create leverage over Egypt’s position going into the meeting.  Against this backstory, Morsi’s speech in Mecca is all the more impressive. 

Western media coverage tended to focus on Morsi’s statement that “it was time for the Syrian regime to leave”—presumably just what Qatar and Saudi Arabia would want to hear.  But what really stood out was his call for the creation of a regional contact group on Syria, to include the Islamic Republic of Iran along with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.  Former Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar offered a sharply incisive take on Morsi’s speech, see here.  Bhadrakumar’s analysis bears reading in its entirety, but we want to highlight the following passages: 

“The narrative is that [Morsi] called for a transition in Egypt.  ‘It is time for the Syrian regime to leave,’ he said.  So far so good.  The Western media lapped it up.  But then came the sub-texts.  Morsi called for a non-violent path.  In immediate terms, he sought a ceasefire through Ramadan.  Besides, he wanted an Islamic solution. 

Then came the bombshell.  Morsi proposed that a contact group should be formed to resolve the Syrian crisis through peaceful means, discussion and reconciliation.  And, pray, who would form this group?  Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Iran—he outlined. 

In a nutshell, Morsi has rejected the stratagem for ‘regime change’ in Syria by the United States in alliance with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (with Israel standing in the shade for undertaking covert operations).  Most important, Morsi’s package is almost exactly what Iran espouses, too.  No wonder, Tehran feels greatly elated.  In contrast with the deafening silence in Ankara, Riyadh and Doha, Tehran has scrambled to welcome Morsi’s proposal.”               

As if this were not enough, Morsi’s office followed up with a second diplomatic “bombshell”:  formal confirmation that Morsi will travel to Tehran at the end of August to attend the Non-Aligned Movement summit.  Next week, in fact, Morsi will travel to China before going on to Iran

Think about that:  Egypt’s new president will travel to China and Iran before he comes to the White House.  This further highlights Washington’s growing marginalization to constructively addressing a growing number of Middle Eastern challenges.  Morsi’s call for a contact group on Syria was noteworthy not just for who was included—the Islamic Republic—but also for who was left out—the United States.  Morsi’s itinerary next week draws a line under the point. 

Morsi’s upcoming visit to Tehran—where he will almost certainly be received by both President Ahmadinejad and by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei—also marks an important step forward in the ongoing improvement of Egyptian-Iranian relations.  A truly obtuse analysis published by the Associated Press, see here, holds that the conflict in Syria has reversed the “surge” in Shi’a power in the Middle East, “based on the central alliance between Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, with close relations to Shiites who took power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.”  As a result, “the region’s Sunni-led powers are appearing more confident, encouraged by the prospect that the Sunni-led rebellion could bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, dominated by members of the Shiite offshoot sect of Alawites.”  It is in this context, supposedly, that the announcement of Morsi’s visit to Tehran “likely reflects the growing confidence that Iran’s status is damaged and that Sunni Arab nations can steer the agenda.”  We find Bhadrakumar much closer to reality:    

“Saudis will feel perturbed that Cairo is careering away into the trajectory of an independent foreign policy that may have more commonality with Tehran than the course adopted by the GCC states.  Turkey will feel downcast that the new Egypt is not exactly in a mood to adopt the so-called Islamist leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as its role model…We are slowly, steadily getting near to an answer to the question raised in great angst in several quarters (Washington, Tel Aviv, Riyadh):  Will the new Egypt orient toward Saudi Arabia or Tehran? 

The answer is crystallizing:  Morsi intends to follow the middle path…So, it is about time we move on to the follow-up question:  Whom does Morsi’s (and Egypt’s Brothers’) middle path suit better—Saudi Arabia or Iran?  I won’t wager for an answer.  It’s Iran, Stupid!  All that Tehran ever expected in its regional (Arab) milieu all through these past 34 years since the Islamic Revolution was a level playing field.  And Egypt is willing to recognize, finally, that it is a legitimate aspiration to have.”   

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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How Washington’s Determination to Dominate Iran Corrodes U.S. Standing in the Middle East: Lessons from Bahrain

As the United States pushes for regime change in Syria and American allies flock to suspend Syria from the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, it is illuminating to examine the strategic bankruptcy of U.S. policy toward Bahrain.  For the deep flaws in Washington’s approach to Bahrain grow out of the same considerations that warp its policy toward Syria.  And at the root of all these dangerously deficient policies is a dogged determination to contain and undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

Against this backdrop, Hillary appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story Americas last week to discuss the political situation in Bahrain and Washington’s ongoing support for the Khalifa monarchy there; click here to view the segment or on the video above.  The program opens with an interview with Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist.  The panel discussion in which Hillary appears begins at 7:05 in the video.   

Bahrain is arguably the most flagrant manifestation of American hypocrisy regarding the Arab spring.  As the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, noted in his Washington Post op ed on Syria last week, see here, “there have been conflicting responses to the civic movements sweeping the Arab world.  A glaring example of these contradictions lies in Bahrain and the way some states have responded to the crackdown on the uprising there.”  In his set up for the Inside Story episode, Al Jazeera’s moderator, Shihab Rattansi, notes that “for almost every single Arab country that has seen uprisings over the past two years, the U.S. has called for regime change—except for the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, one of its closest allies in the region.”  Bahrain is, of course, the home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.  Three months ago, the United States resumed selling weapons to the Bahraini government, notwithstanding its extensive, ongoing, and well-documented violations of human rights and its failure to make any discernible progress toward meaningful political reform, much less a negotiated political settlement between the government and the opposition. 

As Hillary points out, Washington cannot recalibrate its policy toward Bahrain without a fundamental reevaluation of its larger strategy in the Middle East.  As a result of that strategy, she says, the United States is  

“stuck with an ally like Bahrain, we’re stuck with some of the allies that we have in the Middle East.  That’s because our strategic interest, as U.S. officials have framed it now for decades, is essentially oil and Israel.  And oil is personified in the state of Saudi Arabia.  So any country that is willing to align itself, to collude with Israel and Saudi Arabia, to give up their own sovereignty, to do whatever they do to their own citizens in order to work with Israel and Saudi Arabia in U.S. interests—those are our allies…Sometimes they’re better, sometimes they’re worse, sometimes they behave better, sometimes they don’t.  But we’re stuck with them.”  

Hillary notes that, with the “advent of the information revolution” in the Middle East, “it’s harder to be stuck with bad allies.  It’s harder to justify having an alliance with a country, with a government that abuses its own citizens, and carries out policies that are against its own interests…You can’t stand there, like when I worked in the Bush administration with President Bush, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq with the King of Bahrain, smiling and saying ‘Everything is great.’  You can’t do that anymore.  Even though it was wrong probably for the King of Bahrain to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we could get away with it then; we can’t get away with it now.”  

Nevertheless, Hillary underscores that the United States, as its Middle East strategy is currently structured, “cannot support the opposition in Bahrain, because if the opposition had any real say in the government, they would never allow Bahrain to cede its territory to the United States for the Fifth Fleet, to be used as a platform to attack a much stronger neighbor [Iran].  That makes no sense strategically.” 

Containing (if not eventually eliminating) the Islamic Republic became the overarching aim of America’s Middle East strategy—for the Obama administration as well as for its predecessors—because, as Hillary explains, “Iran is the defiance.  Iran stands up to U.S. plans for dominance in the region.”  Any administration in Washington feels compelled “to do whatever it can, in whatever country it is in the Middle East, to push back against that—no matter how destabilizing it is.” 

This kind of strategic irrationality is not unprecedented in American foreign policy:  “We did the same thing in Asia long ago, with Vietnam and Korea.  We wanted to contain China’s stand against U.S. domination in Asia, and we were willing to fight to the last American and the last Chinese person in Vietnam and in Korea.  Our pursuit of dominance can be ferocious.  It has been ferocious in the Middle East; it was ferocious in Asia.  And countries like China and Iran literally are standing up to that, and that’s the problem that American policymakers have been bedeviled with since the end of World War II.” 

Hillary allows that arms sales and political support for repressive regimes “works temporarily and it can work incrementally over time to keep a pro-American government that is working against the interests of its people, both in terms of their human rights and in terms of their geopolitics—control over their own territory.”  Certainly, this approach “works to co-opt members of the royal family in Bahrain, as it works to coopt members of royal families in other governments throughout the Middle East.” 

But it cannot reconcile the demands of Bahrain’s opposition with the Khalifa monarchy’s continued hold on power.  And that, as Hillary drives home, is why the problem “has to be militarized,” for “if the United States actually had to compete with its narrative of what the U.S. actually stands for in the Middle East, in terms of good policy, with these populations, it would lose in a second.   That’s why it has to militarize each one of these conflicts—it has to give weapons to the military and to the government in Bahrain, because that’s the only card the United States really has.  It can’t compete in the world of ideas; it can’t compete with its narratives.”

And that militarization has follow-on consequences, which Hillary spells out:  “Bahrain—like Israel—if it didn’t have the military might of the United States behind it, goading it to be provocative against its neighbors, it would actually have to [as we say] ‘box in its own weight class.’  It would have to deal with the reality of a large Iran, a large Iraq, a large Saudi Arabia, and make accommodations and get by.  But because it has the United States—like Israel—it can do things that are much more provocative to its neighbors.”  This is “perilous” to Bahrain’s Shi’a majority because, to pursue policies “pitting Bahrain against Iran,” the Khalifa monarchy must inevitably suppress “its own domestic population.”    

In the end, to recalibrate its approach to democracy and human rights in a place Bahrain, the United States “would have to give up its pursuit of dominance” in the Middle East.  It “would have to come to terms with the key players in the region that are resisting its pursuit of dominance—specifically the Islamic Republic of Iran.  And if it were to do so, you wouldn’t need $60 billion arms sales to the Saudis and to the Gulf…It would make no sense if the Islamic Republic of Iran were a country you were working with and arming other countries to the teeth to fight against.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

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HOW MUCH WILL AMERICA’S ANIMUS AGAINST IRAN DISTORT U.S. POLICY TOWARD SYRIA?

 

Across most of the American political spectrum, policy elites are urging that the United States double down on the Obama administration’s failing Syria policy.  America’s reliably pro-intervention senatorial trio (Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, and John McCain) recently argued that the “risks of inaction in Syria,” see here, now outweigh the downsides of American military involvement.  Last week, the Washington Post  prominently featured a piece by Ken Pollack, see here, asserting that negotiated settlements “rarely succeed in ending a civil war” like that in Syria—even though that it precisely what ended the civil war in Lebanon, right next door to Syria.  From this faulty premise, Pollack argues that the only way to end a civil war like that in Syria is through military intervention.  (After his scandalously wrong case for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, we wonder why the Washington Post or anyone else would give Pollack a platform for disseminating his views on virtually any Middle Eastern topic—but especially not for a piece dealing with the advisability of another U.S. military intervention in the region.  In this regard, we note that the bio line at the end of Ken’s op ed makes no mention of his book that made the case for the U.S. invading Iraq, The Threatening Storm, describing him instead as “the author of A Path Out of the Desert:  A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.) 

A more chilling—and, in some ways, more candid—indicator of the direction in which the debate over American policy toward Syria is heading was provided last week in Foreign Policy by Robert Haddick (managing editor of the hawkish blog, Small War Journal), see here.  Remarkably, Haddick argues that,

“rather than attempting to influence the course of Syria’s civil war, something largely beyond Washington’s control, U.S. policymakers should instead focus on strengthening America’s diplomatic position and on building irregular warfare capabilities that will be crucial in future conflicts in the region.  Modest and carefully circumscribed intervention in Syria, in coordination with America’s Sunni allies who are already players in the war, will bolster critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities the United States and its allies will need for the future.” 

And why is bolstering these relationships and capabilities so critical?  Because, as Haddick writes,

“The conflict in Syria is just one front in the ongoing competition between Iran and America’s Sunni allies on the west side of the Persian Gulf…The Sunni countries have a strong interest in stepping up their irregular warfare capabilities if they are to keep pace with Iran during the ongoing security competition.  The civil war in Syria provides an opportunity for the United States and its Sunni allies to do just that…U.S. and GCC intelligence officers and special forces could use an unconventional warfare campaign in Syria as an opportunity to exchange skills and training, share resources, improve trust, and establish combined operational procedures.  Such field experience would be highly useful in future contingencies.  Equally important, it would reassure the Sunni countries that the United States will be a reliable ally against Iran.” 

Foreign Policy has become arguably the leading online venue for topical discussion of key issues on America’s international agenda.  And it is giving its platform to an argument that Washington should leverage the “opportunity” provided by the civil war in Syria to help its regional allies get better at killing Shi’a.  And Washington should do this for the goal of prevailing in “the ongoing security competition” between the Islamic Republic and the United States (along with America’s “Sunni allies). 

Such trends in the American policy debate show an appalling incapacity to learn either from either current experience or history.  And these trends are, in fact, influencing actual policy.  Late last week, during a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Turkey, Ankara and Washington agreed that “a unified task force with intelligence, military and political leaders from both countries would be formed immediately to track Syria’s present and plan for its future,” see here.  After meeting with her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Secretary Clinton said that the United States and Turkey are discussing various options for supporting opposition forces working to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad, including the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over rebel-held territory in Syria, see here

In the wake of Clinton’s remarks, Flynt appeared on CCTV’s World Insight weekly newsmagazine to discuss the internal and international dimensions of the Syrian conflict, see here.  Flynt and both of the other guests on the segment—Jia Xiudong from the China Institute of International Studies and our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi from the University of Tehran—agreed, contra Pollack, that the only way to resolve what has become a civil war in Syria is through an inclusive political process. 

Getting to the heart of the matter, Flynt pointed out that “the United States and its regional partners are trying to use Syria to shift the balance of power in the Middle East in ways that they think will be bad for Iran.”  This strategy is “ultimately doomed to fail”—but, as long as Washington and others are pursuing it, “the international community is going to be challenged to find ways to keep the violence from getting worse and try to get a political process started.”  Flynt also observed that China and other players in the international community have historical grounds for concern about the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria to create so-called “humanitarian safe havens” could lead to:  since the end of the Cold War, every time that the United States has imposed humanitarian safe havens—in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, and most recently in Libya—this has ultimately resulted in a heavily militarized intervention by the United States and its partners in pursuit of coercive regime change. 

In part, American elites persist in their current course regarding Syria because they continue to persuade themselves that, in the “security competition” between America and Iran, the United States is winning and the Islamic Republic is losing.  At roughly the same time that Pollack and Haddick were holding forth last week, the New York Times offered an Op Ed by Harvey Morris purporting to explain Iran’s “paranoia” over Syria’s civil war by describing “What Syria Looks Like from Tehran,” see here.  Morris claims that

“the impact of regime change in the Arab World has in fact been largely negative from Tehran’s perspective.  The Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt is closer to Saudi Arabia than it is to Iran.  If the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus were to fall, it would mean the loss of a non-Sunni ally.”

Our analysis—of both of Tehran’s perspective on and the reality of how the Arab Spring is affecting the regional balance of power—is diametrically opposite to Morris’s.  For an actual (and genuinely informed) Iranian view, we note that Al Jazeera devoted last week’s episode of its Inside Syria series to the topic, “Can Iran Help End the Syrian Crisis?,” see here.  Once again, our colleague from the University of Tehran, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, gave a clear and concise exposition of Iranian views on the imperatives of and requirements for serious mediation of the struggle in (and over) Syria.              

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Iran Deserves “Respect” for its Efforts to Foster a Political Settlement in Syria

This week, Iran hosted an international conference on the conflict in Syria.  The conference is more important than most Western media coverage conveyed.  The conflict in Syria is not just a civil war; it has become a highly militarized proxy war, involving major regional and international powers (including the United States).  In such a situation, establishing a political process involving not only the full range of relevant internal actors but also all relevant regional and international players is critical to forestalling strategic and humanitarian catastrophe.  Against this backdrop, Hillary appeared on Al Jazeera yesterday to talk about the prospects for resolving Syria’s internal conflict through diplomacy, click on the embedded video above or here.    

Hillary compared the current situation in Syria to previous civil wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan—places where, after the external militarization of local conflicts had fueled years and years of fighting, with “dire” consequences for civilian populations, domestic factions and their external backers finally found their way to a political settlement based on negotiated power sharing.  She argued that the 1989 Ta’if Accord, see here, that ended Lebanon’s civil war after 15 years of bloody violence still stands as a model for this approach to conflict resolution.  (It is noteworthy, in this regard, that one of the main architects of the Ta’if Accord, former Algerian foreign minister Lakdar Brahimi, is reportedly a leading candidate to succeed Kofi Annan as the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Syria.)

Turning to Iran’s role, Hillary held that, notwithstanding the criticism heaped on the Islamic Republic by the United States and some neighboring countries, Tehran deserves “respect” for its efforts to promote a political settlement in Syria.  The logic behind those efforts was well presented in an op-ed by the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, published in the Washington Post earlier this week in advance of the Tehran conference, see here.

Dr. Salehi points out that “civil war in the Levant is not a thing of the distant past.  With Syria descending into worsening violence, the 15-year Lebanese civil war should provide frightening lessons of what happens when the fabric of a society unravels.”  In this context, he highlights some of (the many) illogical aspects of the Western position toward Syria: 

“Little, if anything, is said about the increasing presence of armed extremists in Syria.  Even while preoccupied with the rising extremism in Afghanistan, thousands of miles away, European leaders seem unconcerned that they may soon have an Afghanistan on their doorstep.” 

American leaders do not seem to us to be much more concerned than their European counterparts about this prospect.  Indeed, U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, is raising the chances for its realization.  During the 1990s, Iran regularly warned other states, including the United States, about the rise of the Saudi-backed Taliban and the dangers posed by Al-Qa’ida’s relocation to Afghanistan under the Taliban’s hospitality.  If Washington and other capitals had taken Iranian assessments seriously, it might have been possible to avert the 9/11 attacks.  Instead, Tehran’s warnings fell largely on deaf ears.  Given the course of subsequent events, Iranian warnings about what could come to pass in Syria should be taken more seriously than most Western governments seem inclined to do, at least at the moment.      

Noting that “abrupt political change without a roadmap for managed political transition will lead only to a precarious situation that would destabilize one of the world’s most sensitive regions,” Salehi also warns that “some world powers and certain states in the region need to stop using Syria as a battleground for settling scores of jostling for influence.  The only way out of the stalemate is to offer Syrians a chance to find a way out themselves.”

To do this, Salehi argues that three things are essential:  first, “ensure an immediate cease-fire to stop the bloodshed”; second, “dispatch humanitarian aid to the Syrian people”; and, third, “prepare the ground for dialogue to solve the crisis.”  In this vein, he endorses Kofi Annan’s outgoing observation that “a political agenda that is neither inclusive nor comprehensive will…fail.”  On a practical level, he conveys Iran’s “willingness to facilitate talks between the Syrian government and the opposition” as well as its “support for political reform in Syria that will allow the Syrian people to decide their destiny.  This includes ensuring that they have the right to participate in the upcoming free and fair presidential election under international supervision.” 

The final statement produced at the Iranian-sponsored conference on Syria, see here, reflects both Salehi’s analysis and his practical approach.  It underscores

“the necessity of pursuing political solutions based on national dialogue as the only way to resolve the Syrian crisis with the main objective of bringing the violence to a total end and encouraging the two sides to prepare the ground for the national dialogue.” 

To these ends, the statement calls on “the conflicting parties to end clashes and violence for three months on the occasion of the arrival of Eid al-Fitr” (which will come on the evening of August 18).  Furthermore, it stresses the “need to uphold the principles of international law regarding non-intervention in domestic affairs of other countries and the respect of their national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” 

In contrast to statements from the various Western-dominated “Friends of Syria” meetings, the Tehran statement also urges a cessation of hostilities “by putting an end to any military assistance to armed groups” while “warning of the dangerous impacts of support for armed groups on regional peace and security.”  Furthermore, it recognizes the importance of “establishing a contact group from among the participating countries aiming to end the violence and starting the inclusive dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.” 

This all sounds great, right?  Who could possibly be opposed to such eminently logical ideas and proposals?  Well, the Obama administration is opposed to them.  The administration has steadfastly resisted any contact group on Syria that would include the Islamic Republic and, as noted, is intensifying its material support for one side in Syria’s civil war.  Of course, Washington professes support for a political process to resolve the conflict—but only one in which Washington’s preferred outcome, President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, is stipulated at the outset.  That is hardly the posture of a major power seriously committed to diplomacy.    

The Islamic Republic could, indeed, play a constructive, not to say indispensable role in standing up a real political process and finding a meaningful political settlement in Syria.  As Dr. Salehi writes, “Iran is part of the solution, not the problem.  As the world has witnessed during the past decade, we have acted as a stabilizing force in Iraq and Afghanistan, two other Muslim countries thrown into turmoil.”  Hillary recounts in her Al Jazeera appearance that she was “personally part of the U.S. negotiations with Iran over Afghanistan,” which were “critically important” in bringing Tehran “into the problem of Afghanistan in a constructive way that allowed us to move forward” and make real progress (at least initially). 

Notwithstanding these historical and contemporary realities, the United States, even under the Obama administration, continues to disparage Iran’s “destabilizing” role in Iraq and Afghanistan—to which it has now added criticism of Iran’s role in Syria.  The hard truth, though, is that Iraq and Afghanistan were “thrown into turmoil” (to use Dr. Salehi’s phrase) not by Iran but by U.S. policies—including invasions and prolonged occupations that managed to combine strategic incompetence with cruelty to civilian populations.  The overwhelming majority of Iraqis and a majority of Afghans see the Iranian role in their countries as vastly more positive than that of the United States. 

Although the George W. Bush administration initially accepted the imperative of working with Iran in Afghanistan after 9/11, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and other hardliners were able to undermine that and to thwart any move to cooperate with Tehran on post-conflict stabilization in Iraq.  The consequences were deeply damaging for American policy in both the Afghan and Iraqi theaters.  Of course, the United States eventually had to face the reality of Iranian influence in both places—but only after it had largely blown the possibility of leveraging this influence in ways that could have served American interests. 

Today, Iranian involvement is critical to the search for a political solution in Syria.  But, like the Bush administration before it, the Obama administration does not want such a solution—certainly not if this entails cooperating with Tehran—because that would require it to abandon its real goals in Syria:  getting rid of the Assad government and thereby recasting the Middle East’s balance of power in ways that, in Washington’s fantastical view of these things, would undermine the Islamic Republic’s regional position and perhaps even reignite the Green movement.  (We are not making this up; Obama administration officials have been feeding it to the New York Times’ David Sanger at least since April 2011, see here.) 

Driven by these ambitions, the administration has, as Hillary put it, dealt with Iran “precisely in the opposite way” from how Washington dealt with Tehran in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.  Rather than engaging the Iranians constructively, the United States has “tried to isolate them and make them the problem.  This is a fatal flaw in the U.S. strategy, and will lead to…a further decline in U.S. influence in the region and a further uptick in Iran’s influence.”  In the process, a lot more Syrians will die than would otherwise have had to—just as many of the civilian deaths that occurred during the U.S. occupation of Iraq could have been avoided if the United States had cooperated with the Islamic Republic—and the risks to regional stability from the prospective creation of an Afghanistan-like state in the heart of the Levant will continue to grow. 

That doesn’t matter in official Washington, however; as Hillary encapsulates it, “Syria is very much the piece on the chessboard here for the United States.”  Iran is the most important regional actor “willing to push back against what the United States wants to do.  So the United States is trying to contain that resistance, to contain that opposition.  And the Obama administration thought it had a window of opportunity to do so when this revolt happened in Syria in March 2011.”   The window turned out to be illusory and the administration’s effort to exploit it has “failed.”  As a result, “the United States has tried to increasingly militarize this conflict” in “a desperate attempt to contain Iranian influence.” 

Hillary concludes with a broader and very important point about the strategic challenge facing the United States in the Middle East today: 

“In the information age…the issue is not who has the most guns, who can use the most force.  It’s who has the best narrative.  The United States is not going to carry the day here with the narrative of trying to arm the opposition to try to win the story here.  That’s something that the Syrians are going to have to do for themselves, without foreign intervention, and that’s something that Iran is trying to harness, and potentially can harness very effectively to increase its influence in the region.” 

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

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The Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei on the Continuing Fight for Independence

Western elites persist in seeking affirmation that the Iranian economy is collapsing under the weight of sanctions and that Iranians are ready to turn against the Islamic Republic if only the United States would get out the right PR message see here and here.  However, real insight into the sources of the Islamic Republic’s endurance and the views of its highest decision-maker can be accessed more reliably simply by reading and taking seriously a recent address by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei to a group of government officials, see here.  The speech provides what we believe are important insights into Ayatollah Khamenei’s thinking about the Islamic Republic’s domestic and international condition.  It also reveals a man determined to continue leading his people in resistance to Western pressure and hostility.    

After opening remarks on the significance of the holy month of Ramadan for believing Muslims and what that should mean for the government officials in his audience, Ayatollah Khamenei posits that “there is no contradiction between realism and idealism,” he holds that “if government officials pursue ideals in a logical and dignified way and the people cooperate with them, then the realities of our society will be in harmony with the ideals.  This is an essential pillar for our national movement.”      

Khamenei then turns to “some of the realities that exist in our society,” one of which “is the existence of sanctions and threats, and the Islamic Republic is reminded of this reality more than in previous years.”  In his words, the Islamic Republic   

“is faced with a showdown with a few arrogant powers and governments…They have a number of followers who are also opposed to us, but their existence is not independent and they do not have any power.  If superpowers like America stopped supporting them, they would be nothing.  They would not even be considered in global and international equations.  However, they are currently following America, the Zionist regime and the global Zionist network.  This is a reality.  It is in front of our eyes.  This reality has developed since the beginning of the Revolution.  Its intensity has not decreased, rather it has increased…We acknowledge the pressures and sanctions, and these pressures and sanctions are backed up with their economic capabilities, political capabilities, security capabilities and other such capabilities, particularly their media capabilities” (which, according to Khamenei, are “powerful in propaganda and media campaigns and in terms of the power to distort whatever they want to distort”).   

Another reality that Khamenei identifies is Western claims that  

“this showdown is because of such issues as the nuclear issue and the issue of human rights, and this is a lie…Today there is nobody in the world who believes that America is after human rights and the rights of nations or that the Zionist regimes—which commits genocide and murders children—is after establishing democracy in other countries…Similarly, their claim that they are opposed to the Islamic Republic because of nuclear weapons is also a lie.  In the beginning, we announced it as a guess, but later on it became clear during international negotiations and interactions that they know the Islamic Republic is not after nuclear weapons…The claim that these pressures, these sanctions, these sieges, these enmities and these hostilities are due to the issue of nuclear weapons and technology is a lie.  The fact that this claim is false is also a reality.

“The truth is that their opposition is because of the essence of the Revolution and the existence of the Islamic Republic.  They were ruling the region without any worries.  They had full control over a country like Iran, with its rich resources and numerous facilities.  They used to do whatever they wanted.  They used to make whatever decisions they wanted.  They used to make the best of the facilities of our country in order to advance their own goals.  But now they have been deprived of all these things.  This is not the only reason.  Our movement has motivated the world of Islamic and today we can see the signs in North Africa, in the Middle East and in all countries.  This is what they are angry about.  The Islamic Republic is the focus.  They want to harm the Islamic Republic and make it a lesson for others.  This is their real motive.  And this is another reality.” 

Of course, as Khamenei notes, “the challenges the Islamic Republic is currently facing are not new.  This is not an analysis; it is a fact.  Everybody can see this.  There was a day when our ships and oil tankers used to be targeted in the Persian Gulf.  There was a day when they used to bombard the oil terminal in Kharg Island.  There was a day when the enemy used to drop bombs on all our industrial centers.  These are the things that we have witnessed with our own eyes…The war with Saddam Husayn was not just a war that had been waged on us by one government.  It was an international war against us.  Therefore, the challenges that exist—the threat they make, the claims they make, the things they mention and magnify—are not new to the Islamic Republic.”  

Against these challenges, Khamenei points out a number of “encouraging” realities:  “The Islamic Republic has cleared all these hardships and difficult turns.  Have we not?  Did we stop moving forward?  Did they manage to harm the Islamic Republic?  Did they manage to undermine the ideals and principles of the Islamic Republic?  Did they manage to undermine the ideals and principles of the Islamic Republic?  They did not…We managed to make progress even under threat.  Over these years, we have made progress in all areas.  We have made progress in sophisticated scientific areas.  We have made advances in the technologies that our country needed.  We have made outstanding advances in the area of medicine, transportation, housing, water supply, and constructing roads…In spite of all these pressures, the country has made constant progress over the years.” 

Likewise, “the country has become far more powerful in confronting challenges and threats,” while “the opposing camp has grown weaker over these years.  If we think of America and the Zionist regime as the two main representatives of the opposing camp and consider Western countries as their followers, it is obvious that they have grown weaker.  Today the Zionist regime is far weaker than twenty or thirty years ago.  The events that took place in North Africa and Egypt substantially weakened the Zionist regime.  The Zionist regime suffers from domestic problems and it also suffers from endless problems outside its borders.  And today’s America is not the America of the time of Reagan.  They have declined a lot.  You know what happened to them in Iraq, and their condition has been growing worse on a daily basis in Afghanistan.  They have failed in their Middle Eastern policies.  They were defeated in the 33-day war, which was waged by their agents, the Zionist regime.  In the 22-day war on Gaza, their Zionist agents did not manage to do anything against a million-something defenseless people.” 

Furthermore, “the regimes which are opposed to the Islamic Republic are in crisis.  The few arrogant Western governments and their allies are in crisis.  With the economic crisis that exists in Europe, the European Union is in serious danger.  The Eurozone is in serious danger.  In a way, the same is true of America:  a large budget deficit, massive debt, pressure from the people and the anti-Wall Street movement or what they call ‘the 99 percent movement.’  These are important events…The economic problems and the economic crisis in Europe are different from the economic problems that we may encounter.  Our problems are like the problems of a group of climbers who are moving forward on a particular path.  It is a difficult path and of course there are problems.  Sometimes they need water.  Other times they need food.  Sometimes they have to deal with certain problems.  Other times they encounter obstacles.  But the important point is that they are climbing up the mountain…The situation of Europeans is like the situation of a bus that is trapped under an avalanche.”        

Another positive reality “is the events that have taken place in North Africa and in our region.  In certain places, these events have resulted in regime change; in certain other places, these events have not resulted in regime change, but there is a possibility that they will.”  At the same time, there is “the increased power of the Islamic Republic.”  

But, in keeping with his exhortation that government officials pursue the Revolution’s goals “in a logical and dignified way,” Ayatollah Khamenei does not look away from what he sees as mistakes in Iranian policy.  With regard to foreign affairs, one notable mistake, in Khamenei’s judgment “is that whenever we showed flexibility toward the enemy and used certain justifications to retreat, the enemy adopted bolder positions against us.”  Referring to Iran’s post-9/11 cooperation with the United States, he notes that “the day the statements of our government officials were contaminated with flattery for the West and Western culture, they labeled us ‘axis of evil’…This is how they are.”    

Similarly, “regarding the nuclear issue, at a time when we cooperated with them and backed down—this really happened although we learnt a lesson from it—they advanced so much that I said in this hussayniyyah that if they continued like that, I would have to step in personally,  And that is what I did.  I had to step in.  These things are not my responsibility.  Our retreats emboldened them.  There was a day when our government officials would be satisfied if they allowed us to have twenty-five centrifuges in the country, but they said it was not possible.  Then our government officials became satisfied with having five centrifuges, but they still said it was not possible.  Then our government officials became satisfied with three centrifuges, but again they said it was not possible…Today, we have eleven thousand centrifuges in the country.  If we had continued those retreats, if we had continued that flexibility, we would have achieved none of these nuclear advances.”     

Elaborating on this theme, Ayatollah Khamenei argues that “if the country judiciously resists these pressures by the enemy—particularly the sanctions and other such things—not only will their technique prove ineffective, but also it will be impossible for them to repeat such things in the future…These things will only continue for a while.  One of the signs is that they were forced to exempt twenty countries from the oil embargo and similar sanctions…Therefore, it is necessary to resist.  These are tangible realities.  None of the things that I said are abstract analyses.  They are things that we can witness.”  

Khamenei also tells his audience that “it is necessary to take risks while relying on Allah the Exalted and on competent management.  Everybody should be prepared to take risks.”  Invoking the historic battles of Badr and Khaybar—critical reference points for Muslims, when early followers of the Prophet Muhammad prevailed over more numerous and better-resourced adversaries—he says that, while “there are challenges…there are also sufficient capacities and potentialities to deal with these challenges…If we manage to bring our capacities into the arena, if we manage to decrease the number of our weaknesses, we will make progress.”   

To this end, Ayatollah Khamenei enjoins his audience to “work hard on this issue and try to find a solution, the way a mathematician works on a mathematical problem…Imagine that you are a talented mathematician and that this issue is a mathematical problem.  This is the way you should confront different issues.”  In this spirit, Khamenei recounts his idea of the “economy of resistance”: 

“The enemy’s goal [is] to focus on our economy, work against our national growth, undermine efforts to create employment opportunities, disrupt and jeopardize our national welfare, create problems for the people, make the people disappointed and isolate them from the Islamic Republic.” 

To counter this, Khamenei advances the “economy of resistance,” which, of course, has “certain requirements”: 

“Putting the people in charge of the economy is among the requirements of an economy of resistance…Certain things have already been done, but it is necessary to make more efforts.  It is necessary to strengthen the private sector.  The private sector should be encouraged to engage in economic activities and our banking system, governmental organizations and the organs that can help—such as the Majles and the judiciary—should help the people step into the arena of economy. 

“Minimizing our dependence on oil is another requirement for an economy of resistance.  This dependence is an evil legacy from a hundred years ago.  If we manage to make use of all the opportunities that exist today and try to replace oil with other lucrative economic activities, we will have made the most important move regarding our economy.  Today, knowledge-based industries are among the things that can fill this gap to a large extent.

“The issue of managing consumption—that is to say, moderate consumption and avoidance of extravagance—is one of the pillars of an economy of resistance.  Our governmental and private organizations as well as our people and families should pay attention to this issue.  This is indeed an instance of jihad.  Today moderate consumption and avoidance of extravagance is undoubtedly a jihad-like move against the enemy.  One can claim that this will receive the same reward as jihad in the way of God.        

“Another aspect of the issue of moderate consumption and managing consumption is that we should use our domestically produced products.  All governmental organizations should pay attention to this point [and] should try their best to avoid consuming foreign products.  And our people should also prefer domestically produced products to famous foreign brands.  Some people go after different foreign brands only to show off.  The people themselves should prevent consumption of foreign products. 

“I believe that plans which are centered around an economy of resistance are workable…If we had not implemented the gasoline rationing plan, today our gasoline consumption would have exceeded a hundred million liters a day.  They managed to control this.  Today our gasoline consumption is at a very good level…They were planning to impose sanctions on gasoline.  Economy of resistance made their gasoline sanctions ineffective.  The same is true of all the other things needed in the country.  The targeted subsidy plan is also a measure to shape our national economy.  These things can boost production and employment, and it can also bring about welfare.  These are factors that can boost our national production and economic growth.  They can also bring about honor for the country.”

Additionally, Ayatollah Khamenei highlights the importance of safeguarding the Iranian people’s “unity and solidarity.”  In this regard, “the occasional disagreements among our government officials—which are aired without any good reason—harm national unity.  Some people become supporters of this and some others become supporters of that.  They start opposing and blaming each other…This is among the harmful things.  And our honorable friends, the esteemed government officials of the country, should know that blaming this and that person for our problems will not bring about any honor and prestige for them among the people.  There are certain problems and it is necessary to solve them.  And we have the capability to solve them; we are not incapable of solving our problems.  As I said, these are the realities in the country which are revealing themselves to us.” 

Western pundits have been predicting the Islamic Republic’s impending collapse virtually since its founding in 1979; they have consistently underestimated Ayatollah Khamenei since he succeeded Imam Khomeini as the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader in 1989.  His approach to leadership is certainly strategic; it also reflects a deep-seated understanding that one cannot truly serve the ideals of Iran’s Islamic Revolution without the most rigorous possible analysis of policy challenges and options.  Considering how badly U.S. policy in the Middle East is faring, political elites in Washington would be well-advised to reflect “in a logical and dignified way” about America’s real interests in the region and how best to pursue them.      

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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