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The Race for Iran

Obama’s New National Security Team Should Be Asked Serious Questions About U.S. Foreign Policy (But Probably Won’t Be)

President Obama’s pending reshuffle of his national security team is an occasion to ask hard questions about American foreign policy.  Most immediately, as Hillary told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story last week, click on video above or to link here, Obama’s nomination of his next Secretary of State—whether that is Susan Rice or someone else—provides an opening to ask pressing questions about the Obama administration’s increasing proclivity for proxy warfare against problematic Middle Eastern governments.  Above all, “Did the United States arm, fund, train, and support—either directly or through our so-called ‘allies’—the very people who killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and the other Americans who did with him?”  But Obama’s most outspoken GOP critics on the issue—e.g., Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham—can’t ask those questions, “because [they’re] complicit in this policy.”  (To see Hillary’s segment, go 7:38 into the video above.)

Of course, it remains to be seen whether McCain, Graham, and their Republican colleagues stick to their guns regarding Rice’s acceptability as a nominee for Secretary of State.  But the significance of Obama’s apparent interest in nominating her goes beyond the “who’s up/who’s down” of Washington politics or Obama’s proclivity to declare consequential policy positions without having thought through how to implement themIt raises more fundamental questions about the direction of American foreign policy and grand strategy in Obama’s second term.  As Hillary explains,

Whether you are a conservative or a neoliberal interventionist—I would put Susan Rice in that category—each of these camps supports armed, military intervention by the United States in the internal affairs of other countries.  They do it for slightly different reasons, but the main strategic purpose is for the United States to pursue dominance.

This was the major grand strategy that the United States adopted in the wake of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Susan Rice has been part of this from the beginning, when she was in the Clinton administration in the early 1990s.  She has been part of this from the get-go.  So has one of the other names mentioned for the Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense position, John Kerry.  He’s also been part of it.  So has Tom Donilon [the current national security advisor].  They’ve all been part of, participated in, agreed to, pushed this idea of the American pursuit of dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than balancing—rather than taking states as they are, as they are rising, dealing with them that way, and balancing them together.”

As to the proposition that Obama actually seeks to pull back somewhat from overseas adventurism and has a more “realist” view of the world, Hillary notes that “there’s just no evidence of it, if you look at the record.”  Upon re-election,

“the first thing [Obama] does—and his plan beforehand—is to go to Asia, to go to countries that China cares very deeply about…and to goad China into taking the United States on.  We are putting more troops into Asia, we are pushing the Chinese in ways that make no strategic sense—on issues and in areas that have no real strategic value for the United StatesThe only real reason we’re doing this is to make the Chinese understand that, under President Obama, we will not tolerate them being the power in control to dominate Asia—because we still are the global superpower, with global dominance.  That’s a critical message that Obama is pushing right from the beginning of his new administration.”

It seems unlikely that Obama’s next Secretary of State will be someone inclined toward a fundamental reconsideration of these counter-productive but well-established trends on American strategy.

Likewise, the unexpected departure of General David Petraeus as director of the Central Intelligence Agency gives Obama an opportunity to rethink his approach to the “war on terror”—including the dramatically stepped up resort to drone strikes, with significant “collateral damage” to innocent civilians.  In this regard, Hillary points out that

“General Petraeus has been…what Obama wants and what the liberal interventionists want, which is to make the CIA a corollary of the Defense Department, and to use secret funding—open-ended, unending, unchecked, unaccountable funding—to pursue military objectives:  to use drones, covert war, cyber warfare against other countries without anybody knowing or asking any questions.  The President was very comfortable with that.  Now, with the sudden disappearance of Petraeus, he has the chance to appoint someone who could actually counsel him how to see the world, how to understand profound changes that are going on in the world

I think the chances of that are nil; no one is talking about that seriously.  The big [choice seems to come down to] John Brennan, Obama’s current counterterrorism adviser within the White House, [a strong] champion of drone warfare [and an architect] of our current counterterrorism strategy, which includes killing American citizens with no due process of law.  The big choice is between him and Jane Harman, who was a member of the House of Representatives, on the intelligence committee, and who may be a slightly nicer face to what is essentially the same type of unabashed, unequivocal, and unaccountable use of cyber warfare, drones, and other kinds of secret warfare as a corollary to the Defense Department.”

In other words, it looks like the selection could boil down to a choice between an architect of drone warfare and the extrajudicial killing of American citizens (Brennan) and someone (Harman) who is so close to AIPAC that she was implicated in the FBI’s investigation, during the mid 2000s, see here, here, and here, of Israel’s alleged use of two former AIPAC employees to collect classified information from the U.S. government.

As to what to expect from Obama on foreign policy in his second term, Hillary says that “the evidence, so far, is for more of the same.”  Certainly there is no reason to anticipate much change in Washington’s approach to the Middle East:

“President Obama’s big foreign policy test or challenge came almost immediately [after his re-election] with the Israeli military attack in Gaza.  And immediately, President Obama, through his own words and his surrogates, said that Israel has an absolute right to defend itself.  [This was] something that most of the world (not many Americans here in Washington, but most of the world) looked at as bizarre, from another planet—that Israel had ‘the right to defend itself,’ while it’s lobbing thousands of [munitions] into Gaza and killing, so disproportionately, people there.  But this was his immediate reaction.  And he needs to do that, because the United States continues to see Israel strategically as an asset, not because it makes our relations with the Arab world easier—actually because it makes them harder.  It keeps Arabs down, keeps Muslims down, and allows the United States to continue to pursue dominance, particularly in the Middle East.”

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Liberal Shamelessness on Nuclear Diplomacy with Iran

As President Obama signaled renewed interest this week in a “diplomatic resolution to the problem” with Iran, liberal advocates of soft regime change are again coming out of the woodwork to profess their support for engaging Tehran. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen published a column in this week, see here, that reveals much about the outlook of many liberal political and policy elites regarding diplomacy with the Islamic Republic. As the re-elected Obama administration gears up for another go at nuclear negotiations with Tehran, the kind of mendaciousness and self-deception manifested in Cohen’s piece is all too likely to characterize the Iran policy debate in Washington.

Cohen opens by noting that, “in re-electing Barack Obama, [the American people] voted for peace and against a third war in a Muslim nation in little over a decade.” At the same time, Obama faces “no more immediate strategic challenge” than the Iranian nuclear issue:

“The question of whether the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace or for a breakthrough with Iran should be the first diplomatic priority for Obama’s second term amounts to a no-brainer. It’s Iran, stupid. (There are no good options in Syria and—as with most Middle Eastern issues—American non-communication with Iran on the matter is unhelpful. Iran’s constructive role in the 2001 Bonn conference on Afghanistan is too often forgotten.) War with Iran would be devastating, to a Middle East in transition, to U.S. interests from Afghanistan to Egypt, and to the global economy. The time available for averting conflict is limited.”

These considerations—and other factors of longer standing—should point the United States toward diplomacy with Tehran. Yet, in Obama’s first term, Cohen writes, “Republican machismo prevailed on many fronts. Demonization of Iran was a never-ending source of rhetorical inspiration. Democrats were not far behind.” Now, “diplomacy is in urgent need of resurrection.”

On the surface, anyway, so far so good. But what Cohen fails to mention is that a cadre of Obama supporters, himself included, are at least as responsible as neoconservatives for sabotaging prospects for successful U.S.-Iranian diplomacy during Obama’s first term.

–And these self-professedly well-meaning liberals did so because, fundamentally, they are no less devoted than neoconservatives to the pursuit of regime change in Iran.

–In contrast to the neocons, liberals don’t think that war is the smart way to go about encouraging regime change in Iran—but they are no less focused on regime change as their ultimate objective there.

Following the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election, Roger Cohen was one of the most assiduous voices in the Western media claiming that the election had been stolen, that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had lost his popular support, and that the massive electoral fraud required to deprive challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi of his electoral victory had undermined the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. See, for example, this piece, from early July 2009, in which Cohen describes the re-elected President Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the Revolutionary Guards, and the basij as “Iran’s ruthless usurpers,” asserting that “the government is now illegitimate” and, therefore, should not be engaged.

Of course, Cohen had no evidence for any of these claims. As weeks and months went by, and no proof of electoral fraud emerged—much less fraud on the scale needed to account for Ahmadinejad’s 11-million vote victory margin—he ultimately fell back, see here, on “sometimes you have to smell the truth.” (For its part, The New York Times seemed all too happy to publish such fatuousness.)

Cohen was certainly not alone in advancing this kind of evidence-free analysis. Other liberal stalwarts—including Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione, Thomas Friedman (Cohen’s colleague at The New York Times), Barbara Slavin, and Robin Wright—joined in. The West’s “best” and “most respected” Iran analysts—including Ali Ansari, Reza Aslan, Farideh Farhi, Suzanne Maloney, Trita Parsi, Karim Sadjadpour, and Ray Takeyh (several of them expatriates who want the Islamic Republic to disappear so that their vision of a secular liberal Iran might be fulfilled, even though that is manifestly not what most Iranians who actually live in their country want)—gave it their imprimatur.

Virtually all of these figures had anticipated that Mousavi’s electoral challenge to Ahmadinejad would succeed. Their hopeful expectation rested not on dispassionate analysis of Iranian political trends, but on a deeply held, largely unquestioned assumption: that Iran is inevitably headed toward liberal democracy—because that’s what American liberals and many U.S.-based Iranian expatriates want it to become, just like neoconservatives do. (What is the ultimate goal for Parsi and the organization he heads, the National Iranian American Council? According to NIAC’s Web site, “a world in which the United States and a democratic Iran”—no mention of the Islamic Republic—“enjoy peaceful, cooperative relations.”) And when those pesky Iranian voters did not defer to liberal outsiders’ vision for their future—most Iranians, it seems, want a system that seeks to combine participatory politics with principles of Islamic governance—many of the same liberals and expatriates persisted in their penchant for analysis-by-wishful-thinking, cavalierly dismissing the election results as the product of fraud.

This sort of wishful thinking is not benignly incorrect; it has had real (and negative) impact on the prospects for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy—which most liberals say they prefer to U.S. military action against Iran or another ill-begotten American campaign for coercive regime change in the Middle East. Cohen, Parsi, and other like-minded activists and commentators led the charge in pressing the Obama administration to take what Parsi, see here, called a “tactical pause” from diplomacy with Tehran—which had not even commenced at that point—because the Islamic Republic was potentially on the verge of collapse. Or, as Cohen wrote (rather floridly) in early July 2009,

“Obama must leave [Khamenei and Ahmadinejad] dangling for the foreseeable future. He should refrain indefinitely from talk of engagement…To do otherwise would be to embrace the usurpers…

I’ve argued strongly for engagement with Iran as a game-changer. America renewed relations with the Soviet Union at the time of the Great Terror and China at the time of the Cultural Revolution. Operation Jackboot has not, as yet at least, involved mass killings.

But the Iran of today is not the Iran of three weeks ago; it is in volatile flux from without and within. Its Robespierres are running amok. Obama must do nothing to suggest business as usual. Let Ahmadinejad, he of the bipolar mood swings, fret and sweat. Let him writhe in the turbid puddle of his self-proclaimed ‘justice’ and ‘ethics’…The price of Obama’s engagement may just have become Ahmadinejad’s departure. I think it has.”

Deploying such unsubstantiated but inflammatory claims, it was Obama’s liberal base in 2009 which derailed possibilities for U.S.-Iranian nuclear diplomacy—just as Bush’s neoconservative stalwarts did with their designation of Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil” in the wake of 9/11.

–The Obama administration had previously decided to delay serious engagement with Tehran until after the June 2009 election, hoping that it could then deal with a Mousavi-led government. There was, of course, no reason to expect that such a government would have taken a fundamentally different tack in nuclear negotiations with the United States—but that wasn’t the point for Mousavi’s backers in Washington. The point was to enhance Mousavi’s chances for victory, and with that victory, get Iran back on the path toward a more Westernized, liberalized, and ultimately secularized political future.

–With the controversy (fueled by Cohen, Parsi, and others) that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election victory, the administration did not get back on track to start nuclear talks with Iran until the fall of 2009—even though Obama had promised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that, if negotiations had not produced results by the end of 2009, the United States would put diplomacy aside and push for new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. This meant that the Obama administration put its (convoluted and one-sided) proposal for a fuel “swap” to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor on the table as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, thereby dooming prospects for a deal—just as a re-elected Obama administration is today considering making even more one-sided, take-it-or-leave-it proposals to Iran regarding its nuclear activities.

More broadly, the unsubstantiated portrayal of the 2009 election as stolen—the portrayal pushed by Cohen, Friedman, Parsi, Sadjadpour et al.—has helped to enable neoconservative policy outcomes.

–Thus, NIAC’s advocacy of “targeted” or “precision” sanctions, see here, against the Iranian government has served only to facilitate the passage of broad-based sanctions.

–Similarly, by arguing that he was all in favor of diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, just not after a particular election and not with what he alleged (again, with no evidence), were political thieves, Cohen provided de facto legitimation to neoconservatives, supporters of the MEK, the pro-Israel lobby, and others who say that (take your pick) Iranian officials’ rhetoric about Israel, Tehran’s support for groups resisting Israeli occupation, the Islamic Republic’s insistence on including religion in its constitution, its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, and/or Iranians’ annual commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom on Ashura render engagement with Iran a fool’s errand—politically, morally, and strategically.

For U.S. policymakers, the most fundamental question with regard to pursuing diplomacy with Iran should be: Is diplomatic engagement with Tehran, with the goal of strategic realignment between the United States and the Islamic Republic, in America’s interest?

–If it is (as we strongly believe to be the case), then the only question left is: What does the United States need to do to make engagement work?

–Anything else is not just unhelpful; it is dangerously counter-productive, ensuring that diplomacy will fail and that the risks of a strategically disastrous war (disastrous, first of all, for the United States) will rise. But that is what the liberal approach, epitomized by Cohen, Parsi, Slavin et al. has done: it has made real rapprochement between the United States and Iran less likely and war ultimately more likely.

Today, Cohen, Parsi, Slavin, and others have hopped back on the pro-diplomacy bandwagon. But look at what they and other like-minded commentators think diplomacy should entail. As Cohen writes,

“What do we want from Iran? Open up all its nuclear facilities, get rid of all its 20 percent enriched uranium, end all threats to Israel, stop rampant human rights abuses, changed policies on Hamas and Hezbollah, a constructive approach to Syria.”

Outside the nuclear sphere, an Iran that accepted such an agenda would no longer be the Islamic Republic. Indeed, John Bolton wouldn’t have any problem with that agenda; he would simply disagree with Cohen that it is possible to get Tehran to accept, through diplomacy, such thoroughgoing revision of its (internal as well as external) political orientation. Likewise, Parsi and NIAC once again favor diplomacy—but they stipulate, see here, that American engagement with Tehran must include “human rights as a core issue.”

However much they may cringe at the term, the liberals’ commitment to what might be described as a strategy of “soft” regime change in Iran is clear. In his latest Op Ed, Cohen quotes Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund president Stephen Heintz as saying that he avoids “the phrase ‘diplomatic solution’ in conversations about Iran on Capitol Hill” in favor of “’political solution.’ Diplomacy just sounds too wimpy.” For Heintz, it undoubtedly does. For the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has provided funding to Parsi’s NIAC to conduct “nonpolitical trainings” for Iranian oppositionists, see here—just as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund supported efforts to encourage political change in the former Yugoslavia and color revolutions in former Soviet-bloc states. (Also—and, we suspect, not coincidentally—the Rockefeller Brothers Fund underwrote Ali Ansari’s substantively flawed “scholarly” work to delegitimate the Islamic Republic’s 2009 election.)

We are all in favor of a “political solution.” But such a solution requires real rapprochement between the United States and Iran, based on American acceptance of the Islamic Republic as a legitimate political entity representing real (and legitimate) national interests. It would seem that liberals are not any more inclined toward a genuine political solution than neoconservatives are.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Iranian Perspectives on Nuclear Diplomacy: Seyed Mohammad Marandi on Inside Story

The Guardian got rather spun up last week with a story on the participation of Israeli and Iranian delegations in an academic conference on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, organized by the EU Non-Proliferation Consortium in Brussels, see here.  Indeed, the Guardian went so far as to assert, in the story’s headline, that “Israel and Iran Hold ‘Positive’ Nuclear Talks in Brussels.”  And that attention-getting claim, in turn, attracted the attention of Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, click on video above or here

After one of the conference’s participants, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed out that the Guardian’s headline was “wrong,” the discussion on Inside Story explored the broader issue of diplomatic prospects for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue—a subject that is coming back onto the media radar screen in the wake of President Obama’s reelection.  On this subject, another Inside Story guest, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran, was especially informative on Iranian perspectives. 

Mohammad opens by recounting that “the Iranians, of course, have said all along that they will pursue their rights as an independent country.  They are not pursuing nuclear weapons.  The political establishment has not, at any point, pushed for nuclear weapons.  In fact, the Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has said specifically that nuclear weapons are forbidden in Islam.”  Mohammad then reminds about something which many Western journalists and commentators persist in overlooking:  “The Iranians are quite willing to talk.  The Iranians have been talking with the 5+1, and if Western governments are willing to recognize Iran’s rights as an independent state, the Iranians are quite willing to be open and to resolve any issues they may have with regard to the [nuclear] program…There is a way forward, and that is for Western countries to respect Iran’s rights.” 

Filling in other essential parts of a historical record of which Western elites seem determined to remain studiously unaware, Mohammad notes that,

“In fact, the [Iranian] nuclear program began with Western government support, and their companies, before the [Iranian] revolution, initiated the program.  Billions of dollars were invested in this, and the Iranians were simply not going to throw this investment away because Western governments threaten it.  Western governments are the ones who are constantly threatening Iran with war, and the Zionist regime is also threatening Iran with war.  But Iran has never threatened any other country.” 

Regarding Israeli and Western concern about the Islamic Republic’s steadily developing capabilities to enrich uranium, Mohammad underscores that

dual purpose technology is dual purpose technology.  The Iranians cannot refrain from development simply because something can be used in a different way.  It’s like saying you can’t use a knife because it could be used to stab someone.  The Iranians, in fact, during the Iran-Iraq War, when Western regimes were giving Saddam Husayn chemical weapons to use against Iranians—and using the Security Council, by the way, to prevent Iraq from being condemned (I am a victim of those chemical weapons, and many of my friends died as a result)—the Iranians never retaliated.  Although the Iranians had all sorts of petrochemical plants and so on, they had the technology to develop chemical weapons, they didn’t…

[On the nuclear front] there’s no evidence that Iran pursued anything illegal.  Iranian enrichment right now is being used to fuel the [Tehran Research Reactor], which produces medical isotopes for cancer patients—because Western countries refused to give Iranians the fuel.  So they’re supporting cancer patients while Western regimes were taking cancer patients hostage…

The Iranians are working within the Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The Iranians have that right.  And they will continue to pursue that right.  That is what makes Iran an independent country.  Iran is not Saudi Arabia, it’s not a client regime that’s aligned to the West.  The [Iranian] revolution itself was about independence…Iran does not fear the Israeli regime.  Iran has never threatened the Israeli regime.  ”  

We have long argued that Western recognition of “Iran’s rights as an independent state”—including the right to enrich uranium on its own territory—is the only workable basis for successful nuclear diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.  But that reality runs up against the preferences of some close American allies—and of all those constituencies in the United States committed to the perpetuation of Washington’s imperial approach to the Middle East

Throughout his first term in office, President Barack Obama was unwilling to recognize Iran’s rights as an independent state—most notably with regard to uranium enrichment.  If nuclear diplomacy is to have a better chance of succeeding in his second term, Obama will have to display strategic vision, diplomatic acumen, and political courage in ways that have been almost wholly absent from his foreign policy so far

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


Flynt Leverett on the Illusion of a Syrian “Opposition”—and the Real Requirements for Conflict Resolution in Syria

We have long been struck by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promiscuous resort to the verb “must” in pronouncing upon the presumably independent decisions of other international actors.  But Secretary Clinton was at her moralizingly didactic worst last week in announcing the Obama administration’s latest plans to remake the Syrian opposition, see here.  Those plans amount to jettisoning the Syrian National Council (SNC)—which, at least on the surface, might seem to be the beginning of wisdom—and supporting a Qatari-sponsored plan to create something called the Syrian National Initiative.  As we will see, this is hardly a genuine policy rethink.    

Shortly after Clinton delivered her remarks on the Syrian opposition, Flynt addressed the motives for this latest flourish in America’s misguided policy toward the Syrian conflict on Al Jazeera’s Inside Syria, click on the video above or the link here:  “I think that the State Department is motivated by two concerns.  One is that, to put it bluntly, the established policy is failing.  It’s been twenty months since unrest started in Syria in March 2011.  It’s been fifteen months since President Obama first declared, with seemingly no sense of follow through, that President Assad must go.  Well, obviously, President Assad is still there, and this ‘opposition’ which is supposed to effect his departure has not become more unified or more effective in the intervening months.  In fact, the opposite has happened; it has become more divided, less effective on the ground.” 

And so the established policy, which was “[n]ever very well thought through,” is “clearly failing.”  As Flynt observes, “the United States can live with failing policies for a long time in the Middle East.”  But this brings him to the second—and, in some ways, more immediate—concern driving the Obama administration’s current flailing over Syria.  Flynt calls this, “for shorthand, the ‘Benghazi effect’.”  Amidst the controversy in Washington over the chronology and extent of the CIA and U.S. military response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, there is a critical point which pundits, for the most part, have not raised, but of which the Obama administration is very mindful:  “that the U.S. ambassador to Libya may have been killed by a group which was armed, supported by the United States or its allies…[Administration officials] know that jihadi groups are playing an increasingly important role on the ground in the Syrian opposition” and Washington wants to get in front of this problem.    

But the new impetus to remake “the Syrian opposition” is as fatally flawed as the initiative that gave rise to the SNC in the first place.  Regarding Secretary Clinton’s directives, Flynt notes,

“There is no particular reason [the SNC] should accept dictation from Hillary Clinton, but frankly I don’t think that the United States has a coherent policy for dealing with the Syrian opposition; they don’t have a coherent Syria policy…The whole effort to create a unified opposition is doomed to failIf you just look at the groups that are represented in the SNC, if you look at the groups that are not represented in the SNC, if you look at the groups that are likely to be represented in this new body that will come out of the Doha meetings—these groups have fundamentally irreconcilable interests, objectives, visions for Syria.  If Assad and his government were magically to disappear today, the end result would not be some unified political structure in Syria.  It would be that many of these groups in the so-called ‘opposition’ would be fighting one another.  You cannot create a single unified opposition.” 

As one of the other panelists, Rim Turkmani, amplifies the point, it was clear from the beginning of the Syrian conflict that “any [opposition] coalition is going to fail…The SNC is a coalition of coalitions; and now they are looking at forming something bigger—that is a coalition of the coalitions of the coalitions.”  As for the Obama administration’s latest effort to reshape the Syrian opposition, she holds, “The new equation that the United States is trying to reach is impossible.  They are trying to find a body that represents the whole opposition; at the same time, they are looking for puppets…they are looking for a new government that will never escape the control of the U.S., and that is impossible.”  (Ms. Turkmani is also quite scathing in denouncing the cravenness of the SNC, other opposition groups, and politically ambitious exiles in currying favor with their foreign supporters.)    

Flynt contends that the effort to revitalize the Syrian opposition is doomed to fail not only because of the “opposition’s” many lines of division, but also because “the Assad government still retains a very significant base of support within Syria—probably about half of the society.”  Thus, “the only way you’re really going to get out of this conflict is through a negotiated settlement based on power sharing between the current government and parts of the opposition.  But the opposition, egged on by its external supporters, refuses to pursue the only way that you could get out of this conflict.”  When the SNC representative on the panel says that the opposition is prepared for dialogue with others about a political transition, just not with the Syrian government, and that a political transition can only start after Assad departs, Flynt underscores, “You can’t ask for a political process with preconditions, much less pre-results.”    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett


Hillary Mann Leverett on America’s Persistent (and Ever Wrong) Iran Mythology

Speaking at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ annual Arab-U.S. Policymakers Conference in Washington, Hillary pointed out that “for over 30 years, we in the United States—and particularly here in Washington—have put forward a series of myths about the Islamic Republic of Iran:  that it’s irrational, illegitimate, and vulnerable.  And in so doing, we have consistently misled the American public and our allies about what policies will work” to deal with the Islamic Republic. 

–The title of the panel on which Hillary appeared was itself revealing about continuing influence of America’s Iran mythology on contemporary discussion of Iran-related issues in Washington:  “American and Arab Policy Successes and Shortcomings Regarding the Regional Geopolitical Dynamics of Iran.” 

–To watch the panel, see here.    

–Viewing the panel in its entirety says much about the present state of America’s Iran debate:  the other panelists include Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation (who embodies DC conventional wisdom on Iran) and Trita Parsi (who has made his own signal contributions to America’s Iran mythology, especially after the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election), with Ken Katzman of the Congressional Research Service as a discussant.  For those who just want to hear Hillary, go 21:20 into the video.    

Picking up on the theme of America’s persistent Iran mythology, Hillary notes that, “for over 30 years, the Islamic Republic has defied constant predictions of its collapse or defeat.  But American policy elites still put forward myths about the Islamic Republic that ignore or, in fact, contradict basic forces driving political life inside the Islamic Republic—with the idea that if we just believed these myths enough, if we just believed, we’d see how to deal with the Islamic Republic.” 

Extending here argument, Hillary explains that the most dangerous of these myths is “the depiction of the Islamic Republic as a system so despised by its own population [that] it is in imminent danger of , in imminent danger of overthrow—a vulnerability that, in the prevailing view here in Washington, can be exploited by the United States and out allies.”  Today, she notes, “this idea comes out in two interlocking arguments: 

–The first is that sanctions are ‘working.’      

–The second is that the Arab Awakening has left the Islamic Republic isolated in its very own neighborhood.”

–And, of course, “with sanctions ‘working,’ some policy elites argue that Iranians will rise up to force fundamental political change, and to force their government to make concessions.” 

Against these myths, Hillary’s presentation offers a bracing demonstration of “how it is American elites, not those in Tehran, who are in denial about basic political trends in the Middle East.”    

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett